Defining the term evangelical is a tricky thing nowadays. In the sixteenth century, the word (from “evangel,” meaning gospel) referred to embracement of the core doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. But today it is a loose and slippery term for a very broad and unwieldy subculture. Theologically, modern evangelicals are all over the map. According to Ted Haggert, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals, evangelicalism includes in its theological spectrum everyone from R. C. Sproul to Benny Hinn. Yet the political and ethical spectrum for evangelicals tends to be very narrow. The result is a politically conservative movement that finds it easy to express sentiments about personal experience and practice, but hard to define orthodoxy. When it comes to talking about your “walk with the Lord” or how we should vote, evangelicals tend to be united in their speech and convictions. But when it comes to doctrine, they aren’t so sure about what they believe or why they believe it.
Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day is an attempt by a group of young evangelical pastors and writers to address this problem. Editor Kevin DeYoung musters some of the leading lights of the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” camp in hopes of helping evangelicals find their lost theological moorings. In addition to DeYoung, contributors include names such as Tim Callies, Collin Hansen, Justin Taylor, and Tullian Tchividjian. As the title suggests, the authors do not intend to introduce something novel. Rather, they try to articulate the key tenets of the historic Christian faith in a way that the next generation can firmly grasp. “This book has two main aims,” says DeYoung. The first is “to introduce young Christians, new Christians, and underdiscipled Christians to the most important articles of our faith and what it looks like to live out this faith in real life” (16). The second aim is “to reassert the theological nature of evangelicalism” (17). Although they lament that the term evangelical has lost its meaning in our day, the writers are nevertheless convinced that the term still has merit, “provided that it can be infused with theological meaning that manifests itself in some key ethical, social, and ecclesiastical stances and practices” (17).
The book has three parts: history, theology, and practice. The first part provides a historical sketch of the development of evangelicalism. Recognizing that evangelicalism is “a diverse movement with no official membership and no governing body that determines who’s in and who’s out” (33), author Collin Hansen identifies the major events and personalities that in his opinion unite the movement. Beginning with a brief glance at the ecumenical councils of the early church, the chapter jumps to the Reformation, mentioning the contributions of Luther and Calvin, and then to the Great Awakenings in America, highlighting Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield. Continuing his survey through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hansen includes Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals as belonging to the ranks of evangelicals. With such a wide range of significant doctrinal disagreements represented in one movement, this reader could not escape pondering the question, “What then is an evangelical?” Hansen gives us a definition in the chapter’s conclusion:
On the basis of the divinely inspired Word, evangelicals proclaim the good news that God justifies by faith alone those who believe in Jesus, whose atoning death and triumphant resurrection make it possible for sinners to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever you see cooperation around these core convictions of the gospel handed down through the centuries, you see the evangelical movement. (44)
The second part of Comeback devotes eight chapters on evangelical theology, covering (in order) the doctrines of God, Scripture, the gospel, regeneration, justification, sanctification, the kingdom of God, and Christ as the only way of salvation. The chapters hit on many critical doctrines: the Creator-creature distinction, the perfections of Scripture, human depravity, imputed righteousness, and the nature of faith, just to name a few.
The third part of the book focuses on evangelical practice. There are chapters on vocation, social justice, worship, and missions, but also chapters on specific ethical matters of great import to contemporary evangelicals: homosexuality, abortion, and gender confusion. Surprisingly, this section also contains a chapter on the church – a doctrine that Protestants historically have placed alongside the other “most important articles of our faith,” and not alongside ethics. Even more confusing is that the chapter attempts to explain what the local church is and why Christians need it, yet says almost nothing about the means of grace or church discipline.
Still, Comeback is an edifying read on the whole, exploring several central doctrines at a basic level by authors unafraid to be critical of their own movement. The chapters are short, well-written, and pastoral, and make efforts to show why these doctrines matter in the Christian life.
Where Comeback fails, however, is in its divorce from the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church and the confessions of the Protestant Reformation. The authors have either overlooked or dismissed the fact that the orthodoxy they want to affirm has already been defined by creeds and confessions hammered out in ecclesiastical assemblies and confessed by Protestant churches for centuries. Granted, DeYoung admits that the goal of Comeback is “not to say, ‘Believe this or else,’ or ‘Believe this and nothing else,’ but to say, ‘Here are the things that seem most essential and basic to the Christian faith in general and evangelical identity in particular.’” (17) But that only begs the question. Here are the things that seem most essential to whom? Who gets to say what is most essential? Instead of looking to the wisdom of the creeds and confessions which already prioritize the most essential doctrines in Christianity, DeYoung and his New Calvinism cohorts have decided for themselves which doctrines are the “most important articles of our faith.” Yet, the confessional Reformed Christian will immediately notice the absence of many things that the historic Christian church has found essential.
In the end, Comeback is yet another attempt to give evangelicalism an identity apart from the Protestant confessions from the Reformation. While it may represent some of the best conversation taking place in the evangelical hallway today, it is still outside the room of any particular church and will inevitably contribute to the shallowness of evangelicalism. So, we will not call this resurgence of Reformed theology a comeback. But we are compelled to call it reinventing the wheel. And the problem with reinventing the wheel, as W. Robert Godfrey once said, is that it seldom comes out round.
For this reason, Comeback is a book that I, as a pastor, would be very reluctant to recommend to “young Christians, new Christians, and underdiscipled Christians.” For that we have rich, time-tested documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism, which continue to articulate faithfully the old faith for a new day, even as they have done for centuries.
Rev. Michael Brown Pastor, Christ United Reformed Church Santee, CA