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/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.