Evangelicalism as a School

In the volume Life in the Spirit (see previous post), Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that evangelicalism be seen as a school of spirituality. I think this is interesting. I think this kind of delineation would explain why evangelicalism seems to be more interested in lifestyle and experience than in doctrine. What do we think about this? I think there is a lot of traction in seeing evangelicalism as a school of spirituality rather than a school of doctrine or a sociological movement building on the revivals or something like that. If this is right, it makes sense that we see a return to Spiritual classics, since those were the very texts used to start this school. When we read Scougal, Wesley, Edwards, etc., we are seeing reflection on Fenelon, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thomas a’ Kempis.

I wonder if this could help to explain why evangelicalism has always seemed to stand at ends with dogmatic theology and much of Reformed/Lutheran theology/ecclesiology? Is there a sense where this school bought into the idea that this spirituality, rather than being monastic was supposed to saturate life (be the city on the hill) and also attract outsiders?

I’m still thinking about this but would love to hear some thoughts. What are the downsides to this kind of categorization? Upsides?

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6 thoughts on “Evangelicalism as a School

  1. Kyle,

    Great post. That distinction was exactly was occurred to me while reading Patricia Ward’s excellent recent book, Experimental Theology in America. Evangelicalism doesn’t really “fit” into the strictures of a tradition, which is why it always seems to function as an adjective (e.g. evangelical Reformed, evangelical Lutheran, evangelical SBC, etc.). But it’s still possible to recognize an evangelical sensibility when you see it, regardless of where you find it. Ward is particularly interesting here, since she brings out just how eclectic and adaptable the evangelical sensibility really is. How else would you find evangelical book distributors selling Wesley, Guyon, and Brother Lawrence side-by-side in their spirituality section? Accomplishing something like that requires both a certain freedom from specific confessional boundaries plus an ability to re-interpret something as extreme as 17th century French Quietism.

  2. I think an upside to this classification is that Evangelicalism provides an ethos that is prone to fostering intimacy with the LORD — with an emphasis on personal relationship.

    Of course the downside is that this focus on personal relationship can become to inward and individualistic; and w/o any real grounding in a dynamic theological grammar . . . so that we end up with a spirituality that is “me and my Jesus”.

  3. One current that might not fit this description is the (so called) neo-Calvinist trends represented by folks like Piper, Carson, Sproul, etc. It seems to be that they are clearly evangelical and clearly (primarily) doctrinal.

    • Mike, I actually haven’t found the new Calvinists to be very doctrinal. They know what they believe better than most evangelicals, and they certainly know their doctrinal “stance” better than many evangelicals, but they don’t engage topics doctrinally. In fact, I have been shocked at many of their blogs and how they sound just like the mega church blogs – simply interested in pragmatic issues.

      It is an interesting point nonetheless. I think that, in the same sense as mentioned in the post, the new-Calvinists are driven by a spirituality, but this spirituality takes on some different emphases than others. It is formally the same, if I can put it this way, but materially different. Their spirituality, rather than being based on a conversion experience (maybe), is based on preaching God’s sovereignty (or something like that). I think it will probably be based around doctrinal commitments more, like sovereignty, glory, etc. (and maybe that was just your point), while other evangelicals might be based simply on their own experience in a revival-like setting (camp, Christian concert, etc.).

  4. Pingback: Items of note (7/16/10) : Theopolitical

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