One characteristic of mid-century evangelical Christianity is its greater conversation with non-evangelical viewpoints. We say “conversation” to indicate an exchange of opinion and serious discussion based thereupon. We do not say greatest “rapport,” which would indicate that this conversation is necessarily congenial. There are some evangelicals who are calling this willingness even to converse, the “new evangelicalism,” and therefore distrust it. They suspect it in an implicit abandonment of true evangelicalism. Those who participate in and encourage this conversation, as this magazine does, do not intend thereby to yield any evangelical ground either explicitly or implicitly.

This willingness to discuss has been noted by non-evangelicals some of whom cordially welcome the evidence of it in our ranks. Some of these men have thought, somewhat unfairly, of evangelicals as being unwilling to discuss vital issues with dispassionate academic objectivity. There is no denying that some evangelicals, more so in the past than in the present, have provided some basis for this charge. Our tradition has known some in its fellowship to be obscurantist in their outlook, to produce little literature or speech of solid character, and to be addicted to impugning the motives of non-evangelicals. While we do not admit that this has characterized evangelicals universally, we do acknowledge, with shame, that it has been all too much with us and in each of us.

It is interesting to see some of the signs that non-conservatives (or persons associated with non-conservative institutions) are recognizing this willingness and ability of evangelicals to speak to the modern situation. A few straws in the wind may be noted. When Religion in Life (Winter 1955–56) ran a feature article entitled “Where Do We Go From Here in Theology,” one of the invited contributors was Dr. Cornelius Van Til representing distinctly conservative theology. In a more recent article in The Christian Scholar (June 1958), “Contemporary Theology and Christian Higher Education,” Nels F. S. Ferré presents a serious consideration of “fundamentalism.” He dismisses it, to be sure, as an inadequate view for reasons which this writer does not find compelling. But, the point is that he first gives it fair and respectful evaluation. Incidentally, Ferré comments:

A few years ago even mention of this position might have seemed quite irrelevant to the problems of higher education both because of Fundamentalism’s external standard of authority and because of its belonging to a bygone era.
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Dr. Sydney Ahlstrom of Yale University (Church History, September 1958) states this on “Fundamentalism”:

[This is a] term I wish to limit strictly to those large areas of America’s church-membership which for economic, social, and ecclesiastical reasons in general and an exaggerated emphasis on revivalism in particular became almost totally estranged from the ongoing intellectual enterprise of the Atlantic community during the nineteenth century. (Without this estrangement and ignorance and its attendant insecurity and hostility, there is no ‘Fundamentalism’ by my definition of the word.)

In a footnote he continues:

Obviously no term like ‘Fundamentalist’ ever has a single, definite, invariable, agreed-upon, meaning. Because this term is so often used with pejorative connotations, however, I have purposely delimited its application. My sharply restricted use of the name reflects a conviction that the Fundamentalist movement should be understood as the historically-rooted obverse of the Liberal-Modernist movement and that no form of theological ‘conservatism’ is ipso facto ‘Fundamentalist.’ Accordingly I exclude Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen as well as contemporary theologians like Van Til, Berkouwer, Carnell et al who are frequently referred to as Fundamentalists, or even so refer to themselves. To my mind, a person is not a Fundamentalist if he speaks to the issues, is aware of the problems, is well-informed, and is in communication with those from whom he dissents. I recognize that nobody can legislate the meaning of such a word; I merely wish to emphasize an important qualitative distinction between two types of conservatism.

It seems to us that there are many advantages in academic conversation by persons of profound differences of opinion. From the evangelical viewpoint it spells nothing less than an evangelistic opportunity. Academic matters have to do with truth and truth has to do with salvation. Believing that evangelical truth is nothing less than the truth which justifies and redeems, we covet every occasion to proclaim it. Speaking this truth in the language of the scholar is a distinct duty and high privilege which we must not forfeit by incompetence. Secondly, reaching the scholars in a theoretical way is of the greatest conceivable practical value. The masses are ultimately far more affected by the scholars than by the masses. This effect may be very indirect but it is very real. Third, for evangelicals this interchange of debate and friendly argument has great intrinsic value. It subjects our thought to thorough, unreserved, devastating, competent criticism. This may not be at all pleasant but it is undoubtedly salutary. Like the judgment of God (which it may well be) these academic rods of his anger may well humble and purify the weak and halting presentation we make of the Word of God. Whatever may be the positions, or even the motives, of our opponents, the method of frank criticism is nothing less than a blessing of God.

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But, there are formidable dangers in candid academic give-and-take. How have the mighty fallen in intellectual combat. If you debate at all, you must debate honestly. If you debate honestly you run the risk of losing. The truth, of course, will never lose to error; but the defender of truth may lose to the defender of error. That is to say, one man may put forth a better case for a worse cause; another man a worse case for a better cause. This tends to detract from truth itself in the eyes of many. The poor defender of a good cause may himself lose confidence in truth because his own defense of it has been justly exposed. Or, to put it another way, a person may hold a right conclusion on wrong premises. These premises may be exposed in this interchange, and the person may suppose that the very Gospel has been intellectually tried and found wanting. Another hazard is that Christians may be driven into an intellectual underground which they call “faith,” and wrongly think of it as opposed to all thought. And even when Christians emerge successfully from scholarly encounter, they may, while refuting most, still be infected by some error.

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