The evangelical movement has been evaluated recently in a very pessimistic manner in books such as No Place for Truth, by David F. Wells, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll. Both authors are distinguished members of the evangelical community. But while they call attention to the defects and limitations of evangelicalism, they show an inadequate appreciation for positive factors and achievements that reflect God's blessing on this movement.
As one who last year celebrated 50 years of seminary teaching, I may be in a position to add something on the positive side of the ledger: the gains of evangelicals in the United States since 1945.
Seminaries. In 1945, only a handful of seminaries that were accredited members of the American Association of Theological Schools could clearly rate as evangelical. In 1995, there were 125 accredited Protestant seminaries in the United States. Of these, 55, or 44 percent of the total, are clearly evangelical. This figure shows a spectacular shift in the center of gravity of theological education in this country.
Students. In 1945, a large majority of seminary graduates were from liberal seminaries; this was often interpreted as a sign that evangelicalism was dying and that the future lay with the progressive mainline churches. In 1995, full-time equivalency enrollment records show that students in evangelical seminaries almost equaled those in other seminaries (19,116 compared to 21,679). Add to this the fact that many evangelical students are studying in mainline seminaries (sometimes because of denominational pressure), and that the majority of conservative doctoral students are choosing liberal schools because of their superior libraries and international prestige. Since many students enrolled in more liberal institutions eventually choose not to become pastors, it is likely that before too long the number of evangelicals occupying pulpits in the U.S. will increase substantially.
Seminary professors. In 1945, many smaller churches were served by ministers who did not have a seminary degree. Many were graduates only of Bible institutes; the Bible institute professors often did not hold a respectable academic doctorate. Many evangelical seminary professors also did not have a doctorate; those who did often had obtained it from the very school in which they were teaching. Further, their teaching load was excessive (sometimes 15 to 18 credit-hours a week), their salary was often so inadequate they needed to supplement it by preaching or doing other time-consuming activities, and no sabbatical program was in place to give professors a substantial amount of time for research and reflection. Thus, the academic stature of evangelical schools was unimpressive.
In 1995, the situation is dramatically different. All accredited institutions have a majority of professors with earned doctorates from a variety of schools. In the Orlando branch of the seminary where I teach, there are 16 resident faculty members (including the president). They hold earned doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge, Duke, Princeton, Edinburgh, Baylor, Syracuse, Gordon Divinity School, Harvard (2), University of Central Florida, Georgia State, and Vanderbilt; and they have other graduate degrees from Westminster (6), Fuller, Trinity, Covenant, Union (Richmond), the Sorbonne, Brown, Simmons, and Boston University. This is one of the most richly diversified faculties I know, and all its members are resolute upholders of the inerrancy of Scripture.
Libraries. In 1945, the great Protestant theological collections were at Union Theological Seminary (New York), Garrett, Princeton, Hartford, Harvard, Colgate-Rochester, and General Theological Seminary. To my knowledge, these were the only Protestant seminaries that had 100,000 volumes or more. Most of these collections were in the Northeast. By comparison, evangelical seminaries were poorly equipped. For instance, Gordon Divinity School had only about 5,000 volumes after its own collection was merged with the personal library of Dean Burton L. Goddard.
In 1995, at least 25 evangelical seminaries have libraries exceeding 100,000 volumes, the largest being Calvin Theological Seminary with 478,000 volumes. Gordon-Conwell now has over 150,000 volumes, a growth of 3,000 percent since 1945. A similar rate of growth in the next 50 years would mean a library of 4,500,000 volumes by 2045!
Publications. In 1945, a common complaint was that evangelicals were not producing works of scholarship in biblical, historical, and theological disciplines, let alone philosophy, psychology, sociology, and other fields less closely related to the seminary curriculum. Some of our greatest scholars-B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and Abraham Kuyper-had died. Evangelicals were chided for relying on book reprints, and the great publishing companies (Scribners, Harper's, Macmillan, and Oxford) turned their backs on evangelical production.
By 1995, we were facing an entirely different situation. Besides Bible translations by individuals, teams of evangelical scholars have produced a number of new translations of the whole Bible, including the Berkeley Version (1959) and the New International Version (1978). The niv has been for several years the best-selling English translation, and is thus probably the best-selling book in the world.
Evangelicals have authored three multi-volume Bible encyclopedias: the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, the almost entirely rewritten International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and Colin Brown's The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Numerous Bible commentaries have been published, including those on individual books and series, such as the Expositor's Bible Commentary, the New International Commentary on the New Testament and New International Commentary on the Old Testament, the Word Bible Commentary, and the Hendriksen-Kistemaker New Testament Commentary Series.
There are evangelical introductions to and biblical theologies of the Old and New Testaments, not to speak of numerous monographs in biblical archaeology, history, hermeneutics, and linguistics. Evangelical output in systematic theology has been massive and challenging. Those of a liberal mind seem to have almost abandoned this area in favor of the philosophy of religion or the study of world religions.
Evangelicals have produced works on history, psychology, pastoral theology, homiletics, family relations, the devotional life, denominational distinctives, and scores of other subjects. The problem in 1945 was that we had relatively few new conservative books; the problem now is that there are so many that few people can afford to purchase all those they would like to own.
Periodicals. In 1945, the great success and circulation of denominational weeklies was waning. Some magazines like the Sunday School Times, the Christian Herald, and the Banner were still functioning. The Westminster Theological Journal, the Concordia Theological Monthly, and Bibliotheca Sacra were perhaps the most effective evangelical scholarly journals at the time.
In 1995, there are a great many evangelical organs, probably more than 30 quarterlies to which even liberal schools subscribe. Christianity Today's distribution has long since exceeded that of the highly prized liberal Christian Century.
Foreign missions. In 1945, American missions were still under the painful impact of the liberal "Rethinking Missions" agenda, which basically proposed to make the missionary endeavor a philanthropic movement of social and physical assistance and to renounce efforts to propagate the Christian faith in heathen lands. Naturally, evangelical people at home and abroad strongly opposed an approach that reversed the whole missionary movement since the days of William Carey.
In spite of such obstacles, the work of evangelical missions has greatly progressed in numbers and influence. The churches and denominations with strong missionary incentive have continued to grow, in contrast to many mainline churches that have shown a marked decline in the last decade.
Evangelism. Missions and evangelism are twins. They have their common origin in a conviction that people without Christ are lost, and that God commands that the gospel be preached to every creature (Matt. 28:19).
In 1945, Billy Graham was just another recent graduate from the evangelical Wheaton College. No one could anticipate the extraordinary way in which God would empower and sustain him so as to reach more people with the gospel in 50 years than any other person in the history of the church.
In 1995, evangelicals should be grateful to God for the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit in his life. Thank God Billy Graham had a place for the truth!
Social consciousness. In 1945, in part because liberals had endorsed social consciousness and activity as their main activity, evangelicals had become suspicious of it. In the process, we forgot that many of the most significant efforts to remedy social ills had their beginning in evangelical efforts and were the logical outcome of true gospel zeal.
In 1995, a more balanced approach may be observed: the gospel is not replaced by social endeavors, but social ministries are not shunted aside on the pretext that there is "no value in rearranging the chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic." In fact, evangelical institutions such as World Vision, World Relief, and Samaritan's Purse are international leaders in aid and development work.
Asign of the maturing of evangelical thought is the presence of significant authors who concern themselves with the history and sociology of evangelicalism, such persons as Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Mark Noll, and David Wells. Their Christian experience was formed in an evangelical milieu, and they are a product of God's grace in the midst of the evangelical community.
We admire their scholarship and brilliance, and we should heed their warnings and recognize the validity of their criticisms. Their recent dominantly negative tone is disappointing, however. Hence this article.
As one who has been privileged to participate in the movement these past 50 years, I humbly bow my knees in gratitude to the Lord and pray that in the future God may continue to bless and to guide, to keep us from errant ways, and to use the evangelical witness as salt in the midst of a decaying civilization. To paraphrase Deuteronomy 8:2: Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these 50 years.
Roger Nicole is professor of theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida.
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Last updated: September 3, 1996
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickO for a Thousand Tongues of FireThe Spirit’s descent at Pentecost is a model for diverse and distributed leadership.