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Recent Trends Among Evangelicals [1]

(Part One)

(Adapted from chapter one of Recent Trends Among Evangelicals by Rowland C.Croucher), 1986/1995.

What is an evangelical?

There are now, says one evangelical seminary professor on the US west coast, sixteen kinds of ‘evangelicals’! If, as the truism puts it, the only constant thing is change, that dictum is certainly true of evangelicals today. According to our dictionaries, the word ‘evangelical’ has at least six meanings. It can pertain to the four Gospels; to ‘Protestant churches that emphasise Christ’s atonement and man’s salvation by faith’ as the most important doctrines of Christianity; (since the Evangelical Awakenings of the Anglican communion) to ‘those who actually believe the thirty-nine articles’; (in Europe) to the Lutheran as distinct from the Reformed/Calvinistic churches; or (in other parts of Europe) Protestants generally.

A US Gallop poll (1977-1978) defined an evangelical as one who ‘has had a born again conversion, accepts Jesus as his or her personal Savior, believes the scriptures are the authority for all doctrine and feels an urgent duty to spread the faith’. For its purposes, an evangelical also places a strong emphasis on a personal relationship with God and adheres to a ‘strict moral code’.

‘One word is too often profaned’, wrote Shelley. Well, this is the feeling of some about the word ‘evangelical’. In my travels to pastors’ conferences, I find hardly anyone who doesn’t want to be thought of as ‘evangelical’ at least in some sense. I only know one ‘liberal’ in the older usage of the word – a Congregational minister, now retired and in his eighties. ‘Newsweek’, in an article on evangelicals (April 26, 1982), says: ‘So many different kinds of Christians now call themselves evangelical that the label has lost any precise meaning.’ US church historian, Martin Marty, says the best he can suggest is that evangelicals be defined as ‘people who find Billy Graham or his viewpoints acceptable.’

Our aim is to clarify the distinctives and suggest current mega-trends in evangelicalism in Western countries in the 1980s. Some may view these trends with disquiet – that is understandable. My own appraisals of these trends will be apparent – that, perhaps, is unavoidable. Some of the terms (‘fundamentalist’, ‘conservative’, ‘radical’ etc.) have had pejorative connotations. I hope later to show some sympathy with some tenets of all these positions and will try to use such terms objectively.


The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek ‘euangelion’, meaning good or appropriate news, the gospel, the message of salvation. The word came into vogue at the Reformation, as Protestants affirmed that the Roman Church had lost the essence of the good news. Their well-known catchwords were ‘sola scriptura’, ‘scripture alone’ (human reason, traditions and churches must submit to its authority in all religious and moral matters); ‘solus Christus’, ‘Christ alone’ (he is the only mediator between us and God); ‘sola gratia’, ‘by grace alone’ (we are not saved by our own efforts, but by God’s grace in Jesus Christ); and ‘sola fide’, ‘by faith alone’ (personally accepting Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross).

So evangelical theology was formulated before the European Enlightenment. Evangelicals claim their thinking is rooted in the Bible and in the history of Christian thought before people like Kant, Darwin, Strauss, Marx or Freud came along to confuse everything!

The modern evangelical lineage includes such people as the English nineteenth-century bishop, J.C. Ryle. In his ‘Knots Untied’ (1877), he asserts that the leading feature of evangelical religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to holy scripture as ‘the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy’.

English evangelicalism also sees Charles Simeon (Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge) and the visits of US evangelist D.L. Moody as formative. The Student Volunteer Movement (later the Student Christian Movement from which the Cambridge Inter-collegiate Christian Union disaffiliated itself in 1909 on doctrinal grounds) grew out of Moody’s visits. Such volumes as Douglas Johnston’s ‘Contending for the Faith’ (IVP London) and C. Stacey Woods’ ‘The Growth of a Work of God’ (IVF 1928) trace the histories of the evangelical student movements on each side of the Atlantic during the first few decades of this century. C.S. Lewis and John Stott in England, and Benjamin Warfield, Harold Ockenga, E.J. Carnell, George Eldon Ladd, Bernard Ramm and Carl F.H. Henry in the US, would all be ‘household names’ among English-speaking evangelicals.

C.S. Lewis believed the vast majority of people becoming Christians enter the faith through the ‘evangelical end’ of the theological spectrum. He persuaded the more liberal Elton Trueblood that the Christian message must be taken, or left, in its wholeness. The US scholar, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1936), was another outstanding evangelical – one of the few Bultmann felt obliged to take seriously.

A form of evangelical orthodoxy in the US developed a theological epicentre known as the ‘five fundamentals’. These did not embrace all of orthodoxy, but represented common ground among evangelicals, who still differed among themselves on such issues as the nature and mission of the church, the relationship of justification to sanctification, and eschatology. The five fundamentals were: the inspiration of scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the physical resurrection of Christ, and his personal return. Billy Graham, America’s most famous evangelical, had his Christian thinking planted deeply in this theological soil. The earlier evangelicalism (up to about 1918) saw only two major divergences: the holiness and Pentecostal movements. But the 1920s were very divisive. ‘Modernism’ was attacked by people now calling themselves ‘Fundamentalists’. This was succeeded in the later 1920s through to the 1940s by increasing fundamentalist belligerence. In fact, various degrees of ‘separationism’ were espoused almost as tests of orthodoxy. In 1954, Harold Ockenga, when speaking at the inauguration of E.J. Carnell as president of Fuller Theological Seminary, first used the term ‘new evangelical’:

The new evangelical embraces the full orthodoxy of fundamentalism in doctrine, but manifests a social consciousness and responsibility which was strangely absent from fundamentalism. The new evangelicalism concerns itself not only with personal salvation, doctrinal truth and an external point of reference, but also … believes that orthodox Christians cannot abdicate their responsibility in the social scene.

Donald Bloesch has claimed that the new evangelicalism is more of a ‘mood’ than a theological system. This is evidenced, for example, in Carl F.H. Henry’s final editorial in ‘Christianity Today’ (1970). He asked why evangelical Protestants were not more involved at the frontiers of modern doubt and despair, and then listed four weaknesses he saw in contemporary evangelical Christianity: a tendency for evangelicals to continue to fragment and not show thir spiritual unity to the world, a tendency to attack unacceptable views rather than put up an alternative, a lack of willingness to become seriously involved in the academic arena, and a failure to engage in interracial liaison in the big cities. Ten years later (1980), Fuller Seminary’s president David Hubbard noted the following areas of tension among evangelicals: women’s ordination, the charismatic movement, ecumenical relations, social ethics, strategies of evangelism, biblical criticism, biblical infallibility, contextual theology in non-Western cultures, and applications of insights from the behavioural sciences to the church. Two important convocations – the Berlin Congress on Evangelism (1966) and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (1974) – were the most formative events in the last twenty tears for evangelicals. The Lausanne Covenant (with John Stott as its key prime mover) has become a sort of ‘confession of faith’ for evangelicals in the last decade.

Fundamentalism and evangelicalism Before examining further the ‘mood’ of modern evangelicalism, we must ask another question: what was the essence of the neo-evangelicals’ dissatisfaction with fundamentalism? Both groups believed, and still believe, that Christian liberalism is a road leading to irreligion. However, as Kenneth Kantzer has pointed out (‘Christianity Today’, February 18, 1983), evangelicals have generally misunderstood liberalism. They have considered liberalism as:

… an attack focused against orthodox Christianity out of hatred for biblical revelation and supernatural Christianity. Not so. It is safe to say that no liberal ever reckons himself as an enemy of traditional Christianity, but as a preserver. Harvard dean, Willard Sperry, characterised it as the ‘Yes, but’ religion in a volume by that title: Yes, I believe in the deity of Christ, but the language of Chalcedon has become meaningless. We must redefine the doctrine so as to make it intelligible to us who live in the twentieth century. Yes, I believe in the virgin birth of Christ, but the important thing is not any biological fact but the value of Jesus for us. Liberalism always wanted to be Christian, but it always wanted to be ‘with it’, too.

Now, fundamentalists make the same attack on ‘neo-evangelicalism’ – they, too, want too much to be ‘with it’. When John Stott was asked what were the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists, he replied: ‘The evangelical Christian is a gospel Christian who accepts the plenary authority of scripture and the centrality of the good news of Jesus Christ. So-called fundamentalists, on the other hand, tend to be obscurantist and despise the intellect.’ Again, in another context, Stott said: ‘I strongly dislike being labelled “conservative”‘! The world creates a false image. The evangelical Christian, whose concern is not only to conserve God’s ancient revelation but also to relate it to the modern world, has as much right to be dubbed “radical” as “conservative”!’ Evangelicals today feel most uncomfortable with what they would call the ‘wooden literalism’ of fundamentalists and also, temperamentally, shrink from fundamentalism’s militancy. So there are both theological and psychological elements in the divergence of the two groups from one another over the past twenty years. In a recent book, ‘The Fundamentalist Phenomenon’ (Doubleday), Jerry Falwell argues that fundamentalist Christians are indeed ‘the militant and faithful defenders of biblical orthodoxy’. This book pictures the evangelical movement as a jumbo jet operated by a timorous evangelical establishment that, thanks in large part to Falwell, has been ‘suddenly hijacked by fundamentalist pilots’. Fundamentalists, according to pregressive evangelicals, have what might be called a ‘sacramentalist’ view of scripture: the mere reading of the words of the Bible conveys grace. Fundamentalists have too much defined their positions in terms of their more liberal opposition and, in the heat of the debate, have been accused of violating the second commandment (see for example H.E. Fosdick’s autobiography, ‘The Living of These Days’). For ‘dispensationalist’ fundamentalists, the baby in Bethlehem could have been nailed to the cross: there is little room for the life, teachings and healings of Jesus. ‘God became man and died’ is the essence of their creed. Harold Ockenga further criticised the fundamentalists’ propensity towards schism: ‘Fragmentation, separation, criticism, censoriousness, suspicion, solecism are the order of the day for fundamentalism.’ He says evangelicals would hold with separation only on grounds of evident apostasy, not on minor credal variations.

The fundamentalists’ anti-intellectualism and belligerence were also frequently attacked by Carl Henry. For example: ‘If and when evangelical Christianity becomes primarily a “search and destroy” operation, it will have forfeited its biblical right to survival… Paul made love so much the final test of Christian integrity that even the truth of revelation is invalidated by lovelessness, just as love is falsified by untruth… [We are not to be] anti-this and anti-that… [but pro-Christ]… The time has come for evangelicals to lower the fences that divide them.

‘Let us carry placards of proclamation, not billboards of condemnation; let [us] dare to show the dawn rather than merely to damn the darkness… It is time to “ring the bells” again, to [emphasise] the joy of being a Christian, the delight and dignity of walking with God. Augustine was one of the greatest of all Christian philosophers, but that brilliant mind was first attracted to faith in Christ by the spontaneous joy of the first believers he met.’ (‘Christianity Today’ September 13, 1968).

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