The Question of Evangelical Identity

James Pedlar, Assistant Professor of Wesley Studies and Theology at Tyndale Seminary, arranged for the faculty to share in conversation over lunch today with visiting scholar Donald Dayton.  Dayton is a theologian who has done extensive work on the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions.  Two of his most well-known works are Discovering an Evangelical Heritage and Theological Roots of Pentecostalism.  The conversation centered on questions surrounding evangelical identity and narrating the history of evangelicalism.

Dayton began by acknowledging that he tends to avoid using the term “evangelical” because of the lack of conceptual clarity surrounding its usage.  The word evangelical can be employed in a variety of diverse ways.  For example, the term evangelical can be used to refer to those on the Protestant side of the Reformation, those associated with the 18th century revivals of Wesley and Whitefield, those emerging from the modernist-fundamentalist controversy in the United States in the 20th century, and now, to a political voting block casting its support behind Donald Trump.  The failure to distinguish between these different usages results in the conceptual confusion and incoherence surrounding the term that we experience today.

The bulk of the conversation revolved around Dayton’s controversial, but intriguing criticisms of the eminent evangelical historian George Marsden’s history of Fuller Seminary – Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.  Dayton suggested that by locating the emergence of Fuller Seminary in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and the founding of Westminster Seminary in its breaking away from Princeton, Marsden is unable to account for the multi-faceted reality of evangelicalism, in general, and the distinct ethos of Fuller, in particular.  In Marsden’s portrait, the Orthodox Presbyterian church and the figure of John Gresham Machen stand at the center of evangelicalism.  However, Dayton believes that we would be better able to understand the history of Fuller Seminary and the story of evangelicalism, if we were to instead consider A.B. Simpson, the Christian Missionary Alliance, and the fourfold gospel to stand at the center of the evangelical movement.  This move allows one to account for such realities as the fact that Campus Crusade for Christ, founded by Fuller student Bill Bright, distributed not only the tract “The Four Spiritual Laws,” but also “How You Can Be Filled with the Holy Spirit.”  An interesting thesis that seems to possess some explanatory power.


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