Book Review: “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a B.A. in Middle Eastern history. She has written numerous books. In 2018, she published The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (730 pgs). This book is particularly interesting for several reasons. First, Fitzgerald is a responsible journalist and historian. Second, she does not appear to be an evangelical insider, which means she may have a more objective viewpoint. Third, the issue of the “Christian right” has become very, very relevant since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016.

So, I picked the book up at my local library. Fitzgerald explains:1

this book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years.

Fitzgerald begins with the first Great Awakening and moves rapidly through the American religious scene until arriving at Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority by page 291. The remainder of the book (340 pages of text) chronicles the Christian Right over the past 40 years.

Rather than offering a blow by blow account of the work, I’ll confine myself to some brief remarks.

Comments on the book

Fitzgerald’s survey from the Great Awakening to the mid-20th century is outstanding. Very helpful, relatively brief, but comprehensive.

It appears Fitzgerald relied heavily on secondary sources. Time and time again, I turned to the endnotes to trace a particular quote or fact, and saw a secondary source cited. For example, Fitzgerald even cited a secondary source when describing Calvinism (pg. 15)! Likewise, when I looked for primary sources for quotations from Billy Graham’s publications I found in her text, I also saw secondary sources. This is very disappointing. Fitzgerald knows better.

I found a few misspellings in the earlier part of the book. Fitzgerald also, for some bizarre reason, consistently misnamed the Southern Baptist Convention’s publisher as “Boardman & Holman” (it’s actually “Broadman and Holman”).

The chronicle of the modern Christian Right is encyclopedic. In fact, it’s rather overwhelming. Some readers might be fascinated with moment by moment accounts of James Dobson’s advocacy efforts in the 2004 election. I am not! Fitzgerald would likely have done better to survey the era with a lighter touch and save room for analysis. Robert Jones, in his The End of White Christian America, covered the same ground in a little over 30 pages.

Indeed, the book is very light on analysis. Fitzgerald has a meager 11-page epilogue where she tries to pull some threads together. Some of this analysis is very insightful. For example:2

The Christian right was an equally forceful reaction, not against liberal theology, but rather against the social revolution of the 1960s. Its dominant theme was nostalgia for some previous time in history – some quasi-mythological past – in which America was a (white) Christian nation. But which time exactly? Would its leaders have been content with reversing the Supreme Court decisions made since the 1960s? Or would they have insisted that America must be by law a Christian nation? Naturally there were differences among them, but by failing to specify how far they would go to reverse the process of separating church from state, men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson allowed their opponents to charge that they wanted a theocracy.

And this:3

In the 1990s the Christian right was a powerful movement, but mainly because of those who had lived through the Long Sixties. Later generations had absorbed some of the shocks of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement, and were less fearful and angry about them. After the turn of the century, the Christian right maintained its power largely because of the further shock of same-sex marriage. In other words, the decline of the Christian right began earlier than assumed. Then, by allying themselves with the unfortunate George W. Bush, they created a backlash among evangelicals as well as among others. Emboldened, the ‘new’ evangelicals broadened the agenda, and in a sense came full circle with a return to the reformist imperatives of the antebellum evangelicals, such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney. The Christian right tried to resist, but the younger generation was not with them except on abortion. the death or retirement of the older leaders was a sign of the changing regime

And this:4

Presidential election votes might seem to belie it, but evangelicals were splintering. For more than thirty years Christian right leaders had held evangelicals together in the dream of restoration and in voting for the Republican establishment and policies that favored the rich in exchange for opposition to abortion and gay rights. No more. Evangelicals no longer followed their leaders.

Fitzgerald would have immeasurably strengthened her book if she had gone lighter on the encyclopedic history, and heavier on the analysis. In that respect, she made the same error Larry Oats made in his otherwise outstanding The Church of the Fundamentalists. Lots of details, facts, names and dates. Little analysis to pull things together. The book just … ends.

The most enlightening chapter, for me, was entitled “Billy Graham and Modern Evangelicalism,” particularly Fitzgerald’s discussion of President Eisenhower’s attempts to use civil religion as a unifying force in the face of the Communist threat. I’d never heard this before. I wonder how much of the simplistic ‘Merica! rhetoric you see so much of in some evangelical circles stems from Eisenhower’s efforts?

Fitzgerald succeeded in deepening my disgust with the Christian Right as a political movement. I do not believe America is or was a “Christian nation,” though it was undoubtedly influenced by Christian thought (see Christian historian John Fea’s excellent Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I vehemently disagree with all flavors of American nationalism mixed with the church. I think Falwell, Dobson (et al) are kind, decent men who wasted their talents in the political realm.

The more I read about the history of Christian Right’s engagement in the public square, the better context I have to frame my heretofore unfocused distaste for political action in the name of Christ. Here, two mainline scholars have something to teach us:5

Whenever Christians think that we can support our ethic by simply pressuring Congress to pass laws or to spend tax money, we fail to do justice to the radically communal quality of Christian ethics. In fact, much of what passes for Christian social concern today, of the left or of the right, is the social concern of a church that seems to have despaired of being the church. Unable through our preaching, baptism, and witness to form a visible community of faith, we content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity—lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent.

Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him. Both groups imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community. Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization. The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion.

Hauerwas and Willimon wrote their book nearly 30 years ago and explained it “could be read as an extended reflection on politics in the name of Jesus.”6 Falwell looms large in their discussion, and the book seems (in part) to be a reaction against the political activism of the Reagan years. Writing only three years ago, Robert Jones interpreted Resident Aliens (and Russell Moore’s own work Onward) as a recognition by Christians that they’d lost the culture and must re-frame expectations from “this is our world” to “we’re a people in exile.” Indeed, Jones likened Hauerwas to a “hospice chaplain, dispensing a critical palliative care theology for a mainline Protestant family struggling toward acceptance as WCA [white Christian America] faded from the scene.”7 My own thoughts are that Hauerwas and Willimon can teach evangelicals a thing or two about cultural engagement. Their vision of the church is deeper than a good deal of what I’ve read from the evangelical-fundamentalist tradition. It’s certainly a healthier alternative than the Falwell-Dobson-Robertson model.  

Fitzgerald views the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention as a “fundamentalist uprising” (see ch. 9). This will irritate my fundamentalist brothers and sisters who still insist on applying the old, tired appellation of “neo-evangelical” to the conservative evangelicals. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is correct. John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, James White, Ligonier Ministries (et al) are fundamentalists. They might not identify themselves as such, but they are. Baptist fundamentalism, in contrast, is a small and struggling movement that hasn’t deserved the title of “fundamentalist” for a long while. The conservative evangelicals are the ones who engage the culture and confront apostasy, and Fitzgerald rightly recognizes them as “fundamentalists.”

Final thoughts

Fitzgerald wrote an outstanding book. I give it 4/5 stars. Essential reading for any evangelical pastors who want to understand where their movement came from and where it’s going. We need to know history. It helps us not make the same mistakes every generation. Read it!

Notes

1 Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 3.

2 Ibid, 626.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 635.

5 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 80-81.

6 Ibid, 7.

7 Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 214.

Book Review: “Historical Theology In-Depth” by David Beale

bealeDavid Beale, a longtime professor of historical theology at BJU Seminary, published his two-volume Historical Theology In-Depth in 2013. This is an outstanding work, and every pastor and interested Christian should use it as the “go to” text for a foundational explanation of key themes in historical theology.

It doesn’t cover everything, of course. Instead, it hits some high points of historical theology by way of 57 different essays and four detailed appendices over the course of its two volumes. The essays are roughly chronological, written at the introductory level and include helpful bibliographies and extensive citations throughout.

Volume One

The first volume begins with a summary introduction to the early church fathers (1), followed by extensive chapters on major patristic figures (2-8). Beale then moves to the Greek apologists with explanation of their worldview (9), then to a discussion of Christian apologists such as Justin, Irenaeus and others (10-13). He discusses Neo-Platonism (14), Origen and his hermeneutical school (15), Tertullian and Latin Christianity in general (16), then Cyprian and his incipient episcopal ecclesiology (17).

Beale then provides a helpful summary of the “seeds of Roman Catholicism” (18), followed by an essential and superb discussion of the ecumenical creeds from Nicaea through Constantinople III (19-25). He provides some long discussions on different aspects of Augustine’s impact on the Christian church (26-30), followed by an excursus on Manicheanism (31) then some discourses on Nicaea II, icons, and Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism (32-33). Beale closes with a very interesting discussion on the patristic teaching on justification by faith (34), and then some brief discussions of Roman Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation (35-37).

Volume Two

The second volume opens with biographical sketches of Luther (1), Melanchthon (2), Zwingli (3) and Calvin (4) as foils to introduce the Protestant Reformation. Beale never discusses the English Reformation, or any national aspect of the Reformation outside of the four great reformers. He finishes his reformation section with a helpful discussion on Arminianism and Calvinism (5).

This is followed by a 40-page discussion on the sabbath day, an odd choice to take up fully 8% of the volume. This is an extensive discussion, but out of place and perhaps unnecessary. Beale lurches back into the reformation with a brief survey of the first-generation Anabaptists (8), then a critique of Baptist Landmarkism on historical grounds (9) and a discussion of Baptist origins and beliefs (10).

From here, Beale moves straight into colonial America and never leaves it. He provides a fascinating chronicle of the rise of Unitarianism in America (11), then the saga of the rise and fall of Harvard (12) and Yale (13-14). Indeed, these colleges are almost used as foils to describe the theological scene in colonial America. These are fascinating glimpses of early promise and zeal for God ruined by apostasy and unbelief. It’s a sober reminder that all institutions are earthly, but our triune Lord and His word alone are eternal.

Beale discussed Jonathan Edwards and the birth and incestuous growth of New Haven theology (14-16) and its impact on 19th century evangelicalism (17). He then provided a survey of apologetics and bibliology from 1800 to the present (18). He closed with a survey of pagan, Jewish and Christian attitutes towards abortion (19), and added four appendices on the shape and age of the earth, and the doctrine of creation.

Highlights

It’s very difficult to pick out the highlights from 57 essays! However, I’ll provide two examples that will illustrate how valuable Beale’s work is.

Creeds and Confessions (vol. 1, ch. 19)

Beale explains that doctrine is vital for two reasons; for the spiritual health of the church and to combat false teaching (1:208). False teachers ply their trade by doing three things; subtraction, addition or misrepresentation of the truth (1:209). He explains, “[t]he Scriptures provide protective guidelines for keeping our churches spiritually healthy and for combatting false doctrine. These guidelines constitute the basic paradigm and essentials for our own confessions of faith,” (1:209).

Beale then provides an extensive summary of the confessions of faith we find throughout the Bible (1:209-215). He clearly establishes that, from the beginning, God’s people have been interested in codifying what they believe and writing it down, so it could be passed on. Beale’s work here is very valuable in demonstrating that God’s people have always had a concrete “rule of faith.” If a Christian is troubled by the Bauer hypothesis of Christian origins, which is the theory Bart Ehrman advocates in scholarly1 and popular2 writings with evangelical fervency, then this chapter is a good place to direct him.

Creeds, Beale argues, are a good thing:

In historical theology the most permanent responses to error have been creeds and confessions. A creed can be both confessional and didactic. It can be both apologetical and polemic. It can be defensive and offensive. As a badge on the breast, created out of exposition, a creed can bring to the surface underlying truth from Scripture previously assumed but never fully defined. Like a raised sword, crafted out of conviction, a creed can militate against heresies and make them more decipherable (1:216).

Creeds are guardrails for orthodoxy. They’re “explanations rather than quotations,” (1:216). And, from the beginning of the Christian church, God’s people have been compelled to write their faith down, particularly in response to heresy. Beale then provides excerpts of several creedal statements from the early patristic era (1:217-222), then moves immediately into a long and extraordinarily helpful discussion of the ecumenical councils (chapters 20-25). This section is critical background for any pastor when teaching or studying Christology, and Beale points him to easily accessible, public domain source documents (e.g. NPNFand NPNF2) for further study.

Eternal Sonship, not Generation (vol. 2, ch. 7)

Beale doesn’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation. To him, the doctrine “originated from the metaphysical blending of the meanings of the two New Testament words begotten and monogenes,” (2:142). The standard lexicons make it clear, he argued, that the Greek word translated begotten primarily means “to be born or conceived” (2:142). The Bible teaches Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And, the word monogenes means “unique” or “one and only.” But, Beale argues, “[o]n the dubious assumption that the word monogenes derived from gennao (‘to beget’), fourth-century patristic writers depicted monogenes as ‘only begotten,’” (2:142). So, the doctrine developed based, in part, on a faulty understanding of two Greek words.

In addition, Beale insists, the very idea of “eternal generation” implies some kind of derivation of essence. Yet, he cautioned, “[a]n essential attribute of deity is self-existence. Christ’s deity inherently includes the perfection of autotheos, meaning ‘God in Himself,” (2:143). Beale quotes Calvin3 as denying eternal generation. However, I must note that, in this same section, Calvin admits “in respect of order and gradation, the beginning of divinity is in the Father.”4 Beale also quotes Warfield as saying the act of “begetting” is not an eternal act, but an eternal fact about Jesus’ eternal Sonship.5

At the Council of Constantinople, the Christian leader’s mistakes on the etymology and meaning of gennao and monogenes resulted in “the transfer of begotten from a literal-historical event into an eternal concept,” (2:145-146). Platonic philosophy unconsciously colored their thinking. Beale argues strongly that:

“[b]y definition, the concept of eternal generation highlights derivation and subordination. It obfuscates Christ’s selfexistence, which is an essential attribute of deity. It blurs his uniqueness. It is impossible even to express the concept of eternal generation without the use of terms indicative of eternal derivation and subordination,” (2:146).

Beale then provides a historical survey from Justin, to Origen, to Jerome and thence to the Nicean-Constantinople creed (2:147-166) to “show how the terms begotten and monogenes were gradually codified from the grammatical and historical into the conceptual and speculative,” (2:147). He ends the discussion by concluding, “Unfortunately, many have equated the term eternal generation with a separate and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, the eternal sonship of Christ,” (2:167).

I am torn on this. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with the doctrine of eternal generation, for the very reasons Beale objects to. I’ve always been more confused after reading theologians try to explain it.

Augustus Strong, as Beale warned, speaks of Christ’s sonship and eternal generation as synonymous. He explained eternal generation was,

“Not creation, but the Father’s communication of himself to the Son … not a commencement of existence, but an eternal relation to the Father … not an act of the Father’s will, but an internal necessity of the divine nature … not a relation in anyway analogous to physical derivation, but a lifemovement of the divine nature, in virtue of which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation, and in virtue of which the Father works through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.”6

I confess I have no idea what this means. I never have. Berkhof tries to explain …7

It is better to say that the Father generates the personal subsistence of the Son, but thereby also communicates to Him the divine essence in its entirety.

But in doing this we should guard against the idea that the Father first generated a second person, and then communicated the divine essence to this person, for that would lead to the conclusion that the Son was not generated out of the divine essence, but created out of nothing. In the work of generation there was a communication of essence; it was one indivisible act. And in virtue of this communication the Son also has life in Himself.

… but I still don’t get it. His summary definition doesn’t help, either.8 So, Beale has succeeded in really making me think deeply about some theological assumptions. He hasn’t convinced me yet, but I’ve certainly been thinking about the doctrine of eternal generation a lot lately!

Conclusion

There are some gaps in Beale’s text, which is why it isn’t really a “church history.” It’s more a series of essays chronicling key themes in historical theology (like the sub-title says!):

  • He covers the patristic era very, very well
  • The medieval church is largely ignored completely. There’s no discussion of Lombard, Anselm, the and very little of Aquinas, for example. The middle ages is a black hole here.
  • The Reformation is barely sketched. You’d do well to use something else, or refer interested folks to Carter Lindberg’s The European Reformations.
  • In America, Wesleyans and Methodists apparently don’t exist. Harvard and Yale as used as foils to chronicle the state of religion in Colonial America, followed by a quick run through bibliology from 1800 to Barth.
  • Beale’s extensive bibliographic suggestions at the end of each chapter direct the reader to more specific books for further study.

So, make no mistake; this is a series of essays on historical theology. It’s not a church history text. But, what Beale covers, he does very, very well.

In summary, this work is excellent. It belongs on every pastor’s shelf. Any Christian will benefit enormously by reading this text and growing to appreciate the rich theological and historical heritage the Christian church has. Church history didn’t start with Billy Sunday! I cannot recommend this work highly enough.

Notes

1 Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, updated ed. (New York: OUP, 2011).

2 Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: OUP, 2005).

3 In Historical Theology, 2:144, Beale quotes Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.29.

4 Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.24.

5 In Historical Theology, 2:144 (footnote 5), Beale quotes from Benjamin Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1968), 58-59.

6 Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 341-342.

7 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 93–94.

8 “It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change,” (Ibid, 94).

 

Book Review – The Glorious Cause

middlekauffRobert Middlekauff’s tome, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763 – 1789is a worthy overview of the Revolutionary-War era. It picks up in the heady days immediately after the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), when a cash-strapped Britain decided it needed some additional revenue to pay off debt accumulated during the late war. It ends with the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, and the ratification of the new Constitution shortly afterwards.

This book is part of the esteemed Oxford History of the United States series, and it lives up to its billing. Each volume is written by a distinguished, responsible historian at the height of his powers. Middlekauff takes the reader into the halls of Parliament and into the homes of colonists in New England, the middle colonies, and the South.

  • The political context is very well framed, and any American who still thinks of the Revolutionary War in cartoonish shades of black and white will be set right, if he reads this book. I appreciate the pains Middlekauff took to frame the political and cultural context on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the best part of the book.
  • The military aspect is rushed, but adequate. The reader won’t get any meaningful, comprehensive sense of how the war went. Middlekauff discussed Lexington and Concord, vaulted to Boston, skimmed the disastrous retreat from Long Island, across to New Jersey and thence to the fateful night in Trenton in perhaps 15 pages. From there, we get a smattering of discussion about the war in the South, and a lively (but brief) discussion of the siege at Yorktown. Anybody looking for a comprehensive overview of the military aspect of the Revolution will be disappointed. But, remember, this is a survey work. However, Middlekauff does offer some insightful analysis of the logistical problems (on both sides), and a lengthy discussion on “why they fought.”
  • The time-period leading up to the Constitutional Convention is merely sketched, and the reader finds himself in Philadelphia without quite realizing how he got there! Middlekauff’s discussion about how the Constitution was drafted, and the accompanying arguments and controversies, is very well done, and I appreciated it.

Overall, in about 690 pages of text, Middlekauff managed to take us from the French and Indian War to the Constitutional Convention – and he managed to be substantive, deep, insightful and engaging. That’s not an easy thing to do! I appreciated the book, and liked it a lot. This is the best one-volume survey of the era I’ve read. I doubt I’ll find anything to top it.

More reading

I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the Revolutionary War-era. I’m not a professional historian, but I believe I’m more well-read than most on this topic. Here are few good books on various aspects of the Revolutionary War-era to supplement Middlekauff’s work: