AestheticsChurch HistoryEvangelical

Evangelicalism Is Moving Backwards in Some Ways

Contemporary Westerners seem to believe, at least most of the time, that society is either driving forward into new territory or staying the same. This idea is firmly reinforced by the popular terms “progressive” and “conservative”; the progressives drag society forward, and conservatives dig their heels into the ground, hoping to keep things exactly as they are. The same idea, from what I can tell, holds true within Western evangelicalism: progressives are trying to move Christianity in new directions, into uncharted territory, as conservatives strive to uphold the status quo and to keep grips on an armload of doctrines that have been around since time immemorial. The language is rightly contested, since it is obviously loaded; “progressive” thinking seems good, because progress is good. But there is another serious concern that is not given sufficient attention: even if we agree to use the popular metaphor and conceptualize any semi-reasonable new thinking as forward, “progressive” movement, we cannot reasonably ignore, as many do, the possibility of movement in other directions, either lateral or backward. (I concede that not everyone ignores this possibility; in secular society, opponents of traditional morality are particularly sensitive to the alleged risk of flying backward to the “Dark Ages.”) A newly popular idea might not be truly original; perhaps forces are driving evangelicalism toward an idea that was popular in generations past. This, I believe, is precisely what is happening in the case of some trends in contemporary Western evangelicalism, for better or for worse.

One notable case is the shift in evangelical beliefs about the relationship between Christianity and visual art. Much history underlies this underappreciated subject. Early Christians were not always enthusiastic about religious artistry,[1] but by the High Middle Ages, visual art was a large part of the church’s glory. Architecture, frescoes, statues, and innumerable other creations both expressed and inspired devotion. The Reformation brought drastic change; many Protestants preferred wrecking religious art over creating it. Statues were toppled, images removed, and crucifixes taken down, not always with the permission of the owners or authorities. In England, even Queen Elizabeth’s chapel royal was targeted by iconoclasts. No fewer than four times, objects such as a crucifix were damaged or taken, though in every case the persistent queen restored her chapel to the way she wanted it.[2] The reasons, as could be expected, were theological and pastoral. For example, Nicholas Ridley, a Reformation-era bishop and later one of the Oxford martyrs, argued that religious images should not be set up in churches because to do so would be to transgress the second commandment.[3]

Since the initial rush of the Reformation, Protestantism has not been truly iconoclastic for the most part. A tasteful portrait of Jesus has decorated many a bedroom and church foyer over the years, and stained-glass windows have been enjoyed in many traditional churches, even ones in the Reformed tradition. Still, the embrace of art has been rather restrained, particularly by evangelicals without historic church buildings. Nave walls have remained bare, and Protestant religious artwork has not captivated the public eye and heart as Catholic art has. This attitude is largely pragmatic: Why pay for art when those funds could be supporting a missionary? At times there is also a general distaste for visual art of any kind, religious or not, perhaps fuelled by a disdain for the material world.

In recent decades, matters have been changing. Evangelical artist Cameron J. Anderson traces the development of a more positive evaluation of art from Francis Schaeffer in the 1970s through organization- and institution-driven initiatives in the 1990s and beyond.[4] From my view of the field, it appears that the trend Anderson observes is widespread and is still progressing; evangelicals are learning to love, support, and create art, including visual art. There are now high-profile evangelical painters whose work testifies to Christian convictions in an authentic and non-propagandistic way. Many local churches, even if they do not make any permanent changes to their buildings, seem to be supportive and occasionally invite artists to give presentations. I even know one evangelical painter who has done live artwork on the platform during church services. One church that hosted him has an Anabaptist background, and only a generation or two ago its members likely would have snorted at the thought of a visual artist painting at the front during their corporate worship.

I suspect that the shift has something to do with the changing way in which evangelicals are engaging with Western culture. As people become more and more hesitant to identify the surrounding society and many of its activities with the Johannine “world,” appreciation for the arts seems much more sensible.[5] The attractional value of art may also score points with churches that have an emphasis on evangelism. Whatever the reasons, evangelicalism appears to be in a phase of retrieval in which it is relearning how to appreciate art, to draw out the implications of the goodness of the created world, and to bring under the lordship of Christ all those aspects of society that fulfill or express God-given yearnings of the human soul. Some of what is being recovered, I contend, was the possession of high medieval and late medieval Christianity and was lost sometime during or after the throes of the Reformation, however needed the Reformation may have been. Western evangelicals are therefore, in some sense, moving backward toward an era long past.

Another backward-looking trend concerns creation and evolution. Before Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, Christians had varying beliefs about the date and duration of creation, the popular opinion being that the universe was created in six consecutive days only four thousand years or so before the coming of Christ. Upon its publicization, Darwin’s theory provoked much discussion and controversy, since it contradicted not only the idea of a “young” earth but also the standard belief that God had created humans specially and instantly, not gradually. Among Christians there was, once again, a range of opinions. Some argued that at least some elements of evolution could be reconciled with orthodox theology, and others declared that the notion of evolution was wrong and incompatible with true Christianity. Although many opponents of Darwinian thinking believed in an “old” earth, the twentieth century saw a resurgence of young-earth creationism among those who rejected evolution.[6] It would likely be accurate to say that for many evangelicals who grew up in the English-speaking world during the final few decades of the twentieth century, young-earth creationism was understood to be a central doctrine of the Christian faith that was on par with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The landscape appears to be shifting. There is still a powerful young-earth party, of which Ken Ham is the most famous representative, but I sense that it no longer captivates the evangelical heart as it once did. Old-earth creationism is attractive: it has strong and biblically faithful arguments to support it, and its proponents can happily follow what mainstream science says about the age of the earth without facing the theological questions or problems posed by Darwinian thinking. But more striking is the rise of theistic evolution, also called evolutionary theism or evolutionary creation. This position attempts to harmonize Christian theology with evolution, positing that God used evolution as a means of creating the world and its various life forms, including the human species. Today, a considerable number of prominent evangelical intellectuals subscribe to this position, and the organization BioLogos seems to be giving further solidity and respectability to the theological camp. Many seem to think that the rise of this position is new, that its proponents have left the safety of established thought for the chaos of the unknown. But in reality, theistic evolutionists are defending a position that was developed over a century ago. Many of them would likely agree with Victorian divine Frederick Temple that the author of Genesis “took nature as he saw it, and expressed his teaching in language corresponding to what he saw” and that “the doctrine of Evolution, in so far as it has been shown to be true, does but fill out in detail the declaration that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well [Ps 139:14].’”[7] What we are seeing, then, is a strengthening of an established position.

I do not wish to give a detailed appraisal of these trends here, though I do wish to register my general support of Christian visual art. What I want to offer is a brief recommendation: those who move backward should recognize that they are moving backward and use this knowledge to their advantage. There are obvious advantages to doing so. Studying the history of an idea often provides a much fuller picture of the idea, allowing one to consider whether it is worth pursuing after all. Moreover, if the idea is to be pursued, understanding the twists and turns of the past can help one avoid pitfalls and find the best path. The end result should be a wiser community of evangelicals and a stronger future for evangelicalism. Attaining these benefits may not be as glamorous as claiming progress, but it will be worth it.

The header image shows part of the front of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, UK. Photo credit: David Doherty. Used with permission from the Cathedral.

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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