Friday, 30 April 2010


(This piece originally appeared on the recently terminated Dunedin School blog.)

Kevin Ward offers some intriguing thoughts on that peculiar beast known as “evangelicalism” in the August 09 issue of Stimulus. A generation or two ago Harold Lindsell, editor of Christianity Today, bemoaned the watering down of the “e-word” in The Battle for The Bible, and proposed that the righteous of the land abandon the term in favour of the “f-word” (fundamentalist.) Ward comes at it from the other direction: the “e-word” has been hopelessly contaminated by the “f” crowd. Time to concede the rout and stage a hasty strategic retreat. From henceforth the more thoughtful members of the “e” crowd might consider hoisting the letter “o” aloft. Let us be “orthodox”!

Dr Ward makes an interesting case, with a strong historical perspective on the scene in Aotearoa/NZ. Alas, those of us who are not part of the Borg Collective – made up of Anglo-Reformed Protestants and their cognate groups – may feel sidelined by the argument. Although as a third generation Kiwi, and being familiar with the Borg mantra that “resistance is futile,” I still have too many Danish and German genetic markers to graciously cede the “e-word” to the dominant Anglo usage.

Between them Wesley and Edwards represent two faces of a new movement of revival, which has borrowed a label from the Lutheranism of the Reformation and calls itself Evangelical.

Diarmaid MacCullough

Some years ago I was vacating a school-house in a small Taranaki town, ready to move to Wellington. The new tenant-teacher and his wife stopped by to check it out. She spied The Evangelical Catechism on the bookshelf and enthused: “Oh, I do approve!” Little did she suspect (nor was I about to tell her) that the esteemed volume was the American edition of the Evangelischer Gemeindekatechismus. Neither Billy nor Franklin would, I imagine, have recognised it as expressing their belief-system. The European usage tends to value the evangelical (ie. evangel/proclamation-centred) over against what are really biblicist (bible-centred) and tradition-centred approaches.

Hence Bultmann was actually a better evangelical by far than Lindsell.

Dr Ward makes no reference to the prior use of the “e-word” before it was applied by Wesley to a pietistic form of Christianity, and ultimately mutated across in mutilated form into Reformed and Anglo usage. The rest is history. Today this kind of Anglo-centrism is often taken for granted. A text on modern Christianity breezily acknowledges the way the “e-word” was used before it was mingled with Pietism and revivalism, then dismisses the former meaning as irrelevant. Really? Is this the theologian’s way of crooning “lie back and think of England”?

Having said that, maybe the “e-word” is indeed a lost cause for thoughtful Christians who genuinely identify with the positive progressive social values that were once associated with that label in the English-speaking world. Dr Ward asks “does a rose by any other name still smell the same?” Fair question, but if you start calling rhubarbs roses, where oh where will it all end?

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