21 July 2005

Living in the aftermath of the great evangelical disaster

Time magazine's recent photo essay on "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals" would have been enough all by itself to convince me the evangelical movement has suffered a fatal meltdown. The list included people like T. D. Jakes, who denies the Trinity; former Lutheran-turned-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus; Joyce Meyer, the jet-setting charismatic prosperity-gospel preacherette; and Brian McLaren, the postmodern pastor who dilutes almost every historic evangelical distinctive he doesn't outright deny, and whose views on the authority of Scripture undermine the concept of truth itself.

Thirty years ago, not one of those people would have been included in any list of evangelicals. They are not evangelicals in the historic sense of the word.

What has changed? The answer is clear: the concept of evangelicalism has been expanded to become virtually all-inclusive. The word evangelical has lost its historic meaning. These days it means everything—and it therefore means nothing.

So while evangelicalism may seem to be gaining clout and respectability in the eyes of secular media like Time, the truth is that evangelicals themselves are actually less evangelical. The movement has collapsed on itself.

By the way, it is clear where Time magazine thinks evangelicalism's clout is being felt the most—and it's not in spiritual matters. It's mostly in the realm of politics and entertainment—pop culture.

The word evangelical used to describe a well-defined theological position. What made evangelicals distinct was their commitment to the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Now "evangelicalism" is a political movement, and its representatives hold a wide variety of theological beliefs—from Neuhaus's Roman Catholicism to Jakes's heretical Sabellianism, to Joyce Meyer's radical charismaticism, to Brian McLaren's anti-scriptural postmodernism. There's only one person in Time's entire list who would remotely qualify as an evangelical theologian: J. I. Packer. And Packer himself has been on a quest for the past 20 years to make evangelicalism as broad and ecumenical as possible.

Frankly, none of the people highlighted above would even agree among themselves on any of the points of doctrine that make their respective views distinctive. They probably wouldn't even agree on the essential points of the gospel message. The one thing they clearly do agree on is that they'd like to see the evangelical movement become as broad and inclusive as possible.

But that's not really historical evangelicalism, is it? That kind of latitudinarianism has always belonged to Socinians, Deists, modernists, and theological liberals. It is antithetical to the historic principles of the evangelical movement.


Sangroncito said...

I don't know. You evangelicals scare me. Your matchbook wants to set the world on fire. Seems like you are succeeding at that. Scary, indeed.

Matt said...

Agreed, Phil. Which is better? 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace, or the sound of the watchman's trumpet?

Trumpets, any day, thank you very much.

Savage Baptist said...

I've thought for a long time that we were in trouble,but I have come to know for sure over the last few years as a result of a widely-known evangelism program. Whatever else you might be able to say about it, it does have one absolutely killer thing going for it: its "key question," which is, "In your personal opinion, what do you think it takes for a person to go to heaven?"

The answers, often from people who've grown up in Baptist or Methodist churches, are scary. Almost without exception, the answers are "works" answers. I see so many elderly and middle-aged people giving "works" answers that I can't help but think that evangelicals, despite the inordinate number of programs put in place, still have not always been successful in making the gospel clear--for decades! If we fail to communicate the truth on a regular basis, what can we expect but what we are now seeing?

Savage Baptist said...

As an addition to my last comment, I do know that the hardened, unregenerate heart won't "hear" the gospel no matter how clearly it is preached--but I still think that as a whole, we are not doing nearly as good a job as we could and should.

Kim said...

Great beagle picture. A lot thinner than mine.

Renee said...

In the eyes of TIME magazine (and the world)...sadly, successful equates to numbers, numbers....and yes...numbers (and if there is a lot of money involved...even better).

I have to agree with Dan Paden's comment also... I hear many people who give "works" based answers and actually say it is more important to "feed the poor" and run a soup kitchen (just an example of the types of answers) than it is to preach the Good News. The Gospel comes second to the good feeling the "believer" gets from "helping others".

Jeff Wright said...

Well written piece. When those are the faces of evangelicalism, what does that say to a lost world?

Thanks for the write up.

Richard D said...

What exactly has Packer done that is ecumenical in nature? Apparently, I'm out of the loop on this one.

Call to Die said...

Didn't Packer sign Evangelicals and Catholics Together?

Steven H said...

Is it any wonder that the world is confused identifying evangelicals when professing evangelicals have no consistent convictions of the content of the gospel and the Person of God?

ETS’(Evangelical Theological Society, www.etsjets.org) requirement for being a member must sign their doctrinal basis which states, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”

Though their statement is foundational, where is the Deity of Christ? Where is the substitutionary atonement? Where is faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works? Where is the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ? Where is the eternal omniscience of God? Where is the wrath of God?

Ian Murray’s book Evangelicalism Divided rightly concludes that the greatest need for the Church today is to define what is a Christian.

puritanicoal said...

The dissolution of the word "evangelical" reminds me of a line from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters:

". . . all that, your patient would probably classify as "Puritanism" - and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life."

In other words, Satan achieved victory over "Puritanism" by simply manipulating the value of the word itself, not by attacking its underlying principles.

Nomenclature, it seems, should be guarded as deeply as the beliefs to which it attaches.

Dave Davis said...

Hey Phil,

Where did you get the picture of that church?

That looks like one in St. Louis MO where I live.

Just wondering??????

Phil Johnson said...


Good eye. I got the picture from a Google image search for a burnt-out church. I found the picture here. Apparently the ruins of this church no longer exist. But the feeling evoked by the picture seemed to fit well with my blogpost.

Tony Byrne said...

When looking at the condition of the so called "church" today, what does it mean to call out for Reform? We are in a radically different context than the situation in the 1500's. I don't think the lines were as blurred then as they are today. Back then, people killed each other over truth, while today's culture yawns at the notion of truth. Today, if one wants to state what authentic Christianity is and call out for reform, their view would be looked upon as relative and boring.

It's easy to call out for Reform, but to define what that means in today's context is not easy to say. Thinking about the way or method to Reform is even more difficult. Since I have been in a Bible college and in seminary contexts, I am used to the usual canned replies on this. However, when you think about it more deeply, it's much more easy to identify the problem than it is to know how to fix it.

It seems to me that Reformation today will not be like that in Luther's day. It will not be easy to identify. Reformation today will occur gradually as local churches return to New Testament principles, and trust God for the outcome. The good teaching that occurs in seminaries must go on in the local church. Reformation will have to happen in families, and then in local churches.

This is all easy to say, but even these suggestions are laden with difficulties given our modern context. Families and churches are fractured and individualized.

It's as if we are looking at the state of the church today as those who look at accidents on the road. We turn our necks and wonder what happened. We stare for awile, then we are forced to return and conform to the driving situation around us.

Those crying out for Reform are the one's staring at the accident. They know there is a serious problem. After they look away, they return to functioning as they are expected to function in the "Church" today. It's unthinkable for them to consider bringing seminary level teaching into the local churches, and to direct their funds that way. It's unthinkable for them to consider training leaders from within their local congregations. If they want a "pastor," then do a search for someone outside who has the right credentials. Forget the fact that we really don't know the person, so long as they have jumped through the seminarian hoops and are recommended with some "experience." After the cry for Reform, then comes the return to the status quo. Then, to keep up our carnal ways of "doing church", we beg for money. Welcome to evangelicalism today!

Sled Dog said...

So, now I propose that everyone stop wringing their hands and pointoing their fingers and come up with suggestions about how to address the issue! It's not an "us versus them" issue, for once it becomes that, we become like the pharisee who was so proud of his tithing and religiosity.

I am fearful that what the keepers of evangelicalism will do is to continue to peer over the walls of the fortress, complaining about how somebody stole their precious take on Christianity. Friends, you're gonna have to come out of the fortress!

Carla showed the guys up with these words from her blog:

"I believe, evangelicism is not in critical condition, as it might seem. I believe evangelicism is also not in a crisis. I believe things are happening exactly as the Scriptures said they would.

I also believe and know, there are still those out there in evangelicism, that hold to the faith, write about it, preach about it, teach about it, and encourage others in it. Sharing the gospel with the lost, holding Bible studies, going on missions trips, speaking at conferences, exposing false teachers and false teachings - holding such things up to the light of Scripture for close examination. Edifying, exhorting, and guarding the body of Christ, just as Scripture says we ought to be doing.

I am encouraged. You should be also."

Thanks, Carla

Folks, Evangelicalism is lost. Gone. Bye-bye.

But Christ, His Word, The Gospel...they are just as strong as they ever have been!

Jason Robertson said...

Phil, do you see any common thread among those on the list of 50? I know that some of these people are Biblically sound, some are heretics and some just make me scratch my head as to how they made the list. But, again, do you see any important common thread among the people on the list? PS thanks for the BlogSpot for Fide-0.

Steven H said...

Contrary to a couple of comments, evangelicalism is not dead. The issue being manifested is evangelicalism’s wide-spread departure from the biblical faith. Error does not simply die; e.g. liberalism, the denial of the Deity of Christ, etc. all exists in abundance.

The point that Phil made is that “The word evangelical has lost its historic meaning. These days it means everything—and it therefore means nothing.” Since this is agreed upon, one must ask if there is hope for a remedy within. If not, then those who are faithful as Carla and Sled Dog spoke about, ought to remove themselves out from underneath the ‘evangelical’ label.

This is quite different than saying evangelicalism is dead. Let us not be mistaken: the world identifies evangelicals, without clarification, as Christians. The battle only intensifies during these days as now another layer of error must be stripped away from the unsaved preconceived ideas of who Christians are.

Praise be to God that the Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation!

Tony Byrne said...

I am not encouraged by Carla's words. She is one who denies the well-meant offer of the gospel, common grace and duty-faith (i.e. the responsibility of those who hear the call of the gospel to believe). I certainly don't hope that this doctrinal perspective takes a hold of Christianity. If it does, we're even worse off!

Here's the absurdity: Bad Theology According to Phil

Sled Dog said...

Well, when I wrote that Evangelicalism is dead, I meant in terms as "a movement." As puritancoal wrote, the word no longer means what it originally intended. When TIME magazine announces the top 25 top evangelicals and, but for a scant few, they aren't evangelicals, then it's time to let it go. It's over. To attempt to take the name back will prove futile.

I just took over a church (8 mos ago) where the pastor preached 25 minutes of Purpose Driven Living every Sunday. My challenge is to help them acquire a taste for the life changing Word. We've studied James, 1 Cor. 13 and the 7 churches of Revelation. This fall we'll go through the Gospel of John. The first five months the congregation looked like I was speaking Swahili in the pulpit. But God is doing a work, and they are now seeing the value and sufficiency of scripture in their lives.

My fear is too many will remain in their fortresses, because they are happy complaining and pointing fingers that actually getting out there and helping clean up the wreckage. (ynottony's post made this point well...)

Sled Dog said...

I wasn't responding to Carla's calvinistic theology, per se, when I quoted her blog, but her acknowledgement of God's sovereignty in the midst of the so-called "Evangelical Crisis". He is in control, no!

The very top of this comment thread we have sacgroncito, a proclaimed homosexual who seems to sense Evangelicism's angst. What a reminder that there is so much work to be done with the Gospel!

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Phil, would you still own the title “evangelical,” or do you think it should be cast into the dustbin of history (like D. G. Hart)? Another point: you mentioned that Packer was the only “evangelical theologian” on the list. Well, isn’t he the only theologian period? Only one academic evangelical? This solidifies my notion that evangelicalism is pop Christianity. As much as I disagree with points in Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” this top 25 does seem to validate his point that evangelicalism has no “life of the mind.”

SoccerReformer said...

I'll agree with Phil, stevenh and yy and qualify my comment that evangelicalism is dead.

IT should be dead to those of us in the remnant. We shouldn't be trying to rescue it, just as we shouldn't be trying to redefine the Gospel to conform to the Culture.

In terms of what should be done, there is so much material and so many groups and organizations out there. It might be worthwhile if they would coalesce a bit, and come together with a clear statement (and a better one) of mission, belief, and a declaration indicating some kind of *and I am very open to a better word here* "separation" from evangelicalism. Distinction might be the word. But it has to be strong enough, with a greater regard for standing for truth than for worrying about becoming unpopular in this circle or that.

And it MUST be done in true love.

(by the way, I forgot to mention that the sports talk guys joking about the Osteen church also said that the attendance of 30,000 shouldn't be taken too seriously because it happened on Apostle Bobblehead Night at the arena)

Jeremy Weaver said...

I'm not Phil but I think I saw a thread among those fifty. They're all moneymakers for Christian retail. Let's face it. Piper's the best in the list and I own all of his books, and have re-read most of them, but he makes money (not for himself, but for the retailers). And that is the world's picture of influence.
Yet it shall not be so among you. Mark 10:41-45

GeneMBridges said...

Phil and dear brothers and sisters...

Just when I thought I'd seen it all...I just popped by Tom Aschol's new blog here http://www.founders.org/blog/

and found an article linking to this lil' piece of new reality TV coming our way soon:


I honestly am speechless at the moment. Please, somebody tell me this isn't real.

William Dicks said...

Hi Phil,

This is a great piece. This is exactly what I am thinking about the church today. I belong to a church which sells the books and videos of TD Jakes. Unfortunately I have found it extremely difficult to leave this church (due to reasons I don't want to divulge here).

I am very concerned about this Jakes link in our church (they also sell Tommy Tenney's stuff). I went to the website of Jakes' church and looked at their doctrinal statements concerning the Trinity. Have a look at http://www.thepottershouse.org/PH_doctrine.html and http://www.thepottershouse.org/PH_beliefs.html. He also wrote an article on his own views of the Trinity at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/108/13.0.html. Do you mind doing a bit of a critique on the article? It seems to me that he is contradicting the statements of his church.

BTW, I do regularly visit a reformed baptist church close by. That, and good books and MP3s by men such as Piper, fill up the side that is grossly lacking at my current church.

Thanks for this great blog!

SoccerReformer said...

Sorry to comment again on the same post - but I've been up three times during the night and each time I immediately started thinking about this topic and how to better articulate things.

I understand there is a thing out there called evangelicalism and that it is alive in the sense that there are people calling themselves that - but as Phil mentions and YY and others point out - it is not the same anymore as what Biblical Theology teaches us. I do think there is value to declaration of belief, purpose and mission, not for the sake of pegging people as "in" or "out" - but for focus of thought and motivation to Godly action. I guess I DO agree with Murray that the term is meaningless anymore.

But praise God the Bible is not meaningless and is just as powerful to change men's hearts as ever. With that in mind I'm reminded that all the defining and motivating in the world is meaningless as well if we don't have moral purity. I am all too familiar with the perils of cerebral assent poisoned by sin. This morning's reading is helpful.

"Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God." 1 Peter 4:1-2

None of this discussion matters to any of us if we cannot abstain from fleshly lusts.

John Schroeder said...

Everything else, churches, confessions, theologies, music, movements, programs, jobs,...you name it, everything else, is a tool to be used in the building of that relationship. When we count the tool as more important than the thing the tool is to build, we have a problem. Read my full post that links to this here

FX Turk said...

For Wm. Dicks:

I'm not Phil and don't speak for him, but you raise a great question: how does it work out that Jakes, in the Feb 2000 CT response, comes across as toeing the line (literally) but does not revise his church's doctrinal statement to reflect those nuanced and measured words from CT?

Of particular interest, I think is Jakes' focus on the use of the word "manifestation" in the Bible. For example, he relies on 1Tim 3:16 that says
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

There's no doubt that "manifested" is a proper translation of this passage, but who is "He"? The Godhead? If this is an early creed -- and it is almost universally recognized as such -- the "he" here is Christ Jesus and not the Godhead. So to say that the Son was "manifested" here as a supporting argument for the Potter's House's (TPH) affirmation of the "three dimensions of God" is, in the best case, missing the point.

TPH affirms this:

We believe in one God who is eternal in His existence, Triune in His manifestation, being both Father, Son and Holy Ghost AND that He is Sovereign and Absolute in His authority.

The passage in 1Tim 3 doesn't say that one God was manifest in the Flesh: it says that Jesus was manifest (that is, made known personally) in the flesh. The passage itself is hardly a place to begin exposing the doctrine of the Trinity at all becuase it does not talk at all about the relationship of Father Son and Spirit but only about the work and person of the Son. It is too limited in scope to make the jump from "manifested in the flesh" to say that "Jesus is a manifestation (not a unique person) of the One true God".

1Cor 12:7 is again a poor place to establish the use of the word "manifestation" in describing the relationship inside the Godhead because it is also not talking about the Godhead: it is talking about the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. When "manifestations" here (which is a noun this time and not a verb) refers to the gifts each one gets from the Spirit rather than to the actual Spirit as it relates to the Father and the Son, it is hard to say that this is an appropriate basis to lay claim to the term when talking about the Trinity.

The reference to 1John 3 has the same problem: in saying Jesus is manifested to take away sin with no reference (again) to the Father or the Spirit.

So what can we offer to TPH, Jakes, and those who think this is just stirring up controversy?

(1) The contexts of the word "manifestation" as Jakes has proposed them are not relevant to the definition of the Trinity becuase they are describing the work of the Son and the Spirit, not their relationship to each other of the Father.

(2) In passages where the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit are directly addressed, it is clear that there is a distinction greater than merely "revelation" or "manifestation". For example, in extolling the greater person of Christ, Heb 1 goes to great lengths to distinguish between the Father and the Son not merely in work but in relationship.

(3) The complaint that this concern is controversialism is struck down by the historical confessions of the faith and the church's efforts over the millenia to make a clear defintion of what correctly constitutes the propositional understanding of who jesus was and what He did. It is also struck down, fwiw, by the Bible's intentional and persistent insistence that doctrine matters, and that the doctrines of Jesus Christ are to be upheld in the church.

I wish that, if T.D. Jakes really believed, as he wrote in CT

Jesus prayed under the unction of the Holy Spirit that we would be one even as He and the Father are one. To that end, I preach, write and work. No truth exemplified by the Trinity is greater than Christian unity. As we seek to dissect the divine, articulate the abstract, and defend what I agree are precious truths, I hope we do not miss the greater message taught by the concept of the Trinity. And that is that three—though distinct—are still one!

that rather than choose very controversial language for his church's doctrinal statement that he would choose -- of the sake of unity, to which he is pleading -- the common language of the church to express what he believes if what he believes is the orthodox belief.

And if he does not believe what is inside the scope of orthodoxy, he should not be ashamed to say so for the sake of bearing witness to his conscience. If he believes he has a clear conscience, and that Scripture is on "his side", then he should care nothing for what the rest of us call "orthodoxy" and should say so.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

If you are interested in a more detailed analysis of the doctrine of T.D. Jakes, I encourage you to check my blog. I have recently posted a chapter from my ThM thesis on "Modal-Evangelicalism" that focuses on Jakes' modalism. Is he the next Billy Graham???

Carla Rolfe said...

I know I'm late in the game on this thread, and I don't know if you'll even see this Tony, but...

Is there really a legit reason you reference my post as an absurdity?

It's where I am, theologically, doctrinally, and in my spiritual walk at this point. It's me being honest - without being pretentious and faking having all the answers.

Is there a reason we cannot seem to disagree without you being insulting toward me? I do not return these insults towards you - for crying out loud, you're my brother, why insult you?

Maybe I'm just dense, but I don't get the hostility toward those who hold a different view point on the 5 points Phil lists as hyper-criteria.

Someone here care to explain it to me? Pretend I'm an idiot, use small words with less than 3 syllables - maybe that way I'll understand it.

(and yes, I'm serious).

SDG - Carla

Peter said...

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