Collins, professor of historical theology and Wesley studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written an excellent work on American evangelicalism. Particularly helpful is his inclusion of Wesleyan and other voices that are sometimes overlooked in discussions of the evangelical ethos.
The author explains that “this book is principally about understanding American evangelicalism and exploring the promise that it holds for twenty-first-century American religion. It calls, therefore, for an explanation of evangelicalism not simply as an isolated entity, one defined apart by itself in terms of any number of attributes or traits” (p. 12, italics his). But more than that, Collins sets out to show the various dialogue partners within their historical and theological context. “In other words, American evangelicalism, if it is ever to break through the myths and stereotypes, must be considered not in a static way, simply in terms of self-identified attributes or traits, but in a dynamic and relational way, as a movement engaged in various conversations, some of them quite heated, all of which are for the sake of reform” (p. 13, italics his). Using a storytelling approach, Collins locates these narratives within the gospel story. As he puts it, “It is the orality of the movement (a very Protestant trait) that must first of all be grasped and given its proper place if evangelicalism is ever to be properly understood” (p. 13).
The first chapter surveys definitions of evangelicalism and the variety of traditions represented in the movement. A second chapter discusses the theological distinctives of evangelical theology: an emphasis on the normative value of Scripture, the significance of the atonement of Christ, the necessity of conversion, and the imperative of evangelism. An entire chapter is then devoted to the contribution of Wesleyanism to evangelicalism. Collins emphasizes that the Wesleyan influence, through various holiness groups and Pentecostalism, on spirituality and heart reformation, has sometimes been marginalized by Reformed evangelicals’ emphasis on the intellectual. Collins concludes this chapter with the provocative question, “So, then, if there has been a scandal of the evangelical mind, as Noll has claimed, has there also been a scandal of the evangelical soul?” (p. 85).
Collins argues that evangelical theology’s emphasis on correct doctrine and heartfelt piety makes it particularly poised to have an effective gospel ministry in a postmodern world. “Evangelicals have historically been concerned about not only carefully articulating the doctrines of the Christian faith (orthodoxy) but also embracing the truths of the gospel within the depths of the human heart (orthokardia) in a profound, meaningful, and life-transforming way” (p. 91).
Several chapters address the diversity of evangelical perspectives on involvement in politics, engagement with feminist and family concerns, and the promise of ecumenical conversations. Particularly helpful is Collins’s careful evaluation of the conversations between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” and between Lutherans and Roman Catholics which resulted in The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
A final chapter examines the relationship between evangelicalism and the liturgical traditions and the question of evangelical historiography. Collins concludes, “The tradition of the early church can encourage and empower the present community of believers to remain faithful from age to age such that it will ever offer a living witness: mindful of the past and yet prepared for the future; informed by sound doctrine and yet ecumenically open; firm in its commitments and yet loving in its embrace” (p. 205).
The optimistic and positive perspective of the author is captured in the conclusion. “Empowered by faith, ennobled by hope, and invigorated by the love of God so richly manifested in Jesus Christ, the American evangelical community has already picked up the mantle of leadership and is poised for all that lies ahead. This is the evangelical moment. This is the evangelical promise” (p. 211).
Well documented in content, engaging in style, irenic in tone, optimistic in focus, and comprehensive in scope, this book is highly recommended. Every evangelical interested in understanding the present state of the movement in America should read this book.
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