Are Evangelicals Presbyterian?

My four-point defining feature of confessionalists, in distinction from evangelicals and pietists, is that they are

  1. Church oriented, grounded in the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed traditions arising from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th-17th centuries.
  2. Church forms matter and are central for spiritual life, especially liturgical and doctrinal formulations, along with polity.
  3. Spiritual practice orbits the public worship of the church, with emphasis on preaching, the sacraments, and prayer.
  4. Ordinary life in the world is good and welcome.

In Reformed and Evangelical Across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America (2022), historians from four different American Presbyterian churches wrote on the subject of the intersection between Presbyterians and evangelicals. Don Fortson contributed from the EPC’s vantage point, and he argues that there are five shared allegiances between evangelicals and American Presbyterians. They both affirm and practice

  1. Biblical authority
  2. Support for spiritual renewal
  3. The missionary impulse
  4. Theological seriousness
  5. Cultural transformation

I don’t buy those last two; Mark Noll’s (also an EPCer) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and recent developments in the evangelical academic world make theological seriousness a questionable attribute of evangelicalism. From the other side, a significant portion of the PCA, and most of the ARP, OPC, and RPCNA, are either ambivalent towards or outright reject transformationalism. Neither the EPC nor ECO have a doctrinal position on cultural transformation, and though many churches and pastors value it, my sense is that it operates more as a theoretical aspiration rather than a real practice.

I wonder how much of the effort to make presbyterianism (an historic system of belief, with a defined polity and inherent institutionalism) comport with evangelicalism (an ethos that crosses denominational boundaries) is driven by numerical disparity; evangelicalism finds its origins in Methodism and its most prominent expression in Baptists. Those traditions have been the two largest Protestant groups in the United States for 150 years. Presbyterianism, on the other hand, has never had that kind of numerical clout. So yes, presbyterians hold to biblical authority, but believe faithful scriptural interpretation is creedally and confessionally shaped, which most evangelicals would not affirm. Yes, Presbyterians support spiritual renewal, but have a different understanding of what that means from pietism, which is intertwined with evangelicalism. I don’t think Fortson and company are necessarily wrong on the overlap; some Presbyterians are certainly more evangelical or pietistic than confessional, and some Presbyterian denominations like the EPC and ECO literally have “evangelical” in their name. I find D. G. Hart’s introduction to Recovering Mother Kirk where he asks “are evangelicals presbyterian?” the best articulation of this issue. That’s not to dismiss the symbiotic relationship between American Presbyterians and evangelicals, but that’s a relationship between two different groups instead of one group (evangelical) modifying the other (Presbyterian).

A better alternative to the approach in Reformed and Evangelical is George Marsden’s taxonomy in Reformed Theology in America (and yes, I’m aware Marsden wrote the foreward to Reformed and Evangelical). Marsden says that there are three branches in the American Reformed tradition: the doctrinalist, the pietistic, and the culturalist. Tim Keller famously argued that the PCA is evenly divided between these three impulses. Keller’s comment on Marsden’s categorization is gold.

I am going to use George Marsden’s terminology to describe the Reformed Branches, even though they are rather bland, and each one is a bit negative. Doctrinalists prefer to call themselves ‘confessionalists’ and pietists would rather talk about ‘renewal’ and the reformists or culturalists would perhaps prefer to call themselves ‘kingdom’ people. But in each case the other parties can rightly object that they believe in the confession or in spiritual renewal or in the kingdom as well, and they dislike the implication that they do not. Often the names we choose for ourselves are self-aggrandizing while insinuating negative things about any who differ with us. My roots are in what here is called the ‘pietist’ or ‘revivalist’ wing. I wince at those terms, and would prefer a more noble name, but for the sake of fairness and utility I will use Marsden’s phraseology which is mildly insulting to everyone(!)

This seems a better explanation of the relationship between the Reformed/Presbyterian and evangelicalism. Some of the pietistic and culturalist Reformed will overlap more obviously with evangelicalism, while the doctrinalist are less likely. Marsden is looking at disposition, rather than theological conviction, which is Keller’s point here. What that means is that anyone in any one of these branches could fit snugly into my definition of confessionalist. Or Fortson’s overlap. Or the Bebbington quadrilateral. But none of that overlap is automatic. What tends to happen when overlap is assumed or argued for, as Hart points out, is that the modifier (evangelical) becomes what is really important. But “evangelical” is a disposition, while Presbyterian is a system. What Marsden provides is way to maintain the system without subordinating it the modifier.