Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In his book No Place for Truth , David Wells tells a tale of two declines”the first of which occurred in Protestant liberalism. What began as an effort to commend Christianity to its despisers ended with the loss of everything distinctively Christian. In the Kantian intellectual universe in which liberalism found itself, the “script for study is human experience, not the teaching of the Bible or, for that matter, of the Church.” The academy entrenched this experiential emphasis with the relocation of religion into the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, a relocation that established “a bias in favor of the sort of Liberalism that Schleiermacher argued for (which seeks the disclosure of God within human experience) and a bias against classical orthodoxy (which builds on revelation the ultimate source of which is outside human experience).” Liberalism diluted and ultimately excluded confession from academic religious studies.

The focus of Wells’ lamentation, however, is the parallel process taking place within evangelicalism, which is now, like liberalism before it, drinking from the trough of modernity, with similar results. Evangelicals entered the mainstream of American life during the late 1970s and “almost immediately” lost their ability to define themselves theologically. Modernity’s separation of public and private has limited evangelicals’ beliefs “to matters of private experience, increasingly shorn of their distinctive worldview, and increasingly withdrawn from what was external and public.” Ultimately, “being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives color to the private aspects of daily life but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary.” The theological wheel has turned again in the same circle: “Evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of ‘life.’“

Wells find this surprising, given the fact that evangelicals have always defined themselves as a “doctrinal people.” On reflection, the real surprise is that it has not happened sooner, for his criticisms cut more deeply than Wells seems to realize. Evangelicalism is, after all, often defined as a branch of Christianity that gives particular emphasis to certain aspects of Christian experience: spiritual rebirth, conversion, and a personal relationship to Christ. Spend a little time among evangelicals, and you are sure to learn about people who believe all the right doctrine but are not “real””which is to say, born-again”Christians. Long before neo-evangelicalism, long before the rise of the Christian right, long before the “Toronto blessing,” revivalism gave American Protestantism its distinctive experiential shape, as wave after wave of anti-intellectual New School, New Light, and New Whatever movements were accepted and, paradoxically, accorded theological legitimation.

Wells notes that evangelicals are drawing “increasingly injurious” conclusions from the appropriate emphasis on a believer’s personal relationship with Christ: “They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience.” Not only in the use of testimonies but in hymnody as well, evangelicalism is “changing direction to reflect this experience-centered focus.” To anyone who has sung nineteenth-century revival hymns with their sentimental lyrics set to syrupy melodies, however, it is scarcely credible that these represent recent developments.

At certain moments in his analysis, Wells himself seems to half-doubt his tragic narrative. He wonders “whether there ever was a theological structure that evangelicals commonly held and that held them together in a common world of belief.” A good question, to which there is at least prima facie evidence of a negative answer: What theological structure was shared by, say, J. Gresham Machen and Billy Sunday?

The current state of evangelicalism, as well as program for the future, may be inferred from the typology outlined in George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine . Though Lindbeck’s book has to do with theories of religion and doctrine, his typology can be used to assess the contours and self-understandings of various religious communities and traditions. And, though it doubtless violates Lindbeck’s thoroughly descriptive intentions, his framework may be deployed in a prescriptive manner. Lindbeck discusses the cognitivist model, in which doctrines are considered as propositional first-order truth claims, and the expressivist model, which treats doctrines as more or less arbitrary symbolizations of religious feeling and experience. While liberalism was self-consciously formulated in the second mode, evangelicalism oscillates between the two”emphasizing assent to propositional truth one moment, then insisting on personal experience of the new birth as a (perhaps the ) central reality of Christianity.

Evangelicalism, however, has little sense of the “cultural-linguistic” dimension of Christianity, Lindbeck’s third model and the one he adopts as the framework for his essay in postliberal theology. In this approach, religion is not merely a system of propositions nor a symbolic expression of natural and universal religious experience; religion is instead a comprehensive interpretive scheme, embodied in narrative and ritual, which structures human experience and thought. From this viewpoint, Christianity is indeed seen as a “life,” but as a communal life that includes not only a system of ritual and worship and a way of living, but also a way of speaking and thinking.

Wells’ justified concerns about the place of theology in evangelical life would not be ignored in such an approach. Theology composed in a cultural-linguistic key need not adopt Lindbeck’s reductive “rule theory” of doctrine, his idea that doctrine functions as a grammar that regulates a community’s speech but makes no direct ontological claims. Doctrine and theology can take a very high profile in a cultural-linguistic approach, but doctrine would not be the sole mark of true Christianity. An evangelical understanding of theology and church life in a cultural-linguistic mode could avoid the intellectualist extreme of a cognitive approach as well as the irrationalist extreme of the expressivist model.

A cultural-linguistic conception of Christianity highlights the need for evangelical sacramental and liturgical theology. Evangelicals well understand how doctrines and moral standards shape and define a community, but their instinctive anti-ritualism leaves them bereft of the theological tools required for understanding how rites mold, sustain, and nourish the Church. Evangelicals typically examine ritual only for enhancing individual experience. At the risk of sounding pretentiously postmodern, evangelicals would be served by reflections toward a “meta-liturgics,” a liturgical theology that does not ask, “What is the warrant for this gesture?” or “Must we say these words?” but instead seeks the meaning and status of ritual action as such.

From the cultural-linguistic perspective, rites are as important as doctrines in defining a community. Rites, Lindbeck emphasizes, are not mere external decorations but the means through which the interpretive pattern of the religion is exhibited, transmitted, and interiorized. In this perspective the narrative and ritual patterns of Christianity do not merely express prior religious experience but give shape to experience and even form the conditions of the possibility of Christian experience. Perhaps we are not going too far to suggest that the shape of evangelicalism depends on its answer to the question of infant baptism, which sharply poses the question of whether it is possible for external rites to shape experience, rather than merely expressing it.

To suggest the need for a postevangelical theology and practice from a cultural-linguistic perspective is in no way a neo-liberal retreat from strong doctrinal claims into the safe and comforting vacuity of religion as a “life.” Rather, it would involve a recovery of the Reformation sense of the Church as a community marked not only by Word, but also by Sacrament and Discipline.

Peter J. Leithart , a Presbyterian minister, is a doctoral candidate in theology at Cambridge University.