"Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000" by Iain H. Murray

Paul F. M. Zahl
Wednesday, June 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 2001

This is an extremely important book. It presents a well-developed objection to two decisive turns in evangelical life over the last half century. The objection is almost unanswerable. While Iain Murray is somewhat unfair to a number of outstanding Christian personalities in England, he also forces the reader to decide between two opposing schools of thought within Evangelicalism. That is a good thing.

The book's argument is easily summarized. Murray sees evangelical Christianity in the second half of the twentieth century as having been shaped overwhelmingly by two forces: first, by a sincere but opportunistic desire to break out of its cultural shell and reach the culture; and, secondly, by a desire to build bridges with other nonevangelical and just self-supposed "Christians," as Murray sees them.

The first desire involved lowering the dividers between true Christians and nominal Christians. This lowering has become enshrined in the invitation system of Billy Graham and also in the open Evangelicalism embraced by many Anglican evangelicals in England. The second desire has fueled the ecumenical outreach of evangelicals to Roman Catholics, in particular, and also to intra-denominational groups who are not evangelical, such as liberals and Anglo-Catholics. The developments Murray describes have watered down the gospel in order to reach the world and nonevangelical Christians. I think he sees these bridging efforts as sincere. I know he sees them as misguided. He also views them as disastrous for the Church over the long run.

In chapters 2 through 4, the author's thorough research relates the story: in America, from Billy Graham's turn outward beginning symbolically in 1957 at Madison Square Garden through the founding history of Fuller Seminary and the new Evangelicalism that has flourished here to the spirit of "Evangelical and Catholics Together" in recent times. Murray then surveys the scene in England, where the emergence of open Evangelicalism in the Church of England resulted from the celebrated public disagreement between Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott in October of 1966. Murray believes that Lloyd-Jones was prescient about what would come of his evangelical brothers in the Church of England desiring to cooperate with nonevangelicals in that church in order to win it or at least win for themselves enlarged influence within it:

It is said that North American Indians when navigating a treacherous river could hear a cataract long before it came into view. Lloyd-Jones heard the cataract. He understood the temptations and the worldliness to which seeking to reach the world could [would!] lead. He also saw the temptation to compromise the Gospel that even the most thoughtfully considered ecumenism could involve.

Evangelicalism Divided argues that our evangelical statesmen, both American and English, have given away the store! They have become worldly through the use of worldly methods; they have become (somewhat) liberal in theology by being too liberal in personality-Billy Graham's sunny, positive temperament is significantly responsible-and now the threat is that they may lose the proper circumspection in respect to Rome because they have accepted the (false) charge that their ecclesiology is wanting.

For what is Iain Murray pleading? What is the good that has been undermined and that needs to be recovered? The good to be recovered consists basically of three things. We need to return, first, to the absolute centrality of the question, What is a Christian? Our New Testament insight that a Christian is one saved by faith and not by sacrament, by the inward and not by the outward, and by the material or substantial and not by the formal or external, is essential. It is a true irreducible minimum.

Second, Murray pleads that we need to recover the friendly insight that our true friends are evangelical Christians wherever we find them, not the nominal or formal Christians who bear the name of our own particular denomination. While each denomination of Protestantism came originally on the scene to witness to a particular Bible insight concerning the Church that was not visibly present in the others, our truest proper colleagues and brothers/sisters are the Bible Born-Againers, wherever they are found and so understand themselves.

Third, while each period of Christianity requires the righting of emphases that became one-sided in the preceding period, this period of Church history-the first decades of the twenty-first century-requires a repudiation of theological compromises made by well-meaning but insufficiently wary Christians during the previous half century.

Evangelicalism Divided suffers from its length and discursiveness. The reader sometimes stops and wonders, What is Murray really saying? What is he claiming and arguing for? I believe Murray's argument is well, even irenically, summarized in the six general conclusions found on pages 297 to 318. But it takes a long time to get there. Murray's fifth conclusion is especially apt: "So the history we have covered shows how hard it is for leaders to look in different directions at once." This is a vital point, learned the hard way, that is, from frustrating experience. It was good that evangelicals forty years ago gave new attention to the subject of Christian unity, but, if the thesis of this book is true, there was failure to look sufficiently at the broader religious scene in which Gospel truth, not unity, was the first need. Thus, a grave situation in the churches still remains to be addressed. That is Iain Murray's main finding. It is justified.

I wish to take issue with Evangelicalism Divided, however, for its treatment of some Church of England leaders or, better, servants. It is easy to say that men like Dick France, Colin Buchanan, George Carey, Julian Charley, and others of their generation gave away too much. Free-Church evangelicals have always and forever criticized Anglican evangelicals for remaining in the national Church. Part of that criticism comes from a need on the Free-Church side to justify their own status. Mark Rutherford, the nonconformist novelist of the late nineteenth century, seemed possessed with a rancor toward the Anglicans who shared the theology of his own forebears simply because the Anglicans held certain formal privileges that Chapel-goers could not possess. Much more recently, the nonconformist poet and literary critic Donald Davie reserved bitter and sarcastic treatment uniquely to Anglican evangelicals who, in Davie's opinion, saw the True Zion (i.e., the dissenting interest) to be crass and low class. There is a long history of Free-Churchmen whose skins crawl at the sight of evangelical Christians who see fit to stay within the establishment. I detect an element of this in Murray's treatment of the "new" Church of England evangelicals.

Those men are almost all known to me personally, some of them well known. Each has suffered for being an evangelical. Each has made costly sacrifices to keep the faith by God's grace. Each has had to take his stand, at one time or another, in favor of the truth. George Carey, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, is a case in point. Had he not stood for the Scriptural standard concerning homosexual practice in the Church, where would we in the worldwide Anglican set-up be? We would be much worse off than we are! And the man was crucified for his position! One can feel confident, as well, that the royal family's explicit turn-or return-to Christianity since Princess Diana's death is due directly to Dr. Carey's witness. His witness occurs, moreover, in the setting of an intensely politically correct Labor government. The queen's speech at Christmas 2000 is a fruit of Christ-centeredness in the English Church, which is due, I believe, to the evangelicals. We also need to give them their due!

Finally, however, Iain Murray's book should not fall on deaf ears. It should not simply be a cause of rejoicing in the confessing circles with which this reviewer identifies. Nor should it be an occasion to stop one's ears if one is sympathetic to the "new Evangelicalism." To us who wish to confess the Reformation faith in Christ, this important book provides many words to the wise, mainly words of caution, from recent history. Should we not all wish to cooperate, or be meek, rather, without compromise? It is good to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

On the other hand, those who regard themselves as the spiritual children of Billy Graham and John Stott need to consider the warning embodied in this tale so thoroughly told by Iain Murray. Satan is real; the world is enthralling; we are all vulnerable. Each one of us needs to think of ourselves less highly than original sin tries to convince us to do. Every evangelical Christian should sit down with a strong cup of coffee and face as soberly as possible the cautionary history so well narrated in Evangelicalism Divided.

Wednesday, June 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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