What is the Future of Evangelicalism?

Roger R. Nicole
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

As the articles in this issue of Modern Reformation suggest, evangelicalism is experiencing a change in seasons: former evangelical statesmen are passing from the scene, new evangelicals don't seem to rally around the same issues and ideas as their forefathers, and it's increasingly difficult (if it was ever really possible) to identify clearly what an evangelical is. If you have any warm feelings at all about evangelicalism, you want some answers: Where is evangelicalism going? Who better to turn to for answers than the individuals whose lives and work helped create and shape evangelicalism. Modern Reformation is honored to include the reflections of these evangelical leaders, pastors, and scholars as we seek to understand our own time and the future of the evangelical expression of Christianity.

In the 1840s, my grandfather's grandfather was part of a movement to accentuate evangelicalism in Geneva, Switzerland. My grandfather, a Greek professor at the Geneva University, also favored this movement over the state church. My father, Rev. Albert Nicole (1873-1966), sensing God's call to the pulpit, studied in the evangelical seminary founded by Louis Gaussen and J. Merle d'Aubigne. My father went on to minister in evangelical churches in France, Germany, and Switzerland, becoming a well-known evangelical minister.

In 1915, I was born in Geneva; and as soon as I was capable to read, I received a New Testament and soon afterward joined the International Youth League for Reading the Scriptures. Before going to seminary, I gave special study to the inspiration and the sovereign decision of God and to the Gospel of John and to Acts. In 1935, I took the course of Bible study in the Institut Biblique of Nogent/Marne, and in 1937 received the M.A. in classical studies from the Sorbonne. In 1938, I went to the United States to study theology in a "school of faith" (Gordon Divinity School, which later became Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) instead of a "school of doubt," graduating in 1943 with a Th.D and later completing a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Two years after I became professor of evangelical theology at Gordon Divinity School in 1946, I prepared a statement of Evangelical Faith for Gordon and soon after became one of the founding members (I am now the last surviving one) of the Foundation of the Evangelical Theological Society. Years later, between 1978 and 1988, I was a member of the International Committee on the Inerrancy of Scripture, issuing in a carefully detailed statement on the nature of biblical inerrancy. I also produced written statements on biblical inspiration and on the atonement, many of which were republished in my collected writings, Standing Forth (Christian Focus, 2002). Finally, between 2002 and 2007, I was the major prosecutor in the discussion of the question whether "open theism" was compatible with biblical inerrancy.

Given my long evangelical history, here are some thoughts I would like to share:

  • Do not embrace any modification of the strong expression of the ETS rule as supported by the Chicago Statement of 1978. This statement has served the ETS well and has permitted the rallying of sound evangelical forces against dangerous non-evangelical views.
  • Over the past fifty years, many evangelical apologetics have been characterized by a hostile attitude and a strident tone. Neither of those is necessary, or even effective, in the maintenance or defense of the Christian truth.
  • In attempting to evaluate why I was unsuccessful in my argument, I realized I was succeeding in winning a debate and failing in the process to keep some friends that I had. Thus, for the thirtieth anniversary of my occupation of the chair of dogmatics at Gordon-Conwell, I prepared questions I needed to keep in mind in order to be more congenial to those with whom I disagreed: "Polemical Theology or How to Deal with Those with Whom We Disagree" has now been published in at least three different journals and can also be found in Standing Forth.
  • Evangelicals have too often chosen to deal with those who differ from them with personal hostility. The result has been meager success in the acceptance by others of their evangelical stance. In view of the remarkable growth and acceptance of the evangelical position as a possible option, it is time to concentrate on the winning over of heretofore disagreeing people rather than to make their position unacceptable. If we have a welcoming and winsome method for encouraging the acceptance of the biblical nature of our viewpoint, it is likely we will have better success of convincing them.
Thursday, November 6th 2008

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

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