August 07, 2008
Westminster and Evangelicalism
David B. Garner
Vice President for Advancement
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)
What is evangelicalism? Who are evangelicals? Because evangelicalism has experienced a metamorphosis, the answer to these questions is more complicated than one might guess. In the term’s early use in 18th and 19th century in North America, where evangelicalism was more narrowly defined by revivalism and its associated emphasis on personal conversion, evangelicalism became identified with the largest Protestant movement in North America. In the wake of the infiltration of theological liberalism into the mainline churches and the massive immigration of foreigners of diverse religious background, the virtually ubiquitous force of evangelicalism tempered, yet its arteries extended so as to influence a wide panorama of churches and para-church groups. Accordingly, the Institute for Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College defines evangelicalism as “a wide-reaching definitional ‘canopy’ that covers a diverse number of Protestant groups”. On the current North American landscape, evangelicalism embraces, among others, Baptists, some Lutherans and Episcopalians, independents, Mennonites, Charismatics (Protestant and Catholic), Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians. As evidenced by the vote to retain Clark Pinnock and John Sanders in the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003, the big tent of evangelicalism now extends from rigorous conservatism to forms of open theism and inclusivism. With the expansion of its stakes in recent decades, this evangelical tent now covers such associations as the Christian Coalition of America (a political advocacy group), L.E.A.R.N., Inc. (a pro-life group), Evangelicals Concerned, Inc. (a pro-homosexual group), and the Evangelical Environment Network (an environmental advocacy group).
Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) shares appreciation for traditional evangelicalism’s emphasis on the inerrancy and authority of the Scripture. At the same time, WTS remains committed to its confessional heritage and standards; the Westminster Confession of Faith has been and remains our doctrinal standard. No matter how much evangelicalism morphs, the parameters of Westminster Reformed Orthodoxy guide and preserve the Seminary’s theological commitments on Scripture and any other doctrinal matter on which the Westminster Standards speak. Wherever and whenever strands of evangelicalism agree with the Westminster Standards, WTS happily identifies with evangelicalism. However, when any form of evangelicalism (or any other theological approach) runs contrary to historic Reformed orthodoxy and methodology, WTS consciously separates itself from evangelical identification.
Is WTS an evangelical institution? If by that we mean our resolute commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the inerrant Word of God, and to the five solas of the Reformation – faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone – then we grant a strong affirmative. Indeed, the bond of Christian unity makes such not an option or a work of supererogation, but a basic Christian imperative. But if we mean sharing theological common ground with inclusivists, open theists, and any other self-professing evangelicals who deny or compromise the unique authority of divine Scripture, we grant a strong denial. Rather, in view of our Reformed heritage and commitment to the Westminster Standards, we unequivocally affirm our commitment to Reformed orthodoxy. These confessional parameters guide, preserve, and promote our approach to theological education, ministerial formation, and academic study. They summarize in brilliant, short compass, the teaching of scripture. They keep us accountable in all that we do to our ecclesiastical constituency. And they focus our hearts and minds upon the gracious God who has preserved his church, and his gospel, from generation to generation.