The Descent of Evangelicalism

John Warwick Montgomery
Tuesday, August 7th 2007
Sep/Oct 1997

Evangelicalism-representing the majority of American Protestant Christians-stands for an experiential relationship with Christ, a strong view of the Bible, personal holiness of life, and eschatological confidence in the return of the Lord to judge the world. Evangelicals also generally oppose evolutionary theory. Recent evidence suggests that Evangelicalism is now illustrating its opposition to evolution by its own activities: by regressing rather than going forward.

According to a recent report by the Princeton Religion Research Center in New Jersey, based on a nationwide Gallup poll, the average American’s belief in Scripture’s reliability has declined by half in the last thirty years (from 65% in 1963 to 32% today) and 69% of U.S. adults now identify with a modified situation ethics of moral relativity even while believing that one should do what God or Scripture says is right. The conclusion seems inescapable: on two of its most important agenda items, the promotion of biblical authority and moral absolutes, Evangelicalism has been a conspicuous failure in our generation.

This sad state of affairs is particularly surprising when one recalls that in the late 1950s and early 1960s the success of Evangelicalism seemed assured. A Gallup poll at the time revealed that a significant majority of American clergymen, irrespective of denomination, preferred to designate their theology and churchmanship as “evangelical.” Christianity Today magazine, whose premier issue appeared on October 15, 1956, soon overwhelmingly outdistanced the liberal Christian Century in readership. Evangelist Billy Graham was regarded consistently as the most respected living American, according to the polls. Theological seminaries of evangelical persuasion, such as Fuller in California and Trinity in Illinois, attracted many of the best college graduates, while enrollments at liberal, mainline denominational seminaries steadily declined. The biennial International Missionary Conventions of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the activities of Campus Crusade for Christ on secular university and college campuses touched many with the evangelical message and resulted in significant missionary activity at home and abroad. The “death of God” movement of the 1960s epitomized the vacuity of liberal theology, and seemed to confirm the inevitable success of all that Evangelicalism stood for. And today? When we think of evangelists, our first thought is often not of Billy Graham, now in his seventies, but of such media figures as Jerry Falwell and his now defunct Moral Majority; Oral Roberts, who has been in the process of selling the City of Faith medical complex (which a 900-foot Jesus was supposed to have told him in a vision to build); Jimmy Swaggert and his steamy sexual re-creations; and Jim Bakker with his grandiose, fraudulent schemes and weepy, heavily mascaraed ex-wife.

Christianity Today began as a journal of opinion under the editorship of theologian Carl F. H. Henry, who located it in the nation’s capitol so as to influence maximally the liberal and secular climate of opinion. Subsequently, to economize its heavily subsidized production costs, the operation was moved to the Wheaton, Illinois, area: roughly, Evangelicalism’s equivalent of Vatican City. The mantle had fallen to Harold Lindsell, who labored to maintain the journal’s standards. But with the pressure on to increase circulation, Lindsell’s successor, Kenneth Kantzer, virtually turned the magazine over to journalists. The “Current Religious Thought” page, which had been written by such luminaries as Berkouwer of Amsterdam, was eliminated. What had been a journal of opinion soon descended to the level of a slick, evangelically oriented family magazine. To give it a facade of intellectual respectability in its new format, the masthead for a time carried the names of members of a “Christianity Today Institute,” but this was little more than window dressing. Here (read them and weep!) are typical major articles from some of the most recent issues of Christianity Today that I had around: “Getting the Small Picture: Recovery from our Love Affair with Bigness”; “Withering Flowers in the Garden of Hope”; “The New Sexual Revolution”; “Laughing with Sarah”; and “Secret Sins [i.e., incest] in the Church Closet.” At one time, Christianity Today made news by impacting the world of ideas; today, at best, it merely reports news, with ideological content almost solely limited to so-called “in-depth interviews.”

Evangelical book publishers have followed a similar route. From the 1940s through the 1970s, some very serious theological works were issued by the Grand Rapids, Michigan, houses, and by evangelical publishing firms elsewhere in the country. (I think, for example, of the works of Wilbur Smith and Edward John Carnell.) But when Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth became a national best-seller, evangelical publishers woke up to the possibility of mass sales of popular titles. The result has been to turn the annual Christian Booksellers Convention trade-fair into a cheap carnival of trivia and the average local Christian bookshop into a place to purchase audiocassettes of evangelical country-western music and pencils inscribed with Bible verses. I take at random the twenty-four new titles reviewed in the latest issue of a respectable evangelical national church paper: thirteen of twenty-four (over half) deal with sex and marriage, daily living, and personal crises, or are fiction, including children’s books. Only one title (on science and religion) attempts to break new ground or reach the thinking unbeliever. The evangelical publisher of my Suicide of Christian Theology (1970) now features Christian romance novels (The Journals of Corrie Belle Hollister: “Pa was long since dead. Ma didn’t make it through the desert. Now it’s only me [sic; sick?] and the kids….”). That publisher also prides itself on having sold 970,000 copies of Free to be Thin, an evangelical weight-loss plan.

Many evangelical seminaries and colleges have made devastating theological shifts. Fuller Seminary has altered its doctrinal statement, dropping the word “inerrant” in reference to the Scriptures. Westmont College has refused to discipline a professor who proclaims an “evangelical” redaction criticism which sees such events in the Gospel of Matthew as the coming of the Magi as nonhistorical sermon illustrations paralleling the Jewish midrash. Other conservative, evangelical seminaries have experienced hideous intranecine warfare; one thinks of Concordia Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, where distinguished scholar and president Robert Preus was forcibly retired, took legal action, and was then defrocked for seeking due process!

Which brings us to the evangelical paradox of illegality/legalism. On the one hand, Operation Rescue has no compunctions about breaking the law for the higher end of opposing abortion. On the other, evangelicals manifest toward each other appalling moralism and legalism, thereby turning off the unbeliever who might otherwise be attracted by the message. For example, at a distinguished midwestern Bible College, a professor was discharged because his wife wrote a “feminist” book. At the same school, a fine teacher of apologetics resigned before his book, Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View, was published by Harper and Row because he knew that the controversial content would result in his immediate discharge-even though he heartily subscribed to scriptural inerrancy.

Why these sad phenomena? What explains Evangelicalism’s inability to fulfill its promises of a generation ago? At least four factors contribute to the problem, in my view.

1) Evangelicalism’s deep-seated anti-intellectualism. In spite of the Herculean efforts made by many fine evangelical scholars and institutions of higher learning, Evangelicalism’s invidious comparison of heart and head, to the detriment of the latter, cripples its cause. Wherever pragmatics and emotion can be chosen in preference to careful reasoning, the evangelical will do so. Thus money and emotional ties to the womb-like security of the midwest Bible belt determined the move of Christianity Today from Washington, D.C. -not the rational question of influencing the general climate of opinion at the political nerve-center of the country.

2) Evangelicalism’s confusion of social matters with theological truth. The liberal criticizes the evangelical for “biblicism,” but in reality the evangelical is not biblical enough: he does not allow the Scriptures to criticize his own societal patterns. Thus the evangelical seldom subjects the salesmanship of the television evangelist or the popularity craze in evangelical publishing to biblical standards. If he did, he would see how he constantly attempts-unsuccessfully-to serve two masters.

3) Evangelicalism’s overstress on inner experience. C. S. Lewis well noted in The Screwtape Letters that the devil encourages us to push our strengths until they become major weaknesses. In the face of dead churchmanship, evangelicals have historically insisted on a living, personal Christ experience, and quite correctly. But this personal emphasis has readily and often imperceptibly been transformed into something quite different: a religious existentialism in which general principle and even biblical principle are ignored. The charismatic side of Evangelicalism displays this weakness in particular (the “Spirit” leading, without the restraint of Scripture or the means of grace), but the same phenomenon lies at the root of the overall evangelical impatience with theological formulations, church organization, and stable ministry.

4) Evangelicalism’s poor priorities. Ever since John Wesley made sanctification rather than justification the focus of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival, evangelicals have looked upon holiness as their central concern (public morality; private conformity to evangelical blue laws). But Martin Luther was far more biblical than Wesley when he declared that you do not need to preach to a good tree to bear good fruit. When sanctification is separated from justification, as invariably occurs in Evangelicalism, the result is pharisaic moralism. This is probably Evangelicalism’s most obnoxious characteristic. It was classically lampooned in Sir Henry Rashford’s Augustus Carp, Esq., Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man (1924), but it is rampant throughout the evangelical scene.

Here is a personal illustration. When Jerry Falwell and I were both members of a small delegation invited by the late President Sadat of Egypt to discuss the Near East conflict, Falwell attempted to prevent the Egyptians from serving wine at a state dinner: he seemed to care less about the impact of our gospel message than about improving our hosts’ morals.

To return to our starting point: the evangelical, in attempting to refute evolutionary theory, argues that entropy, by way of the second law of thermodynamics, is more basic than biological development. Everything ultimately runs down, not up. Unhappily, this argument may also apply to Evangelicalism itself! But if the evangelical wishes to postpone that eventuality, he should seriously consider going back much farther than eighteenth-century revivalism for his roots and for his corrective: to the Reformation for the doctrine of justification (the “article on which the Church stands or falls”) and the early church for the objectivity of the Creeds and the holiness of classical worship.

Tuesday, August 7th 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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