22 July 2005

Reforming Evangelicalism?

For the record, I have no sentimental attachment to the term evangelicalism or the visible movement that now employs that name. What's important to me are the principles of historic evangelicalism. I have explained a little more fully what that entails in an article posted here. Those wishing to delve into this theme more deeply should also read the document and subsequent discussion posted here.

The question of whether the evangelical movement is dying, dead, irrelevant, irreformable, or whatever, is not my primary concern in the series of articles I've been posting. If asked, I would say the large movement that has represented "American evangelicalism" for the past century and a half (beginning roughly with D. L. Moody and culminating in Billy Graham) is in its final death throes. (Billy Graham himself hardly seems "evangelical" most of the time nowadays.)

Actually, that's a really optimistic assessment. My strong suspicion is that the movement is well and truly dead, and we shouldn't mistake the bloated and expanding size of its corpse, or its occasional spontaneous post-mortem twitches, for signs of real life.

I'm not interested in reviving or reforming that movement. Neither church history nor Scripture gives us much encouragement to work for the reformation and perpetuation of organizations and movements. Earthly institutions and human campaigns always decline and decay. Even the Protestant Reformation had its main impact outside the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic priesthood, and the papacy—although those were the visible institutions the earliest Protestants originally set out to reform.

Institutional reform almost always fails. Twentieth-century evangelicals who stayed in the mainline denominations ultimately failed to reform any of them. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or discouraged by that, but we should learn from it. Our concern should be for truth and principles, not for visible institutions, organizations, and movements.

To be as clear and concise as possible: What I am eager to see preserved and perpetuated are the sound, biblical ideas that sparked the evangelical and fundamentalist movements, not the corrupt cultures that ultimately overwhelmed them and led to their predictable demise.

My main aim in this current series of posts is to delineate some of the important differences between sound evangelical and fundamental principles and the various fads and manias most people today falsely refer to as "evangelicalism."

I hope to make another post about the Fad-Driven® Church sometime tonight or early tomorrow. Watch for it. But given the direction of some of the comment-threads, I wanted to make this statement first.

For those who haven't time to look it up, here's what I have written elsewhere about how to define true evangelicalism:

Historically, the word evangelical first came into widespread usage along with the Protestant Reformation. William Tyndale used the expression "evangelical truth" as a synonym for the gospel. By the 18th century, the adjective was being used to describe "that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of 'the Gospel' consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Naturally, as Protestants, evangelicals affirmed both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola Scriptura and sola fide). They were also committed to the exclusivity of Christ; believing that His atoning work is the only hope of salvation for sinners. That usage of the term evangelical has been crystal clear for at least two and a half centuries.

In other words, in the historic sense of the word, when we speak of the evangelical movement, we're speaking of those who share 1) a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; 2) a belief in the necessity and the efficacy of Christ's atoning work; and 3) a profound sense of urgency about getting the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world. The simplicity of the definition is the very thing that gives clarity to the expression. There is not really much that's vague about the historic meaning of the term evangelical.

Notice: the distinguishing characteristics of historic evangelicalism are weighty, foundational, and fundamental principles—not peripheral matters. That is why evangelical convictions have always transcended denominational lines. Those vital truths established an unshakable core of unity and remarkable harmony on matters that are of the essence of the gospel. Yet they allowed for amazing diversity on peripheral issues.


Hooser said...

I am not sure of this is a legitimate connection, but why not throw it out there anyway. When I read your post, I wondered exactly how far back one could trace the source of today's evangelicalism. Obviously there have been seeds of it for a long while now, but one thing that struck me as interesting is the fact the the majority of the adult evangelicals just also happen to be baby-boomers. The generation centered right around those 'wonderful' sixties. Love was the answer to everything, and thus Christianity and missions focused on this aspect of Christianity. God is love....For God so loved the world...and so on. The evanglical gospel is a tailor fit for the baby-boomers. I think that if we are to see a new reformation, new growth, or whatever, it will likely happen only when we can either tailor fit the gospel again to this generation or when we can show these 'love' Children something other than this single side of the Gospel. I personally think that both wouldn't hurt.

Brad Huston said...

This is a well-tempered post and the attitude with which you have injected into your assessment is greatly appreciated. Looking forward to the series.


MTG said...

As for me....I RUN when I hear the word 'evangelical' associated with ANY group these days. I attend M---C---- OPC. Period. Dot. The end.

Dave Davis said...

Hey Phil,

I appreciate your militant attitude regarding the holiness of Christ's church.

I care for and love the church as it stands in her true pure state.

Really, isn't that what revival is about in the first place, giving the church her full measure due to the marriage to Jesus

It is right and good for us to call out those that drag the spotless bride through the mud and stain her dress with the blood of the saints.

I don't really know what it takes to wake up this generation of me-ists(not theists)

I for one cannot sift through this mess(evangelicalism) and how to change it.

In my heart I see myself as the great reformer of the church and How I want to be Luther like and Calvin like and make a rip and tear through this mess.

But really all my feeble heart and mind can do is barely eek out the walk of obedience to Christ.

Why do I want to be like Luther and Calvin and not like Christ?

Sorry to get off the beaten path on this.

p.s. love those church pictures.

BAG said...


I agree, sociologically evangelicalism seems adrift (although I think she's still kicking a bit--but her trajectory is dismal). You make the dichotomy between the "historic doctrinal principles" that served to shape "evangelicalism", and the current cultural milieu of evangelicalism. Obviously, from your perspective, the principles of fundamentalism are not responsible for the current state of "evangelicalism"--if not, what, in your estimation, has led to the demise of "evangelicalism"? Is it that she has not lived in adherence to the very "principles" she supposedly espouses (i.e. 5 pillars of fundamentalism), or what?

Maybe the "fundamentalist" project really didn't pull back from enlightenment rationalism (modernism) as much as she thought. Maybe in the end, evangelicals and secularists (liberals) have finally met. I.e. The elevation of "reason" over "revelation"--it looks like, in evangelicalism, "Athens" has prevailed "over" "Jerusalem".

I think that the initial "culture of reaction" inherent in the fundamentalist movement (i.e. pull back from "the world")has actually led to the current state of evangelicalism. Let me clarify, it seems in our "pulling back from the world" (modernistic principles/higher criticism, etc.)we implicitly believed that there was "something" substantive about "modernistic/rationalism"--but we just didn't know how to engage it--so we stuck our heads in the sand--and made our own fortresses (i.e. Bible College movement, etc.). Well it seems that "fundamentalist" our taking their heads out of the sand--only to be allured back to the very rationalism they uncritically "reacted" to in the first place. I guess by way of a "weak" analogy, it's like fundamentlist got drunk, by pulling back into themselves (hoping the modernistic "problem" would just go away); and now the fundamentalist is in hangover believing they have weathered modernity. What many "evangelicals" fail to realize (because of their uncritical engagement of modernism)is that they are only coming out of their "drunkeness" to a "full-blown" "realized-modernity" (i.e. postmodernity/emerging church etc.).

Anyway there's my brief take on this.

Scott Hill said...

"Actually, that's a really optimistic assessment. My strong suspicion is that the movement is well and truly dead, and we shouldn't mistake the bloated and expanding size of its corpse, or its occasional spontaneous post-mortem twitches, for signs of real life."

Ouch! That is an extremely descriptive view of exactly where this movement has gone. Thanks for the great post.

Call to Die said...

"Twentieth-century evangelicals who stayed in the mainline denominations ultimately failed to reform any of them."
I wonder what Tom Ascol would think of the above statement...
Also, I think that we should continue to affirm the term evangelical and insist that this term is defined by sola Scriptura and sola fide. I mean- just because the Roman Catholics refer to themselves as "the Church" and as "Christians," we wouldn't say "the Church is dead!" or "Christianity is dead!"


Momo said...

Hey ajlin, that's good stuff.

BAG said...

". . . I mean- just because the Roman Catholics refer to themselves as "the Church" and as "Christians," we wouldn't say "the Church is dead!" or "Christianity is dead!" (quote from AJLIN).

I don't think Phil is saying Christianity is dead, just Evangelicalism as an "institution"--just like the Roman Catholics.

p.s. I think Luther's Theology of the Cross" is right on--it's the framework I was thinking through on my first post here.

Mark Hunsaker said...

Good post. I look forward to the follow ups...

What do you think: is the concept of 'denominations' becoming obsolete as well?

I seem to be witnessing more and more "doctrincal distinctions among common practices" where groups of Christians are focusing on making the Kingdom the priority during the day, and debating doctrine in a separate and more cordial manner.

Anyone else seeing this?

dayman said...

Check out the soon to be released book by C. Vaughn Doner at: http://www.late-great-evangelical-church.com/

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dave asks what it will take to wake up this generation of me-ists? One word: persecution. What would American Evangelicalism look like if true persecution came? What if there was an actual cost for believing? How many millions would flee the church and renounce the faith? Then, my friends, we will see a more pure church.
As I said in my last post, check my blog for a more detailed analysis of T.D. Jakes' modalism.

Come Fail Away said...

I'm with EdwardsFan on this one. The church is never more healthy than when it is suffering. That is when we learn to lean not on our own understanding.

Jesse said...

I am looking forward to your thoughts, Phil. I suppose that in the scope of things you will end up addressing that pet topic of those of us who claim the label fundamentalists- separation! :-)

Matthew Self said...

All this does is highlight the failure of man-made language, and I blame it all on the media. I have tried to educate my compadres, but I don't have wide enough reach. Some common misconceptions:

- Evangelicalism = Fundamentalism
- Evangelicalism = TV preacherism
- Evangelicalism does not = Protestantism

For example, if you believe in the inerrancy of scripture, the typical reporter will assign you as a fundamentalist, along with the assumption this must be a small (but vocal) segment of Christianity. Why? Because so-and-so mainstream pastor they know of is moderate, not so politically extreme, not as forceful in his dogma, so Biblical inerrancy must not be the standard for them (even though it likely is).

The reason for all of this is there is no cenralized Evangelical spokesperson, like the Pope for the Catholic Church. Journalists don't like viewpoints to be diverse, because they can't create tension between two distinctly opposite points of view. They turn figureheads into people like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and Rick Warren, and I'm sorry, but I don't want them speaking for me.

This is why I think there needs to be an official, apolitical, pandenominational Evangelical spokesperson who can educate the media and the public on the litmus test of an Evangelical. He should carry with him an agreeable confession of faith on hand. It's important, because I think it's important for the real Evangelical Church to be unified in one voice for the cardinal truths we hold to be essential to the Christian faith.

Joe said...

The peripherals have become cen-tral. Obviously, in the minds of some "evangelicals," Christ alone has become insuffecient. The concepts of SOLA SCRIPTURA and SOLA FIDE have morphed into socio-political commentary. The result has been a church that is in dire need of finding its first love. He is both central and sufficient

Paula said...

BAsed on your definition of evangelicalism, I am surprised to hear you speak of its death. Sharing the gospel is alive and well throughout the world as the churches in Korea and China can attest. Perhaps you mean American Evangelicalism, but then those are the people who were and were stired by 9/11 to seek and find God. Do you mean big city evangelicalism?

Either way...should evangelicalism as we know it die, God will provide another direction. "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21
(speaking as one evangelical on the road.)

Phil Johnson said...

No, read again. I'm making a distinction between true evangelicalism (the idea of evangelicalism), which is what I have defined, and the evangelical movement, which is what I said is dead.

There are many true evangelicals who identify with the evangelical movement, but they no longer control the movement, and the movement itself is fatally compromised.

fontanarenaissanceman said...

I thought Evangelism was the Dispensational Church's method of going out into the highways and byways and door knocking with invitations to the local church. In addition evangelism is traditionally thought of as the whole church package of Sunday morning preaching to the lost souls and the "call for raised hands" without anyone looking around,/ all eyes closed routine at the close of service, or the kneeling at the altar routine in order to get unsaved souls to repent and say the sinners prayer, and most importantly (in very few churches today, it seems) to reach the unsaved but elect child of God, whomever they may be, with the Gospel Message and in order to facilitate the Holy Spirits Convicting power over their lives in order that they might be saved by Christ's righteousness and atoning work being imputed to them? Have i missed the boat?

ed said...

While I agree with the essential theological beliefs espoused by this Calvinistic Evangelicalism, argued for here, I have observed it up close and see that there are as many problems in this movement as there are in the less than Reformed Evangelicals it attempts to incessantly critique.

The fundamental problem I see with this Neo-Calvinist Evangelicalism argued for here is that it makes the mistake of believing that Christianity is essenitally a "propositional" religion made up correct Biblical doctrines at the expense of true and loving Christian community.

As a person who heartidly agrees with the theology argued for here, I am left with the distinct feeling of wanting more than just correct doctrine in my expression of Christianity, but long for genuine Christian community that maintains strong Evangelical theology but also exemplifies true Christian love and community something, I believe is greatly lacking in this movement that seemingly sees itself as the doctrinal watchdog for the entire Christian church within the English Speaking world.