The American Council of Christian Churches Still Exists

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When post-fundamentalists like Billy Graham, Carl. F.H. Henry, and Harold John Ockenga began to forge a kinder and gentler brand of conservative Protestantism known as “neo-evangelicalism,” there were many veterans of the fundamentalist-modernist battles of the 1920s who continued to cling to the “fundamentalist” label. The primary difference between these groups of former fundamentalists focused on how to engage the larger religious world.  Neo-evangelicals favored cultural engagement and an irenic spirit toward liberal Protestantism.  Fundamentalists championed separation from the world and a more militant attitude toward liberal Protestantism. As historian George Marsden once quipped, a fundamentalist is “an evangelical Christian who is angry about something.”  The fundamentalists believed that the neo-evangelicals were compromising true biblical faith by participating in religious events with modernists.  The neo-evangelicals founded the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942.  A year earlier, the fundamentalists founded the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC).  I wrote about the distinctions between these two groups here.

The American Council of Christian Churches was founded by Presbyterian minister Carl McIntire.  His fundamentalist credentials were strong.  McIntire was defrocked by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. for violating his ordination vows in 1936 and quickly joined J. Gresham Machen’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).  A year later he broke away from the OPC and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church.  I wrote about these splits here.

McIntire had grandiose dreams of a national council of fundamentalist churches similar to the ecumenical Federal Council of Christian Churches (FCC).  By early 1940, he was calling for a national organizations from the pages of his weekly newspaper, the Christian Beacon.  McIntire used the Christian Beacon to unleash scathing attacks against modernists and those fundamentalists who refused to separate from mainline Protestant denominations.  He would devote entire issues of the paper to the publication of charts and graphs designed to document the growth of liberal theology in the FCC and expose its modernist leaders.  In one editorial on the FCC and modernism, Mcintire wrote:

There is a need for an organization representing the true Protestant position which can receive its proportionate share of time from the radio broadcasts…The reason that the Protestants are not represented is that they have no spoken up.  We believe God is able and that He is going to raise up a voice.

As this quote reveals, McIntire imagined an organization that championed fundamentalist voices on the radio.  He also wanted an organization of churches that would advocate for fundamentalist military chaplains during World War II.

The American Council of Churches was born on September 17, 1941 at McIntire’s National Bible Institute (later Shelton College) on 55th Street in New York City.  The original sponsors included Will Houghton of Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones Sr. of Bob Jones University, and Jack Wyrtzen of Word of Life Fellowship.   The original ACCC was made-up of two fundamentalist denominations: McIntire’s Bible Presbyterian Church and the Bible Protestant Church, a group of separatist Methodists who withdrew from the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939 in protest to the merger between the Methodist Protestant Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, and Methodist Episcopal Church South.

The ACCC grew modestly.  In the next several years the Bible Presbyterian Church and Bible Protestant Church were joined by the American Bible Fellowship, the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Old Evangelical Catholic Church, the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec, the Tioga River Christian Conference, the Conference of Fundamentalist Churches, the United Christian Church, the National Fellowship of Brethren Churches, the Ohio Independent Baptist Church.  The two largest denominations were the General Association of Regular Baptists, which under the leadership of Robert T. Ketcham had split from the Northern Baptist Convention, and the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, who were a untied group of independent churches under the leadership of William McCarrell.

The leaders of the ACCC, despite the organization’s small constituency (1.2 million members), understood it as the ecclesiastical opponent of the massive FCC, which contained over 30 million members.  The zealous voices of the ACCC made it appear as if they had a much large piece of the American religious landscape.  They energetically, and successfully, lobbied for radio time and military chaplains.   The organization launched McIntire into the national spotlight.

I lost track of the activities of the American Council of Christian Churches after I turned my scholarly attention to early American history.  But last week I learned that the organization still exists.  In fact, its national meeting will take place this weekend right in my own backyard.

The 2019 meeting of the ACCC is scheduled for October 22-24 at Faith Chapel in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  You can read all about it here.

It appears that the present-day ACCC is made up of nine denominations and continues to uphold its historic commitment to separation.

The 2019 conference theme is “Biblical Fundamentalism: Pursuing Purity.”  Here is what attendees can expect:

The emergence of Biblical Fundamentalism late in the 19th century was not the creation of something new in Christendom.  It was the call to return to the Apostolic roots of Christianity and to resist the efforts of modern liberalism to redefine the message of the Bible.  The Bible conferences that took place at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, beginning in 1876, recognized the theological drift that afflicted churches across the United States and Canada.  Long before the appearance of the New Evangelicalism with its cultivation of dialogue with enemies of the faith and compromise of the faith’s core principles, the early Fundamentalists confronted the emissaries of German rationalism and their campaign against the cardinal doctrines of Christianity.  They faced those enemies of the truth with resolve and summoned believers in Christ to take their stand for the separated witness of the Gospel. 

Nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Biblical Fundamentalism tends to be an expression of scorn and contempt among so-called conservative evangelicals who appear to desire the revival of the New Evangelicalism.  The American Council of Christian Churches declines all association with such a desire.  It takes its stand without apology for the faith once delivered to the saints.  It bears the historic name of Biblical Fundamentalism as a badge of honor and an assertion that it will stand with Christ outside the camp of worldliness and compromise.  For its 78th annual convention, to take place October 22-24 at Faith Chapel, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the American Council of Christian Churches calls the people of God to a revival of their old resolve to stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  The history of Biblical Fundamentalism is replete with courageous contenders for the truth whose example 21st century believers do well to emulate.  The answers to the challenge of this time lie in the Holy Scriptures and in their revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ.  To both the written and Incarnate Word, the faithful people of God owe all their allegiance and the devotion of their lives.

The titles of the plenary addresses tell us a lot about the organization.  They include:

“The Battle Royal: Biblical Fundamentalism”

“God Would Raise Up New Generations of Fundamentalists”

“Knowing Our History: Biblical Fundamentalism’s Past”

“Has the Battle Ended? Biblical Fundamentalism’s Present and Future”

The conference also includes breakout sessions devoted to the legacies of McIntire, Bob Jones Jr. Gresham Machem, Robert T. Ketcham, Bob Jones Sr, Ian Paisley, and William Bell Riley.

Yes, it appears the American Council of Churches is alive and well.  There are still groups out their who gladly embrace the label “fundamentalist.”

More on the Billy Graham Archives Move from Wheaton to Charlotte

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Religion News Service is running another piece on the Franklin Graham’s decision to move the Billy Graham Archives from Wheaton College to the Billy Graham “Library” in Charlotte.

Back in March, I weighed-in as part of another RNS piece on this topic.  At that time I said this: “By taking the papers away from Wheaton, where access is open, Franklin Graham and the BGEA can now control access and can thus control the narrative of his father’s life in terms of who gets to read them….Evangelicals must come face to face with both the good side and bad side of their history by taking an honest look at people like Billy Graham.  I am not sure this will happen in Charlotte.  The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is not a library.”

I also wrote a post here.

Here is a taste of Tim Funk’s recent RNS piece:

This week, at Wheaton College in Illinois, specially trained movers will begin organizing, preparing and packing 3,235 boxes of paper items, 1,000 scrapbooks of news clippings dating back to the 1940s and more than 1,000 linear feet of videos, cassettes, reels, films and audio.

All of it documents the life and ministry of evangelist Billy Graham, the Christian college’s most famous alumnus. And soon, all of it will be headed to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C., Graham’s hometown.

The big transport trucks that will haul the valuable cargo won’t make the nearly 800-mile trip until mid to late June. But the controversy over moving the Graham materials all began more than two months ago. That’s when it was announced that, after June 1, the materials would no longer be housed at Wheaton’s highly regarded Billy Graham Center Archives.

Since it opened with Billy Graham’s blessing in 1980, more than 19,000 scholars, journalists and other researchers from around the world have spent 67,000 hours doing work there.

The BGEA’s Charlotte site does include the 12-year-old Billy Graham Library, but it was not designed as a research facility. Instead, it is a presidential-like museum celebrating the life of Graham, who died last year at age 99, and is a brick-and-mortar continuation of his worldwide evangelism efforts.

“The so-called (Billy Graham) Library is not a library,” said Edith Blumhofer, a longtime history professor at Wheaton who is now completing a study of the music of the Billy Graham Crusades. “It has no archives. It has no archivist.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is the Southern Baptist Convention Evangelical or Fundamentalist?: Some Thoughts on the Beth Moore Controversy

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As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am not a cradle evangelical.  I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a Roman Catholic.  I had a conversion experience as a sophomore in high school and I left the Catholic church for a non-denominational Bible church.  In other words, I became an evangelical.

When I converted, the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I ever met a born-again Christian until I started attending the youth group at Gilgal Bible Chapel in West Milford, New Jersey.  I went from the cloistered community of a working-class Catholic upbringing (I seem to remember mostly Catholics and Jews in my public high school, although I am sure there were Protestants as well) to a similarly cloistered evangelical world.  My only exposure to evangelical Christianity came through Gilgal, a church plant with an authoritarian pastor located on a multi-acre site that included a Christian camp and a conference center. (Gilgal had its own unique approach to evangelical Christianity, and its authoritarian pastor had a tragic fall from grace, but I will need to save that for another post or perhaps another book!)

My conversion was real and life-altering.  I put aside a journalism career and prepared for a life in the evangelical ministry.  My pastor recommended I go to Bible college.  So I did.  I initially thought I would be spending the next four years in residence at a place similar to a monastery, but I soon realized that most Bible college students were no different than the students who attended my public high school.  They dressed the same way, had the same haircuts, listened to the same music (despite the fact they were not permitted to listen to “secular music”), drove the same cars, and had the same ambitions and vices.  They baptized these traits with their “calls” to ministry and a sense of Christian piety.  For some, these “calls” were real and I had much respect, and continue to have much respect, for many of my classmates.  For others, I had no idea why they were in Bible college.  In the end, I had a great time at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  I played basketball and made some great friends.  It was like I was attending a four-year Christian youth retreat.  But I digress…

By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t getting much of a liberal education.  In the 1980s Philadelphia College of Bible was a dispensational school.  Bible and theology professors taught us that God had different plans for Israel and the Church.  (One professor, John McGahey, would scream at us: “ISRAEL IS NOT THE CHURCH!). The purpose of this Bible college education, if you could call it that, was to indoctrinate students in dispensational premillennialism. We were required to buy a copy of the Scofield Bible.  We read books by dispensational luminaries such as Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost.  We waited for the rapture–the moment when God would raise-up the true believers to meet him in the air.  And our teachers made sure that we knew the rapture would come before the seven-year tribulation.  All of my Bible professors had advanced degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of dispensationalism.

Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue my theological education. But I did not want to go to Dallas with some of my other classmates.  I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.  TEDS was an evangelical seminary, but it was not dispensational in orientation (although it did have a few dispensational professors).  I chose TEDS because I knew that I would find evangelical professors who would expand my horizons.  My goal was to pursue a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and use my time to figure out what I might do with such a course of study.  At the very least, I thought an MDiv would allow me to think theologically about the world.  I had no real long-term plan.  My parents helped me out with the tuition, but I also worked as a security guard at various places to get myself to graduation.  I eventually fell in love with history, added an M.A. in church history to my vita, and headed off to pursue a Ph.D in American history.

When I arrived at TEDS in the late 1980s, the school prided itself on its commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.  Kenneth Kantzer, the retired dean of the seminary, had attracted some of the best evangelical theologians to TEDS for the purpose of providing an inerrancy-based alternative to Fuller Theological Seminary, the Pasadena, California school that abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy in the 1960s.  (See George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism).

Some professors made a big deal about inerrancy.  Others rarely mentioned it. I took Scot McKnight for a Greek refresher course.  The subject of inerrancy never came up.  (Nor did it come-up much in his Synpotic Gospels course).  John D. Woodbridge, who taught me how to think historically and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D in history, was a staunch defender of inerrancy.  My other church history professor, Tom Nettles (who I did not know as well as Woodbridge), did not say too much about inerrancy despite the fact that he was an important historian of the doctrine during the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Church.

But what I remember most about TEDS was the theological diversity of the faculty.  While some of my readers might wonder how a school that upholds biblical inerrancy could be theologically diverse, at the time I did not see it that way . TEDS was not Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary.  During my three years on campus I took courses with dispensationalists (Paul Feinberg) and covenant theologians (Ray Ortlund Jr and Walter Kaiser).  I took courses with faculty who opposed women’s ordination (Wayne Grudem) and those who championed women’s ordination (Walter Liefield).  There were Presbyterians and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians.  I even had one professor (Murray Harris) who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I sat-in on courses taught by some of the founders of the neo-evangelical movement:  Carl F.H. Henry, Kantzer, and Gleason Archer.  I took theology with Harold O.J. Brown, the Harvard trained scholar who was one of the leading voices of the pro-life movement.  I made a few visits to a class on Puritanism taught by English theologian J.I. Packer.

I don’t know how all of these professors got along in the faculty lounge, but they always modeled a spirit of conversation and debate.  Evangelicals had core convictions, but what made them evangelicals was their irenic spirit and acceptance of those with whom they differed.  This spirit, perhaps more than anything, was what made them “evangelicals” and not “fundamentalists.”  As Marsden once put it, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism.  But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.

I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.  Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.

I have been thinking lot about my experience at TEDS as I watch the debates over the role of women in the church currently taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In case you missed it, last month there was a pretty significant Twitter battle on this topic.

It all began when the bombastic Southern Baptist seminary professor Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a piece on women in the church at his blog “Thought Life.”  Here is a taste of that May 7, 2019 post:

Biblical teaching on the sexes is not bad. It is not harmful to women. It is good–thunderously good–for women and for men. If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or “non-authoritative” way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative. There is no “non-authoritative” way to preach and teach the Bible. Any who doubt this point might recall how Paul contrasts the “word of men” with the “word of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. If you speak and interpret the Scripture, you speak with the weight of eternity upon you. It cannot be otherwise.

Beth Moore and J. D. Greear are two popular Southern Baptist voices. Both Moore and Greear are gifted individuals, respected within the SBC and beyond it. In recent days, I was surprised to see these two figures endorse, in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body (see here and here). This was new to me; Southern Baptists have never embraced such a view. As mentioned above, there is no New Testament precedent for a woman teaching the corporate body of Christ (Priscilla’s words in Acts 18 to Apollos came in private, not in public), nor were women called to serve as priests in the old covenant era. Christ did not appoint a woman to be an apostle, nor did any woman serve as an elder in the first-century churches spoken of in Scripture.

And here is his Strachan’s conclusion:

Though many paint women monolithically today, seeing them as instinctually feminist, there are many women in submission to God who wish for men to lead them well and preach the Word faithfully. They do not see the Bible’s teaching on womanhood as “restrictive,” nor the complementarian movement as “afraid” of womanly gifting. Rather, they approach the Word of God with great reverence and awe. They wish to know the will of God, and do it. They take no pleasure in quieting or softening the Bible; they recognize the order that God has established, and they love it. There are scores of such women in church history, in Baptist history, in the modern SBC, and in the broader evangelical world. I know they are out there; I have heard their testimony firsthand. With the whole church of God, these women gladly confess that the counsel of the Lord stands forever (Psalm 33:11), and that the law of God’s mouth “is better…than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72).

There is much the Word frees women to do as mentioned above. But for the women I speak of, where the Word gives them a prohibition for God’s glory and their good, they receive that commandment with gladness. They submit to God, as we all must do (James 4:7). In our God-defying age, this posture stands out sharply. It is driven by our total confidence in the unerring mind and will of God. We think of Psalm 119:89 on this count: בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם נִצָּ֥ב דְּ֝בָרְךָ֗ יְהוָ֑ה לְעוֹלָ֥ם, “Forever, Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.” It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.

Let no one defy this order.

There is a lot that could be said about Strachan’s post.  I disagree with him on the role of women in the church and the family, but my intention here is not to get into these theological and interpretive weeds.  There are indeed a lot of denominations that do not ordain women, including the Roman Catholic Church.  But I will say this:  by ending his post with the words “let no one defy this order,” Strachan reveals his dogmatism on this issue.  I wonder what he would think about someone who does “defy this order?”  Are they living in sin?  Are they outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy?  Of evangelicalism?  Will Strachan still have Christian fellowship with them?  Should they be cast into perdition? What is at stake here?

After he wrote this piece, Strachan turned to Twitter to promote it:

It was at this point that the wildly popular evangelical preacher Beth Moore entered the fray:

Strachan initially responded politely:

But then his Twitter feed got snarky.

For example, he retweeted this:

And then his many followers and others of like mind started chiming in:

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And then this week Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, added fuel to the fire with this tweet:

Those familiar with Mohler will remember that he was instrumental in making Southern Seminary a complementarian school and the Southern Baptist Convention a complementarian denomination.  When one listens to Mohler and Strachan, one gets the impression that they believe their view of what the Bible teaches on the role of women in the church and the home is not a secondary issue of faith, but one that is essential to Christian orthodoxy.  I honestly don’t believe that they really think this, but their rhetoric is so definitive and dogmatic that it certainly sounds like they do.

Strachan is not letting go of this position.  He sees the denial of the pulpit to women such as Beth Moore and others as a non-negotiable theological view in the SBC. In other words, those who take a different position do not belong in the denomination. Here is his tweet in response to Mohler (notice how he continues to see himself in the vanguard of those who led the conservative resurgence, even going to the point of capitalizing the word “Resurgence”):

Of course the Southern Baptist Church leadership has the right to define the role of women in the church in any way they want to define it.  This is what religious liberty is all about.  Millions of evangelicals attend churches that do not ordain women.  As noted above, the largest religious body in the world–the Catholic Church–does not ordain women.  But Strachan and other Southern Baptists also like to fancy themselves as heirs to the evangelicalism that I experienced at TEDS nearly thirty years ago. Strachan writes books and edits books for conservative Christian publishers extolling people like Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and other members of the neo-evangelical movement.

My professors at TEDS had firm convictions on a whole host of issues, but they did not promote them with the fundamentalist spirit to which I see coming from Strachan and his followers.  In fact, it was this very spirit–the kind of militant spirit I see in their tweets–that made fundamentalism so repulsive to people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer, and the other neo-evangelical leaders who broke from fundamentalist militancy in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Southern Baptist Convention can work out their issues on women in the church on their own, without my help, but if you are going to try to make complementarianism a defining and non-negotiable characteristic of SBC orthodoxy please stop writing about how much you love the neo-evangelical movement.

On the other hand, if you do want to claim the Henry/Kantzer/neo-evangelical mantle, perhaps it is time to rethink the Convention’s position on this issue and broaden the tent a bit.

When Evangelicals Tried to Start a Research University

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Some of you may be familiar with Carl F.H. Henry, a 20th-century evangelical theologian who tried to lead evangelicalism away from fundamentalism and toward a more intellectual robust brand of conservative Protestantism.  (I took a course with Henry while he was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1990s).

Henry’s lifelong dream was to start an evangelical research university.  Over at The Anxious Bench, historian David Swartz writes about Henry’s attempts at establishing “Crusade University.”

Here is a taste:

Henry told potential donors that he needed $100 million for buildings, administration, faculty, and equipment. That would establish a liberal arts school. If that number grew, they would add a college of education and business—then engineering, law, and medicine. $300 million, explained Henry would “include sufficient endowment to guarantee its operation.” For comparison, Harvard at the time boasted an endowment of $350 million.

These outrageous numbers reflected a dazzling vision that teased and frustrated Henry for the rest of his life. My next post will explain why Crusade University does not exist today—and why it never got off the ground in the first place. It’s a story that suggests much about the nature of evangelicalism in the twentieth century.

Read the rest here.

The New Fundamentalism

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Eric Johnson, an endowed professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, came to a gathering organized to celebrate the release of his 716-page InterVarsity Press book on “soul care” and used the occasion to announce his early retirement from the seminary.  Some say seminary president Albert Mohler fired his endowed professor because Johnson believes that the findings of modern psychology can be used by Christians in counseling and other forms of psychotherapy.

One of Johnson’s strongest critics is a Heath Lambert, an advocate of something called “biblical counseling.”  Lambert is the president of an organization called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.  He believes that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is a “sufficient and an authoritative guide to counseling.”  He also rejects the use of drugs to treat depression and anxiety.

Lambert’s view of Johnson’s work is summed-up in this video.  He spends close to twenty minutes criticizing Johnson. Lambert calls Johnson’s work, among other things, a “total and utter mockery of God’s word.”

Now here’s the kicker:  Lambert also teaches counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I don’t fully understand everything Lambert is talking about in this video, but I am struck by the language he uses to describe one of his colleagues.  First, there is the potential awkwardness of it all.  I have never been to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but I am assuming that it is a tight-knit community.  I assume that every now and then Lambert would have to pass Johnson in the hallway and attend a meeting where they are in the same room together. Second, I think it is safe to assume that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a tight-knit Christian community.  I have heard of faculty at large research universities saying nasty things in public about other faculty at the same university, but for some reason I thought faculty at an evangelical theological seminary might be held to a higher standard. All faculty disagree, but few do so in such a harsh and public way.

I am not a theologian or a Christian counselor, but I did take a few courses on these subjects in college and divinity school.  I remember learning about something called “nouthetic counseling.”  It was an approach, popularized by the Christian counselor Jay Adams through his 1970 book Competent to Counsel, that argued psychology and psychiatry were secular ideas that were radically opposed to the teachings of the Bible and thus could not be used in the practice of Christian counseling.  In other words, only the Bible could be used to help people overcome mental illness.  I think this view is akin to what Lambert and his organization call “biblical counseling.”  (Warren Throckmorton, are you out there?  I hope I am getting this right!)

During my education in evangelical institutions, my professors rejected nouthetic or biblical counseling.  My wife, who holds a masters degree in Christian counseling from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was taught to integrate faith with psychology in her work. Frankly, I thought this whole debate over the use of psychology in Christian counseling was over a long time ago,  I guess I was wrong.

According to Bob Allen’s reporting at Baptist News Global, Mohler appears to support Lambert. In 2005, he moved the seminary toward a biblical counseling approach.  At that time Mohler wrote, “In this psycho-therapeutic age, it is really important that we think as Christians…that we employ authentically Christian thinking, biblical thinking, to human life, and that we do this in a way that, without apology, confronts and critiques the wisdom of the age and seeks the wisdom that can come only from God and God’s word.”

According to Allen’s article, it is unclear what role Mohler or Lambert played in Johnson leaving Southern Seminary, but hundreds of Johnson defenders signed a petition protesting his sudden departure  The signers believe that Mohler and Lambert had something to do with it.

I also wonder if something larger is going on here. Mohler and Lambert both signed the Nashville Statement on human sexuality.  (I did not see Johnson’s name on the statement, but I could have missed it).  This statement has been criticized by conservative evangelicals less for its content and more for its strident tone. Writing at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed, an evangelical pastor chided the statement for its failure to portray “God-generated, Christ-displayed, and Bible-defined love.” McKnight himself argued that the statement did not reflect the pastoral heart of Jesus. It is hard not to see connections between Johnson’s new book on “soul care,” his departure from the seminary, and the criticisms of the Nashville Statement.

The folks at Southern and other conservative institutions in the Southern Baptist Convention have been pretty dogmatic of late.  They have been drawing lines in the sand and suggesting that anyone who crosses these lines should no longer be considered orthodox Christians.  If you want more evidence of this, go back and read my posts about Mohler back in September 2015 when Pope Francis visited the United States.  I realize that Mohler and the Catholic Church do not see eye-to-eye on most things, but I was struck by the fact that he made very little, if any, attempt to find common ground.

In this video, Mohler is drawing the line on biblical inerrancy.  And here he leads a panel on the subject with John MacArthur and others. One of the panelists–I think it’s Mark Dever (also a signer of the Nashville Statement)–suggests that it is Satan who occasionally draws the church away from inerrancy.  Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, California, also takes some hits on this issue.

Recently, one of these Southern Baptist defenders of the faith even compared himself to John the Baptist. (It reminded me of that time when Billy Sunday compared himself to John the Baptist or when J. Frank Norris once preached: “I tell you the spirit we need in this compromising, milk-and-cider, neither-hot-nor-cold–you want to know the kind of spirit we need?  We need the spirit of old John the Baptist when he told that Sanhedrin, ‘You are a generation of snakes.'”).

Would Mohler, Lambert (who, by the way, holds a Ph.D in counseling from Southern Seminary), and others academics in the Southern Baptist Convention say that the Christian counselor forfeits the right to be called an orthodox Christian when he starts drawing from the insights of modern psychology ?  I hope not, but I am not sure.

Whatever the case, the academic wing of the Southern Baptist Convention seems to believe that they are living in a moment when Christianity is under attack and must be defended. As Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in response to a colleague who pressured him to sign the Nashville Statement, “the urgency of the hour demands it.” Anderson added: “the impulse to close ranks and reassert evangelicalism’s identity publicly and the eagerness to indulge in the rhetorical excess of the statement’s importance have the same roots in the despair that governs our politics.”

Lambert’s video attacking Johnson, the apparent firing of Johnson, the tone and spirit of the Nashville Statement, Mohler’s attacks on Francis, and the use of inerrancy as a means of dividing evangelicals (I am sure I could find other examples as well) leads me to wonder if we are seeing a new manifestation of Protestant fundamentalism.  (I am sure some believe that this happened a long time ago in SBC circles). I have seen this kind of thing before.  I started my career writing about it.  Fundamentalists believe that the culture is under attack and orthodox doctrine is in jeopardy from outside forces.  They call their followers to circle the wagons, draw lines in the sand, and close ranks. Who is on the Lord’s side?  Who will be the true defenders of the faith in the sea of cultural, intellectual, and social change?  Who will take a stand?

Perhaps this is the kind of thing the church needs right now.  I am not convinced of it, but maybe I am wrong.  I do, however, find it ironic that many of the same Southern Baptists who seem to be adamant about drawing clear and decisive boundaries also seem to value the legacy of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” of the mid-20th century. the men who tried to bring conservative Protestantism out of its fundamentalist past.  They name their schools and centers after Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry and they admire  John Harold Ockenga, one of the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals. They adhere to the conservative theology of these giants of modern American evangelicalism, but do not seem to exemplify the irenic spirit of these men when they speak into public life.  Instead, they sound more like J. Gresham Machen, Curtis Lee Laws, Frank Norris, and William Bell Riley.

I don’t know Eric Johnson, but I hope he lands on his feet.

Were the Neo-Evangelicals Public Intellectuals?

CFHHenry

Carl FH Henry

No.

But Owen Strachan want them to be.

Strachan, who teaches at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, wants to turn post-fundamentalist evangelicals such as Carl Henry, E.J. Carnell, and John Harold Ockenga into mid-twentieth century public intellectuals.  His piece is a response to Alan Jacobs’s Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals.”

Neo-evangelicals were those fundamentalists who attempted to give some intellectual credibility to American evangelicalism in the decades following World War II. I will not go into detail about them here. Read books by George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Molly Worthen.

Strachan writes:

These were not retreat-minded individuals. They came to play. But though they possessed sterling credentials and unquestionable ability, men like Henry and Carnell (each the possessor of two doctorates, Carnell’s from Harvard and Boston University) were never going to receive a gilded invitation to the academic mainstream, the elite dinner-party. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Why? Not because of a lack of tremendous intellectual power, research ability, or personal initiative. These and other evangelicals were not even in serious competition for the top university post or the nighttime host of a public affairs television show. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now, and they may never be.

And this:

Look, Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1-1 load at Princeton. George Eldon Ladd should have been famous the world over for his studies of the kingdom of God. Ockenga should have had a weekly broadcast on NBC. On and on it could go. These were fantastically gifted individuals, but their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that. So it is today. Evangelicals will pop up on newscasts and panels; they’ll publish with some big houses, and they’ll participate in some big debates. But in terms of Niebuhrian influence, lasting presence in the nexus of global power, that’s going to be tough (though not impossible) to come by. Their stubborn belief in an exclusivist Christ already renders them suspect, and out of step with the spirit of the age, to say nothing of the ramifications of holding a Christian view of sexuality.

Strachan obviously likes people like Henry, Carnell, Ockenga, and Ladd.  He likes them because the  reclamation of these figures (especially Henry) have played a significant role in current efforts by conservative Southern Baptists to articulate a particular kind of Christian intellectual life. It is thus understandable why Strachan is upset that Jacobs does not acknowledge the neo-evangelicals contribution to such a life in his Hartper’s piece on the history of Christian public intellectuals in America.

The neo-evangelicals were smart, if not brilliant men. (I took a course with Henry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1990s–he was a first-rate mind). But they were hardly “public intellectuals” in the way that Jacobs uses the term.

Here is a taste of Jacobs’s response to Strachan:

I agree with Strachan that these were all first-rate intellects whose abilities deserved the kind of stature that he imagines for them in an alternate and better universe. But I also think that they had intellectual priorities that made them poor candidates for playing the role of the broadly public Christian intellectual, or for holding the top-tier university post. My thinking about this is shaped primarily by George Marsden’s great book Reforming Fundamentalism, and I think Marsden’s title gets at what these men were up to. They looked around at their fellow evangelicals and they saw people who were simply not prepared to engage with the larger world of ideas, and so they took it upon themselves to educate their fellow evangelicals in these matters. A book like Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism— and this is true of most of Henry’s work — is not meant for a general audience, it is meant for an audience of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And I think all of the figures Strachan cites were basically pastoral and pedagogical in their vocational orientation. They were less concerned to engage directly with the culture at large than to provide the intellectual foundations that would allow later generations of evangelical Christians so to engage.

Strachan joins the chorus of folks who are upset with Jacobs for not acknowledging their favorite Christian thinkers in his article.

The Four Phases of American Protestant Fundamentalism

McIntire

Carl McIntire: Separatist Fundamentalist

About twenty-two years ago I published an article on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism in Trinity Journal, the theological journal of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  The article was my attempt to historicize fundamentalism and chronicle some of the movement’s subtle changes over time.

When it first appeared in 1994, “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition” drew little attention.  So needless to say, I am thrilled that Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition and author of the new blog Evangelical History found that it is still useful.  He published the article in its entirety (without footnotes) at Evangelical History.

Here is a taste of Taylor’s introduction to the article:

“Very few historians of American fundamentalism are aware of the subtle changes that fundamentalism has undergone through this century.” So wroteJohn Fea, over 20 years ago, in his article, “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition,” Trinity Journal 5NS (Fall 1994): 181–99. In the same article he wrote, “Future historians of the movement need to be aware of these subtle differences before making blanket interpretations that describe all twentieth-century fundamentalism with adjectives such as ‘separatist,’ ‘militant,’ or ‘anti-intellectual.’ American fundamentalism is neither static nor monolithic. While a certain amount of continuity exists between the phases, the movement was actually characterized by gradual, but constant change.”

The primary and secondary reading on this movement is quite extensive, but Fea’s piece may be the most helpful and concise orientation to the different phases of fundamentalism in the 20th century. He’s aware of the dangers in setting strict dates for each phase (“Restricting open-ended social and intellectual movements to neatly prepared historical packages confined by set dates is the historian’s greatest sin”) but he helpfully identifies four phases of development:

  1. an irenic phase (1893–1919), a harbinger to fundamentalism “proper”;
  2. a militant phase (1920–1936), encompassing the “fundamentalist-modernist controversies”;
  3. a divisive phase (1941–1960), when fundamentalism split into “evangelical” and “separatist” factions;
  4. a separatist phase (1960 to the present), where the self-designation of fundamentalism is restricted to Protestants who remove themselves from mainstream American culture and religion.

Read the entire article here.

Is Centrist Evangelicalism Dead?

EvangelicalDavid Gushee thinks that the category “centrist evangelical” is no longer useful.  Here is a taste of his piece appearing today at Religion News Service.  It should be read alongside his original piece “Conservative and Progressive Evangelicals Head for a Divorce.”

…the Gospel message ought to be a broad enough platform for shared life in Christian community. And yes, worldly politics has been allowed (disastrously) to infect Christianity. But still, I am not sure the two sides of the evangelical world actually share the same Gospel, at least in terms of what each side emphasizes. Progressive evangelicals tend toward a Radical Reformation type Gospel centered on the justice-advancing ministry and teachings of Jesus, and on his message of the kingdom of God as holistic salvation and social transformation (see Stassen/Gushee, Kingdom Ethics). Conservative evangelicals mainly lean toward a Calvinist/Lutheran Gospel centered on Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls, on biblical inerrancy and pure doctrine, and on conservative social values. Of course, even these different Gospels (and there are other variants) should not make cooperation impossible, but the differences are quite profound.

Several admittedly quick thoughts on this particular part of Gushee’s argument:

First, if an “evangelical” is the religious descendant of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” of the 1940s and 1950s, then I am not sure the “Radical Reformation” Christians Gushee references can be truly called “evangelicals.”

Neo-evangelicals such as Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and John Harold Ockenga believed that the Gospel centered on, to use Gushee’s phrase, “Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls.”  Since the 1960s, as historian George Marsden has chronicled in his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, these evangelicals have been divided over inerrancy. But even those who rejected inerrancy still believed that doctrinal issues were a primary concern in defining the movement. The emphasis on the Cross is not just a Calvinist or Lutheran idea.  It has also been important to Pentecostals, Methodists, and a whole lot of other groups with Pietist and Wesleyan-Holiness roots.  Wasn’t John Wesley’s heart “strangely warmed?”

Christians who support “justice-advancing ministry” and the “teachings of Jesus” and “holistic salvation” and “social transformation,” but fail to stress the belief that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and that a conversion is necessary to salvation, do not historically fall into the evangelical camp.

Don’t get me wrong.  Evangelicals have embraced social justice in the past and they continue to embrace it in the present. Henry and Ronald Sider come to mind. So do all of the young, socially-conscious evangelicals I encounter at Messiah College.  But without the Cross, and the message of salvation preached by people like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and others, it is hard to say that these “Radical Reformation” Christians are evangelicals.

Take William Jennings Bryan for example.  He was a fundamentalist who cared about doctrine (especially creationism) and the Cross.  His economic policies were close to socialism.  He had a lot in common with the Social Gospel Movement (and the kind of “Radical Reformation” Christians that Gushee invokes), but I don’t think The Great Commoner belongs with Washington Gladden or Walter Rauschenbusch, the leaders of the Social Gospel efforts. Bryan believed that social justice and the care for the economic plight of common people were inseparable from the Cross and conversionism.

In the end, I think that centrist evangelicalism is still alive and well.  I see more and more “doctrinally pure” born-again Christians trying to live out their faith in  ways that might be described as progressive.

But when culture war issues enter this picture things get complicated.  Can someone who is pro-choice or supports gay marriage still be considered an evangelical?  Is it possible to believe in the authority of the Bible and the centrality of the Cross and still have progressive views on these issues?  Most American evangelicals (but not all of them) would say no and they would have the history of evangelicalism and the history of the Christian Church as a whole on their side.

If evangelicals are defined solely by their positions on social issues, then perhaps the center is eroding, if there was ever a center to begin with.

Or perhaps the center is now occupied by evangelicals who take traditional stands on these culture war issues but are willing to engage in fellowship with, rather than condemn, Christians who take progressive positions on them.

The Anabaptist Turn in American Evangelical Historiography

50f82-worthenIn some respects we are all Anabaptists these days–at least those of us who are bothered by the way politicians tend to conflate the church and the United States of America.

I don’t know what the prevalence of Christian nationalism today has to do with recent trends in the historiography of American evangelicalism, but I am confident that future historians will make this connection.

My colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas, the Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and a Ph.D student in American history at Temple University, has a nice review in The Conrad Grebel Review of three important books on the history of American evangelicalism.  They are David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism; Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, and Molly Worthen’s The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Here is a taste of his piece, “The Not-So-Quiet in the Land: The Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography.”

In the historiography of North American Anabaptism, evangelicalism typically functions in one of two ways. Some Mennonite-produced analyses have depicted evangelicalism as a threat to Anabaptist distinctives, infiltrating and infecting thought and practice on peace, simple living, and the gathered church—a so-called declension thesis. By contrast, other scholarship—often produced by Anabaptist groups outside the denominational orbits of the (Old) Mennonite and the General Conference Mennonite churches—has envisioned evangelicalism as an ally to Anabaptist values. It Gasawayargues that shared convictions have guided the two traditions toward mutual influence and fruitful dialogue—a kind of integration thesis.  Whether focusing on corruption or cordiality, though, these two divergent historiographical models share at least one conviction: Given evangelicalism’s demographic and cultural dominance within North American Christianity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Anabaptist story cannot be told without some reference to this larger tradition.

Yet for all the attention paid to evangelicalism by scholars of Anabaptism, scholars of evangelicalism have paid little to no attention to Anabaptists. Mennonites and Brethren in Christ rarely feature as actors in narratives of evangelical experience in America.  A variety of factors shapes this historiographical reality, including Anabaptists’ own ambivalence about their status as evangelicals. Perhaps the most significant factor in the absence of Anabaptism in evangelical historiography is what historian Douglas A. Sweeney has termed the “jockey[ing] for historiographical position” among two factions of scholars that he terms the Reformed and Holiness schools of evangelical history.  The historiographical models proposed by these two schools have dominated the literature on evangelicalism as it has emerged over the last three decades. In effect, they have so determined the actors in histories of evangelicalism that related groups—including groups like Anabaptists that do not always claim the evangelical label yet nevertheless moved through the 20th century in related ways—have been excluded from the narrative.

7b96a-swartzEven so, in recent years the prevailing models of evangelical historiography have proven too limiting. Several studies of post-World War II American evangelicalism published since 2012 exemplify the emergence of a new trajectory that moves beyond the “essential evangelical dialectic” of the Reformed and Holiness schools. It constitutes an Anabaptist turn in recent evangelical historiography, as scholars have inserted Anabaptists as key figures in the history of American evangelicalism.

Read the rest (with the footnotes) here.

Was I Wrong About a Fundamentalist–Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Last week the most popular post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home was my reaction to Adam Laats’s post about a visit that president Steven Pettit of Bob Jones University made to Wheaton College.  Read it here.


Apparently some folks on the fundamentalist side think I got this all wrong and seem to be offended that I (or Laats) would suggest that fundamentalists are softening their attitude towards “neo-evangelicalism.”

Over at the blog of an organization called “Religious Affections Ministries” Kevin Bauder, a theology professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota, argues in no uncertain terms that Pettit’s visit to Wheaton does not represent a detente.  Here is a taste of his post:

Years ago, I was in Virginia and stopped to see an acquaintance at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. While I was there, he showed me around the campus a bit, then introduced me to Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan. My visit was purely personal and had nothing to do with any endorsement of Pentecostalism in general or Pat Robertson in particular—and nobody thought that it had.
Apparently, if you’re Steve Pettit, you aren’t allowed to make personal visits. Steve was in Chicago and dropped by the campus of Wheaton College to greet a personal acquaintance. While he was there, this acquaintance showed him a bit of the campus (the C. S. Lewis shrine is worth visiting—I’ve been there, too). No endorsement of Wheaton or its policies was considered or implied.
But somebody snapped Steve’s picture, then wrote up an article in the Wheaton student paper. Next thing you know, bloggers like Adam Laats and John Fea were speculating about some sort of rapprochement between Wheaton and Bob Jones University. Oh, my.
It’s all bunk, of course. Laats and Fea are trading in guesswork and gossip over an event that has no significance at all. BJU is not moving toward neoevangelicalism, and Wheaton certainly isn’t moving toward fundamentalism. If anyone is moving at all, it would be Laats and Fea, since guesswork and gossip are the two most important contributions of some fundamentalist blogs. Perhaps we should welcome these men to the fold.
A couple of comments:

1.  Bauder’s explanation makes sense to me.

2.  I can’t speak for Adam Laats, but I would agree with Bauder that “speculation” is a fair word to describe my original post.  As a historian I think the presence of the BJU president on the campus of Wheaton is worth setting into historical context.  

3.  I do not consider myself a “fundamentalist,” so I don’t think I will be joining “the fold” anytime in the near future.  But I would love to open up dialogue with those “in the fold.”  If Bauder or his colleagues want to invite me to campus for a visit or a lecture I would love to come.  I think we would have a lot to talk about.

4.  I want Bauder’s mustache!

A Fundamentalist–Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit

In the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s conservative evangelicals in America divided into two groups. 


This has been a well-chronicled story (see works by George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, especially), but it is worth repeating for those of you who need to get up to speed.
 

Neo-evangelicals retained a good deal of fundamentalist theology, but rid themselves of the separatism and militant anti-modernism of their immediate ancestors who fought for control of the major Protestant denominations a generation earlier.  Neo-evangelicalism prided itself on “cooperation without compromise.” They wanted to engage the world–intellectually and spiritually–from the perspective of their conservative Protestant faith.  Most historians suggest that the neo-evangelical movement was born when the National Association of Evangelicals was established in 1942. 


Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois quickly became the flagship undergraduate college of this movement.

Other conservative Protestants chose to remain in their separatist enclaves and continue the militant battle against liberal theology.  They not only separated from the world, but they also separated from anyone (especially neo-evangelicals) who they believed were “compromising” with the world.  While neo-evangelicals rid themselves of the label “fundamentalist” in the 1940s and 1950s, these Protestants kept the monicker and continued to build a movement around it.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina was the flagship undergraduate college of post-1925 American fundamentalism.

Interesting fact:  Billy Graham spent his first year of college at Bob Jones College (when it was located in Cleveland, Tennessee).  He left the college because he could not handle the rules.  He eventually made his way to Wheaton.

As Adam Laats notes at his blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell, Bob Jones and Wheaton College have not always been on the best of terms.  But a recent visit to Wheaton by the president of Bob Jones may be a sign that hatchets have been buried.

Here is a taste of Laat’s post:

…Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.
Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.
First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.
Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.
Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.
If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.
I encourage you to read Laat’s entire post.  He has uncovered some very interesting history on the relationship between these two schools.  I don’t think we can make too much of BJU president Steven Pettit’s visit to Wheaton, but it is worth contextualizing.
Here is my question:  Does this meeting tell us more about Wheaton or Bob Jones? 

*Christianity Today*: Volume 1, Number 1

Today my History of American Evangelicalism course at Messiah College is reading chapter three today in Molly Worthen’s stimulating treatment of post-war evangelicalism: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  (Stay tuned for some forthcoming “Office Hours” episodes covering the book).

Much of chapter three focuses on Christianity Today, the flagship periodical of the neo-evangelical movement.  So this morning I went to the Messiah College library and asked the librarian if I could borrow the original issue of the magazine. (Thanks, Michael Rice!)  It was published in October 1956.

When I tweeted the picture below, one of the current CT editors, Ted Olsen, responded:

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The Pietist Schoolman on "New York-Centric" Cultural Engagement

Greg Thornbury, president of The Kings College

James K.A. Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, got Chris Gehrz’s attention when he tweeted” “I just note an odd creeping “New York-centrism” amongst some Christians invested in “cultural engagement.”  The tweet, as Gehrz rightly discerns, is related to evangelicals in New York City who are trumpeting the old evangelical mantra of “cultural engagement.”

At the forefront of this new manifestation of an old evangelical idea is Greg Thornbury, the new president of The Kings College, a Christian college located in New York City.  Thornbury wants to revive the legacy of the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s and 1950s. His hero is Carl F.H. Henry.  The blueprint for his vision can be found in his book Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry.

Working alongside Thornbury is evangelical writer Eric Metaxas, who was recently appointed “Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large” at Kings. (I discussed Metaxas’s approach to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  And I am sure you could throw Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church into the mix as well.

Gerhz, aka The Pietist Schoolman (and a historian at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN), raises some very good questions about this model of “cultural engagement.”  His remarks are worth considering.  Here is a taste of his post:

Thornbury goes on to position King’s as heir to an unfulfilled dream of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry (Thornbury’s mentor), of an evangelical university in New York City. Owen Strachan affirms this vision in an American Spectator piece on “the nation’s first hipster president” that suggests that King’s “may not only survive but thrive in New York” because it can connect with a
“Manhattan evangelical network, loose as it is.”

Thornbury said as much in an interview with TKC’s student newspaper, The Empire Tribune. He spoke of building alliances with other NYC-centered theological conservatives intentionally engaging with “strategic institutions” like government, commerce, media, and the arts: author Eric Metaxas and Socrates in the City; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church; theatrical producer Carolyn Copeland; and the journal First Things. (Perhaps he also will seek a partnership with Nyack College, the Christian & Missionary Alliance school that bills itself as “New York’s Christian College” and this fall is moving to a new campus near Battery Park.) At least one such alliance seems firmly in place:

I’d happily entertain attempts to persuade me that if Christians want “to have impact and effect on a society [they] must lead from the center of culture and not from the periphery.” I guess I’m wary of this “creeping New York-centrism” for several reasons. Just a couple:

• That — in the case of King’s and Metaxas — it’s so closely tied to a specific political and economic philosophy. In the student newspaper interview quoted above, Thornbury acknowledged the difference between Christianity and ideology, but immediately followed that statement with this: “But also, it is the genius of Christianity that has given inspiration to the animating ideals of what has been the best of the American traditions. What we regard as the key ideas of conservatism are all downstream from Christianity.”

Fine — but those waters have historically fed liberalism, socialism, and other ideologies as well. If politically progressive evangelicals come to New York looking to act as Hunter’s “faithful presence,” will their conservative neighbors seek out alliances with them?

• More importantly, privileging Christian engagement with culture at whatever serves for that blink of history’s eye as the “center of the universe” seems to have little biblical warrant. I suppose you could build such an elitist theology of cultural engagement around Paul’s conversation with the philosophers on the Areopagus or the apostles’ encounters with political and military officials, but I don’t see any indication that early Christians leaders (let alone Jesus himself, who talked about being salt and light while standing on a mountain in an obscure province) viewed such evangelism as having greater “strategic” importance than the spread of the Gospel on the “periphery” of that culture. (Or even that they believed in being “strategic,” since early evangelists were “scattered because of the persecution” that followed Stephen’s stoning or simply “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”)

(I realize that Gehrz’s post is from July 2013, but I don’t think it got the attention it deserved when it first appeared at The Pietist Schoolman).

John Turner Reviews Molly Worthen, "Apostles of Reason"

Check out John Turner’s review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  Here is a taste:

I never tire of the history of neo-evangelicalism. It’s a story of larger-than-life personalities with out-sized goals, excessive bravado, and considerable naiveté. One knows that there will be considerable heartache along the way and that the largest goals will never be met. And yet, these neo-evangelicals accomplished something that to observers of fundamentalists in the 1920s would have seemed utterly improbable. For me, this story is an area of both academic and personal interest. Having grown up with one foot in the world of parachurch evangelicalism (Young Life and InterVarsity) and encountered through books at least some of the figures in books such as Worthen’s, I always feel a keen interest in my spiritual ancestry.
Worthen’s diagnosis seems quite accurate, but I understand it as more of a Protestant problem than an evangelical or neo-evangelical one per se. As Worthen points out, Catholics and Mormons have found it much easier to found research universities. They have a tradition that provides some ballast. The shibboleth of sola scriptura has burdened Protestantism because it suggests that Christians really can proceed on the basis of the Bible alone. As Mark Noll expertly demonstrated in America’s God, it’s not quite so simple.
There’s no obvious or easy solution to the evangelical predicament (except a decision on the part of evangelicals to no longer be evangelicals, or perhaps to be Catholic or Orthodox evangelicals). However they define it, evangelical fealty to biblical authority prevents a wholehearted embrace of the presuppositions of either modernity or postmodernity. This is true whenever one accepts the authority of either revelation or tradition. But as long as one recognizes that dilemma, and faces it with both humility and hope, one can indeed wholeheartedly embrace the above-mentioned “aims of intellectual life.” None of those goals, after all, conflict with the evangelical goal of sharing the love of Jesus with a world starved for mercy and justice.

Timothy George on Carl F.H. Henry’s Legacy

If Carl Henry were alive today he would be 100 years old.  (January 22 was the date of his birth).  Henry was a theologian who was responsible for the revival of American evangelicalism in the 1940s and 1950s.  He is often associated with bringing intellectual credibility to the post-Scopes Trial (1925) Protestant fundamentalism that took the name “Neo-Evangelical” and was associated with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, Christianity Today magazine, and evangelistic success of Billy Graham.  (The best chroniclers of this history are George Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism and Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism).

I had the privilege of taking a seminar with Henry on the history of American evangelicalism.  He was in his late seventies at the time, but was still very sharp.

Over at Christianity Today, Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School reflects on Henry’s legacy.  Here is a taste:

Henry did not invent post-war evangelicalism all by himself, of course. He had lots of help from Harold John Ockenga, the Strategist; Billy Graham, the Evangelist; Bill Bright, the Activist; Francis Schaeffer, the Apologist; and many others. But it was Henry more than anyone else who argued the case and set forth a compelling intellectual apologetic for what was called in those days the New Evangelicalism.

Henry did this not only from professorship at Fuller Theological Seminary and his chair as the first editor of Christianity Today, but also through a series of impressive books beginning with The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism and culminating in the six-volume God, Revelation and Authority. GRAis still the most sustained theological epistemology by any American theologian. It deserves to be read more than it is, but it is not easy to read. Theologian Millard Erickson once said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I love Carl Henry’s work. It’s extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English!”