While many cheers arise as Internet Monk pronounces Dispensational-esque doom on the future of evangelicalism, I keep asking myself what I think is an obvious question: If evangelicalism is going down for the final plunge, why does Spencer yet hold? It is something I can never fathom about evangelicals and their -ism. To their relative credit, they see so much that is wrong. Yet they cling like Obama’s bitter Pennsylvanians to firearms and faith. As a former (never-really-convince-in-the-first-place-closet-Calvinist) evangelical-turned-confessionalist, I am not sure it even exists. But if it does, I have long since been convinced evangelicalism is bankrupt from bow to stern. I suppose in some sense I can understand evangelicals holding out hope against hope that something is salvageable.
But then, like the proverbial curve-ball, one stumbles across Lee Irons who wants to try his hand taking shots at those who want to make a distinction between “Reformed” and “Evangelical.” Is he hitting the target the way he thinks he is, or just shooting himself in the foot…mirror…whatever?
It’s good to see that there are still some Reformed people these days who embrace the label ‘evangelical’ (see the posts by Stephen Nichols and Sean Lucas on the Ref21 site). I don’t sympathize with the Reformed trend that utterly scorns and detests the label. I have no desire to set myself apart as a ‘Reformed Confessionalist’ who has nothing in common with evangelicalism. This separatist attitude is wrong for several reasons:
(1) It smacks of spiritual pride and elitism. I consider myself to be a Christian first, then a Protestant, then an evangelical, and only then Reformed. To exalt ‘Reformed’ über alles is to downplay our central identity as Christians. To exalt the Reformed confessions is to downplay the primary New Testament confession that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ I’m not a Reformed person who happens to be a Christian. I’m a blood-bought Christian who happens to believe in the Reformed understanding of the gospel. And I do not view myself as a superior Christian for having this belief. It is only by the grace of God that I understand what I do of the grace of God, and even then I betray it all too often in my practice.
(2) The current disdain for ‘evangelicalism’ in Reformed circles is also wrong because it places the accent on the distinctives of Reformed theology and practice instead of on what we have in common with evangelicalism. But what we have in common with evangelicals (being Christ-centered, cross-centered, and gospel-centered) is far, far more important than our distinctives (our Calvinistic soteriology, our covenant theology, our view of the church and the means of grace, etc.). The distinctives of Reformed theology and practice are useful only to the degree that they undergird and clarify the gospel, the evangel.
(3) Being ‘Reformed’ but not ‘evangelical’ undercuts the importance of seeking fellowship, unity, and love with all Christians who confess the historic ecumenical creeds (Nicea and Chalcedon) and the basics of the gospel (justification by faith alone, substitutionary atonement), regardless of our differences over secondary matters. The apostle John is fairly clear in his epistles that if you claim to know God but do not love the brethren, then your claim is proven to be empty. Confession of Christ as the Son of God and love for the brethren go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
None of this means that we cannot be critical of the excesses and problems that we see in evangelicalism. Yes, there are many who claim the name ‘evangelical’ who are false teachers and wolves in sheep’s clothing (I’m thinking particularly of the prosperity gospel and some of the more radical emergent types). But the same is true of many who claim the name ‘Reformed.’ A search on the keyword ‘Reformed’ on the PC(USA) website turns up 3860 results (compared with 552 results on the OPC site). Consider also the very existence of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. If you think the term ‘evangelical’ has been distorted beyond recognition so that you no longer want to use that label, then to be consistent, you shouldn’t call yourself ‘Reformed’ either. Instead of being too proud to call ourselves ‘evangelical,’ we should join with those who strive to uphold the historic meaning of the term.
“Utterly scorns and detests the label”?
I’m not exactly sure where to start, but it might be that Irons himself begins with something of a wanting understanding of the term “Reformed.” He erroneously seems to suggest that it doesn’t already include such terms as “Christian, Protestant and evangelical.” In fact, I would add one he seems to have forgotten: catholic. And another: apostolic. What he seems to miss is that “Reformed” is simply shorthand for a diversity of perfectly sound terms.
What is ironic when Protestant folks in our circles speak this way is that they actually end up perpetuating the very religious elitism they mean to explode on our part. Why is “evangelical” so much more important than “catholic” that the latter doesn’t even make the list of self-descriptors for Irons? Does Irons have something against being catholic? He is obviously after unity—that is what catholicity means, so why is it absent his list? Does Irons know that the e-word, insofar as it conveys the solas of the Reformation, is what keeps us Protestants anathematized by Rome? So much for “evangelical” getting everyone together. Like a simple vowel makes all the difference between the doctrines of solo scriptura and sola scriptura, upper and lower cases can help in these broader categorical discussions. A brief scan of Irons’ quote shows he doesn’t make that distinction: I have no problem at all saying I am evangelical and catholic, but I’m not an Evangelical or a Catholic.
He claims that “The distinctives of Reformed theology and practice are useful only to the degree that they undergird and clarify the gospel, the evangel” since, even as he admits, we ought to be “…critical of the excesses and problems that we see in evangelicalism. Yes, there are many who claim the name ‘evangelical’ who are false teachers and wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He agrees that clarity of the evangel is necessary as it is obscured by those who claim exclusive rights to it. But that is exactly why it needs to be found comported under “Reformed,” so it can be properly defined and clarified.
Another key distinction he seems to lack is any cognizance of the visible/militant and invisible/triumphant church. It would seem to help immensely his angst in point three. He seems to be after “fellowship, unity and love,” a commendable ambition no doubt. But these are simply of a different order for the two churches. The invisible church enjoys these things unblemished and immediately. The visible church does not enjoy that luxury; that’s why one is called “triumphant” and the other “militant.” But this is the reason she labors for doctrinal precision, in order to maximize—not minimize—fellowship, unity and love for the brethren. Irons seems to be confusing “Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian” with actual Presbyterians. I have great sympathy; I cut my religious teeth on an entrenched Fundamentalism. But I rejected it as deliberately as I embraced Reformed confessionalism, since the two are mutually exclusive. Ironically, though, I was never as schismatic as when doing the sort of Evangelical tolerance Irons champions, and never as ecumenical as when I embraced the intolerance of Presbyterianism. Talk about counter-intuitiveness. Is the answer to “Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian” really “Presbyterians longing to be Evangelical”?
Moreover, I am of the persuasion that a key difference between confessional orthodoxy and that poor man’s version called Fundamentalism can be found in the further distinction between cult and culture. Even if we grant that Fundamentalists began with cultic interests they went utterly bankrupt as they slid into being primarily culturalists and it just got worse from there; bring me a self-proclaiming Fundamentalist and I’ll show you someone who cares very little for both doctrinal formulation and how it relates to praxis, as well as someone who is neck-deep in culture wars to lesser or greater degrees. It is mystifying how Irons, such a close student of Kline’s, doesn’t make the cult and culture distinctions in order to separate out the differences between abhorrent forms Fundamentalism and the project of historical, confessional Reformed orthodoxy.
Well, more could be said. I can’t resist a parting shot though: At the end, Irons makes the point that terms are subject to being “distorted beyond recognition,” which is why those who employ only “Reformed” because “Evangelical” is too fraught are inconsistent and to be criticized. But Irons says at the top, “I consider myself to be a Christian first, then a Protestant, then an evangelical, and only then Reformed.” Without a doubt he is correct that terms are subject to distortion. But are the terms “Christian” and “Protestant” somehow less vulnerable to distortion? Has he really circumvented anything here? If it’s consistency he wants I have no idea why he is still calling himself a Christian or Protestant—those are older and more general terms and thus even more vulnerable to distortion. Now what?