Posted by: Alex | June 4, 2012

Historical Prelude, Part I: The Rise of Classical Evangelicalism

Continuing with our discussion of Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  In the introduction Grenz set up a critical question for us:  What is evangelicalism?  As we saw, Grenz believes (and I tend to agree) that this question must be answered at least partially from a historical lens, but must also include a focus on particular theological issues which lie at the center of evangelicalism.  The first of these issues Grenz wishes to consider is the understanding of the gospel found in evangelicalism.  Grenz sees this is as the primary issue which gave rise to what he calls “classical evangelicalism,” which emerged following the revivals in Britain and America in the early 18th century.

To get to this “classical evangelicalism” Grenz will trace two different streams which feed into the evangelical movement.  Both streams begin at the Reformation with Luther and Calvin.  Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness formed the basic Reformation starting point for understanding the gospel, but as Grenz notes Luther’s tendency to ignore any notion of actual righteousness (whether through sanctification or otherwise) has generally not been carried through in evangelicalism.  Rather, evangelicalism has tended to also borrow from Calvin’s take on sanctification as a distinct but necessary consequence of justification by grace.  In this sense, evangelicalism is part of the broad tradition of Reformed theology.

Within this broad tradition, Grenz argues that two competing streams come together to form “classical evangelicalism” and shape its particular understanding of the gospel and its effects.

The first of these stems from the influence of Puritanism.  The Puritans found themselves in a unique situation:  part of a Church that was at least nominally protestant (after the Church of England broke away from Rome under Henry VIII and again under Elizabeth I) but which, in their estimation, maintained many elements which were far too Roman to consider the Church truly reformed.  Thus, the Puritans found themselves struggling to purge “impure” elements from their Church.  This resulted is a change in emphasis from the original Reformation’s goal of recovering the true gospel to a new goal of creating a “truly constituted church”:

The quest for a truly constituted church led many members of the puritan party to adopt what has come to be known as the pure church ideal… The goal of the gospel, the Puritans concluded, is to gather out of the world “pure” churches, that is, congregations that contain only, or consist solely of, the elect of God. (44)

The Puritan notion of a Church that only consisted of the elect is not only a shift in emphasis from that of the original Reformation, it is also, I would argue, a significant break with much of the Christian tradition on at least one key point.  Grenz does not spell this out, but he hints at a concern I would raise (for both the Puritans and those in contemporary evangelicalism who make similar claims):

Their commitment to the pure church ideal motivated the Puritans’ strident critique of the church in England.  In their estimation, rather than striving to be a church of the regenerate, the English church was content to remain a “mixed assembly” that refused to distinguish between the saints of God and the unregenerate.  (44)

The term “mixed assembly” is a loaded term in the history of Christianity because of the legacy of Augustine in dealing with the Donatist controversy.  The Donatists were a group of separatists in North Africa who believed themselves to reflect the “pure” Church, those who had not succumbed to persecution and thus revoked their status as true Christians.  The Donatists argued that any church which accepted the impure into their assembly, and especially any church which accepted them into the ranks of the clergy, was not a valid church and could not administer valid sacraments.  Against this group, Augustine argued that the church is always a “mixed assembly” of both sinners and saints in both the laity and the clergy.  Further, he argued, it is not the priest who makes the sacrament efficacious but God.  Under Augustine’s influence the notion of the Church as a mixed assembly relying on the grace of God became a standard part of the Christian tradition.  Luther took this Augustinian position a step farther, arguing that every individual is simultaneously a sinner and a saint and therefore reliant on the grace of God.  It seems to me that the Puritan endeavor of creating a church that consists only in the elect implies a degree of confidence in their ability to distinguish the true church from the “mixed assembly” which no major voice in the Christian tradition had ever claimed prior to this movement.  The break with earlier teaching this represents is one that, I readily admit, I am quite suspicious of, but I’m eager to hear any defense that might be offered of it.

The sucess of such a goal to create pure churches depends on the ability to identify the elect, and this in turn raises a new soteriological issue, the question of “assurance” of salvation.  Grenz argues that the Puritans approached these questions, following the footsteps of Calvin but modifying him slightly, through the idea of sanctification:

The Puritans came to base one’s personal sense of election on the believer’s own piety.  Or, stated theologically, they grounded assurance in sanctification. (47)

This focus on sanctification as a measure of assurance likely results in the many stereotypes we have now of the Puritans as austere, rigid, and legalistic.  It also contributed, however, to a movement toward individualized religious experience which will be very important to evangelicalism.

The second tributary flowing into classical evangelicalism is the influence of the Pietist movement.  Like the Puritans, the Pietists began as a movement of Reform within a larger, state church.  However, their method was markedly different from that of the Puritans.  Grenz explains:

Unlike the Puritans, in calling for church reform the early Pietists did not elevate to center stage the question of the status of the Lutheran church as a true church of Jesus Christ and hence the propriety of withdrawing from the larger, state church.  Rather, their intent was to reform the church solely from within.  To this end they were content to form… what became characterized as ecclesiolae in ecclesia.  The goal of these churches within the church was not to separate “true” Christians from the unregenerate, but to be agencies for bringing the church to reflect once again the image of the early Christian community.  (49)

What the Pietists are known for, which drove their efforts at reform and became their major contribution to evangelicalism, is a degree of emotional fervor attached to their conception of faith.  The result was a movement toward a more subjective understanding of salvation, as Grenz explains:

The older Protestant theology had generally spoken of salvation as an objective given [What God does for people, centered on the moment of justification at baptism]… The Pietists, in contrast, highlighted the subjective, the inner nature of salvation.  Salvation is what God does within people.  As a consequence, the locus of true Christianity shifted from baptism to personal conversion.  (50-51)

Thus, Pietism also results in a movement toward an individualized experience of religion, though for very different reasons than those found in Puritanism.  For Pietism the elevation of the individual experience occurs because this is the level on which subjective, emotional experiences of conversion are felt, whereas for the Puritans this occurred because in their efforts to create a pure church individual sanctification became the benchmark for assurance of one’s status as a part of the elect.

The result of the combination of these two streams, which occurred during the Great Awakening in the early 18th century, is the emergence of what Grenz calls “classical evangelicalism.”  Its understanding of the gospel contained two critical components:  an emphasis on the experience of conversion and the elevation of this experience of conversion to the status of the benchmark for assurance.  As should be apparent, Grenz’s understanding of “classical evangelicalism” seems more heavily weighted toward the Pietists than the Puritans, but there are certainly traces of the influence of both in this synthesis.  In describing the character of the evangelicalism which emerged from this synthesis, Grenz further argues that a part of “classical evangelicalism” was  an active engagement with the science and philosophy of the day, a point that will become very important when Grenz shifts gears from discussing history to evaluating the current state of evangelicalism.  He holds up as examples of this kind of evangelicalism at its best two prominent theologians: Jonathan Edwards (who, I have just recently been admonished to remind everyone, was a congregationalist and not a presbyterian) and John Wesley.

I’ve alluded to some suspicions about the Puritan side of the evangelical synthesis that Grenz has described here.  Though I am more comfortable with the Pietist side of the synthesis, I’m sure it is not immune to criticism, either.  I also wonder if there is an inherent problem in the strong sense of individualization expressed in both these movements and fully realized in the evangelical synthesis.  What do you think?  Which stream are you more sympathetic to and why?  Is evangelicalism inherently too individualistic?  What do you make of Grenz’s description of “classical evangelicalism”?



  1. […] of how Grenz’s argument will, I think, shape up.  In the previous chapter, as we noted in our last post, Grenz argues that classical evangelicalism emerged from the combination of two streams of thought […]

  2. […] to reform and move away from its fundamentalist phase and back toward something akin to the synthesis of classical evangelicalism in terms of emphasizing both the experience of faith and engagement with the culture of the […]

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