In its early centuries, the Christian movement suffered through catastrophic weakness. Waves of persecution increased the ranks of martyrs. Worse than the physical assaults were the spiritual dangers: gnostic and unitarian heresies and widespread conformity to pagan culture, driving ascetic leaders into the desert to escape the world.
From the Roman prisons and catacombs, the witness of faithful believers began to permeate the culture — moving upward until it became politically necessary to have a Christian emperor. But that movement brought a new problem. Constantine believed in Jesus, but he was an Arian, a unitarian. And he was strongly motivated to unite the church by forcing all Christians to become Arians.
The hosts of simple Christian believers might not have understood the looming danger confronting their faith. Some did, like the African schismatic Donatus, who had led a movement to secede from what he saw as an apostate Roman church.
But non-separatist countermovements of reform and renewal had been rising in the church since the second century. These were led by pastoral theologians: Irenaeus, Basil, Chrysostom and the great African pastor and writer Augustine. Confronting Constantine, another leader fired the movement culminating in the Council of Nicea: Athanasius contra mundum, Athanasius against the world, as the saying goes. The Council reversed Constantine’s decree, destroyed Arianism and established Trinitarian orthodoxy.
This reform was the culmination of faithful pastoral leadership through centuries. It left behind the splinter movement of Donatus, who expressed righteous anger and a commendable zeal for purity but veered away from the long movement of reform and renewal within the larger church.
Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette and his student, Presbyterian missiologist Ralph Winter, have used the terms ‘modalities’ (larger church bodies ) and ‘sodalities’ (smaller movements, often reforming and renewing task forces within modalities) to describe the counterpoint between the larger church and subgroups for reform, renewal or extension in mission. The early church laid out a pattern of modality and sodalities that recurs throughout church history. Let us review some instances.
Later Catholic sodalities address real and supposed needs within the church: Franciscans (lay evangelism and ministry among the poor); Dominicans (spreading orthodoxy and attempting to deal with heresy); the Society of Jesus (defining truth and defeating Protestantism). In subsequent Catholicism there are hundreds of smaller, specialized sodalities. From the time of Francis onward, popes concluded that if they had trouble suppressing novelties, the part of wisdom was to adopt them into sodalities.
Reformational Protestantism (Luther, Calvin) sought to reform Western Catholicism by purifying traditional accretions and deformities; focusing on the authority of Scripture while affirming the teaching of the early fathers; and rebalancing the church’s preoccupation with sanctification by adding a new biblical stress on justification by faith. Luther and Calvin originally aimed only to generate renewal sodalities within the Roman modality. But the papal party brutally ejected Protestants — who then found themselves dealing not only with Rome but also with an explosion of separatist Protestant splinter movements focused on perfecting their own identities and unconcerned with renewing larger modalities. Luther and Calvin detested both the hostile modality and the insular novelties.
Beginning in the late 1600s, two Protestant movements — Calvinist Puritanism and Lutheran Pietism — began to generate sodalities that rebalanced Protestantism by stressing regeneration and sanctification, on a Reformational basis. These movements were nonseparatist, concerned to reform and renew their modalities, and increasingly ecumenical, as they recognized their kindred renewal movements across the Calvinist/Lutheran boundary. The remarkable educational and social justice achievements of the Pietists led to the establishment of Count Zinzendorf’s Moravian renewal communities, grounded on Luther’s faith and expressing it in continuous cycles of corporate prayer. The Moravians originated the first great explosion of Protestant world missions, as lay leaders emerged from prayer sessions concerned to visit the geographical areas for which they had prayed. Zinzendorf also launched a renewed Protestant ecumenical outreach, even extending it to Catholics and the papacy itself.
Overlapping with the Moravian movement in the mid-1700s was the resurgence of Puritan Calvinism in America in the first Great Awakening. This was not limited to its pre-eminent leader, Jonathan Edwards, now recognized as the greatest American philosophical theologian. Many in local congregations found themselves waking up to the original Puritan emphasis on existential, ‘experimental’ Christianity. Princeton and other Christian colleges emerged from this spiritual wave, and American Presbyterianism itself was born in, and shaped by, this impulse.
Meanwhile, in England John and Charles Wesley found themselves riding a spiritual surge, suddenly surrounded by emerging hosts of lay Wesleyan preachers — many of them, shockingly, women. Although John Wesley was theologically Arminian, Edwards found him to be a kindred spirit. The ministry of the Calvinistic Methodist George Whitefield spilled over the boundaries of American Christianity, as a sodality leader appealing to all the denominational modalities, and warmly received by all.
In the Great Awakening we see the formation of an overarching, theologically diverse renewal sodality, seeking to aid and operate within all modalities. This sodality was the foundation of modern Evangelical Christianity, and Whitefield, in a sense, was its Billy Graham.
Beginning in the late 1700s, Christians in Europe and America found themselves facing terrifying events in France, along with a loss of spiritual nerve in congregational life. Students in colleges like Yale seemed deeply impressed by deism, effectively embodied in leaders like Jefferson and Thomas Paine. It seemed likely that believers in all modalities were facing an anti-Christian future.
What arose to confront these problems has been called the Second Great Awakening. In Germany, liberal theological leaders were confronted by evangelical scholars like Bengel, Hengstenberg, Keil and Delitsch. In England, the converted slave trader John Newton was ordained as an Anglican minister. Himself a Calvinist, he organized a kind of evangelical secret society, meeting monthly in taverns, embracing Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and any other Christian leaders who were committed to evangelizing, and socially reforming, English culture. Highly placed Anglican laypersons in Clapham parish, like William Wilberforce, the great parliamentary orator, led a successful battle to abolish the slave trade and later to release the slaves in the English colonies.
Driving this social revolution was a wave of evangelistic awakening in the churches, generating thousands of abolitionist petitions to Parliament. Throughout the Victorian era, Christian leaders addressed one social issue after another, producing effective change. The Second Evangelical Awakening in England, after the early church, may be the high-water mark of social transformation led by Christians.
Meanwhile, in America deism and early liberalism were confronted by Reformed scholars like Timothy Dwight (who led evangelistic awakenings at Yale) and Charles Hodge. An estimated one-third of Yale’s students were converted in the early 1800s, with perhaps half of these entering the ministry or foreign missions. Other colleges like Princeton experienced similar waves of student conversion. During the early 1800s, the evangelistic ministries of Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney impacted local congregations, in an echo of Whitefield’s ministry.
For four decades beginning around 1860, the evangelistic mass meetings of D. L. Moody had a profound effect in America. A layman with no theological training, Moody was influenced by the separatist John Nelson Darby. Moody’s position as head of the YMCA gave him access to funds for organization and travel, money which often came from wealthy industrialists. Moody’s popular ministry had an awakening spiritual force, and he stimulated world missions and the early ecumenical movement. His ministry also laid the groundwork for the fundamentalist movement, shifting American evangelicalism away from its culture-transforming origins and wedding it in a new way to conservative politics.
In the early 1900s, the rationalistic sodality of Protestant liberalism, led by Schleiermacher and Ritschl, had a growing influence in Europe and America. One curative response to this was the Neo-Orthodox movement, led by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, which strongly penetrated mainline Protestantism in America, though it provoked a kind of civil war between conservative crisis theology and continuing liberalism.
An alternate corrective sodality was fundamentalism, which however seemed divorced from culture, and which ultimately became bitterly separatist, renouncing the ministry of Billy Graham when, in a crusade in 1958, Graham welcomed the presence of mainline church leaders on his platform. Graham’s basic instinct was to lead a sodality reaching and helping transform modalities.
Graham was simply riding a wave in the 1940s, when evangelical scholars and church leaders like Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga became uneasy with the divisive and socially accommodated character of fundamentalism and determined to cleanse the conservative movement from its separatism and cultural isolation. The result was a renewed sodality, which sought to counter liberal tendencies by founding or strengthening educational institutions, doing effective scholarly work in theology and biblical studies and following Billy Graham’s lead in seeking to renew the mainline denominations. The refocused sodality was initially called neo-evangelicalism, harking back to great precursors in the Reformation and the Protestant spiritual awakenings.
Mainline evangelical sodalities, most of which have been deliberately nonseparatist, are aimed at restoring the influence of Reformation theology in their parent modalities. Presbyterian evangelicals seek to approach Scripture as the same governing authority sought in Calvin’s theology. At their best, such mainline evangelicals want to be engaged with modern culture, and often share the social concerns of their parent modality. Local congregations seek to cultivate their tradition’s distinctive spirituality and share this with their presbyteries. Mainline evangelicals have a particular concern for the promotion of world missions, generating missional leaders and missional theology, exemplified in the work of Presbyterian Ralph Winter.
The two main Reformational sodalities — neo-orthodoxy and neo-evangelicalism — have at times looked somewhat askance at one another. At the root of this unease may be a concern to captivate the most students and followers. Increasingly, however, the followers of these two schools have recognized one another as kindred spirits. Thus evangelical theologian John Stackhouse, in “Making the Best of it,” devotes two main chapters to Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Princeton Seminary has hosted conferences on Abraham Kuyper (a Dutch Reformed theologian, perhaps of the stature of Barth) and Hermann Dooyeweerd.
Both in its seminaries and in its central leadership, the PC(USA) has demonstrated a convergence of evangelical and neo-orthodox currents. This has become so evident, and so remarkable, that the main body of evangelicals may end up surviving the current stress over sexual ethics, and may remain within the mainline modality, in the renewal of which they have been so deeply involved.
RICHARD LOVELACE is a PC(USA) minister retired from Boston Presbytery. He is also Emeritus Professor of Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.