No Longer Evangelical

This is the age of the “deconversion story.”  Variously named (deconstruction, reversion, apostasy, etc.), the deconversion story is essentially the tale of how someone loses faith over time and subsequently leaves their formal ecclesiastical communion (or church) for pastures new.  Many high profile people have recently released their Christian deconversion stories, typically recounting how their seemingly unshakable faith crumbled over time. One of the saddest, and probably most high profile, deconversion stories is that of Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  Details of his story can be found here.

I have my own deconversion story which I want to recount, though it is markedly different than most of the high profile cases you might find elsewhere.  The major difference, I suppose, is that my deconversion story is not my tale of leaving the Christian faith altogether, but rather my tale of leaving a particular version of the Christian faith (evangelicalism) and embracing a different version (Reformed).  This deconversion has almost everything to do with my growth theologically over the last several years since my conversion to Christianity. 

It’ll be helpful to define what I actually mean by “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” just so we’re all on the same page.  Enter Doug Sweeney: “Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist.”[1]  In other words, evangelicals are those Christians who adhere to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.”[2]  

Evangelicalism, then, is the name for the movement that comprises all those Christians whose theological forebears are the 16th century Protestant Reformers and whose pietistic forebears are the 18th century American revivalists.  Evangelicals confess, or at least have historically confessed, the same theology as the Reformers. And evangelicals “practice” their Christian faith in ways which are rooted in the Great Awakening of the 18th century. This two-fold description of evangelicalism (theology and practice) thus provides us with a helpful conceptual framework for understanding both evangelicalism, on the one hand, and why I’ve deconverted from evangelicalism, on the other.  

For almost my entire life, I have had something to do with evangelicalism.  I was raised in an evangelical church. I have a masters degree in theology from an evangelical seminary.  I’m currently a member of an evangelical church. I ministered as a youth guy at an evangelical church. I taught at an evangelical private school.  I worked at an evangelical summer camp. I have been to countless evangelical Bible studies and even led several myself.  

And in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t think everything in evangelicalism is bad.  Most evangelicals believe that Scripture is God’s infallible and inerrant Word, which ought to be commended.  Evangelicals also tend to emphasize the centrality of the gospel in the Christian life, especially the death of Christ on the cross, and because of this gospel-centrality they are motivated to missions and evangelism.  Each of these things is good, right, and biblical.  

Yet over the last several years I have felt great unease about evangelicalism as a whole and particularly about calling myself an evangelical.  The tipping point, it will come as no surprise, was the 2016 election in which Donald Trump was elected as the President of the United States. As one commentator put it, “the 2016 presidential election would become the most shattering experience for evangelicals since the Scopes Trial.”[3]  This is not the place to debate the merits or demerits of Trump and the Republican Party, but what I do want to point out here is that the 2016 election revealed that evangelicalism is no longer primarily characterized by the theology or practice of evangelicals.  Contemporary evangelicalism is primarily characterized by the politics of evangelicals.  

The 2016 election demonstrated, perhaps more clearly than any previous event, that evangelicalism had emptied itself of any semblance of theology, which many had been claiming for some time.  Mark Noll famously laments that “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”[4]  David Wells argues that “in the 1970s and 1980s, on every side and in almost every way, it was becoming clear that ways of doctrinal thinking were wearing very thin.  The capacity to think doctrinally was being lost . . . In many churches, the doctrinal form of Christian faith atrophied and then crumbled.”[5]

This doctrinal atrophy signals that contemporary evangelicalism has moved away from its historic theological roots.  And this must also be the primary signal for why I am moving away from contemporary evangelicalism. I resonate with the words of Mark Noll: “As one who is in love with the life of the mind but who has also been drawn to faith in Christ through the love of evangelical Protestants, I find myself in a situation where wounding is commonplace.”[6]  

Such wounding is a result of the reality that while Christianity is an intrinsically intellectual religion,[7] the evangelical version of Christianity has essentially jettisoned the life of the mind.  Thus Noll again: “the thought has occurred to me regularly over the past two decades that, at least in the United States, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual.”[8]  And so it is.  

Nevertheless my deconversion from evangelicalism is as much about the theological emptiness of evangelicalism as it is about my conversion to and wholehearted embrace of the Reformed tradition, complete with its theology, piety, and practice.[9]  Where in evangelicalism I found a general aversion to the life of the mind, I find in Reformed Christianity an entire tradition devoted to it.  Where in evangelicalism I found a slavish commitment to conservative politics, I find in Reformed Christianity a resolute commitment to Scripture and the ecumenical creeds of the historic church.  Where in evangelicalism I found a Christian tradition that seemed so . . . American, I find in Reformed Christianity a tradition that is robustly biblical, theological, and commendable.  

Of course, by “the Reformed tradition” I mean that historic Christian worldview, summarized by the Six Forms of Unity,[10] which sees the triune God as supreme over all things, according to His Word, the Bible.  With the seeds of Luther and the full flower of Calvin, the Reformed tradition began in the 16th century and continued to mature into the 17th and 18th centuries.  The doctrinal high watermark of the Reformed tradition is Reformed orthodoxy, a period of time in which Reformed churches and theologians offered extended philosophical treatises on every conceivable doctrine of the Christian faith.  While such reflections may be far away from the experience of most contemporary evangelicals, they were nevertheless merely a part of life in the Reformed churches during the 17th and 18th centuries.  

As an intellectual coming out of evangelicalism, I inhaled the Reformed tradition like a breath of fresh air.  David Buschart puts the matter plainly: “the life of the mind has always been highly regarded in the Reformed tradition.”[11]  Further, the Reformed tradition “insists that everyone should be a responsible theologian who can speak intelligibly about the faith.”[12]  Nevertheless, “doing theology is not an end in itself; it is to ‘result in godliness and the edification of the church’ . . . it serves by shaping the intellect, will, and emotion in such a way that they bring glory to God.”[13]

Practically speaking, my entrance into the Reformed tradition came via the so-called “five points of Calvinism,” the famous summary of Reformed soteriology in light of the errors of Arminianism.  And while I would eventually come to see that the Reformed tradition is much more than its distinctive soteriology, it is never less than that. Aptly put, “from beginning to end salvation is of God, and God is gracious from beginning to end.”[14]  

In the end, I was converted to the Reformed tradition because it provided me with a context in which to exercise my mind for the glory of God, resulting in both my own holiness and my desire to edify God’s church.  Another attraction is that the Reformed tradition is not confined to one geographical area or even to one historical moment. From the very beginning, Reformed theology, piety, and practice have transcended geographical and temporal boundaries.  The Reformation might have started in Germany, but it roared into France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the British Isles, and eventually even the United States.    

Thus, in many ways, my deconversion from contemporary evangelicalism is nothing more than my conversion to one of the major theological traditions of historic evangelicalism, in this case the Reformed tradition.  While over the course of its existence evangelicalism has had a sweeping impact upon the United States and upon me, it has nevertheless moved away from its historic theological roots. And with that move, it has also moved away from me.  Perhaps my deconversion story is more about evangelicalism’s deconversion from historic Reformed theology. However we cast it, one thing is certain: I am no longer evangelical.  

Thanks for reading. Have a comment or question? Leave it below.

Notes

[1]  Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 23-24.

[2]  Ibid., 24.

[3]  Tommy Kidd, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019). Accessed January 8, 2020 via https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/the-end-of-evangelical/598423/.

[4]  Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[5]  David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 15.  

[6]  Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, preface.

[7]  Jesus commands his followers to love God with all their minds (Matthew 22:37), and he calls this “the great and first commandment” (v. 38).  

[8]  Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, preface.  Noll continues to say that his book is nevertheless “not a letter of resignation from the evangelical movement.”

[9]  This useful taxonomy is taken from R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008).  

[10]  The Six Forms of Unity are the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  These documents together highlight the definitive character of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.  

[11]  W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 101.

[12]  John H. Leith, An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition: A Way of Being the Christian Community (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1981), 89.

[13]  W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions, 98.

[14]  Ibid., 112.

7 Comments

      1. I think most non-Reformed people start off with the assumption that God’s love, in order for it to be fair, must apply equally to everyone. That assumption simply isn’t biblical. God has always operated with a sovereign love, choosing Noah but not the pagans, Abraham and Israel but not the nations, and (later) the church but not the unbelieving world.

        Liked by 1 person

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