To Be or Not To Be: The Uneasy Relationship between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism | Christ Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC)

To Be or Not To Be: The Uneasy Relationship between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism

Michael S. Horton

The ambivalence expressed by Warfield cannot help but be felt today by those who are convinced of the persistent truth and vitality of the catholic faith as it is expressed in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation.

I hope that non-Reformed readers will indulge me in a consideration of the relationship of our tradition to the movement known today as American evangelicalism. After all, I think that much of what I have to say here will apply to other traditions. In Reformed and Presbyterian quarters today, as in other traditions, a range of views can be discerned with respect to our relation to the evangelical movement. One person disavows, another accepts only with qualifications, and another unreservedly wears the evangelical label either in general approval of the movement's direction or with a determination to "take it back" to a moment in the past when it supposedly described people who think as we do. However, at least American evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement, especially since the first Great Awakening. Through pietism and then the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, the character of evangelicalism was shaped as much by criticism and rejection of the Reformation's legacy as by its abiding influence. I will not attempt another definition of evangelicalism; others have done that with greater skill. Thinking aloud, my focus is on whether by giving evangelical identity priority over our confessional and churchly identities we have actually contributed to the shallowness of the evangelical movement more generally.

From Embrace to Ambivalence

For centuries, members of Reformed and Presbyterian churches have thought of themselves as belonging primarily to a movement of catholic Christianity that was reformed in the sixteenth century through the ministry of such pastors as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox. Luther's followers first called themselves "evangelicals" (from "evangel," meaning gospel), and the term became virtually identical with adherence to the key tenets of the magisterial Reformers, in distinction from Rome and Anabaptism.

From this reservoir of faith and practice, these churches played a central role in the modern missions movement, which brought together believers from a host of different denominations. The roots of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical agencies lie in these interdenominational missionary efforts. Eventually, as many of the churches-including Reformed and Presbyterian-became less faithful and, in fact, were embroiled in controversy over the basic doctrines of Christianity, believers from a host of different churches found their commonality in what came to be called the evangelical essentials. It was not a coincidence that the most vigorously evangelical in doctrine were the most vigorously evangelistic in practice. Find the most missions-minded members in these denominations and you would find those most committed to the authority of Scripture, salvation by grace alone in Christ alone, the deity and humanity of Christ in one person, his substitutionary death for sinners, justification, the new birth, and Christ's second coming.

Somewhere along the way, however, the evangel became increasingly separated from evangelism; the message became subservient to the methods. Today, it is taken for granted by many that those most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the "unchurched"). We are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, usually with little definition offered for either. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style ("contemporary" versus "traditional"), its politics ("compassionate conservatism" or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism's progressivist roots), and its "rock-star" leaders, than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.

To put it all far too simply, the Second Great Awakening, especially the ministry of revivalist Charles G. Finney, represented what can only be called America's Counter-Reformation. Going beyond Rome's Counter-Reformation in the direction of Pelagianism, Finney denied original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth; and he created a system of faith and practice tailor-made for a self-reliant nation. Evangelicalism-which is to say, at least in late eighteenth-century American Protestantism-was the engine for innovations. In doctrine, it served modernity's preference for faith in human nature and progress. In worship, it transformed Word-and-sacrament ministry into entertainment and social reform, creating the first star-system in the culture of celebrity. In public life, it confused the Kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world and imagined that Christ's reign could be made visible by the moral, social, and political activity of the saints. There was little room for anything weighty to tie the movement down, to discipline its entrepreneurial celebrities, or to question its "revivals" apart from their often short-lived publicity.

I know this cursory summary focuses one-sidedly on the weaknesses, ignoring the genuine advances that occurred in the wake of revivalism. In my view, however, it is a net loss. Much of contemporary evangelicalism has its roots in Finney's legacy and behind it, pietism, which for all of its benefits nevertheless already began to shift the weight of Christian witness from the triune God and his saving work in Christ to the self and its inner experience. "Extremes meet," noted Princeton's B. B. Warfield toward the end of the nineteenth century. "Pietist and Rationalist have ever hunted in couples and dragged down their quarry together. They may differ as to why they deem theology mere lumber, and would not have the prospective minister waste his time in acquiring it. The one loves God so much, the other loves him so little, that he does not care to know him." (1) Warfield's Dutch colleague Herman Bavinck observed, "Powerful movements, like those that Pietism had called forth in Germany and Methodism had unleashed in England and America, all had in common that they shifted the center of gravity from the object of religion to the subject. Theology followed this track in the systems produced by Kant, Schleiermacher, and their schools." (2) The educated wing of pietistic Protestantism in America tended to become assimilated to modernism, while its fundamentalist wing provided an ever-fresh crop of cynical and disillusioned young people to find the former a more attractive option. Yet modernists like Harry Emerson Fosdick and fundamentalists like Bob Jones, Sr., could recall Finney and his legacy with fondness.

Consequently, even orthodox Protestants in Europe always viewed evangelicalism as a uniquely British and American phenomenon, generally characterized as "Methodist." Even in the United States, Presbyterian and Reformed churches had an ambivalent relationship to evangelicalism. On one hand, theologians like Warfield and Hodge understood the label "evangelical" as referring to the substance of catholic Christianity reformed and refined in the Reformation. Naturally, this made them closer allies with confessional Lutherans and Anglicans than with heirs of Finney, but the mainline Presbyterian Church itself was divided in the nineteenth century between Old School and New School bodies over revivalism. In many ways, evangelicalism more generally has struggled with this schizophrenic heritage of Reformation and Counter-Reformation influences. Churchmen like Warfield and Hodge regarded themselves as evangelicals in this Reformation sense and struggled to bring American Protestantism into line with this definition. They were also staunchly committed to and personally involved with the vast missionary endeavors of their denomination at home and abroad, bringing them into constant fellowship and cooperation with other evangelicals.

An Evangelical Creed?

Nevertheless, Warfield was already beginning to see that the tension between competing visions of evangelical identity was making it more difficult to remain an unqualified supporter of the cause. In 1920, a "plan of union for evangelical churches" was put forward and Warfield evaluated the "creed" of this plan as it was being studied by Presbyterians. Warfield observed that the new confession being proposed "contains nothing which is not believed by Evangelicals," and yet "noth-ing which is not believed... by the adherents of the Church of Rome, for example."

There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed. And that means that all the gains obtained in that great religious movement which we call the Reformation are cast out of the window.... There is nothing about the atonement in the blood of Christ in this creed. And that means that the whole gain of the long mediaeval search after truth is thrown summarily aside....There is nothing about sin and grace in this creed....We need not confess our sins anymore; we need not recognize the existence of such a thing. We need believe in the Holy Spirit only 'as guide and comforter'-do not the Rationalists do the same? And this means that all the gain the whole world has reaped from the great Augustinian conflict goes out of the window with the rest....It is just as true that the gains of the still earlier debates which occupied the first age of the Church's life, through which we attained to the understanding of the fundamental truths of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ are discarded by this creed also. There is no Trinity in this creed; no Deity of Christ-or of the Holy Spirit. (3)

Where justification through faith is the heart of the evangel, how can "evangelicals" omit it from their common confession? "Is this the kind of creed which twentieth-century Presbyterianism will find sufficient as a basis for co-operation in evangelistic activities? Then it can get along in its evangelistic activities without the gospel. For it is precisely the gospel that this creed neglects altogether." Warfield concludes, "Fellowship is a good word, and a great duty. But our fellowship, according to Paul, must be in 'the furtherance of the gospel.'" (4)

Protestantism without the Reformation

At the end of his lecture tour in the United States, Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized American religion as "Protestantism without the Reformation." Although the influence of the Reformation in American's religious history has been profound (especially prior to the mid-nineteenth century), and remains a counterweight to the dominance of the revivalist heritage, Bonhoeffer's diagnosis seems justified:

God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God....American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of 'criticism' by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God's 'criticism' touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics....In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics....Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness. (5)

I realize that not all such "creeds" are as minimalistic as the one evaluated by Warfield. Nor has American Christianity been without its own defenders of the faith. In its "Statement of Faith," the National Association of Evangelicals affirms the Trinity, the deity of Christ, "the vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood," and the necessity of a supernatural rebirth. There is, however, no mention of justification-the article of a standing or falling church-and the only conviction concerning the church is belief in "the spiritual unity of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ." Baptism and the Supper are not even mentioned.

A more fulsome declaration has come recently from the authors and signatories of an "Evangelical Manifesto," which insists that evangelicalism, grounded in the Reformation heritage "should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally." Specifically, the manifesto affirms Christ's divinity and humanity in the incarnation as the only way of salvation, Christ's death and life as the ground of our acceptance before God, and that we are "credited with the righteousness of Christ," which we receive "solely by grace through faith." It also affirms the new birth as a gift of grace and the authority of Scripture.

At the same time, not that long ago, respected evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders crafted and signed a series of consensus statements that affirmed agreement in the gospel while admitting differences over justification and the role of merit in our salvation. Increasingly, even in evangelical scholarship, justification is often treated as a secondary matter of refinement rather than the heart of the Good News that defines evangelical identity and mission. The ambivalence expressed by Warfield cannot help but be felt today by those who are convinced of the persistent truth and vitality of the catholic faith as it is expressed in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation.

A Village Green

I have argued that evangelicalism is like a village green, where people, leaving their homes and stores, come to mix and mingle. Or, as C. S. Lewis suggested, it is "mere Christianity"-the hallway where people meet and where non-Christians can hear Christ's central claims. We were not meant to live on the village green or in the hallway, however, but in the homes and rooms. Evangelicalism is most useful as a meeting place, but disastrous for anyone who tries to make it a home. For a home, we need a church.

According to the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggert, evangelicalism includes in its theological spectrum everyone from R. C. Sproul to Benny Hinn. Increasingly, I believe that the real vitality-the long-term progress-of the gospel in our time will not come from broad movements, including an evangelicalism defined more by the hegemony of its politics and sociology than by the unity of its faith and practice. Rather, I expect it to come from many churches, most of them relatively small and unheralded, which consistently confess-in preaching and sacrament, in catechesis and fellowship, in singing and liturgy, in outreach and diaconal care-that gospel that alone remains "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16). After all, it was not to movements, parachurch agencies, and coalitions that Jesus pledged his support. Rather, he promised, "I will build my church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).


  1. B. B. Warfield, "Our Seminary Curriculum," in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield-I, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), 371.
  2. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 556.
  3. B. B. Warfield, "In Behalf of Evangelical Religion," in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield-I, 386.
  4. Warfield, "In Behalf of Evangelical Religion," 387.
  5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Protestantism without the Reformation," in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 92-118.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.