Which transformationalism?

Reading through George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, I came across an interesting comment about late 19th-century Christian transformationalism; it helps, I think, to distinguish genuinely Reformed transformationalism from the civil religion and/or social gospel with which it is frequently confused:

“Americans were easily persuaded that their nation was destined to lead the way in . . . cultural advances. By the Revolution many evangelicals were already loudly proclaiming that the triumph of the American cause and of American principles was a sign of the kingdom [of God]. The spiritual hope was thus partly secularized and nationalized as the American civil religion was born. At the same time, however, the American experiment and the continuing efforts for cultural reform and progress were to a degree Christianized. The idea of transforming the culture fit well with the Calvinist Puritan tradition, but the idea of ‘Christianizing’ the culture never turned out to be as simple as supposed. In some areas – such as the campaign against slavery – evangelicals succeeded somewhat in transforming the culture by Christian standards. In other areas, just as certainly, the culture – with its materialism, capitalist competitiveness and nationalism – helped shaped [sic] American Christianity. Seemingly oblivious to this distinction at the time, evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom.”

This illustrates (and it is too often ignored) that without a robust biblicism undergirding the transformationalist project (i.e., a view of the Bible that takes its authority and truthfulness absolutely seriously), there is no standard for determining whether “progress” is in a Christianizing or secularizing direction.

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