CH 14: Liberals and evangelicals


In the 1800s, there are a large number of Protestant denominations living alongside each other in relative peace. While they differ on important doctrinal matters, they develop in similar directions, and work together in various ways. One particular movement (esp. in England and North America) may be identified as evangelicalism. In recent time, evangelicalism in North America became especially popular through the work of Billy Graham.

The word “evangelical” is a bit fuzzy, sometimes referring to Protestants in general, sometimes to a more specific subset. David Bebbington gives a useful characterization of what we typically call “evangelical”. While none of these characteristics are unusual for Protestants, they now receive greater emphasis.

  • conversionism: focus on a conversion experience, on being “born again”
  • activism: focus on missionary activity and social reform
  • Biblicism: focus on the Bible as authority in all matters of life
  • crucicentrism: “the cross at the centre”, focus on the conviction that “Jesus died for me on the cross”
  • (We may add:) revivalism: eager participation in “Great Awakenings” and other revival movements during this period


During the last two centuries, evangelicalism has been severely challenged by developments in secular thinking as well as scholarly theology.

The philosophical climate shifted from theism (belief in a personal God) to deism (belief in an impersonal God) to naturalism (belief in a “closed” world, without God). The idea that the world runs by itself like a well-oiled, yet purposeless machine was boosted by progress in natural sciences, the success of technology, and the rise of evolutionary models in biology, economics, historiography, and sociology.

Even Christian theologians participated in this worldview shift. Many of them engaged in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible is no longer viewed as authoritative, divine revelation, but a book of human religious experience. The historicity of most Biblical narratives is rejected from the beginning. Higher critics consider the gospels to be a mostly fictional portrait of Jesus, so they engage in the search for a “historical Jesus”, who was an inspirational teacher or politically active Jew, but certainly not God and Lord of all.

This raises the question why one should be a Christian at all. If God is not, or barely, involved in this world, why believe in him? An influential answer was given by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology”. According to him, religion is not based on a spiritual reality, but it is also more than just human morality. It is “essentially an intuition and a feeling”.


Evangelicals responded to liberalism in various ways. Some embraced dispensationalism, an approach to Scripture developed in England by John Darby and popularized in North America by Dwight L. Moody.

In dispensationalism, more attention is given to the development of Biblical history. It distinguishes seven separate periods, or “dispensations”, in which God dealt with the world in different ways. Dispensationalism is especially known for its highly literal interpretation of Biblical prophecy, and the detailed pre-millennial end-time scenarios it developed.


One of the more militant responses to liberalism took the form of a series of essays, published in 1910-15 under the name The Fundamentals. These essays reaffirmed and strengthened the evangelical beliefs of

  • inerrancy of the Bible
  • historicity of Genesis, of Jesus’ miracles, and other Biblical accounts
  • the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • the substitutionary atonement

Adherents to the Fundamentals became known as “fundamentalist”. Especially since the Skopes “monkey” trial in 1925, they are known for opposing evolutionary science.


While the Pentecostal or charismatic movement was prepared by revivals in the late 1800, its defining moment was the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, 1906. Under leadership of Rev. William Seymour, a revival meeting of (mostly black) believers engaged in enthusiastic worship. The most remarkable features were the speaking in tongues and miraculous healings. The Azusa Street activity died down after about 10 years, but left its mark on a large part of Christianity today.

The building at Azusa Street, Los Angeles, where the Pentecostal movement began.

Pentecostalism is generally based on a Wesleyan-Holiness theology. However, apart from the new birth (conversion) and second blessing (entire sanctification), they recognize a third “work of grace”: baptism with the Holy Spirit. This reveals itself in charismata, special spiritual gifts, and especially speaking in tongues (glossolalia).

The largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States are:

  • the Church of God in Christ (mostly African-American)
  • the Assemblies of God

A small, but notable branch of Pentecostalism is Oneness Pentecostalism. This essentially revives the old heresy of modalism. Oneness Pentecostalism denies that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. Rather, the Father and Spirit are viewed as alternative names for Jesus. Because of this, Oneness Pentecostals insist on baptizing “in the name of Jesus” only.

Social gospel

Another significant development in the early 1900s is that of the Social Gospel, which reduces the Kingdom teaching of Jesus first and foremost to social activism. The founder, Walter Rauschenbusch, argued that at the heart of his message, Jesus opposed “social sins” such as bigotry, the corruption of justice, and the abuse of power.

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