Interpreting the History of American Evangelicalism: 2 Lenses (Part 3: Doctrinal Disputes)

In this brief series of posts I would like to examine the history of American Christianity through two lenses: 1-the lens of democratization and 2-the lens of doctrinal disputes. Last time we looked at Evangelicalism through the lens of “democratization,” in today’s post (which is the third post in this series) we will take a look at what I consider a better lens for examining American Evangelicalism.

Although examining evangelicalism through the lens of populist towards established can be useful, I believe that a better interpretive lens for examining the movement is through the lens of doctrinal disputes that lead to division. These divisions are a prominent theme in evangelicalism. For instance George Marsden examines the rise of fundamentalism through this lens. He sees that Christians divide over Christianity’s relationship to modernism and its relationship to orthodoxy, thus protestant Christianity divides into liberals and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists further divide themselves into those that believe Christians should separate from liberal denominations and those that believe that they should work together. This was the case with J. Gresham Machen. Marsden examines Machen’s motivations in founding Westminster seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in light of this interpretive lens. Machen separates from his former denomination and seminary because of doctrinal issues.

Another case of division over doctrine occurs at Fuller Seminary. The seminary was essentially split up over the doctrine of inerrancy. This was one key storyline in Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism. The reason that inerrancy became such an issue at Fuller was that initially Fuller’s founders tried to startle the line between being fundamentalist and being progressive. This tension finally broke over the issue of inerrancy and climaxed on “Black Saturday.” Eventually certain members of faculty left the school and went on to found or work for other organizations like Christianity Today and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Finally, during the early history of evangelicalism we see more divisions over doctrine. One key division occurred over to the doctrinal stances towards revivals during the Great Awakening. Old lights like Charles Chauncy opposed revivalism and New Lights like Jonathan Edwards embraced revivalism. This division into New Light and Old Light factions has marked evangelicalism ever since. Recently we have seen this division play out in evangelical groups like Vineyard and Calvary that emphasized signs and wonders and the groups that opposed these practices.

I believe that it is possible to see evangelicalism as a series of schisms over doctrine and practice that lead to new branches within the movement; thus examining evangelicalism through this lens might be a fruitful project. However we should be careful of trying to interpret evangelicalism through only one lens. If we are going to get a complete picture of evangelicalism we need various lenses. In The Rise of Evangelicalism Mark Noll presents an excellent example of interpreting evangelicalism through a variety of lenses. He examines early evangelicalism through various lenses including the lens of geography, politics, doctrine, and spirituality. Perhaps if we are going to get a well-rounded picture of evangelicalism and the forces behind it we need to use multiple lenses.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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