What's In A Name? A Review of D. G. Hart's 'Deconstructing Evangelicalism'
What is an evangelical? Where do we find their confession of faith? If I want to engage in a dialog with an evangelical, where do I find out what they believe? Who are their teachers? How does one get a membership card to join evangelicalism? Who is running this important and influential movement of the twentieth century?
D. G. Hart, scholar, teacher, elder and historian in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has written another fine historical study that ought to be considered by pastors and lay people alike. Hart's new book is a work of deconstruction. It is not deconstruction as we tend to think associated with French linguists and literary interpretation. It is a deconstruction of an identity.
It is Hart's important claim that 'evangelical' as a term exists, but that as a true identity within Christ's Church, 'evangelical' might as well be nonexistent. He writes provocatively in his interesting introduction:
"Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of the twentieth-century American Protestantismâ€¦.Despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing volume of literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction." (pgs. 16-17).
The book is divided into two parts: Part 1 is entitled "The Making of Evangelicalism" and Hart traces the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century. Part 2 is entitled "The Unmaking of Evangelicalism" where he argues that evangelicalism is a movement without a creed, but has similiarities in modern worship.
Hart fairly acknowledges the good that evangelicals have accomplished and in no way undermines the good that God has done through the work of twentieth century evangelicals. What he seeks to historically understand is how should we categorize a people who have no confessions, or external denominations to hold them together, but rather are held together by famous teachers (Billy Graham, James Dobson and Tim Lahaye he names as the "parachurch celebrities"), and a few lowest-common-denominator doctrines that allow evangelicals to work without any offense to one another or a threat to their unity.
Hart asserts that evangelicalism cannot exist as a visible part of Christ's Church in historically upholding the three "marks of the church": Right preaching of the Word of God, correct administration of the sacraments, and discipline in order to uphold the first two. Hart writes that evangelical parachurch organizations have different goals (pgs. 123-124)
Hart argues that in the twentieth century, individualistic evangelicalism has envisioned the church as more of a business, where those who benefit from evangelical ministries are the consumers. If they do not like the product, whether it is a radio sermon or a television broadcast, they can merely turn it off.
In contrast to evangelicalism, churches that have identities in the visible church through local church membership are confessional and submitted to elders. Hart writes:
"Churches, unlike parachurch entities, have creeds that let people contemplating membership know the content of the denomination's faith. Churches also have structures of governance that provide a mechanism of accountability that is very different from that of the market model, which determines which parachurch celebrities are the most popular and therefore authoritative." (pg. 124)
Hart concludes that "Evangelicalism is a seemingly large and influential religious body, but it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction." (pg. 176). What then is the "recipe" for evangelicalism according to Hart? "Combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation." (pg. 183).
Evangelicalism is a term that neither pastors nor lay people ought to use, and especially historians of American Protestantism as Hart carefully writes in his conclusion. For evangelicalism is not; it is no thing; it is nothing. It does not exist as an identity, or as a tradition.
Now we must be reminded that as a historian Hart is as guilty as anyone else for using evangelicalism as an identity (note his book other books such as 'That Old-Time Religion in Modern America', or his collection of historical essays on evangelicalism entitled 'Reckoning with the Past'), but he wisely included an afterword to explain his new conclusions concerning this identity and tradition that is non-existent.
Dr. Hart describes himself as a "victim in recovery", having used the same terms as other historians, he now invites the academic community as well as general readers of his book to reconsider the term evangelical as anything more than an identity constructed and created out of thin air.
What I appreciate about this book, especially for pastors working in evangelical communities, is that Hart reminds us all that the glue that is ultimately holding evangelicalism together is not historic creeds and confessions, but an individualistic â€œculture of celebrity which is the flip side of denying of the authority of traditions" (pg. 120).
Anyone concerned with the rampant individualism in today's congregations, as well as the lack of commitment to congregational life and membership needs to read this book and take thoughtful consideration to his remarks. While evangelicals have been used by God for many good things, one being the upholding of the biblical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, there is much more to be concerned about than merely the inerrancy of Scripture.
We should also be concerned with the teaching of inerrant Scripture concerning the importance of Christ's visible church given to us equipped with gifted men ordained by God to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline and godly concern over the flock of God. The same inerrant Scripture that evangelicalism wholeheartedly defends teaches the importance of being part of a visible church and congregation of Christ's people. What good is affirming an inerrant Scripture and not obeying it and allowing it to create our identity as the people of God?
Evangelicals need to be reminded of two very important things. First, that the Holy Spirit did not begin working in Christâ€™s Church when the National Association of Evangelicals was started in 1942, but has been sovereignly active in building Christâ€™s Church throughout history. Second, that the term â€˜evangelicalâ€™ was coined in the Reformation of the sixteenth century by Martin Luther and it meant one committed to the gospel preaching of Jesus Christ, and more particularly to the Solaâ€™s of the Reformation.
I am convinced by the book's conclusions; I encourage you to read it as well!
-Rev. Charles R. Biggs