2005-09-08

Evangelicalism begins to crack apart

Every evangelical who has an understanding of Church history knows about the grave threat posed to the church in the late 19th century - Liberal theology.

Influenced by The Enlightenment and Modernism, Liberal theology sought to demystify the Christian faith and bring it under rationalist scrutiny. While the movement brought with it much needed scholarship to the Christian faith, its effect was to slowly drain away the spiritual life of individual Christians who were caught up in it.

These days, of course, evangelicals are not so worried about the fight against liberal theology any more. Liberal churches and denominations are in terminal decline, while evangelical churches are stronger than ever. In terms of numbers, the evangelicals have won.

So why was it that early 20th century evangelicals like J. Gresham Machen and others spent so much time attacking the movement and defending the historic Christian faith? The problem was that theological liberalism was ascendent in the church at the time - it was highly influential and it appeared to be unstoppable. Machen, and others, kept true to the gospel, knowing that God would vindicate their stand over time.

I have been prompted to write this piece after reading Phil Johnson's blog Peddling Mormonism as mainstream Christianity. In this blog, Johnson speaks about the fact that Eerdmans, an Evangelical publishing company, has recently published a book A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter Day Saints. A book on Mormonism by an evangelical publishing company is hardly new - except that in this case the author himself is a Mormon apologist and goes to great lengths to present his faith as being consistent with historical Christianity.

I'll let you visit Phil's blog to read his comments about this particular book. There's actually no problem about such a book being published - except that it has the name Eerdmans attached to it.

Ever since IVP started to publish books by Open Theists, I started to wonder if there was anything that modern evangelical publishing companies were unwilling to promote. Heresy, unfortunately, sells more books than orthodoxy, and when these publishing companies are bought out by non-Christians (such as Zondervan being taken over by HarperCollins), it is shareholders, not God, who need to be served.

But its not the publishing companies that should be blamed - the problem is with modern evangelicalism itself. If the movement had stuck with the old fashioned method of preaching and teaching only that which is found in Scripture, and proclaiming only the Gospel of Christ, then none of this would have happened. In fact, it is sadly ironic that modern evangelicalism has deviated so much from the truth that it does not even meet the criteria of what historic evangelicals believed. If James Spurgeon's new book is to be believed, even modern Fundamentalists have departed from the truth.

The fact that Eerdmans can release a book written by a Mormon apologist is not really such a huge issue - it is, however, one of those important "road signs" that help establish where modern evangelicalism is going. It doesn't mean that the church is suddenly going to accept Mormons, but it does mean that the church generally is in deep trouble.

The problem is that I am obviously one of those in the minority. The very fact that this book can be sold in Christian bookshops points to the fact that there is a market for unbelievers to write books for the Christian market. More than that, the fact that I speak up about it ensures that I will be pilloried for being judgemental or pharisaical or whatever. And of course not just me, but every Christian who stands up to it.

This generation of believers needs Machen-like figures to stand up and be counted. There's no easy "box" to place this wholesale movement away from the truth since evangelicals of all different stripes have been affected by it. I spent a great deal of time writing a Wikipedia article entitled Criticisms of Charismatic and Pentecostal belief as a way to help rebalance things for the future, but the problem of an unbiblical church is one that goes beyond our easily defined boundaries.

This is why it is so important for churches to become more confessional in their statement of beliefs. Churches need to explicitly link their system of beliefs to one of the historic evangelical creeds such as the Westminster Confession or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. There should also be explicit adherences to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and, probably best of all, the 1996 Cambridge Declaration which addresses the very issues raised in this article.

The fight certainly needs to take place on the public stage, but it needs also to be taken into the pulpits. Although it is important to mention the many problems besetting modern evangelicalism, preachers need to commit themselves to the systematic exposition of scripture and to ensure that the Gospel is central to both their preaching and to public worship generally. This simple and undemonstrative activity will ensure that the listeners are empowered by the Spirit to continue to trust in Christ and respond to God's grace through loving obedience.

It was these churches - the ones that remained true to God's word and continued to preach the gospel - that were able to survive the liberal onslaught in the 20th century. It will be these same churches that will survive the heterodoxy that will increasingly typify the evangelical movement in the 21st century.





From the Theosalient Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/


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9 comments:

David C. Kanz said...

Salient,

Excellent again.

For a look at the product of proper training take a look at the documents I have posted at www.bccfp.blogspot.com.

I do not think the organized church in America is made up of the same stuff...wood, hay and stubble does not survive fire.

Paul W said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul W said...

Neil,

A number of things come to mind when I read this article. First, I think you rightly point to the fact that generic, trans-denominational 'Evangelicalism' has never really been a confessional movement across demoninations. It has always been a world populated with celebrities, fads, parachurch ministries, favourite preachers, and so on divorced from any real confessional or ecclesial context. Although things like "inerrancy" and the "fundamentals" are arguably important, rallying around individual doctrines like these does not create a coherent intellectual or spiritual movement.

J. Gresham Machen actually believed the quasi-denominational world of fundamentalism (and we could say its daughter Evangelicalism) would never be robust enough to stand up to the challenges of modernist theology. Only Evangelicals with definite ecclesial identitities--Anglican, Presbyterian, etc--could do that.

Second, I believe the Cambridge Declaration is largely an exercise in futility. It is trying to create a shape for a movement which has never had shape. And it is trying to "recall" Evangelicalism to something it has never been.

What also bothers me about the Cambridge Declaration is that it takes the conflicts of post-Reformational times and the early 20th century as if they are still the battle today. The Cambridge Declaration does not address the problem of gospel and culture or the very real issue of religious relativism.

One Salient Oversight said...

Hmmm, I'm not really too sure about your views on the Cambridge Declaration. Maybe I'm reading through my own ideas...

Everything I read in the declaration seems to make complete sense when applied to the problems facing the church today. Can you tell me which bits of the CD you are referring to? There is a link to the document itself within my article.

Paul W said...

Neil,

I myself agree with the five solas of the Cambridge Declaration. But I wonder whether the things the Declaration decries are partly the result of the Evangelical gospel articulated by the churches which make up the historic Evangelical movement from the 18th century onwards. I liken the problems Evangelicalism is now facing to car companies’ testing of their vehicles under all sorts of conditions to see if they are roadworthy or safe. With this testing, they find weaknesses they would otherwise not see. The problems are always there, but they do not come to light except under extreme circumstances. The weaknesses may affect the normal operation of the car, but the vibration, the pull, the leak or whatever, is not great enough to notice under certain conditions.

Here’s the application of my analogy: I believe the "rattling" and "strong vibrations" we observe in many EPC today churches highlight weaknesses and distortions in the gospel that many Evangelicals have derived from the Reformation and post-Reformation movements. At an earlier stage in history, people could not detect the "rattling" or "strong" vibrations in the gospel derived from these movements, nevertheless, they have always been there. It has taken the extreme cultural conditions of modernity and post-modernity to detect these problems in this gospel.

I personally have little problem with much of what the Cambridge Declaration says. Almost every Evangelical church holds to the five solas the Declaration articulates. Yet I wonder whether the problems we're seeing in Evangelicalism aren't so much to do with a failure to emphasise these things, but with the fact that the gospel which many Evangelicals have derived from the Reformation and post-Reformation movements is inherently weak at certain points.

One Salient Oversight said...

For a start, I think a large swathe of Evangelical churches, and virtually all C/P churches, do not hold to Sola Scriptura.

In many of the C/P churches & gatherings that I have visited, the gospel has been completely absent. In one case, a gospel of works was presented.

You're being a little vague about what these "rattlings" are - you mention something about being hung up on the reformation.

So I'll just come out and ask - do you like NT Wright?

One Salient Oversight said...

Witch Hunt completed! ;)

http://paulwhiting.blogspot.com/2005/07/thoughts-on-studying-historical-jesus.html

Paul W said...

Do I like N. T. Wright? I must admit that I've read quite a bit of him and do get a lot out of him. Yet, as with a superstar in my field of sociology like Anthony Giddens, I often feel impatient with him. This is because he has become like an F. F. Bruce, Alister McGrath and D. A. Carson. Wright seems to have an opinion on everything, whether its biblical exegesis, church history, Reformation theology or cultural trends like postmodernity.

I know of a P/C church in my city that has recently run and encouraged its members to partcipate in a Landmark Forum seminar. This makes me very sad because I couldn't think of anything more antithetical to the gospel than the ideology of Landmark. I wonder how has a Pentecostal church got to the point where it doesn't know the difference between Christian theology and Werner Erhard? Or does it not even care about the difference?

One Salient Oversight said...

I just checked out who Werner Erhard is - you're right.

When I was teaching in a Christian school here in Newcastle many years ago, we had an all-day staff meeting about 1 week before the beginning of term. I remember that during the day, the principal would have slides of pithy messages projected on the screen during breaks between seminars. They included statements by Ghandi and Einstein among others.

My honest feeling is that P/C churches have relied so much upon "the spirit" for guidance that they have abandoned Sola Scriptura. Without a solid foundation to build on, many P/C churches are moving towards heterodoxy.

Just before I left that school (a looooong story) I heard the school chaplain preach in morning chapel. His teachings were Pelagian.

PS my wife is a social worker. We have Giddens on our bookshelf.