Interview with Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Monday, July 16th 2007
Jan/Feb 1999

[In our Free Space interview last issue, we began to explore "new model" Evangelicalism with one of its proponents, Dr. Clark Pinnock. This interview we will continue to interact with some of the same issues, now with Dr. Al Mohler, an outspoken critic of "progressive" or "new model" Evangelicalism. -ED.]

MR: Dr. Mohler, you have written recently about "postmodern evangelicals." Specifically, you have discussed the declaration by Prof. Stanley Grenz (of Carey Theological College and Regent College) that a new intellectual era has dawned and the Church must join it:

Grenz asserts that the Church should "claim the new postmodern context for Christ" and establish new paradigms for expressing the faith. An appropriate postmodern Evangelicalism, suggests Grenz, would recognize a "post-fundamentalist shift" that establishes the new evangelical landscape. Evangelicals must shift from a "creed-based" paradigm to a "spirituality based" model of faith and theology. The old propositional paradigm must be set aside as a relic of long ago…. (1)

How do you respond to Grenz's call to move from a "creed-based" to a "spirituality based" model of faith and theology?
AM: First of all, I think the dichotomy is a false one. That is, I believe that when Evangelicalism is theologically and biblically grounded and focused, it will then also reflect a healthy spirituality. My concern is that those who are now under the banner of recovering "spirituality" are rejecting the doctrinal, theological, and biblical basis of the faith. Such a spirituality then is basically just an evangelical form without any real substance or foundation.

MR: The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals talks a good deal about the recovery of particular truths: the sufficiency of Scripture, the sufficiency of Christ, the sufficiency of the Gospel, the sufficiency of grace, and so forth. But you seem to be making the point that we are living in a time in which we must think not only about recovering particular truths, but also about the recovery of truth with a capital "T".
AM: I recently saw another one of those survey instruments which indicated that the majority of Americans reject the notion of truth as any transcendent, objective, absolute reality. I believe that this type of relativistic worldview has infected the evangelical ranks far more persuasively than most of us would like to admit.

For example, I believe that the "cutting-edge" issue right now among evangelicals is the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as Savior. There can be no doubt that Scripture is unequivocal on the issue, but I think that the broader worldview is influencing evangelicals on the question. Scripture says that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; that there is no other name under heaven and earth whereby men must be saved; that he is the only sufficient Savior. Yet, we have evangelicals who sing the right hymns, and even pray prayers that are recognizably evangelical; they sit in evangelical churches under evangelical preaching-but when they are pressed, they will say that there must be some other way, that there must be some truth in these non-Christian religions, that there must be more to this than the Gospel itself.

MR: How significant is the relationship between this problem and the weakening of the doctrine of sin within Evangelicalism? For we are again hearing that seventy-seven percent of evangelicals say that man, by nature, is basically good.
AM: The problem goes right back to the Garden of Eden, all the way back to the beginning of all of our problems. The fact is that we don't want to be told that we are sinners. And modern evangelicals have convinced themselves, along with most other Americans, that we are not sinners. Rather, we think that we are inherently good, if not perfectible. But if we do not understand what it means to be a sinner, if we do not understand human depravity, then we cannot possibly understand the Gospel.

MR: Then it is no wonder that we could find all kinds of good in other religions, since there is after all some sort of written law on the heart. But if we think that this law is something that can save us, then we don't have a very high doctrine of sin.
AM: I think that is right. We make ourselves our own law-giver, our own judge, and then our own redeemer and priest. Modern American individualism plays right into this. It is the rugged autonomy of the self. I'll do it my way; I'll judge it my way. But you end up with basically no meaning outside of that autonomous self.

MR: What is it that makes it so difficult, even for devout people, to make truth claims in the contemporary context?
AM: I immediately think of the martyrs during the time of the Roman persecution. They were put to death not so much for saying "Jesus Christ is my Savior, my Lord," but for saying "Jesus Christ is Lord." These are two different statements. It is true for believers that Jesus is our Lord, but beyond that, Jesus is the Lord of all. The Christian Gospel is not just something that applies to me individually. It is not that it is true for me, but not true for others. The Gospel is true. God's revelation is true. It is objectively true, independently true, eternally true, and those martyrs went to their deaths because they would not bend. But the modern world with its relativistic worldview is very self-referential. And unfortunately, we have an increasing number of evangelicals saying that Jesus is Savior for me; the Gospel is true for me; the Bible is true for me. But they are then unwilling to make a universal truth claim.

MR: You talk about "conceptual emptiness." What is this, and how does it pervade our lives today?
AM: This is when we use important terms, but rob them or evacuate them of their meaning. For instance, good words like "atonement" and "redemption" are made more psychotherapeutic than theological. Behind this, there is a real emptiness. When we listen to many self-proclaimed Christians preach, there is a basic vacuity or emptiness that cries out for an answer.

MR: Do you see any connection between this and the turn some are taking from the preaching of the Word to drama? Does this reveal that we have lost our confidence that the preached Word is actually God's meeting with his people?
AM: Absolutely, and this is also to put a finger on the influence of entertainment culture. For the larger American context, it is a way of avoiding conceptual issues. It is a way to avoid dealing with the truth. As Neil Postman said, we are basically "amusing ourselves to death." And I believe that this is an indictment of much evangelical worship. It is often nothing more than spiritual amusement.

MR: I remember the old Dorothy Sayers' argument that "the dogma is the drama." She said that if there is a problem with boredom in the churches, it must be because the churches do not care about dogma anymore.
AM: Absolutely. And any other drama as a substitute is not going to be true. It may be interesting; it may be amusing; it may even be moving. But this is one of evangelicals' real Achilles heel issues: We think that that which moves, is true. But actually what moves us may not be true at all. It may simply be moving. It may be full of emotional impact, but that does not make it true. And I am afraid that the legacy of revivalism leaves many evangelicals susceptible to thinking whenever we see or experience something that is moving, it must be of God.

MR: Thinking again about your comments about Stanley Grenz (above), it really is quite remarkable. Some seem to want to "revision evangelical theology" really in the direction of no theology at all. Grenz would of course say that there are some doctrines we must affirm as evangelicals, but doesn't the agenda of "progressive evangelicals" as a whole seem to be about marginalizing key evangelical tenets?
AM: Whenever I hear someone deny the importance of propositional truth, my defenses go up, because that is nothing more than a deep dive into a pool of irrationality. Yet, that is exactly what Grenz and others seem to be suggesting that evangelicals should do. They are arguing that we should move away from what he says was an over-dependence on propositional truth, to a more "spirituality based" paradigm or model of Evangelicalism which is focused on experience and community. This really comes out of larger movements in postmodern thought where the truthfulness of truth is denied, and it is all made a matter of communitarian interests. Some evangelicals, and Grenz is among them, seem to be saying that the Bible is true for us, for the Christian Church. The Bible is the Church's book, but there is no propositional truth claim beyond that.

MR: I recently read through a volume by a New Testament scholar who does not consider himself an evangelical. He points out that one of the real tragedies of having New Testament scholarship perpetuated by liberalism has been the tendency to view the Scriptures as basically just the psychological, inner states of the people (the New Testament writers) who were having religious experiences. But he points out that there is an odd parallel with evangelical pietist circles where the Bible is read not in order to find out what it meant and what it means, but in order to find out what kind of relevance it has for me in my particular situation at this moment.
AM: Similarly, there is a socialist who recently did a study of evangelical sermons on the parable of the prodigal son, which he measured against nonevangelical, mainline Protestant sermons on the same subject. He found that both groups basically did the same thing with the text: reduce it to a nice, moralistic story.

It really raises questions about Evangelicalism. Many are indeed trying to avoid different modernisms. They are not explicitly denying the faith, but instead they completely marginalize it. Rather than denying key doctrines, many simply shift the entire basis of the faith away from doctrinal particulars toward a more generalized "spirituality." So there are those evangelicals who say: "I haven't denied Chalcedonian Christology, the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, or justification by faith alone. These things are just not really the substance of my preaching."

MR: So the central things are no longer central, but the claim is often that at least they haven't been rejected entirely. Those doctrines are locked away in a vault somewhere; the pastors remember "signing off" on them.
AM: I think there is a moral responsibility in the advocacy of truth. I believe that this responsibility includes not just defending what is true, but also uncovering and critically analyzing that which is opposed to the truth. But this is where many evangelicals catch a case of the professional hives. We know that positions are being advocated which undercut the very foundation of the faith, but we do not consider it our responsibility to confront and lay bare such errors. There is a loss of nerve. In fact, there is a loss of the entire nervous system. And we end up with nothing more than an invertebrate Evangelicalism, which is what I am afraid we see all around us.

MR: But aren't there also tremendous opportunities at the end of the twentieth century?
AM: Undoubtedly, and we must always live in hope. But we must also always recognize the critical difference between optimism and hope. Looking at the contemporary situation, I am not optimistic. But we have no right, given the Gospel, to be anything other than hopeful. For after all, it is God who is sovereign, and that is our comfort.

1 [ Back ] James Montgomery Boice and Benjamin E. Sasse, eds., Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 63-64.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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

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