Interview by Todd C. Ream
The Dean of Christian Scholars
The field at large has been enriched by shifting toward "religion in American society"—people coming from sociology, anthropology, sometimes politics, sometimes religious studies. Their focus has been more on what religious developments in the US mean over and against US history. I have benefited much from that kind of scholarship.
You've written on The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and God and Race in American Politics. Are there historical insights that might be of use to us amid racial conflict today—perhaps ignored or distorted in much public discourse?
These books are substantially products of the larger effort I mentioned earlier, to study the history of the Bible in American public life. In that history, most of the really difficult questions have concerned Scripture and slavery or Scripture and race. That study has in some ways been extremely disconcerting, for as a Bible-believer myself it is painful to view deeply engrained cultural convictions eviscerate apparently straightforward biblical teaching. (If others whose faith is deeper than my own have, for example, used Scripture to condemn interracial marriage or have ignored the Golden Rule when considering the legitimacy of slavery, where do my own cultural convictions keep me seeing and following the way of Christ?) After so much study, I should have come up with more than two conclusions, but these are what I have: First, despite abuses of many kinds in putting Scripture to use, the biblical message of liberation in Christ has never faltered, especially among people for whom no one else cares. Second, danger lurks when I move from trusting the biblical message that brought me reconciliation with God to thinking I can definitely proclaim God's will for other people or the entire society. This danger need not necessarily lead to disaster, though it has far too often resulted in that outcome—and from both the conservative Right and the progressive Left.
If you were to offer a concise definition of evangelicalism, how might it differ from the working definition you started out with?
What has become clearer over time is what I think I was working with intuitively early on in my career. It was useful very early on to do a book of essays called The Gospel in America, where we tried to give a kind of thematic account of several aspects of evangelical life. At the time we were talking about groups that shared a certain code of beliefs and practices and shared also a certain historical background.
Subsequently, a great contribution came from David Bebbington and his full definition of evangelicalism, which works quite well for many purposes: 1) the Bible is supreme authority; 2) the cross is significant and foundational to theology; 3) conversion to Christ is essential; and 4) activity in living the Christian life, particularly with regards to the practice of evangelism. I still think, however, that any kind of programmatic, doctrinal, or behavioral definition of evangelicalism needs to have some sense of historical development.
At the present, and I'm delighted and witness it here at Notre Dame, there is a small minority of Roman Catholics who have all of the evangelical characteristics. Are they evangelicals? Well, from one angle, yes. Do they share the history from the Protestant Reformation to pietism through the evangelical revivals through the 19th century's more democratic mission enterprises? No, they don't. These days I'm not really too interested in trying to define things precisely, except as definitions are necessary for people to define their research projects.
In what ways, if at all, has your understanding of Christian scholarship changed over the course of your career?
I don't think much has changed, though my thinking has deepened over the course of a life in the academy. Certainly, beginning with David Wells and George Marsden, I had a very strong sense that there needed to be a serious commitment to the Christian faith itself, but also a discerning commitment to broader intellectual standards. That can be a tightrope that is difficult to walk. The element that has been added over time is an awareness that Christian scholars need to truly live as Christians in all aspects of their lives. That insight was present maybe in vestigial forms early on. But from our great friend from Canada, George Rawlyk, I think all of us associated with him learned about how important life was alongside scholarship. George was an outgoing Slav instead of a diffident Teuton and very much concerned about the personal lives, including the personal spiritual lives, of his historian friends. It was clear from what he said and what other people reflected on his career, after he had passed away in 1995, that he was a great Christian scholar partly because of the significance of his works, but just as much because of the significance of his life.