Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Triumph of the New School -- By: John R. Muether

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 50:2 (Fall 1988)
Article: Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Triumph of the New School
Author: John R. Muether

Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Triumph of the New School

John R. Muether

American evangelicalism has reached a stage in its history where it has become more reflective about its past. This historical consciousness is evident in the vast increase of scholarly literature about the movement. Recent works by three of the leading interpreters of evangelicalism are particularly helpful in understanding recent evangelical history. Carl Henry’s autobiography is a candid recollection by evangelicalism’s leading theologian. George Marsden’s history of Fuller Theological Seminary is a study of one of the movement’s most significant institutions. Mark Noll’s analysis of the growth of evangelical biblical scholarship describes the chief doctrinal affirmation of evangelicalism: biblical authority.1 These three works all shed light on contemporary evangelicalism from different perspectives.

There is one aspect of contemporary evangelicalism that has eluded careful analysis. Yet it is a feature of the movement that is documented by all three books. This feature is the triumph of New School theology in evangelicalism. Of course, the New School character of evangelicalism is the central theme of none of the three books, and their authors may not agree with this proposition. But each book reveals, in complementary ways, that this is so and how it has come about.

New School Presbyterianism was a nineteenth century movement that transformed the church from a “theologically oriented and well-informed Calvinism” to a “non-theologically oriented and often

poorly informed conservative Protestantism.”2 Its rejection of strict confessionalism and its emphasis on pietism and revivalism created tensions with the Old School that led to a split in the Presbyterian church in 1837. After that split the New School influence spread far beyond Presbyerianism. It was a broadly Calvinistic, interdenominational movement that had a wide influence on the nineteenth century American evangelical empire. It has been argued that New School Presbyterianism is the progenitor of both twentieth-century liberalism and fundamentalism.3 While we must heed the warning against “any over-simplified attempt to extend the Old School-New School line of cleavage” into twentieth-century debates,4 this analysis will suggest that contemporary evangelicalism is also an heir to the New School. The New School’s legacy to evangelicalism is especially evident in the latter’s nondenominationalism and anticonfessionalism, f...

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