Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us



By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Reform has always been central to the self-understanding of American evangelicalism. Ambition to reform American Protestantism was the energizing dynamic and motivating cause for the emergence of the so-called “new evangelicalism” as it burst upon the national scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. Outraged by the encroachments of liberalism, evangelicals sought to salvage the mainline denominations. At the same time, however, the evangelicals were frustrated with their own historical roots in fundamentalism.

As the title of George Marsden’s history of Fuller Theological Seminary suggest, a central aim of the evangelicals was Reforming Fundamentalism.1 These early evangelicals wanted to forge a new evangelical identity and tradition, leaving behind the vestiges of the older fundamentalism. Now, as a new century begins, some evangelicals seek to reform evangelical theology in the same manner. These “reformist evangelicals” are seeking nothing less than a total realignment of evangelical theology in a direction more in keeping with postmodern thought. Their success or failure will determine the future of evangelicalism as a movement—and may mean the end of the evangelical movement altogether.

The history of American evangelicalism is one long narrative of a search for identity. It seems that every decade or so evangelicals involve themselves in a new fit of identity crisis. In the early days, pioneering founders such as Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry established the identity of evangelicalism. This early understanding of evangelicalism rooted its identity in orthodox Protestantism without separatistic fundamentalism. The founders conceptualized this movement, known as the “new evangelicalism,” with a focus on both the center and the boundaries of the incipient movement. The structures of this essay takes as a foundational understanding a mathematical model of “set theory” which identifies several different types of sets. Some sets are bounded, that is, they are identified by the definitional issues at the boundary—who is in and who is out. Other sets are defined as “centered sets,” and take their definition from core commitments. Some sets are both centered and boundaried. Then there is the “fuzzy set,” which mathematicians describe as the set not well identified either at the center or the periphery.

The early evangelicals in the movement suggested that fundamentalists had made three critical mistakes that these new evangelicals would correct. The first mistake was withdrawal, represented by the fundamentalist doctrine of separatism. Fundamentalist separatism, a quite interesting phenomenon, is still with us in some forms. For instance, some fundamentalist manuals on separation offer a series of test questions on the topic. Some of these questions—such as, “Is it allowable for you to ride with a Southern Baptist pastor to a Bill Gothard seminar?”—are discovered to be trick questions for, as it turns out, one should neither be going to a Bill Gothard seminar nor be in the car with a Southern Baptist!

The mistake of withdrawal was accompanied by a second mistake, the restriction of theological concern. In the view of the new evangelicals, the fundamentalists had severely restricted their theological vision. The evangelicals joined the fundamentalists in their advocacy of biblical inerrancy, Chalcedonian Christology, and substitutionary atonement. Nevertheless, in the view of the evangelicals, the fundamentalists were missing some of the most significant theological battles of the era.

The third fundamentalist mistake was the elevation of secondary matters to an unwarranted primacy, illustrated most centrally in the elevation of dispensational eschatology to a place of first-order significance. The evangelicals were determined neither to divide nor to dissipate their theological energy over such issues.

The early evangelicals were at pains to define their differences with fundamentalism without conceding the high ground of biblical authority and theological integrity. The question was how inclusive this movement should be. This was an early concern, and it endures. One way of understanding how the founders handled this issue is to look at the history of Christianity Today under its founding editor Carl F. H. Henry. One of the early debates on the board of Christianity Today came at Hendry’s insistence that scholars such as F. F. Bruce and G. K. Berkouwer be included on the contributing board of the magazine. Neither of these figures affirmed biblical inerrancy, and yet Henry argued that both were basically cobelligerents on the conservative side of the great theological battle.2

Henry’s goal was to rally “an international, multi-denominational corps of scholars articulating conservative theology.”3 The objective of these founders was to establish a firm center, and yet the boundaries were kept less clear. The pressing energies of a fight against liberalism and the hope for a larger culture-shaping coalition formed and forged these early evangelical leaders in such a way that they put a primary emphasis upon the center while acknowledging the task of boundary-making. But they were never quite clear about where the boundaries should lie. As a result they achieved the coalition, and over the next twenty-five years what George Marsden calls an “evangelical denomination” came together.4 This evangelical empire, centered first in Wheaton, Illinois, then in Colorado Springs, and now perhaps in Orlando, is seen in its institutional embodiment in such organizations as the National Association of Evangelicals, the virtual empire of publishing houses, journals, magazines, schools, colleges, and seminaries, and an entire universe of parachurch ministries.

Coalition always come at a price. In this case, the price was a loss of theological precision and unity. One of the early and urgently publicized themes of the new evangelicalism was its diversity. Looking back at the primary sources, an observer is struck again and again by how diversity was trumpeted as one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement.

Behind all of this was the desire to build a great evangelical coalition. In 1967, Henry warned that if evangelicals did not settle the identity issue and, in doing so, coalesce, “They may well become by the year 2000 a wilderness cult in a secular society with no more public significance than the ancient Essenes in their Dead Sea caves.”5

By the 1960s, this awkward but growing coalition was showing signs of strain. This led in the ‘70s to fissures that openly threatened the survival of the movement. A younger generation of evangelicals shaped by the cultural context of the ‘60s pushed for a new evangelical direction. At the same time, the evangelical coalition seemed to be missing some important partners. Carl Henry lamented the Southern Baptist failure to join the National Association of Evangelicals.6 At the same time, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was becoming a flash point. In the Southern Baptist Convention and among other evangelicals, inerrancy itself was never a naked issue.7 It always represented something far larger in scope as well as significance. The foundational issue is, and ever will be, the nature of truth—the understanding of divine revelation.

As this fissure became ever more open, and as the flash point grew to the point of explosion, the issue of inerrancy became a virtual crusade, a very important defining issue. In this controversy, Francis Schaeffer became the pamphleteer, Harold Lindsell became the pathologist, and Carl Henry served as the professor. They sought to bring evangelicalism back to a clear affirmation of biblical inerrancy. In hindsight the effort came too late to salvage the evangelical coalition on a unified understanding of Scripture. The movement would not be saved from itself and reclaim the high ground of the total truthfulness of Scripture.

In Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority, his massive magnum opus, the professor sought to lay it all out in a magisterial form.8 Even so, the result was not to bring evangelicals together in a unified affirmation of biblical inerrancy. The differences were already too dramatic. William Abraham, for instance, responded to God, Revelation and Authority by saying that it was not the wave of the future, but “3,000 pages of turgid scholasticism.”9

In the 1970s, Fuller Theological Seminary rewrote its confession of faith, eliminating an affirmation of biblical inerrancy. Christianity Today moved ever further to the left, simultaneously shifting from a more scholarly perspective to a kind of middlebrow view (and now to a popular perspective) with pragmatic psychotherapeutic concerns gaining primacy.10 Like wise, many of the colleges and seminaries of the evangelical denominations and coalition continued to move toward theological accommodation with modernity.

By the 1980s, James Davison Hunter could trace the pattern of “cognitive bargaining” among the rising generation of evangelicals, suggesting that this generation was both making and justifying theological concessions in light of the demands of modernity.11 Again, while the inerrancy controversy itself was a flash point, it was hardly a conclusive battle. Interestingly enough, the inerrancy controversy produced significant victories in only two denominations, neither closely identified with the National Association of Evangelicals: the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Hunter identified three primary areas of doctrinal decline or accommodation: the doctrine of revelation, th