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Christian History Home > 2006 > Issue 92 > Awakening the Evangelical Conscience

Awakening the Evangelical Conscience
The New Evangelicals called for a fresh application of Christian truth to the social problems of the day.
Richard J. Mouw | posted 10/01/2006 12:00AM

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Speaking to a large group of evangelical pastors in the mid-l940s, Carl F. H. Henry, soon to become a founding faculty member at Fuller Seminary, questioned them about the place of social concerns in their preaching. As he tells the story in the opening pages of his 1947 book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, he asked them: "How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management, or the like—a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing the framework in which you think solution is possible?"

Henry was chagrined when "[n]ot a single hand was raised in response." But he was not really surprised. He knew that inattention to such matters was a general characteristic of the evangelicalism of his day. He also knew, however, that this pattern was out of step with the mainstream evangelical tradition. "For the first protracted period in its history," he observed, "evangelical Christianity stands divorced from the great social reform movements."

Ten years later, evangelical historian Timothy Smith was to document this situation in detail in his Revivalism and Social Reform, showing that the pre-Civil War Holiness movement had actively participated in the abolitionist cause, as well as the campaigns for woman suffrage and temperance. In a "great reversal" (Smith's term), evangelicals retreated from these reformist efforts around the turn of the century, fostering instead a social pessimism and an almost exclusive focus on evangelism and individual piety.

For Henry, Ockenga, and others, this was an unfortunate over-reaction against liberal theologians who, drawing on the "social gospel" movement of the early 20th century, tended to identify the Christian message almost exclusively with a social-economic agenda. Henry and others were now calling for a comprehensive revitalization of the evangelical witness that would include serious efforts at social reform.

For all of the energy that Henry and others put into this revitalization, however, they did little to address the practical social ills that Henry had listed in 1947. This continuing failure was due to several factors. Most significant was the fact that Henry and his closest allies were scholars, and their natural inclination was not to take to the streets but to give sustained attention to correcting what they saw as the theological defects of the evangelical movement of their day.

In addition, they were worried not only about social inactivism but also about the image of evangelicals as anti-intellectual. So they expended much effort on intellectual renewal, working especially on remedying widespread evangelical cultural pessimism. They were convinced that recent evangelicalism had placed too much of an emphasis on a future millennial Kingdom, ignoring the possibility of important Kingdom gains in the present.

The solution was not, they argued, to conform to a liberal social gospel agenda, but rather to develop a more comprehensive, biblically faithful perspective. They wanted a theological perspective that did not abandon the classical evangelical themes of individual fallenness and the need for personal redemption, but would also address global realities in a way that clearly exposed the errors of those who trusted in an evolving humankind's capacity for self-improvement. The New Evangelicals gave major attention to developing a "new apologetics" (a major theme in Fuller Seminary's early days), a theology of culture, and a view of God's work in history that allowed for partial successes in reformist efforts prior to the return of Christ.

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