The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, part 1 of 5

(Also see Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5)

Like Douglas Quaid in Total Recall, we have been given fake memories and don’t  know who we are.  Our lives are not our own. Our memories have been replaced. And most of us don’t even know it. 

Others have written on the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and the “Scandal of the Evangelical Heart”, but we need to ask about the Scandal of the Evangelical Memory.  Most of us have had our memories erased, and obviously, that’s a problem.

My ‘Memories’

Around the age of 19 I realized I had a brain and enjoyed using it, and my interests and calling moved toward philosophy and theology.  So my dad started giving me books by Francis Schaeffer and on Reformed theology in AmericaThen I started attending a charismatic Presbyterian church in college which was convinced that Reformed theology was the answer to the poverty of the evangelical mind.  And then I went to seminary (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) where my history and theology classes basically taught Reformed theology as the benchmark of all true evangelicalism (for the record, The Gospel Coalition began at TEDS in 2004, the year after I graduated).


Basically I was slowly given a history of ‘true’ evangelicalism as the rising and falling of Reformed theology.  This was the memory that was implanted in my brain, but it is not the truth.

But this ‘memory’ didn’t really fit with my experiences. I began questioning these ‘memories’ and having strange flashbacks of another life.  The conversionism, revivalism, and spirituality (moderately charismatic) of my evangelical experience didn’t fit the determinism, intellectualism, and cessationism of my Reformed ‘memory’.  And I believe that many of us have had similar experiences.

So what gives? How did we here? And does it even really matter?

The Situation

I’m going to spend 3 posts (on “classical” evangelicalism”, on the “great reversal” and fundamentalism, and on the “neo-evangelicals”) seeking to overcome the false memories implanted in us.  This has happensed through a historical paradigm that focuses primarily on the early 20th century (1920s) fundamentalist/modernist schism and the fall of certain Presbyterian seminaries (which we will get to in the next post).  Donald Dayton has call this the “Presbyterian” paradigm of evangelical history, and notes that it sees evangelical history as a battle between conservatives and liberals in their responses to modernity.  But Dayton contends that this entirely ignores the Holiness, Wesleyan, Pentecostal and Anabaptist strains of evangelicalism that do not fit into these categories (he calls this the “Pentecostal” paradigm), all who more often than not make up the real ‘memories’ of evangelicals, even if they have been suppressed by Reformed-oriented theologians who would like us to remember the ‘true’ evangelicalism as essentially Reformed theology (D. A. Carson has an editorial that again expresses this assumption).

But because “Presbyterian” and “Pentecostal” aren’t as helpful for us as they were for Dayton, I’m just going to speak of “Reformed” and “Holiness” expressions of evangelicalism (but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the Anabaptists either).  Of course all these terms are lexical landmines but we will navigate through them nonetheless.

Why this Matters?

“Can’t we just follow Jesus, or be Christians, without all these labels getting in the way?” “Isn’t this just another attempt at excluding people or grasping for power?” or, “The mainline media conflates all these terms anyway so what does it matter?”

I often hear this when I talk about evangelical history and the distinctions between evangelicals, fundamentalist, progressives and liberals.  And on the one hand I get it.  When I talk about my faith at the local coffee shop I steer clear of these terms and direct everyone’s spiritual journey toward Jesus (and I do that because I’m an evangelical!).

But here are two reasons this is important:

1) Words matter!  Think of the word “male” or “female”.  What you take these to mean, what you think is the essence of being “male” or “female”, or if you think there is no essence because they are social constructs, each of these views drastically effects how you live your life, understand yourself, and treat others.  In a similar way, what ‘evangelical’ means (and how we are rejecting it, accepting it, or moving beyond it) matters for who we are (and the “we” is an inclusive we of all raised in, currently in, and claiming to be beyond, evangelicalism).

And, 2) The gospel matters!  Evangelicalism matters because the gospel matters, and what we mean by the gospel matters.  One section of evangelicalism prides itself on being “gospel-centered” (where as before it was “bible-believing”), and they have reduced the gospel to fit their understanding of evangelicalism (and vise-versa).  But everyone from alternative evangelical lineages shouldn’t let this reduction, or rather, these false memories persist.

This, I believe, is one of the main purposes of Missio Alliance, to create space for a rigorous theological discussion of the gospel without feeling boxed in by narrow definitions or identity markers.

The Three-Fold Goal:

First, to slow the roll of the Neo-Reformed who often stylize themselves as the guardians of the gospel and  true evangelicalism (but who often don’t know the history of evangelicalism: i.e. referring to “classic evangelicalism” as 1950s evangelicalism).

Second, to slow the roll of Progressives who reject their evangelical heritage without knowing that it is actually fundamentalist corruptions of true evangelicalism they are rejecting, not knowing how politically engaged and holistic evangelicals have been in the past.

Third, to help Holiness/Wesleyan/Pentecostal denominational leaders understand that they don’t have to import a foreign Reformed theology to prove/protect their evangelical identity.  They always were evangelical, but have lost their memory of it.

In essence, I hope to encourage all those in the “messy middle” of evangelicalism by letting them know they are the true heirs of evangelicalism, but they don’t know this because their memory has been replaced.  In essence, we don’t remember who we really are and until we do, we will keep living in and out of dreams and nightmares.

So sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it isn’t as exhilarating as a Hollywood action film.

(Also see Part 2Part 3, and Part 4)

Geoff HolsclawGeoff Holsclaw is a native Californian who now calls Chicago home.  Wonderfully married to Cyd (with two boys, Soren and Tennyson), he has served for 10 years as a co-pastor at Life on the Vine.  He recently co-authored, Prodigal Christianity, with David Fitch, and is affiliate professor of theology at Northern Seminary.  You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, or YouTube.