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What is Evangelicalism?

Gerald R. McDermott's The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology
What is Evangelicalism?

Gerry McDermott, Jordan-Trexler professor of religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, has been lecturing and writing on Christianity for many years at both the popular and scholarly level. Though he has also written and taught on Christianity and its relationship to world religions, his specialty is historical theology with a particular interest in Jonathan Edwards. He authored with Michael McClymond the massive The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford: OUP, 2011), which Christianity Today honored as its “Book of the Year” in the Theology/Ethics category.

More importantly for this note, McDermott edited the comprehensive and recently published The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2013), a collection of essays that the Religious Studies Review praises thus: “this volume easily assumes pride of place as the starting point for those interested in the state-of-the-question regarding evangelical theology…Kudos to the editor for this major achievement!” The book is organized according to theological and ethical categories and filled with essays by a broad array of notable evangelical theologians and practitioners.

I give this extensive introduction to the article in question’s author in order to emphasize that he bridges the gap between studying evangelicalism in depth, as a scholar must do, and discussing it broadly, as we all need. If we are to look at a movement of which many of us are a part in order to examine its present state, both are necessary. McDermott may be more equipped to help us with that task than anyone else writing today.

This essay, which appeared this past summer in JETS, the journal of the most active theological group within evangelicalism, breaks down into four parts. First, McDermott briefly establishes that evangelicalism has reached a certain place of stability and influence, both in the academic world generally and in the theological world particularly. He spends most of Part I describing, however, “the ways in which evangelical theologians since the 1970s have understood their own distinctives.” In Part II, he uncovers what he believes are some serious divides in evangelical theology today, divides which create two camps in evangelicalism. The first is a branch, which “contributes to the development of historic orthodoxy.” The second “follows a trail blazed by Protestant liberals.” Part III highlights the doctrines that evangelical theology is reexamining, and in Part IV McDermott makes some projections for the future of evangelical theology.

If it did nothing else, this essay would be helpful for providing a nice summary of what the word “evangelical” has meant historically and what it means today. Taking it from its Biblical roots in the Greek word for “gospel”, he traces the history of evangelicalism from its formation at the time of the Reformation (by Roman Catholics!) to its latest incarnations. Along the way, he clarifies the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Protestant liberalism and today’s “postliberal” theologies.

McDermott has a helpful way of listing his points. Evangelicalism, for example, differs from fundamentalism in eight areas: 1) interpretation of Scripture, 2) culture, 3) social action, 4) separatism, 5) dialogue with liberals, 6) the ethos of Christian faith, 7) fissiparousness, and 8) support for Israel. Some of these he elaborates more fully than others, and almost each one is debatable, but that only highlights one of the central problems with evangelicalism: it is constantly changing, ebbing and flowing from one issue to the next and often back again. This, however, should not move us to dismiss either the word “evangelical” as a useful moniker or the benefit of attempts to mark where the movement stands in the present moment. Rather, we should pay attention all the more to an essay like this so that we can help shape the movement with knowledge and love, as we go forward in history.

The heart of McDermott’s essay is found in Part II, where he divides present evangelical theologians into two groups, the Meliorists and the Traditionists. The Meliorists find their roots largely in Wesleyan theology and are represented by writers from the emergent church, the postconservative movement, and those associated with Openness of God theology. The Traditionists stem from the Reformed side of traditional evangelicalism and are associated with descriptions like “paleo-conservative,” though names of specific theologians seem the most important part of the discussion for McDermott on this side, rather than particular monikers for groups within the Traditionist camp.

After a lengthy discussion of many writings and authors, McDermott boils down the present division to this: “It turns out then, at the end of the day, that what finally divides evangelical theologians today is their attitude toward tradition and Scripture.” This discussion of a point, which seems a little obvious when stated so baldly, is surprisingly complex, engaging and insightful. He goes on to lay out simply but thoroughly the various conversations going on in evangelicalism on the topics of origins, the “New Perspective” on Paul, the Fall, conversion, Christology, the use of liturgy in worship, sexuality, gender, universalism and eschatology. Not a small list.

McDermott does not take the easy way out and avoid relaying what he thinks the future holds for evangelicalism. His solutions, while not surprising, are, like the rest of this article, well thought-out and replete with places begging for deeper discussion. As we said at the beginning of this note, this article is both comprehensive and accessible for anyone who wants to know what the present state of evangelical theology is. It will be helpful to have someone with a theological education involved in the conversation, but I recommend it highly for discussions of all kinds.

This article can be found [here].

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