Book Review: The Variety of American Evangelicalism

9781579100544The Variety of American Evangelicalism

ISBN: 9781579100544

Edited By: Donald W. Dayton and Kurt K. Johnston

Wipf & Stock (1997)

Review By: Joe Lee

The editors of the book, Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, have both made significant contributions towards the recent study of American evangelicalism. Dayton, with special interest in the Pentecostal and Wesleyan-Holiness traditions, has received degrees from Houghton College in New York, Yale Divinity School, the University of Kentucky, and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago where he earned a Ph.D. in Christian Theology. His teaching appointments in the field of theology included Asbury Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Drew University, and Azusa Pacific University where he retired in 2004. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wesleyan Theological Society in 2010. Robert K. Johnston, Professor of Theology and Culture, has taught at Fuller Theological Seminary since 1993. He has received degrees from Stanford University, Fuller Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, and Duke University where he earned his Ph.D. His diverse scholarly interests range from evangelicalism, Old Testament Wisdom Literature, to theology and film.

The book, made up of essays written by thirteen contributors, examines the relationship of different traditions to its understanding of evangelicalism in order to better understand the complexity that is American evangelicalism. The traditions/movements evaluated include: Premillennialism, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Adventism, the North American Holiness Movement, the Restorationist Movement, African-American Religion, Baptists, Pietism, Mennonites, Reformed, and Lutheranism.

In light of the essays, two different theses are established by the two respective editors. For Dayton, a major goal for his involvement in the book “has been to display the complexity of these movements, in the hope that we can move beyond easy generalizations to nuanced understanding of these movements and their diversity—a diversity that is compromised from the beginning by any effort to find a common label” (248). Dayton believes the term “evangelical” is no longer useful and hinders the attempt to properly understand the movement, wanting to do away with the term all together. It fails to capture “the range of movement” represented in the book and he would rather see implemented more “useful categories of analysis” (251). Johnston on the other hand, though recognizing its difficulty to define due to its “diversity and scope,” believes the term should be used. He approaches evangelicalism hermeneutically through a familial framework, allowing categorical lines to be blurred while recognizing shared attributes. For Johnston, enough shared attributes exist to constitute a “family resemblance” that is American evangelicalism. Though categorical boundaries need to be softened and the fluidity of the term needs to be recognized, the term “evangelicalism” is necessary to capture the various movements it represents.

Dayton and Johnston have put forward a helpful volume to better understand American evangelicalism in light of the diverse traditions it represents. The reader is given a broad overview of the major traditions/movements traditionally represented under the umbrella of evangelicalism along with different perspectives of evangelicalism from the different contributors. In the end can evangelicalism be properly defined? That’s left up to the reader. Nonetheless in light of all the diversity and complexity involved in the term, a consistent theme throughout the book is that evangelicalism will always be difficult to define.


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