Theological battles are not alien to evangelicalism. They never have been. We begin with the battle over definitions: What is an evangelical?
When I entered the evangelical community nearly 50 years ago, I knew who was an evangelical: an evangelical was anyone who committed himself or herself to a specific set of doctrines and acted on them. We called these doctrines “the fundamentals” and, hence, we often got ourselves lampooned as fundamentalists. I never accepted the title gladly. It held too many negative overtones with which I did not wish to identify myself (for example, an adherence to traditional pre-Enlightenment thinking, a belligerent attitude toward all who disagreed with them, a literalistic interpretation of Scripture, and extreme separation in social views and ecclesiology). Yet I firmly believed the fundamentals then, gladly defended them as best I could, and today still hold to them enthusiastically. CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s statement of faith represents one listing of those doctrines.
Even then the term evangelical was hotly debated. Many of the best evangelical spokespersons of that day objected to the term. J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a major spokesman for conservatives in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, refused to call himself a fundamentalist and did not choose the title evangelical. He preferred to label himself simply a Christian (hence the title of his most famous book, Christianity and Liberalism). J. Oliver Buswell, a popular author and president of Wheaton College from 1926 to 1940, ridiculed the term evangelical as synonymous with “evan-jellyfish.” Theologian and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary E. J. Carnell refused to entitle his “casebook” as a defense of evangelicals. He preferred orthodoxy (in spite of the danger of confusion with Eastern Orthodoxy). And Harold Ockenga, pastor and conservative leader, at one time spurned the label evangelicalism and sought to create a new name, “neo-evangelicalism.”
The term evangelical continues to be hotly contested. Many who a generation ago would have gladly accepted the title liberal no longer do so. They insist that they are evangelicals in the strict etymological definition of the term; they, too, accept the “good news,” however they define it.
Most “evangelicals,” at least in North America, insist on what they deem to be the “classical” and theological definition of the term. It refers to those doctrines held in common by the major Reformation groups, including Anabaptists and later the Wesleyans and now most charismatics.
Many younger historians and sociologists of religion (some evangelical and some not) choose to define evangelical purely sociologically rather than theologically. If this sociological definition of the term ever becomes publicly accepted, then evangelicals who identify themselves theologically will have to find a new term that will designate what now constitutes them as evangelical. As Carl Henry constantly warns us, we must distinguish between what makes an evangelical an evangelical and the distinctive opinions and practices that characterize evangelicals at any one time or in any cultural situation.
The constitutive positions that marked evangelical battlegrounds in the past are still important today. They include the existence of objective and normative truth (a point never mentioned in any creed, but assumed in all of them). In our culture, this is hotly contested. For moderns, a thing can be true for me but not for you.
These constitutive doctrines also include the so-called content principle (the substance) of evangelical faith: the Apostles’ Creed, a Chalcedonian Christology (whether expressed in exactly these terms or not), vicarious atonement, and salvation only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Along with the content principle, and crucial to preserve this content, stands the so-called formative principle (the foundation) of evangelical faith—the entire trustworthiness and divine authority of the Bible (commonly designated by such terms as plenary, infallible, and inerrant inspiration).
Naturally the tension points will shift from decade to decade as the culture shifts. But these are the permanent battlegrounds of evangelical faith.
The Dangers Of Battle
A constant danger in these battles is to allow the opponent to choose the battleground and its weapons. For example, in the period between the great wars, fundamentalists (evangelicals in their battle against liberalism) gave the impression that, rather than merely defending orthodox doctrine, they were advocating a kind of Christian rationalism. Even Carnell in his 300-plus-page apologetic limits his discussion of the witness and role of the Holy Spirit to half a page.
A second danger is to interpret all opponents on the same level. For example, so-called neo-orthodox theology was interpreted and battled against as the same old liberalism, only slightly disguised, and hence dubbed the “New Modernism.” It was not. But neither was it consistently evangelical in the generally accepted understanding of that term. Even Karl Barth, the best of them, who wanted to be an evangelical, fell short by his hope-so universalism and his insistence on theological errors in the Bible.
But there was a third danger. During the latter half of the nineteenth century in Europe and the first third of the twentieth century in America, evangelicalism was fighting for its life. Militancy became a way of life. It engendered a stance that often led some evangelicals to unnecessary battles, such as advocating legally mandated prayers in the public schools and refusing to permit the government to apply strictly educational and nonreligious requirements for parochial Christian schools (forgetting that the state as well as the religious person has an interest in the education of the young).
As the Duke of Wellington taught us, knowing where to draw the battle line is the first rule of successful warfare.
That brings us to battles within evangelicalism, then and now. By becoming an evangelical, I walked into the middle of an ongoing series of family squabbles. These internal battles have always been part of evangelicalism (remember Luther and Zwingli at Marburg). Every theological battle spawned in Europe was borne to America. In a religiously plural environment, these battles often became more heated than in their place of origin.
Theoretically, these internecine battles stand on quite a different level from the others. Yet at times the battle lines have become confused, as when Carl McIntire, a rigid separatist, identified puritans as the “second team” fighting for the cause of theological liberalism.
At times the strife within the family left many on the outside wondering if there really was an evangelical family. It seemed more like alien tribes battling for survival and power.
These internal battles have shifted across the decades. Some battles that were waged strenuously in Reformation times were carried on with equal vigor in the colonies and in the new nation. They are still with us today and, presumably, will be with us tomorrow.
Examples are pedobaptism versus adult baptism; the sense in which Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper; so-called baptismal regeneration and family covenant as over against adult conversion; predestination and perseverance in salvation; the “folk” (free) church versus the gathered (national or mainline) church; and many others.
As our culture has moved further and further away from its Christian heritage, these battles have moderated. The National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Theological Society, and many parachurch organizations like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade have shown that these debates do not need to be all worked out before Christians can join together to work for the cause of Christ.
Some Reformation quarrels have been settled—at least in North America. For example, most evangelicals accept the separation of church and state and the biblical and moral rightness of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: The state must not control religion, and religious bodies must not try to force religion on others. Evangelicals remain in disagreement, however, as to the relation to the state of a church that is politically and socially responsible and that truly seeks justice and freedom for all.
Some theological quarrels became especially significant after Reformation times and continue to trouble evangelicals today. Examples would be the question of one-, two-, and later, three-level salvation, sinless perfection, divine healing, contemporary miracles, the nature and role of evangelism, and the proper role of emotions in evangelism and in evangelical worship.
Many new intrafamily quarrels have arisen to trouble evangelicals in this century: premillennialism, the chronology of events to occur at the return of Christ, dispensationalism, presuppositional as opposed to evidential apologetics, tongues as a sign that one has attained a higher level of Christianity, normative prophecy as a contemporary gift to the church, the teaching and leadership role of women in the church, the “lordship salvation” debate (whether saving faith in Christ always presumes also an acceptance of his lordship), and many others.
Strictly speaking, none of these issues is new to the church, but they have risen to special prominence in recent days. For the most part, however, they have been recognized quite clearly for what they are: theological differences among those whose evangelicalism is not questioned. Current indications suggest they are being set forth with less and less sharp angularity and, therefore, are less divisive within the evangelical community.
What looms on the horizon as evangelicals face the third millennium? They will have to live and witness in a world that is rapidly moving further and further away from the Judeo-Christian heritage that has shaped Western culture and has dominated the planet for half a millennium. They must come to grips with vast bodies of knowledge that continue to increase rapidly and be disseminated far more widely than in the past. The “global village” is only beginning to affect the evangelical church. The world population will be concentrated in a few super megalopolises. How will these and many other changing aspects of world society affect evangelical thinking?
Some evangelicals will have to learn to function as a small minority in a society that is non-Christian and often anti-Christian. Worldwide, evangelicals are increasing faster than the general population. American Christians will have to adjust to an evangelical community whose center lies outside America—in the Southern Hemisphere. Inevitably, evangelicalism will be penetrated by the outside world’s values and viewpoints. It will be subject to constant drain as evangelical faith is compromised and accommodated, with Christians attempting to bridge the unbridgeable by making Christianity into something more acceptable to the nonevangelical world.
“Opposition to secularism” will replace “opposition to liberalism” as the major concern of church leaders, thus drawing evangelicals into greater cooperation and unity. Part of the fraying of evangelicalism at present is due to the fact that it has no overwhelming common enemy. The same dynamic will draw evangelicals into cooperation with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even Mormons and Jews.
This will force evangelicals to reformulate their doctrine of the church and the relation of the church to unorthodox groups or to those entirely outside the church. Evangelicals’ basic doctrine of salvation through faith and not through a mix of faith and works will have to be clarified and defended with renewed vigor. Evangelicals will also have to develop greater clarity a theological ecology and an evangelical view of the earth’s resources, including nonhuman life.
Overall, the spiritual and intellectual energies of evangelicals will be spent less on their internal strife and more on the more fundamental battles between secularism and Christian faith, between belief and unbelief. The battle over abortion will continue because it is really a clash between a materialistic view of humanity and a Christian view of humanity. Other related battles will heat up—euthanasia, genetic reconstruction, the allocation of transplants, and the issues raised by the control humans are gaining over life itself.
In these battles evangelicals must beware not to lose the theological foundation on which their ethical values are built. A paradigm for how this could happen can be seen in some Mennonite groups. Originally, Mennonites saw their concerns for peace and social action as a demand of the gospel. Later, some came to look upon their social values as parallel with the gospel or even primary to it. Eventually, some became so passionately committed to peace and the pursuit of social ministries that the gospel was forgotten. Evangelicals must be careful lest in their zeal to battle against abortion, pornography, euthanasia, and environmental disaster, they forget the gospel (and some are coming dangerously close to doing so), which serves as the very basis of their social concerns.
The great challenge for evangelicalism will be to continue to build its theology on the basis of the Bible while avoiding compromise with the radical anti-Christian cultures around it in which it seeks to win others to the Savior. The second challenge will be to perform this feat without drawing back into an isolated and irrelevant ghetto.
Kenneth S. Kantzer is a senior editor and senior adviser for Christianity Today.
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