The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: Introduction

This is the first of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology

Evangelicalism has always been a country of competing tribes. Even in the 18th Century revival, the clash between Calvinists and Arminians – made personal in the interactions between Whitfield and Wesley – was enough to cause a split. 19th Century Wesleyan revivalism and its Holiness descendants increasingly grated against the established denominations. And even radical Wesleyans could be shocked at the semi-Pelagian direction in which Charles Finney took Arminianism. In the 20th Century, denominational differences were usually seen as secondary to contentious emerging doctrinal questions. Schisms between mainline and fundamentalist denominations have remained on the American landscape ever since. Baptists and Presbyterians found themselves closer to one another than to colleagues in their own denominations. Since the emergence of Neo-Evangelicalism in the 1940s, there have been a series of shifting tribal alliances. From the 40s-60s it was between those who wanted to completely break free of Fundamentalism and those who still wanted to keep an open dialogue. From the 60s-80s, with the emergence of the charismatic movement, a divide between cessationists and non-cessationists predominated. From the 80s to the 2000s, it was between Conservatives and Postconservatives. However, in that Neo-Evangelicalism has diverged greatly since the millennium, some of these older groupings lack descriptive power. Baptists can be non-cessationists, moderates like Richard Mouw can still desire conversation with Fundamentalism, Conservatives can critically embrace Postmodernist philosophy, and Pentecostals can be at the cutting edge of mainline theology.

Because of this, it may be worth re-drawing the tribal map of Evangelical theology. In this series of articles, I will put on my anthropological hat and explore three theological ‘regions’, each with two competing ‘tribes’. The image here is of wandering nomadic tribes that share the same ancestors and ‘ancestral spirits’, though have diverged from one another. To reference evolutionary theory a kind of speciation has happened. A bit more explanation is needed here.


Theological Geography

Let’s turn to geography. We have Planet Earth. Within our planet there are several continents. In each continent, there are multiple ‘linguistic’ groups, in which you can have mutual understanding in a conversation to a degree, despite speaking different languages. Then there are ‘Nation States’, which are modern administrative and political social structures (which are the successors to Imperial social structures). Then there are ‘countries’. This may sound an odd way of describing things – we in Western Europe tend to think of Nation States and countries as more or less occupying the same space. But this is a relatively modern phenomena, emerging through the tumultuous happenings of 19th and 20th Century nationalism. In most of history and most of the world today, countries are often divided between nation states. Sometimes the boundaries of the nation state are an almost perfect fit to the country (i.e. France, Japan). Sometimes, a nation state incorporates several countries within its borders without two much overlap (i.e. Spain, Canada). Sometimes a country is divided into several nation states (pre-19th Century Italy and Germany). Sometimes the nation state is an arbitrary creation that has almost no connection between the countries and its borders (i.e. much of the Middle East). Sometimes this arbitrariness has been around long enough to create its own distinct culture (i.e. Belgium, India). Sometimes the Nation State is a strange combination of different cultures via immigration (i.e. the United States, Australia, Brazil), or an interaction between indigenous and immigrant cultures (i.e. Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand).

Within a country there are several ‘regions’, with their own distinct climate/landscape/fauna. As human and natural geographies interact, the natural landscape of a region can impact the local human culture, and the increasingly the culture can impact the natural landscape. Within these regions exist a multitude of ‘tribes’, which share many cultural similarities with other tribes in the region, though are distinct enough to be in competition. (More on tribal cultures in a moment). Let’s take the example of the United Kingdom: this is on Planet Earth, in the European Continent, part of both the Latin and Germanic language groups (and so has many overlaps with French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch), and is a nation state which incorporates (at least) four countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland – the latter country being split between two nation states). Within England alone, there are different culturally and naturally distinct regions – including the West Country, the ‘Midlands’, the North East etc. In each of these regions there are distinct tribal areas. As someone who was raised in the ‘Black Country’ area of the Midlands (i.e. from Wolverhampton), don’t let me catch you calling me a ‘Brummie’ (i.e. from Birmingham).

It is possible to treat ‘thought’ with a similar geographical mapping. In a similar way to how physical geographical regions shape the concerns, the culture, and the interests of human groupings, the intellectual geographical region does the same for thinkers.

If Christianity itself is analogous to ‘Planet Earth’, let us imagine Latin Christianity to be a continent. Within that continent are different language groups – Roman Catholic, Protestant etc. Though some ‘words’ (or aspects of thinking) can be shared, you need to spend quite a bit of time learning the other language group in order to understand its language. These language groups are divided into several ‘Nation States’ or ‘denominations’. A denomination is a political and social structure akin to the Nation State, in that it can be divided up into similar categories. Sometimes the borders of a denomination is equal to the theological 'countries’ within it (i.e. Roman Catholicism). Sometimes a country is divided into a multitude of denominations (i.e. Pentecostalism, Orthodoxy). Sometimes a denomination is an arbitrary combination of several theological countries (i.e. Anglicanism, with its combination of Evangelical, Catholic and Liberal traditions). Denominations do have an impact on the countries within them – an Evangelical Anglican will often have a very different style and outlook to an Evangelical Southern Baptist.

As such, theological ‘countries’ don’t necessarily map onto denominational structures. In the ‘Protestant’ language group, you can find mainline liberal, traditional and Evangelical countries that spread across various boundaries. These have different dialects, which means communication is not always easy. In the same way that an Irish woman from British Ulster can have an easier conversation with someone from Irish Ulster than a fellow British citizen from the West Country, an Evangelical in the Methodist denomination may have an easier conversation with an Evangelical in the Anglican denomination than a liberal in their own denomination. Yet Evangelicalism is its own wide country with various geographical regions within it. Even though the country is shared – they are not Catholics, nor liberals – distinct accents and cultures have developed, corresponding to ‘regions’. For instance, those in the ‘Catholic’ region of Evangelical theology have a shared love of the Patristics and the need for ressourcement from previous theological eras. They are less likely to ask the question, ‘But is this innovative?’ as something positive. Those who live in the ‘Revisionist’ region are less concerned with the vision of the past and are more interested in the new opportunities that are emerging. They are less likely to ask, ‘But isn’t this moving away from the Reformation Confessions?’ as a negative question. Theologians from different theological regions are less likely to encounter one another: they go to different conferences, read different books, even write for different journals. Their journeys out of these areas are usually for ‘trading purposes’ (i.e. research) or ‘tourism’ (i.e. interested in what is being written).


Theological Tribes

However, just because there are ‘theological regions’ doesn’t mean that everyone ‘gets along’ within them. In these regions there are different ‘theological tribes’. Tribes have a shared experience of being shaped by their cultural surroundings. They may have similar stories, ancestors, and cultural gestures. However, they are nevertheless independent social units, with their own councils and hierarchies. They have their own taboos and conceptions of pollution. Mary Douglas (following after William James) defined dirt as ‘matter out of place’,[1] which is to say that ‘dirt’ is not necessarily about health, but more about what doesn’t fit in a social structure. Revulsion to perceived dirt is revulsion to the structural outlier. Similarly for theological tribes, ‘thought out of place’ is dirty and polluted. Someone from the Classical Conservative tribe may feel a sense of quiet revulsion when an Evangelical theologian of the Classical Postconservative tribe starts talking about other religions have a saving knowledge of God – it is consider ‘dirty thought’, thought out of place within tribal conceptual order, and potentially polluting. The Classical Postconservative may be far more relaxed with ‘dirty thought’ regarding other religions; however, their own tribal fears of pollution become apparent when they see the Classical Conservative up close with ‘dirty’ Fundamentalism. ‘Revulsion’ isn’t always obvious. Tell someone from the Confessional Catholic tribe that Protestant Scholasticism is unbiblical and you may see eyes rolled. For them, your statement is ‘thought out of place’ – the eye roll is them not wanting to get too close to a ‘dirty thought’.

Tribes are in ‘competition’ for domination of the region with other tribes. This doesn’t necessarily mean outright fighting, though it does mean a perpetual tension (sometimes with violent outbreaks). Once more, it is the same with theological tribes. Conservatives tend to have their own ‘councils’ (conferences) and ‘hierarchies’ (the big voices) which are set apart from Postconservatives, even though they share the same theological region (Classical Evangelical theology). Furthermore, there are occasional scraps over ownership of the ‘watering holes’ (i.e. who has professorships, blog-fights etc). However, it is not always the case that there are tensions between tribes in a theological region – ‘Revisionists’ of Barthian and Pentecostal tribes are usually very friendly with one another, being asked to speak at one another’s conferences, be part of one another’s journals and books. This is due to the shared sense of being outcasts from more established regions.

This is not to say that there are not clashes between regions – there are – nor that each region or tribal is a self-contained unit – they’re not. Indeed, all the ‘new regions’ and the tribes within them have journeyed out of the original ‘Classical’ region. Some ‘regions’ have moved so far away that they find themselves closer to new theological countries than to their old ancestral homelands. For instance, Evangelical Catholics may find that they interact far more with Roman Catholics or Postliberal Mainliners than they do with Classical Conservatives. Some, such as Radical Postconservatives and Revisionists have moved so far away that they no longer feel the need to pay deference to the old ‘ancestral spirits’ (the Henrys, Grahams and Stotts). The risk here is that such tribes and regions find themselves incorporated into other theological countries – a radical Classical Postconservative Evangelical could find that they are really a mainline liberal; the Ecumenical Evangelical Catholic may find that they are more at home in Anglo or Roman Catholicism, or even journeying all the way across the ocean to Orthodoxy. Often, the journeying to a different country is marked by changing citizenship to a new denomination (i.e. Reinhard Hütter’s epic journey from Pentecostal Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism via Presbyterian Postliberalism).

Sometimes, there are individuals who are members of both tribes within a region or who have spent considerable time with the other tribe as to almost be a member of both (Richard Mouw and Alister McGrath in Classical Evangelicalism, Myk Habets in Revisionist Evangelicalism). Sometimes you get unusual figures who even straddle regions. Kevin Vanhoozer was a young Postconservative – and is still recognised as such – but is also an elder chieftain of Confessional Evangelical Catholicism. James K.A. Smith manages to be both a Confessional and Ecumenical Evangelical Catholic, as well as being a chieftain in the Pentecostal Revisionist tribe. Perhaps such figures could almost be considered nomadic merchants or even wandering minstrels!


Mapping the Terrain

Let’s give a bit more detail to help us map the country of Evangelical theology. First, we have the ask the question of what constitutes this theological country. This is in itself a contested question because the very nature of Evangelicalism is a contested issue. Some would argue for a narrow demographic, i.e. that it is only those theologians who accept Protestant dogma alongside an inerrantist interpretation of the Bible. Yet, as Michael Bird has noted, this American-centric interpretation would rule out much of the Evangelicalism of the Majority world. More loosely, some would say that Evangelical theology are those theologians who are working within either the a) Reformation paradigm (how the term is used to describe the Lutheran and Reformed theology of continental Europe), or b) the Great Awakening paradigm. The problem with either is that it goes too far. Using the former would require recognising the radical liberal theology of Paul Tillich as ‘Evangelical’; using the latter would require recognising Methodist Process theologian John Cobb as an ‘Evangelical’ because his denomination’s history emerges from the Great Awakening. Either narrow or loose interpretations fall flat in this respect. The former because it places too much emphasis on a doctrinal-cognitive definition and therefore lacks much room for manoeuvre (leaving Evangelicalism looking very white, middle class and American), the latter because it places too much emphasis on a historical-sociological definition and therefore is too expansive.

Timothy Larsen’s definition has the benefit of recognising both doctrinal-cognitive aspects and historical-sociological. For Larsen, an Evangelical is the following:

  1. an orthodox Protestant
  2. who stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revival movements associated with John Wesley and George Whitfield;
  3. who has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice;
  4. who stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross;
  5. and who stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual to bring about conversion and an ongoing life of fellowship with God and service to God and others, including the duty of all believers to participate in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all people.[2]

I would happily stand by this, though with the added caveat of emphasising communities rather than just individuals, i.e. ‘orthodox Protestant communities’. Without wanting to replace Larsen’s definition, I would add my own to complement his. Mine is built on a sociological-historical base, which is refined through a loose doctrinal-cognitive definition. We begin with the famous ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’. David Bebbington defined Evangelicalism by identifying its four distinguishing marks: conversionism (emphasis on conversion experiences), activism (an active laity sharing the gospel and engaged in good works); biblicism (emphasis on the Bible as the heart of theological and spiritual life), and crucicentrism (salvation through the work of Christ on the Cross).[3]  Evangelical theology can be defined at its most historically and sociologically basic as the following:

the doctrinal and social thinking which emerges from the Protestant ecclesial cultures which emphasise biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism in their spiritual practice

This recognises that Evangelical theology emerges from real communities with certain practices and emphases. In itself, it is limited in that it doesn’t recognise either the degree to which theologians can be critical of their base communities, nor give any content to what this kind of theology means (after all, Jehovah’s Witnesses could potentially be included in this definition). Therefore to this historical-sociological explanation for where Evangelical theology comes from, I add a further doctrinal-cognitive definition, drawing on Larsen:

the doctrinal and social thinking emerging from the orthodox Protestant ecclesial cultures which emphasise biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism in their spiritual practice. Such thinking stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross applied to ecclesial cultures by the Holy Spirit; and gives a preeminent place for the Bible in Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice through which the thinking and practices of its communities are evaluated.

It’s quite a long definition, but I think it encompasses most of the theology discussed in the next six articles. This is the ‘country’ in which Evangelical theology exists.

Within this country, I can see three regions, and within each region there are two tribes (this is, of course, a very simplified version of the reality – there are many sub-tribal units within each tribe, with clans and households within that). The main regions are as follows:

1) The Classicists. These are those theologians who continue to pursue Evangelical theology within the framework of the post-war, pre-millennial era. They are most likely to pay homage to the great ‘ancestral spirits’ of the Evangelical movement, Wesley and Edwards (though for some Hodge would also be included). They also place intellectual offerings upon the shrines of the great post-war ‘ancestral spirits’: Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer. Such figures are in many ways still a living presence. Classicists can be divided into two tribes competing within this region: Classical Conservative Evangelicals and Classical Postconservative Evangelicals.

2) The Catholics. These are those theologians who look back to even older and more powerful ancestors than the Evangelical ancestral spirits. They seek to resource Evangelical theology by returning to those older powerful ancestors (the Patristics, Thomas, Luther, Calvin etc). This region can also be divided into two tribes: Confessional Evangelical Catholics and Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics.

3) The Revisionists. Like the Catholics, these theologians pay little attention to the post-war ancestors, and relativise the importance of the great Evangelical ancestral spirits (or at least discovered an untapped power at their shrines). However, unlike the Catholics they have discovered the power of new ancestors not recognised in the Classical region, such as Karl Barth or Jean-Jacques Suurmond. Such theologians seek to radically move on from the frame of reference set by both Classical and Catholic forms of Evangelical theology. They can be divided into two tribal units: Barthian Revisionist Evangelicals and Pentecostal Revisionist Evangelicals.

The following seven articles are an overview of some of the trends in contemporary Evangelical theology. We will begin by looking at the Classicists – the region from where all the other regions travelled from – first the Conservatives and then the Postconservatives. The next two articles will look at the Catholics (Confessional then Ecumenical), followed by two articles about the Revisionists (Barthians then Pentecostals). I will conclude with a final article exploring the ‘future’ of Evangelical theology (a foolhardy task if there ever was one).

Undoubtedly, I will have missed out a few key figures in the following articles. For that I apologise. Nevertheless, I hope it may spark interest in some of the theological regions and tribes involved, perhaps an opportunity to learn some new dialects, as well as demonstrate the rich fecundity and diversity of the regions within that strange but beautiful country called Evangelical theology. Every article will be referenced with a considerable number of books in the footnotes, which may help give you an opening for exploring the rich expanses of this wondrous terrain.



[1] Mary Douglas, Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London: Routledge, 2000, first published 1966), p.36.

[2] Timothy Larsen, ‘Defining and locating evangelicalism’, in Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), p.1

[3] D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1970s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), p.2-17

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