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The current state of American evangelicalism

Is evangelicalism declining, maybe dying, or even dead? You don’t have to look around very long to find posts arguing precisely this. Most famously, Michael Spencer argued that This is the End……of Evangelicalism, my Friend and presaged The Coming Evangelical Collapse in a series of posts that sparked considerable discussion.  Many other authors have presented similar ideas while prophesying the end of evangelicalism.

Before commenting further it’s worth noting that we’re only talking about American evangelicalism here. Our international brethren must find it very frustrating when we critique evangelicalism as though American evangelicalism were its only expressions. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we need to recognize that evangelicalism is a much broader and more diverse movement than we often recognize.

But, despite these claims of evangelicalism’s untimely demise, others beg to differ. In a recent First Things article, Byron Johnson argues that American evangelicalism is alive and well. His basic argument involves the following two basic claims:

  • American evangelicalism is not declining despite statistical evidence to the contrary. His basic argument here has to do with the failure of recent surveys to account for several key realities: (1) nondenominational church members are largely evangelical but often represent themselves as “unaffiliated” or even as having “no religion” (which raises its own issues); (2) evangelical denominations grew 156% from 1960 to 2000; and (3) self-reported atheists still account for only 4% of the population.
  • American evangelicals are not becoming social liberals. In fact, Johnson argues that younger evangelicals are often more conservatives than previous evangelicals and their non-evangelical counterparts.

Johnson thus concludes:

Leading religious observers claim that evangelicalism is shrinking and the next generation of evangelicals is becoming less religious and more secular, but (as we social scientists like to say) these are empirical questions, and the evidence shows that neither of these claims is true. The number of evangelicals remains high, and their percentage among practicing Christians in America is, if anything, rising. Young evangelicals are not turning to more liberal positions on controversial social issues; in some cases they are becoming more conservative than their parents. Perhaps young evangelicals have become more socially aware and have a longer, broader list of social concerns, but they remain socially conservative.

As with most things, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between. The facade of American evangelicalism has developed a number of cracks in recent years, cracks that threaten to widen and permanently scar evangelicalism in years to come. At the same time, American evangelicalism retains a degree of vitality seldom recognized by its critics. I don’t know for sure what the future holds, but it should be interesting.

The Hermeneutical Dilemma

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

I was happily finishing our week’s reading, relieved I was almost through, when I was taken aback by this quizzical statement:

A more recent philosophical development of theological interest, hermeneutics…

I stop the quote here not because there is not important information to follow but because this is where I dropped my book. Could it be!?! I asked myself, apparently aloud for my study partner raised his head. I gave him that snide look that says, That was not for you; get back into your reading, before continuing my reverie. Could it be!?! this time I asked in silence, has the purity of our biblical studies been tainted by this vile beast of philosophy at its very source. Subtle monster. Again, I must have spoken this last bit aloud for my study buddy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes did not rise from his book.

I took a breath and continued. “…hermeneutics, actually has its source in a theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).” This statement on page 203 of Allen and Springsted’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, Second Edition (creative citation) held my attention for some time as I sought several ways to dismiss it without serious thought. After feeling I had succeeded I continued on and finished the book certain I had escaped the shameful conclusion that our interpretations of Scripture are informed by, based on, or are in any way influenced by this insurrectional specter otherwise known as philosophy.

Alas, at night my thoughts held me captive and the name of a German theologian tormented my waking dreams: Schleiermacher.

Morning came. After discussing the origins of liberal theology with my wife over our morning tea, at her behest, (gosh, I need to learn to keep these inner thoughts to myself!) I waved goodbye, as she set off for work, and sat down to consider my day’s labor. How could I overcome my fears of this encroaching philosophy? Forgetfulness had failed; it must be faced head on. I decided to study the man himself.

Apart from his reputation bestowed by future generations as the Father of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher was a masterful translator, if not a mediocre philosopher. His translations of Plato’s works were highly influential for a century after his death and are still considered quite good.

Philosophically, Schleiermacher believed that there are deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people. He also believed that thought was bounded by (even identical to?) word usage. Taken together these two concepts declare that every individual has a vocabulary that, while heavily informed by their culture and time, is in fact unique to themselves – as unique as their own minds. This makes absolute (and sometimes basic) understanding between any two people challenging, and this challenge is only exacerbated by distance in time and culture. Consequently, the task of the interpreter is to get into the culture and ultimately into the mind of the writer, to learn the language the way it was used at that time and particularly the way it was used by that writer. Understanding is not a given, it is a challenge, and hermeneutics was developed to deal with that challenge. (For more about Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Schleiermacher:  . Similar concepts are discussed from different vantage points concerning different individuals in Philosophy for Understanding Theology, p203 ff.)

After reading the principles of interpretation as described by Schleiermacher I was stunned… they seemed so similar to my own. And yet, his work was considered ground breaking for its time (even if he was only one of many at that time breaking ground). Could it be that my beloved historical-critical method was not lifted directly from the pages of Scripture but was actually birthed and laid at theology’s doorstep by that whore, philosophy? If so, it is already too late. I cannot disown her now; I love her too dearly. If I were to leave her on this account, who would take her place?

Whoa is me! What is the pure theologian to do?

[Correction: When this was first posted, I accidentally omitted the word “philosophical” from the opening quote. That has been corrected.]