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Hi Ron:

You asked whether I could try to explain “how the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America can be considered evangelical while pointing out the distinctions between them and what the media broadly classifies as evangelical.”

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about this question for about fifty years, ever since I started working on my doctoral dissertation. In fact, the issue might have been a key reason that I chose the dissertation topic that I did. If the subject has become a bit old and tired in my head, it’s vital nonetheless, especially in light of what’s happened to — better: what’s become apparent about? — evangelicalism in recent years. So, once more into the breach, dear friend.

Like Caesar’s Gaul and the Heidelberg Catechism, my answer divides into three parts. I’ll treat the first today—differing concepts of salvation and their consequences. Next time I’ll turn to (2) differing concepts of time and history and (3) how many Dutch Reformed in the U.S. have come to swim happily in the evangelical pool.

Defining Evangelical

Some of the answer to your question depends on when you draw the comparison. Evangelicalism has evolved over the years as have the Dutch Reformed churches in North America. It also depends on which definition of “evangelical” you use, a matter that has been beaten to death and beyond.

Until recently the reigning definition among scholars is known as the Bebbington quadrilateral after the historian who coined it, David Bebbington of the University of Sterling in the UK. All evangelicals around the world, he posits, hold high the Bible as the key source of spiritual truth, the cross—that is, Christ’s atonement — as the central point in Christian theology, personal conversion as the key point in the believer’s life, and evangelistic activism — “witnessing” — as the central calling of that life. (“Witnessing” understood to include deeds as well as words, the walk as well as the talk.)

The CRC and RCA fit easily into this mold. After all, the three divisions of the Heidelberg Catechism as we learned it — “sin, salvation, service” — look close enough to Bebbington’s points 2-4, and as you suffered through advanced catechism with me under the tutelage of Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Reformed Doctrine, we got a full enough dose of bibliolatry to suffice on point 1 as well.

But the quadrilateral’s intent to cover evangelicalism in all times and places misses a lot of variations, the points that really distinguish the movement in a specific setting and the impulses that drive (as opposed to categories that can cover) its practice here and now. This is particularly true for what the media understand as evangelicalism in the United States, i.e., white American evangelicalism. Here, it seems to me, the concern of the Catechism’s second section—“salvation”—dominates the stage. For whom or what is salvation and how does it occur?

Who’s Saved, and How?

For American evangelicalism, I am saved, ideally in a nameable, datable “born again” experience. Born again, after all, was the label that the media slapped on evangelicals when they popped back up into public view in the 1970s. Those who claimed that experience back in our youth, you’ll remember, would typically express it as having “accepted Jesus Christ as my own personal savior.” (The phrase, when slurred together in a rush, makes up one of antidisestablishmentarianism’s chief rivals for the longest word in the English language.) Bluntly put, if you haven’t born again, you’re not a real Christian. It’s the central point in your life (Bebbington 2 & 3 above), the moment to which you should periodically return for a spiritual check-up.

You’re also to talk about it at the drop of a hat, a practice known as “sharing” (also “just sharing”) your “personal testimony.”

This is decidedly not the world you and I grew up in. We’re earnest enough Christians, trying to live a righteous life, still working on our salvation with fear and trembling. What makes the model I just described such a foreign country? For me it’s that CRC kids were reared on Heidelberg Q/A 1, taught that “we belong” to our faithful savior Jesus Christ, not that we choose him or implicitly own him. My father, one of your teachers, said that Calvinists start with God, Evangelicals start with man. The latter might retort that the Dutch Reformed recite such inherited formulas without taking them to heart. Doubtless, some do. So on the downside, choose your poison: formalism or narcissism?

Communal vs. Individual

Dutch Reformed folks have also traditionally had a strong communal sense. “Us,” not “me.” Yes, it is the Holy Spirit that works regeneration in the heart, but she does so typically through the nurturing ministrations of the church. Thus the church makes believers rather than believers making up the church by individual free choice. This can create the syndrome of the smug and unexamined heart, but it also opens a blessed alternative to the “harmful emotional and spiritual yo-yo” that Kathryn Vilela caught so poignantly in this space last week when recounting her struggle with evangelicalism’s prescribed path to salvation.

Kathryn’s account bears re-reading for its capture of how evangelical habits and formulas can feel on the ground. It is also a remarkably close duplicate to accounts left by three eminent daughters of 19th-century American evangelicalism — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Phoebe Palmer, and Ellen Harmon White — regarding their painful struggle for the assurance of faith. They found their way to three very different refuges — Anglican sacramentalism, Wesleyan holiness, and Seventh-Day Adventism, respectively — but refuges these were. In its own way Dutch Reformed spirituality fits in the same class.

Revival vs. Covenant

One more point on the how of salvation before we get back to who or what are saved. Dutch Reformed folks have understood salvation under the arc of the covenant; Evangelicalism works by revivals. On the upside, this moves beyond the tribalism to which covenant notions can be turned; on the downside, it can devolve into marketing hustle. The business reference here is intentional — evangelicalism’s God works wholesale, not retail, much less in spiritual boutiques like the RCA and CRC. God who has worked a mighty change in me is poised to make a mighty change in many, in so many that the church will be awakened from its slumber and a flood of salvation unleashed all around the world.

Hence the evangelical hall of fame: on the home front, the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, St. Billy Graham; on “the foreign field,” as we called it back in the day, heroic missionaries from Adoniram and Ann Judson to the Auca martyrs. Hence also the evangelical knack for readily adopting new communications media, from the circuit rider to radio to TV, and the hot new venue, from Billy Sunday’s vaudeville hall to Billy Graham’s breakout at Yankee Stadium. Hence also their eager adoption of praise and worship music from its arena-rock model to its intent to move the emotions, now.

This is certainly not the pattern of three hymns, 30-minute sermon, “long prayer,” and two peppermints on which we were raised. Dutch Reformed folks have traditionally been more than a little suspicious of the manipulations, cult of personality, flash and faddishness that come on the revival trail. Revivals leave shallow roots, they observe, unstable faith, a hunger for the next high and the concomitant plague of low valleys. They lack dignity. To which evangelicals can aptly reply — at least they get people out of their seats! They press home the essential questions of faith. They melt the frozen chosen. Again, friend, take your pick.

John 3:16

Back then, finally, to who or what are “saved.” Abraham Kuyper was particularly strong here. His exact contemporary, Dwight Moody, famously said that the world is a sinking ocean liner and the church a lifeboat to rescue as many victims as it could. Kuyper profoundly disagreed: “the world now, as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation here on earth a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God.” (Lectures on Calvinism, 162)

Put more broadly, God is not just saving individuals from hellfire but is in the business of redeeming the whole world, the entire cosmos, from the blight of the fall. The “saved” at the end of time will populate the new earth, but in the meantime they are to witness to that coming kingdom in every domain of human life, here and now. We are means, not the end; agents, not the goal.

There’s risk of terrible pride here, but also a mandate for great humility, for purpose, for praise and joy. I think that’s what we remember from our CRC childhoods. We’ll see next time what’s become of it.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

22 Comments

  • Sheryl Smalligan says:

    Helpful, Jim. Thanks. Where does Fundamentalism fit into all this? I’ve always thought “evangelicalism” to be the broader umbrella term under which both Fundamentalism and Reformed-ism sheltered. I look forward to your next pieces.

    • Jim says:

      More next time, Sheryl, but a capsule answer for now. “Evangelicals” (or “New/Neo-Evangelicals”) as they emerged in the 1970s wanted to leave behind Fundamentalism’s narrow judgmental ways and engage respectfully with contemporary culture. But with the rise of the Moral Majority etc., unreconstructed Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell kidnapped the label and poured much Evangelical water back into Fundamentalist molds. The big Con job that has worked all too well.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you, Jim. A simple emailed request results in a scholarly three-parter the first of which is so thought-provoking that I’ve already finished one of my peppermints. I will reload for parts two and three.

    I greatly appreciate your work because I don’t want to deny my evangelical roots. Still, I am uncomfortable being packaged with the evangelicals who put border policies before Biblical principles and American interests above God’s.

    I look forward to parts two and three.

  • Ken Kuipers says:

    I find this article timely and very helpful in what has happened to the church I grew up in and love for faithfully passing along the faith to me. We too have been “Americanized” to our own great loss as well as a loss to the world and the work of the kingdom. I have always felt that the reformed faith kept the great themes of scripture or creation, fall, redemption/restoration and culmination together as one story. As soon as one treats redemption as a separate part by itself, it changes the whole message. Our redemption calls us back into the creation through vocation to join Christ in his great work of transformation. Unfortunately, we hear too little of this larger gospel story today.

  • Jeff says:

    I appreciate (and agree) your distinctions. Yet, I think the distinctions are often nuanced. I am curious as to how you would interpret the 1858 Awakening which is thought to have begun at a Dutch Reformed Church in New York City.

    • Jim says:

      this question is also for Daniel Meeter who will know the details better than I. But my understanding is that there were some in the RCA at the time quite comfortable with American Evangelicalism and wished to join its ventures. Then too the Fulton Street church was right next door to Wall Street which had just experienced the big crash of 1857. A convenient site, then, for comforting and converting those shaken into the sweet hour of prayer.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        Yes, it’s remarkable that the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA) was less touched, compared to the Presbyterians, and some Lutherans and German Reformed, by the New Measures, and didn’t split into New Side and Old Side ( or was it “New Light” at that moment?). I can only guess why this was the case, the research would be worth it. But the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting movement remained churchly, and never sought to replace Sunday worship, which in the Dutch Church at this time, remained the most liturgical of all the Calvinist churches, according to Baird. There were no manifestations at the Fulton Street meetings, it all remained very bourgeois. But what Jim refers to, those in the RCA who wished to join evangelicalism’s ventures, I am uncertain of, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The most famous Dutch evangelicals, like DeWitt Talmage, switched over to become Presbyterians.

  • Mary Huissen says:

    Wait, you got TWO peppermints? I was robbed!
    In seriousness, thanks so much for this. I’m looking forward to the next installments.

  • RZ says:

    Yes! So wisely laid out historically. I am so thankful for this blog and its role in encouraging all of us to stretch our faith perspectives!. For a good hour this morning I wrote out my own confessional catharsis in response. Then, as often happens, I decided to file it, not send it. I so wish, though, that every church group would engage in discussing evangelicalism, being saved, personal salvation, witnessing, platform theology, etc.

    Last night I heard a brilliant young Native American HS senior express her thanks for a Christian education that allowed, even encouraged, her to explore both her native traditions and the Christian tradition. Her faith was enhanced, not diminished. My takeaway: If I expect others to consider my witness, I must convey a mutual respect for theirs. Was this not how Jesus taught? I cannot say I was ever converted but I have been and continue to be transformed. To put it another way, I was “saved” about 2000 years ago. Then again, maybe it occurred at the time of creation as part of Plan A before plan B was introduced by theologians as the contingency plan.

  • Norm Steen says:

    This is terrifc! Thanks so much. I too have been wrestling for over 50 years now about what is “reformed” and just what is “evangelical” – though I am coming at the questions from the opposite direction. As a college student I quite consciously transferred from Westmont College and my home Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in southern California to Calvin College and the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. I wanted to learn more about reformed theology and a calvinistic world and life view. Of Bebbington’s quadrilateral, I have observed that reformed folk are very low-key at best about the witnessing part (understood as “sharing” your faith with others); and also the emphasis on a personal conversion experience. Regarding a reluctance to witness, that comes from a laudable human sensibility: do my nonchristian acquaintances want to know about me and my faith. Or to put it in the words of a CRC missionary to native Americans in the Southwest: “You can’t sell a person a hamburger if they are not hungry.” But I also suspect that the doctrine of predestination looms in the background here. I’ll be looking forward to the next couple of articles. And thanks again.

    • Jim says:

      Not sure about the role of predestination here. I sense tribalism to be more at work–also perhaps Dutch (choose one) non-demonstrative character or respect for other people’s space. Or maybe it’s implicit compliance w/ St Francis’s dictum: ‘Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.’ That is, observers will be compelled by our walk, not our talk. Which brings the quality of our walk/actions right into the crosshairs, yes?

  • Jim Payton says:

    I enjoyed this presentation of the differences — with that, the first picture in this article brought back what came up in my oral examination for a Th.M. degree at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (unquestionably, a staunchly Reformed institution), way back in 1975. Part way through the exam, one of the Church historians (with whom I had taken several courses and knew he had a great sense of humor), asked, “What is a New Evangelical?” I shot back, “A guy wearing a leisure suit and carrying an NIV!” — He snorted and laughed … and I passed.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    You had me at the blue Psalter Hymnal and kept me with your query…something I’ve thought a lot about over the years.

    I attended a very evangelical, Pentecostal Bible camp as a junior high student. They insisted that I needed to have a date to validate my conversion. I really struggled with this….I countered with Timothy and the fact that I was born into a family of the covenant, that I couldn’t remember NOT being saved. Yet they persisted. I gave the date earlier that week when an altar call had taken place, and they wholeheartedly rejoiced with this sinner being brought into the fold. I felt as if I had just committed a fraudulent bait and switch.

    Then they messed me up with the Rapture and the Lake of Fire….but that is a different story.

    • Eileen says:

      I went to DVBS at a Bible church once. Every child was pulled off to speak to the pastor. “Are you saved? Me: Yes I am saved. PAstor: ” When were you saved?” Me:I grew up in a Christian home, school and church and have never not been saved. Pastor: “NAme a time and date” Me: I cannot do that because I grew up Christian. Pastor: “Then you are not saved. If you cannot name a time and date you are not saved. You will go to hell.” Needless to say I never went back to that DVBS.

    • Jim says:

      Yup, that’s my topic next time. But the irony–and cost to you–of having to dissemble in the name of qualifying for true faith!

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks, JB. I greatly look forward to Chapter 2.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think what draws me (and others) to Catholicism, high church Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, is that all these branches of Christianity are about God–God’s holiness, God’s beauty, God’s love, God’s story, God’s message, God’s kingdom. By contrast, Evangelicalism is all about me and my experience, that my decision somehow controls God’s goodness in my life. So God ends up being the great spiritual Con Edison that I control at my electric meter. I worship frequently at a local Anglican monastery, because there is so much of God, God, God there. It fulfills Westminster 1: to glorify God and enjoy God. So much scripture, patiently and clearly read and contemplated (never “proved” or “defended”), so much prayer calmly and quietly shared, such matter-of-fact self-awareness that is both humble and good-humored.

    • Jim says:

      Yes, i’ve come to snort at evangelical (and classic CRC) dismissals of things being ‘mere ritual.’ It’s the ritual that receives us, that bears us up, that’s God’s gift to us, to which we respond in faith and joy. A ‘conversion’ moment came for me when I read of Calvin’s teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper–a real presence, be it spiritual rather than trans/consubstantiated–over against the Zwinglian desiccation upon which I had been raised. That now looks, so ironically, to be a consummate exercise in salvation by works: it’s the mood, thought, disposition, I bring to the table that counts, not “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

  • Duncan MacLean says:

    In May 2022, we sat on the Mount of Olives gazing in awe at the holy city as we heard the shouts and bangs of the clearing of the Temple Mount / the square of the Dome of the Rock. We prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. Dominus Flevit. In that moment our leader spoke of God’s transformative healing of our world in contrast to an individualist reading of John 3:16. I wept. This morning, I felt Hebrews 12 beautifully addressed that tension. Your exploration of the underpinning theology that was implicit in our Reformed / Presbyterian upbringing opens eyes and hearts. I find it satisfying indeed. Thank you. I look forward to more.

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