February 11, 2019

American Evangelicalism and Anglicanism

Filed under: Anglicanism,Ecumenism,Theology,Trinity School for Ministry — William Witt @ 11:20 pm

(The following is based on a talk I gave as part of a TSM panel, addressing the question “What is Evangelicalism?)

River Baptism

I teach at “Trinity School for Ministry: An evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition.” What does that word “Evangelical” mean? In what sense am I an Evangelical Anglican? There are at least three ways in which the word “Evangelical” could function in relationship to Anglicanism. First, it could simply be pointing to the Reformation heritage of Anglicanism. Like Lutheranism or the Reformed tradition, Anglicanism traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, including such definitive markers as the three (or five) solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria. The term could also refer to a particular movement within Anglicanism that focuses on Anglicanism’s Reformation identity. An extreme version of this kind of Evangelical Anglicanism would understand pristine Anglicanism to have existed for the short number of years during the reign of Edward VI between Cranmer’s second Prayer Book of 1552 (definitely not the 1549), and the beginning of the reign of Queen Mary. Definitive identity markers would include the 1552 BCP, the 39 Articles (1563) and the Book of Homilies (1547, 1562, and 1571). Much later Anglicanism (beginning with the Caroline Divines and perhaps Richard Hooker) would be interpreted as a “falling away” from these original pristine touchstones. I intend rather to use the term to refer to a more recent distinctly American phenomenona – North American Evangelicalism of the mid-20th and early 21st centuries. This is the context of my own upbringing, but also the church background of the majority of TSM’s faculty and students. What might an orthodox 21st century North American Anglicanism have to offer this American version of Evangelicalism?

I will begin with a bit of autobiography. I was raised a Southern Baptist. During my high school years, I got involved for a short period of time in what was then called the “Jesus Movement,” and attended a Friday night service every week where people raised their hands and sang in tongues. I was also involved in the youth group of a Southern Baptist megachurch. At the same time, I discovered the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and in a two-year period read all of Lewis’s major published writings.

I attended an Evangelical liberal arts college in Denver where I majored in philosophy. Evangelicals were not writing theology at this time, but they were interested in apologetics, and I thought that philosophy would be a handy tool for apologetics. I discovered Thomas Aquinas, but Aquinas at this time was being read primarily as a philosopher. During my senior year in college, I discovered the writing of Wolfhart Pannenberg, but I was interested in Pannenberg because of his value for apologetics. Pannenberg defended the historical verifiability of the resurrection of Jesus. Pannenberg was the first “real theologian” I ever read, and I called myself a “Pannenbergian” for awhile. I used terms like “proleptic anticipation of the eschaton.”

Toward the end of my time in college, a number of theologians produced a document called The Hartford Appeal, a criticism primarily of trends in liberal Protestant theology. In the collection of essays that the participants entitled Against the World For the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion, Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, eds. (NY: Seabury, 1976), Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary contributed the essay, “New Alignments: Hartford and the Future of Evangelicalism.”

In that essay, Mouw identified three groups of American Evangelicals existing at the time.

1) Fundamentalism was a group that came into existence in the early twentieth century in opposition to and as a rejection of Liberal Protestantism in the mainline churches.

2) NeoEvangelicalism was identified with successors of Fundamentalism who broke with its narrowness in the mid-twentieth century: Billy Graham and the journal Christianity Today were two of its cultural identifiers.

3) In contradistinction from both Fundamentalism and NeoEvangelicalism was “Confessionalism,” identified with members of historic Reformation denominations who did not trace their roots to American sources: Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopal, Mennonite. These groups sometimes formed an uneasy alliance with Evangelicalism although they did not share its historic roots, and each had its own distinctive confessional identity.

Mouw pointed to four new influences within Evangelicalism at the time

1) “Neo-Pietism” was a new face on the scene, sharing some characteristics of earlier “pietist” and “revivalist” movements: the “Jesus Movement” and the beginnings of charismatic renewal.

2) Neo-Orthodoxy was represented by theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Evangelicals were divided, with some repudiating Barth as a new form of “liberalism” and others embracing Barth as someone from whom Evangelicals could learn much.

3) Among some Evangelicals, there was a rise of “Political Consciousness,” motivated by the anti-war movement, civil rights movement, and feminism. Journals such as Sojourners and The Other Side were associated with this movment.

4) Finally, Mouw identified a group he called “Progressive Evangelicals.” Mouw clearly identified with this group and wrote: “[N]eo-evangelicals usually become ‘progressive’ by moving in the direction of confessionalism.” (And, I would add, reading Karl Barth.)

Keep these identities in mind, as I will later ask “What of these identities continue in contemporary Evangelicalism?

After college, I knew I was no longer a Southern Baptist, but I did not know what I was. I received my MA at a Roman Catholic seminary (St. Thomas Seminary, Denver). While there, I set myself the task of thinking through the differences between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, focusing on Reformation distinctives such as justification by faith and the relationship between Scripture and tradition. I studied Roman Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner.

During this time, I read a book and an essay that influenced the direction of my thought:

The Chicago Call was another conference, this time led by Evangelicals, whose essays were published as The Orthodox Evangelicals, Robert Webber and Donald Bloesch, eds. (Thomas Nelson, 1978). This was a call for Evangelicals to rediscover their Pre-Reformation roots, and would lead to Webber’s later career, writing about Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and his Ancient-Future project. (TSM now hosts something called the “Robert E. Webber Center,” which holds annual “Ancient Evangelical Future” conferences.) When I read the Chicago Call, I came across senior theologians saying the kinds of things that I was thinking at the time.

In an essay entitled “The Reformation in Recent Roman Catholic Theology,” New Theology No 1, Martin Marty, ed. (Macmillan, 1964), Per Erik Persson, a Lutheran, endorsed a new historiography that viewed the Protestant Reformation in terms of its continuity with Medieval theology rather than in contrast or discontinuity – which had been the traditional view of both Protestants and Catholics for four hundred years. This new historiography focused on the Reformation as a “reforming movement” within the Western Catholic Church rather than a radical break. Similar views would be argued by historians such as Heiko Oberman. This “new Reformation historiography” has been a major influence on my thinking. I wrote my master’s thesis on Jacob Arminius, arguing that Arminius was influenced by Thomas Aquinas.

At the end of my time at St. Thomas, I became an Episcopalian for “theological reasons.” I was confirmed by Bishop Bill Frey, who went on to become Dean/President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. I did not view myself as abandoning my Evangelicalism, but as embracing a more Catholic view of the church.

After graduating from St. Thomas, I received my PhD at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied under both Roman Catholics and non-Catholic faculty. The theology faculty at Notre Dame was intentionally ecumenical during this period. Non-Catholics included Methodist Stanley Haurwas (for one year), Jim White, a Methodist liturgist, and John Howard Yoder (a Mennonite). Visiting Anglican faculty included liturgists Kenneth Stevenson and Paul Bradshaw. Roman Catholics who influenced me included my dissertation director, David Burrell (an expert on Thomas Aquinas), and Edward Kilmartin, a liturgical theologian. (Hauerwas and Burrell were both “Yale” graduates, and influenced by George Lindbeck and the “post-liberal” Yale school.)

Burrell suggested to those of us who were his students that every theologian needed to have a historical mentor, whose writings we should know well. By this point I had two, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. I now read Aquinas as a theologian, not primarily a philosopher. During my time at Notre Dame, I also began to study my own Anglican heritage, Anglican writers such as Thomas Cranmer, John Jewel, Richard Hooker, Caroline Divines like George Herbert, John Donne, and Thomas Traherne. (I wrote my dissertation on Jacob Arminius, again.) One of my key theological concerns became the relationship between Medieval and Reformation theology, focusing on continuities rather than discontinuities.

Skipping forward to our current setting, I mention a final set of distinctions from George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Hunsinger distinguishes between three contemporary approaches to theology:

1) In academic “liberal” theology, “modernist norms reign supreme.”

2) Hunsinger identifies “enclave” theology as “a theology based narrowly on a single tradition that seeks not to learn from other traditions and to enrich them, but instead to topple and defeat them, or at least to withstand them.” I would suggest that “enclave” theology is a dangerous temptation for “confessional” theologies. Evangelicals can become “progressive” by becoming “confessional” (as Mouw wrote), but they can also become reactive, pursuing the “pure” version of “Reformed” or “Lutheran” or “Roman Catholic,” or “Evangelical” or “Anglo-Catholic” Anglican theology.

3) Finally, “ecumenical” theology “presupposes that every tradition in the church has something valuable to contribute even if we cannot discern what it is.”

Where does American Evangelical theology stand today in terms of Mouw’s earlier categories? I would suggest the following:

1) The borders between fundamentalism and “popular Evangelicalism” are increasingly blurry. If, in an earlier generation, Billy Graham was an “Evangelical” and Jerry Falwell a “Fundamentalist,” it is not clear today whether these distinctions would hold between Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. Are they Evangelicals or Fundamentalists?

2) The “renewal”/charismatic movement of the 1970’s seems to have “morphed” into what are now called “contemporary worship” and “seeker churches,” or (among Anglicans), the “charismatic stream.” (Is “contemporary worship” the dominant form of worship in Evangelical churches these days?)

3) Narrow confessionalism still exists within groups like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and “continuing Anglicans.”

3) Finally, “Progressive confessionalists” have been succeeded by ecumenically theological Evangelicals who read not only Karl Barth, but also the church fathers. (This would now seem to be the center of academic Evangelical theology.) Calvinists like James K. A. Smith write about the importance of liturgy; the late (Evangelical) Anglican theologian John Webster was not only an expert on Karl Barth, but was reading Thomas Aquinas; Kevin Vanhoozer discusses Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his books, and is friends with Catholic theologian Matthew Levering; Methodist D. Stephen Long writes books on Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preocupation (Fortress, 2014) in which he defends Roman Catholic von Balthasars’s interpretation of Barth over that of Presbyterian Bruce McCormack, and The Perfectly Simple Triune God: Aquinas and his Legacy (Fortress, 2016), in which he discusses Aquinas’s influence in Protestant Reformation theology. Evangelical biblical scholars are now the leading heirs of the earlier “biblical theology” movement formerly associated with figures such as Walther Eichrodt, Oscar Cullmann, or Joachim Jeremias.

Where do (American) Anglicans stand in the midst of the current American Evangelical setting? I think we have a unique opportunity because of the historical nature of Anglicanism. Historically, Anglicans have embraced Reformation concerns such as the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture and justification by grace through faith, but also catholic liturgical worship, the historic creeds, the first four ecumenical councils, a (relatively high) sacramental theology (we’re not Zwinglians!), and episcopacy. Our historical identity is found in a kind of “evangelical catholicism” or “catholic evangelicalism” that resonates with an Evangelical ecumenism. If more recent Evangelical Anglicans such as John Webster read not only Barth, but also (later) Aquinas, earlier Anglo-Catholics such as Michael Ramsey could also read Barth! And Anglicans have always read the church fathers!

At the same time, I have concerns about signs of a resurgence of “enclave” theologies among some Evangelicals. I do not know what to think about the reappearance (among both Catholics and Protestants) of an earlier historiography that emphasizes Reformation discontinuity with the Medieval church. (Is this a sign of retrenchment to earlier positions or simply the tendency of scholarship to move in “waves,” with the need of each generation to “say something new,” even if it just means saying something old again?) Among “conservative” Anglicans, I see some signs of a new “enclave” Anglicanism, a resurgence of nineteenth-century partistan conflicts, an embracing of either Protestant (or Anglo-Catholic) oppositional distinctives: To be Evangelical (or Catholic) is to be as unlike the opposite as possible!

In terms of popular American Evangelical culture as a whole, I also have concerns about a political “circling of the wagons,” e.g., The Benedict Option, that at times seems to reflect more “sour grapes” about losing the “culture wars” than embracing a distinctively Christian identity.

Where do I myself stand? I’ll conclude by repeating an answer I gave in a blog post about ten years ago:

When I am asked to identify my own theological stance, I usually call myself a “Barthian Thomist.” If I were asked to identify my churchmanship, I would call myself a “catholic evangelical” or a “Reforming Catholic,” in the tradition of movements like the Mercersburg Theology, Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten’s Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, or figures like Thomas F. Torrance. If I am an Evangelical, I am an ecumenical Evangelical, who understands the Reformation as a reforming movement in the Western Catholic Church. If am an Anglo-Catholic, I am a post-Vatican II Anglican catholic, who understands catholicism as ressourcement, not as retrenchment. If asked to choose between an evangelical and a catholic understanding of the Reformation, I would refuse that choice as a false dilemma.


  1. Bill:

    Thanks for refreshing my memory on your pilgrimage. I accompanied you for some of these years. A few comments:

    I grew up in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, although the vast majority of the congregation of which I was part would eventually leave the denomination over the ordination of women. It has always struck me that such church bodies, while rightly repudiating the liberal theology that has decimated so many protestant bodies, risk falling prey to what I would call “cul de sac theologies,” i.e., theologies that are technically orthodox but stray from the beaten path in a number of ways. The OPC has historically been influenced by the theonomy of Rushdoony and the two kingdoms theology of a certain Reformed seminary in California. The latter has now begun to infect some of the United Reformed Churches, which withdrew from the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s. I’m tempted to label these heresies, but they are of a different sort than that embraced by liberal protestantism.

    As for so-called “progressive evangelicals,” I wonder whether Mouw’s original assessment has stood the test of time. Many younger Christians retain the evangelical label in some fashion but in effect take the position that experience trumps biblical teaching. This is especially true of those who take a revisionist approach to sexual morality. I don’t see these becoming more “confessional.” Far from it. In my youth I think I would have taken on the progressive evangelical label, as I was enamoured of Sojourners and similar groups. I did so because I honestly thought they were more biblical than those whom they critiqued, especially with respect to care for the poor and downtrodden. I had become allergic to the libertarian elements in the evangelical movement, and I saw the progressives as a needed antidote to them.

    Sad to say, writers for Sojourners and other progressives bypass scripture when it does not conform to their agenda. Reading a positive assessment of the notorious Re-Imagining conference of 1993 in Sojourners put me off, as did Jim Wallis’ embracing the pro-choice position on abortion and waffling on the nature of marriage. Not exactly prophetic. HR Niebuhr’s “Christ Against Culture” has morphed into “Christ of Culture” over the past four decades. In short, I’m not certain that a progressive stance has real staying power as something distinctive.

    If I were to accept any label, I suppose I too would call myself an evangelical catholic. I am unequivocally onside of the Reformation, but I continue to recognize a deep fraternal bond with Christians in other traditions. I am disappointed that so many church congregations have abandoned discipline, which is one of the marks of the true church, as taught in the Reformed confessions. At the same time, I would not favour withdrawing from ecumenical organizations such as the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) simply because they are mixed fellowships. Cul de sacs have no future (although we do happen to live on one!).

    As for the sacraments, I wish our congregation would celebrate the Lord’s Supper much more frequently, as Calvin himself wished to see. I recently read something from Cranmer on the sacraments which led me to believe that he and Calvin are very close to each other in affirming a spiritual real presence of Christ in the supper.

    One day I may write up my own spiritual journey. You’ve inspired me, Bill. Thanks again.

    Comment by David — February 12, 2019 @ 12:25 am

  2. David,

    I agree with you that “progressive” is an unfortunate term. However, it was the one that Mouw used in his 1976 essay, so I had to stick with it in describing his categories. I would have preferred to use an adjective such as “critical,” understood in the sense of “self-critical” (particularly of one’s own tradition) or “theologically reflective” rather than “critical” in the sense of “partisan” or narrowly dogmatic. That Mouw included what he called “political” Evangelicals (by which he meant groups like Sojourners) as a separate category makes clear that he was not using the term to describe a political category — as it is often used today. Indeed, one of his criticisms (even at that time) of the “political Evangelicals” was that they failed to make the appropriate theological distinctions and were as simplistic as those they criticized. He points to William Stringfellow’s black and white identification of the USA with the beast of the book of Revelation (Antichrist) in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land as just such an overly simplistic move.

    And, of course, you’re entirely correct about what Sojourners has become. In their early days, Jim Wallis regularly claimed that they were trying to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, and that American Evangelicalism had substituted “Civil Religion” for the politics of the Bible. These days I’m not exactly sure what would distinguish Sojourners from “progressive” liberal Protestant Christianity in general. I suppose that their readership would be more likely to hold to a kind of broad creedal Christianity than one might find among liberal Protestants like John Spong or Sallie McFague, but I’m not sure. I notice that that on their current website, they describe their position as being “informed by our biblical roots” — whatever that means.

    I deliberately did not include Mouw’s “political Evangelicals” in the current list because I am not sure that they exist any more. Neither however did I include “Trumpists” or First Things, a kind of “political” Christianity of a very different kind from Sojourners. (I would imagine more people who self-identify as “Evangelicals” would own a MAGA hat than would subscribe to Sojourners). The exclusion of both was intentional because I believe both versions of “political” Evangelicalism to be equally deluded. (Unwrapping that would require another blog post, but I can just point readers to the second edition of your Political Visions and Illusions.)

    My own term to describe successors of Mouw’s “progressive confessionalists” would be “ecumenically orthodox,” or “critically orthodox.” Others have embraced the term ressourcement, noting a parallel between “catholic evangelicals” or “evangelical catholics” and the earlier movement among Roman Catholics that included people like Henri De Lubac.

    I like your term “cul de sac” theologies, which is parallel to Hunsinger’s term “enclave.” A ray of hope for (theologically) conservative Anglicans (apart from the “continuing churches”) may be there are so many different cul de sacs (e.g., Anglo-Catholic vs. “truly” Evangelical vs. charismatic, “high church” vs. low church,” Prayer Book vs. unstructured, hymnal vs. “contemporary” worship, pro-WO vs. anti-WO) that they tend to cancel each other out and no single group can take over. At the same time this leads to so much squabbling that one wonders whether there is enough coherent identity for survival. For example, the self-identified Facebook page for the ACNA (my denomination) is such a “dumpster fire” that sane people avoid it altogether.

    At least part of my intention in giving this presentation (and writing this essay) was to encourage conservative Anglican “Evangelicals” to embrace a more self-critical ecumenical orthodoxy rather than to plant one’s flag behind historically partisan distinctives. The danger for orthodox Anglicans is not cul de sac theologies but disintegration via partisan “churchmanship” squabbles.

    Comment by William Witt — February 14, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

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