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THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 1 



GERALD BIRNEY SMITH 
University of Chicago 



The desire to conserve and to strengthen evangelical Christianity in our day is 
evidence of a vigorous religious life. This solicitude is greatly needed in the transition 
period through which we are passing. But there is danger that the real spirit of evan- 
gelicalism may be missed. 

In historical evangelicalism primary stress has been laid on the creation of a pro- 
found religious experience in the individual, rather than on the necessity of submitting 
to an authoritative system. Luther, Pietism, and the Methodist movement all 
represent this emphasis. We cannot point to a distinctive evangelical theology as 
differentiating evangelicalism from the types of Christianity which it opposed in 
Protestantism. 

The spirit of evangelicalism is the spirit of persuasive appeal rather than that of 
citing an authoritative system. Whenever heresy-hunting or theological disputation 
is foremost, the spirit of evangelicalism is in danger of being lost. Evangelical Chris- 
tianity may inspire a restatement of doctrine in our day. 



There is widespread concern today lest evangelical Chris- 
tianity may be weakened or lost. Serious discussions and 
controversies in Protestantism are being inspired by this con- 
cern. Charges are being made of a widespread apostasy from 
the evangelical faith, and Christians are being urged to make 
valiant battle against the forces which are alleged to be set in 
array against our precious inheritance. All who have at heart 
the welfare of religion in America recognize that evangeli- 
cal Christianity has been a most important creative spiritual 
power. To conserve and to strengthen it means to avail 
ourselves of the momentum of a type of religion which has 
commanded general love and devotion. 

But what is evangelical Christianity? It is currently 
denned in terms of certain theological doctrines; and it is 
assumed that, if these doctrines be kept intact, evangelical 
Christianity will be maintained in all its power. But even a 
casual survey reveals the fact that doctrinal tests tell us very 
little about the actual state of religious life. There are here 

1 An address given at the opening of the Divinity School of the University of 
Chicago, October 4, 1922. 

624 



THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 625 

and there churches standing rigidly for the doctrines declared 
to be " evangelical," which are nevertheless so pharisaical in 
their self-satisfaction, so marked by a willingness to criticize 
and condemn those who differ from them, that they seem largely 
to have lost the spirit of Jesus. Such churches are religiously 
unfruitful. There are others equally orthodox in doctrine 
which manifest a warm, persuasive, winsome spirit and are 
centers of genuine ministry to needy souls. The difference 
between the two is not due to doctrine. Again, there are some 
liberal churches which have become little more than esoteric 
clubs for the edification of a select group. But there are others 
in which a modernized interpretation of Christianity is the 
instrument of winning men to a devout consecration to Jesus 
Christ, and of building up a self-giving missonary spirit. To 
attempt to define evangelical Christianity by doctrinal tenets 
leads us only into confusion. 

And yet this is the way in which the definition is usually 
made. Even so broad-minded a man as Garvie defines evan- 
gelicalism as "the mode of Christian thought in which emphasis 
is laid on salvation from sin by man's faith in God's grace 
through the sacrifice of Christ." As if evangelicalism were a 
"mode of thought"! The inadequacy of this definition is 
immediately betrayed by Garvie when he continues: 

It is not committed to one plan of salvation or one theory of the 
Atonement; but may change and adapt its presentation of what to it is 
central in Christianity to the changing conditions and forms of thought. 
It should no more be bound in the fetters of its past than should "pure 
and undefiled religion" be discredited by the corruption or superstitions 
of savages, or modern astronomy by ancient astrology, even though the 
evangelicalism of the past, however defective it may appear to us now, 
was relative to the thought and life of its age, satisfying and efficient 
for goodness and godliness to many of the best men and women. 1 

If, as Garvie insists, the doctrinal content of evangelicalism 
must change with the general changes of thought, it is futile to 
define it in terms of doctrine. 

1 Garvie, The Evangelical Type of Theology, p. 47. 



626 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

A historical understanding of the development of this type 
of Christianity will throw light on certain aspects which 
doctrinal tests fail to reveal. The spirit of evangelical Chris- 
tianity is quite as important as is its theology. 

It is now generally recognized that the central emphasis in 
Luther's interpretation of Christianity was on the necessity 
for a genuine personal experience of religion. In the place of 
the word of the priest, absolving the sinner, Luther insisted on 
an experience of personal assurance of forgiveness. This 
emphasis has far-reaching consequences. If, as in the Catholic 
church, the most important thing is the authoritative word of a 
priest of the church, supreme stress will be laid upon the 
formal authority of the priest who pronounces the word of 
absolution, and the formal authority of the system which the 
priest officially administers. In Catholicism the all-important 
concept is that of authority. The Catholic justifies his beliefs 
and his official acts by an appeal to an original divine appoint- 
ment. Christianity exists as a system of doctrines and rites 
carrying saving grace for all who will avail themselves of the 
divine provision. But the condition of salvation is submission 
to this authoritatively provided system. Salus extra ecclesiam 
non est. No one can be saved outside the church. 

The Lutheran emphasis on a personal experience leads 
religious thinking in a very different direction. The power 
of Christianity is to be proved by asking what it accomplishes 
in the inner fife of men rather than by asking whether it is 
authoritatively established. One of the most familiar expres- 
sions of this experimental testing of Christianity is Luther's 
famous statement in his Introduction to the New Testament, 
where he said: "Here is a true touchstone for testing all the 
books; the book which does not teach Christ is not apostolic, 
were St. Peter or St. Paul its author. On the other hand the 
book which preaches Christ is apostolic, were its author Judas, 
Annas, Pilate, or Herod." In other words, the content which 
may be experienced is more important than the official character 



THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 627 

of the writer of the book. Consistently with this conception of 
religion Luther abolished the distinction between clergy and 
laity. There are no officially distinct administrators of Chris- 
tianity upon whom all others must be dependent. A person's 
capacity to help others depends on the depth of his own 
experience, not on a special endowment of ordaining grace. In 
repudiating the conception of an authoritative church Luther 
logically appealed to the test of a living experience as supreme 
over claims of official appointment. 

But the Protestant movement was compelled to defend 
itself. And the defense required both by the Roman church 
and by the current apologetics of the time was along the lines 
made familiar by centuries of Catholic theology. It was 
assumed that the sole valid form of Christianity is that officially 
established by Christ. Protestantism, in order to justify 
itself before the opinion of the world, was compelled to prove 
that Catholicism was a perversion of the original intent of 
Christ, while the evangelical form of Christianity was the 
type instituted by him. The appeal was more and more 
made to the authority of an original institution rather than to 
the evidence of a profounder religious life. Not that the latter 
was ignored. It was constantly stressed. But it was never 
permitted to take the first place in apologetics. 

One consequence of this retention of the essentially Catholic 
theological method was the development of bitter doctrinal 
disputes between different branches of Protestantism. If 
there is only one authorized form of Christianity, each group in 
Christendom will, of course, seek to show that it alone holds 
the divine commission. Those who differ from it in doctrine 
or in polity must be denounced because they are seeking to 
operate with false credentials. A Protestant theologian has 
usually assumed that his main task was to prove the scriptural 
— that is the official — genuineness of the doctrines and polity 
held by his denomination. Such a method relegates the testi- 
mony of religious experience to a minor place. 



628 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

The logical outcome of an appeal to authority is the employ- 
ment of coercion against those who will not submit. Catholi- 
cism, with its practice of coercitive discipline, was entirely 
consistent here. Early Protestantism saw no objection to the 
use of coercion. Heretics or dissenters were subjected to 
imprisonment, torture, and even death. Authority simply 
must be recognized. To permit authority to be defied would 
be to give up authority entirely. Dissent must be treated as 
sin. The inner convictions of men must yield to the outer 
demands of the system. If actual coercion becomes impos- 
sible, dogmatic denunciations express the same spirit. 

What is historically known as the evangelical movement in 
Protestantism — that awakening which manifested such power 
in the eighteenth century, and which has largely shaped our 
American Christianity — represents a different spirit. If we 
consider this movement in the Pietism of the Continent, 
the great Wesleyan revival, and the Great Awakening in 
America, we find that attention was given primarily to the 
creation of a profound religious experience. A characteristic 
feature of the pietistic revival under the guidance of Spener 
was the formation of what were called ecclesiolae in ecclesia — 
the organization of little voluntary groups of earnest Chris- 
tians within the larger formal membership of the church, 
which met for devotional reading of the Bible and for mutual 
edification through testimony and prayer. The Bible was to 
be used to create religious life and love in the individual, instead 
of being regarded as an arsenal of weapons to be employed 
against heretics and nonconformists. The non-religious char- 
acter of the elaborate theologies formulated by the traditional 
Protestant theologians was frankly recognized by the Pietists. 
One of them, on being inducted into a chair in the theological 
faculty of a university, is said to have declared that, while it 
was usually assumed that the duty of a theological professor 
is to take the Christian students who come to him and make 
theologians out of them, he intended to reverse the process. He 



THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 629 

expected to take the young theologians who came to him and 
attempt to make Christians out of them. 

Pietism, the Moravian Brethren, and the Wesleyan move- 
ment are all remarkable for their freedom from attempts to 
Christianize the world by compelling subjection to an official 
system. Persecutions and theological denunciations were 
largely left to the representatives of the established churches. 
For these evangelicals the all-important thing was to deepen 
religious experience in professed Christians, in order that the 
spiritual power of such lives might overflow in evangelical and 
missionary endeavor. Mrs. Jonathan Edwards wrote in 1740 
concerning the preaching of Whitefield: "He makes less of 
the doctrines than our American preachers generally do, and 
aims more at affecting the heart." 

It is, of course, true that the great preachers in the evan- 
gelical revival used doctrines already affirmed by Protestant 
orthodoxy, and that they insisted on the necessity of these 
doctrines in opposition to rationalistic theories. This fact has 
led to the common impression that the heart of evangelical 
Christianity is found in the insistence on certain crucial doc- 
trines. The " evangelical test " employed in our modern Chris- 
tianity is primarily doctrinal. But these doctrines alone do 
not distinguish the evangelical movement from the formal 
orthodoxy which evangelicalism condemned for its religious 
impotence. So far as these doctrines were concerned, they 
were taken for granted by Christians generally. What the 
evangelicals desired was not a peculiar theological system, but a 
deepening of the religious life on the basis of doctrines already 
accepted as true. The aim of evangelical preaching was to 
secure a personal experience of salvation in which the doctrines 
should become something more than mere intellectual affirma- 
tions. 

In this connection it is significant that the organization of 
distinctively evangelical groups of Christians was almost 
entirely free from attempts to prove that the evangelical 



630 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

group was the sole authoritative church. Pietism never sought 
to become a new church. It was a movement for the deepening 
of the religious life within the existing church. Count Zinzen- 
dorf was concerned for the cultivation of a warm personal expe- 
rience of intimate spiritual fellowship with Christ, and had no 
wish to found a new sect which should enter into rivalry with 
other sects. The Methodist movement would have remained 
within the Anglican church if the Anglicanism of the day 
had been sufficiently elastic to permit the free expression of 
unconventional religious activities. The Methodist denomina- 
tion has never put doctrinal tests first, but has always been 
looking for a deepened religious experience as the primary 
thing. Methodism has no "distinctive doctrines." It stands 
rather for a more profound religious experience of truths which 
are already presupposed. 

In short, the religious power of evangelical Christianity is 
to be found in its inner spirit rather than in any particular 
system of doctrines. Theologically, in the eighteenth century, 
Christendom was divided into the Calvinistic and the Arminian 
bodies. But in the evangelical movement we find Calvinists 
and Arminians equally zealous and equally successful. Who 
would seek to do justice to Whitefield by calling attention to his 
Calvinism, and to Wesley by emphasizing his Arminianism? 
The common evangelicalism of these great preachers is far more 
important than their doctrinal divergences. 

The evangelical movement was primarily concerned to cre- 
ate in each individual an experience of salvation which should 
generate love and devotion. Evangelicalism did not rely on 
the heavy hand of authority with its penalties and discipline. 
It sought rather to win the affections of men so that they 
should voluntarily give themselves to the cause of Christ. 
Instead of elaborating arguments to prove that Christ had com- 
mitted the keys to some one ecclesiastical body, evangelicalism 
sought to present the message of salvation so persuasively that 
men would gladly trust in the saving grace of God in Christ. 



THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 631 

Instead of setting up a new sect with claims of authoritative 
doctrine, evangelicalism sought to deepen the religious life in 
all the various branches of Christendom, using doctrines already 
taken for granted, and seeking to bring about a real personal 
experience of the meaning of these doctrines. Instead of being 
polemic, as were the formal sects of Protestantism, evangelical- 
ism was irenic, interdenominational, democratic. If distinc- 
tive evangelical bodies were formed, it was usually because of 
the intolerance of a parent body rather than because of the 
desires of the evangelicals themselves. The spirit of evangelical- 
ism is the spirit of loving persuasion in contrast to the spirit of 
a Christianity which exalts the idea of formal authority and 
proposes to penalize dissenters. Its motto might be expressed 
in the words, "Win the world to Christ," while the churches 
basing their claims on an authoritative foundation would say, 
" Conquer the world in the name of Christ." It is no accident 
that, while the standard churches were still disputing over 
questions of doctrine and polity, evangelicalism first made 
prominent the missionary enterprise. 

If the analysis here given be correct, it throws light on the 
task of evangelical Christianity today. If it be true that 
evangelicalism represents an emphasis on a genuine and pro- 
found Christian experience rather than a reliance on a doctrinal 
system, the vitality of evangelical Christianity cannot be pre- 
served by doctrinal disputations. Those who today are laying 
primary stress on the acceptance of specific doctrines, regard- 
less of what happens to the inner life of men, are being led 
thereby to revert to the ideals and practices of the formal ortho- 
doxy whose religious barrenness provoked the evangelical 
protest. We see reappearing all that apparatus of heresy- 
hunting which marked Christianity when the Roman Catholic 
spirit dominated the whole Christian world and the church 
was primarily concerned with rival claims of authority. In an 
age which is manifesting a deep longing for the union of Chris- 
tian forces, and which is more and more ready to judge men 



632 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

by their ways of living rather than on the basis of theology, 
we find the advocates of a doctrinally defined evangelicalism 
introducing division and urging Christians to line up in hostile 
camps. The attempt to preserve unchanged the doctrines 
with which evangelicalism operated so successfully in former 
centuries leads to formidable difficulties in an age when modes 
of thought and feeling have markedly changed. We ought 
clearly to recognize that when primary emphasis is laid on 
doctrinal conformity, even though the doctrines in question be 
precisely those which were affirmed by the earlier representa- 
tives of evangelicalism, men are in danger of losing the spirit 
of evangelicalism in the endeavor to save the outward form. 

But if the strength of evangelical Christianity depends on 
persuasive appeal, there are one or two conditions which may 
well command our thoughtful attention. The great evangelical 
preachers in the past invited those whom they addressed to 
share with them a precious privilege. The experience of 
fellowship with God was something so real and so far-reaching 
in its consequences that they stood before their fellow-men 
conscious of possessing an inestimable spiritual treasure which 
they wished to share. No one can be a representative of 
evangelical Christianity unless religion is a precious personal 
possession. 

It is in this connection that the hostility of evangelicalism 
to rationalism is to be understood. When the study of religion 
is primarily an intellectual pursuit, religion tends to lose its 
spiritual power. It more and more comes to be a form of 
philosophy to be contemplated with academic calm. But 
the religion which the evangelical knows is a revolutionary 
upheaval of the soul. A man discovers within himself a new 
self, strangely and awfully related to God. The new self dares 
to repudiate the comfort-seeking conventions of superficial 
human nature, and to consecrate itself to vast spiritual enter- 
prises. For it relies no longer on the timid counsels of con- 
ventional prudence, but is strong with the courage inspired 



THE SPIRIT OF EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY 633 

by the consciousness that God works within the man of faith 
both to will and to do. It is the personal discovery that 
religion is a creative power in the inmost citadel of the heart 
that admits one to the fellowship of evangelical Christians. 

But if the secret of evangelical power is to be found in a 
personal religious experience, which both humbles a man with 
a sense of his unworthiness in the presence of God and at 
the same time creates in him a faith which dares to aspire and 
to sacrifice, we need to heed a fact often overlooked. So pro- 
found an experience is possible only on the basis of an absolute 
honesty. It is here that the devotees of doctrinal regularity are 
blind to certain factors indispensable to Christian experience. 

Several years ago George Kennan wrote of a winter's experi- 
ence which he had in Jerry Macauley's mission in New York 
City. He told how one evening two young men from a 
respectable church came to the mission and testified in a 
perfectly correct fashion, using all the phrases dear to evan- 
gelistic fervor. But in the atmosphere of that prayer meeting 
the phrases somehow did not ring true. As soon as the 
testimonies had been given, Jerry Macauley quietly rose and 
said: "If you want to get religion and follow Christ, feel 
honestly and speak the truth. God hates shams." Kennan 
remarked that immediately everybody seemed to breathe 
more freely, as if the rebuke had cleared the whole spiritual 
atmosphere. Here was a noted evangelist who clearly saw that 
inner honesty was of more importance than doctrinal correct- 
ness. We are reminded of Jesus' condemnation of hypocrisy. 

"God hates shams." In the acceptance of the specific 
doctrines concerning the Bible and concerning the work of 
Christ which marked the work of the eighteenth-century 
evangelists there was no suggestion of sham. These men 
believed with all their heart in the truth of that which they 
professed. Moreover, they could assume on the part of their 
hearers an equally honest acceptance of these doctrines. They 
could be single-minded and therefore thoroughly consecrated. 



634 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

There are noble and devout souls today who can repeat with- 
out any misgivings the creeds of a century and a half ago. We 
all know such whose purity of life and whose consecration to 
Christ make us feel very humble in their presence. 

But there are others who have been led by their conscien- 
tious study of the facts to conceive the world and its laws, the 
nature of man and his relation to God, in terms consonant with 
our modern science and our modern social outlook. If God 
hates shams, what does a religious experience require on the 
part of these modern seekers after the truth ? What does the 
spirit of evangelicalism suggest? Evidently that the aim of 
religion should be to deepen the experience of the spiritual 
realities implied in doctrines which are honestly accepted as true. 
That revised doctrines are capable of sustaining a humble and 
prayerful relation to God, a vital consecration to Jesus Christ, 
a growing sense of unity with the creative presence of the Divine 
Spirit within us, and a glad devotion to the Kingdom of God is 
an undeniable fact. It is equally true that in the hands of 
an irreligious spirit these revised doctrines may be turned into 
occasions for theological strife. Those who are honestly con- 
vinced that the revised theological conceptions so current in 
our schools of higher learning today are true should be on their 
guard lest they stop with mere intellectual assent. For a new 
theology is just as capable of religious barrenness as was the 
formal orthodoxy which evangelicalism contronted. The evan- 
gelical spirit will seek to interpret theology, whether old or new, 
as the expression of so profound and persuasive an experience of 
fellowship with God that Christianity shall be brought to the 
attention of men, not as a formal system, but as a Christlike way 
of living. Those who know the power and the joy of this way 
of life are the real representatives of evangelical Christianity.