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


You’ve heard of Bonaventure’s famous image of faith and reason as two wings by which the soul flies toward God? Well, evangelicals have two wings, one devoted to that mystical ascent of faith and the other toward the rational exposition of the faith. These two wings are the revivalist and confessionalist ends of the movement and they rarely beat in rhythm.

In my view, a lot of the disputes (not all) within evangelicalism stem from these two divisions and the conflicting perspectives to which they lead.

Revivalist evangelicals tend toward pietistic forms of the movement like the Methodism of an Asbury or a Seattle Pacific, the holiness churches (Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church), the Pentecostal churches, forms of Anabaptism (Ashland Seminary), and certain kinds of Baptists and Presbyterians. Also, virtually all charismatics fall into this category. In my view, this is the largest category of all.

Confessional evangelicals tend toward creedal parts of the movement like the Presbyterianism associated with Westminster Seminary, certain parts of the Southern Baptist Convention wishing to recover historic Baptist confessions like the London Confession, and forms of Anglicanism emphasizing the thirty-nine articles. One could also include some confessional Lutherans here who self-identify as evangelicals, but many prefer just to be called confessional Lutherans.

As I said, these wings rarely beat in rhythm. For example, the recent debate between Gerald McDermott and Roger Olson, begun with McDermott’s article in First Things (see also here , here , and here ), over how to read scripture and Christian tradition. Without getting into the weeds on this debate, McDermott and Olson represent the two distinct ways revivalists and confessionalists interpret Christian tradition with McDermott exemplifying the latter and Olson the former.

Confessionalists tend to claim that revivalists reject Christian tradition because they remain suspicious of confessions and creeds. Revivalists, however, drink deeply from the spiritual traditions of Christianity by which I mean the mystics, pietists, and other spiritual writers. These are the very parts of Christian tradition that many confessionalists question. One might consider it akin to the differences between a Thomas Aquinas whose Christology is centered upon historic creeds and heresies verses a Bonaventure whose Christology is centered upon the mystic Christ in Francis’ vision on Mount La Verna.

Another area of confusion is over penal substitution, which many confessionalists tend to see as a belief that must be embraced whereas most revivalists do not (vicarious atonement, yes; penal substitution, no). Many revivalists in the late nineteenth century embraced a theological position that Christ’s atoning work included the healing of the human body, not simply the soul. This theological position makes little sense in a penal substitutionary model that trades on legal and juridical metaphors. It does work well within a Christus victor model in which Christ conquers sin, death, and the devil.

Confessional and revivalist evangelicals need to learn to speak each other’s language if they are going to hold together the big tent that is evangelicalism. Being evangelical Protestant, they both pick and choose what parts of the tradition to embrace and they interpret the tradition differently.

The argument that the creeds represent the center as opposed to the spirituality is not immediately apparent either. It’s like saying the Philokalia is less central than Chalcedon when the former unites the Coptic, Armenian, Antiochian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches in ways that the latter does not. I personally find it difficult to talk about Chalcedon without taking into account the fracturing of Greek and Syriac Christianity it created. Do we embrace Chalcedon to the exclusion of Theodore of Mopuestia, the School of Nisibis, and Alexandrian Christianity after Cyril of Alexandria?

The first step towards flight comes from learning the rhythms of both wings.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles