The Future of Evangelicalism image

The Future of Evangelicalism

More than once, commenters and writers on this blog have bemoaned the uselessness of the term ‘evangelicalism’. The term is so broad and fluffy, it is reasoned, as to be unclear at best and unhelpful at worst, and the recent theological antics of leaders like Steve Chalke and Rob Bell have only made the temptation to pack the term in altogether more acute. For my part, I have generally been more optimistic than that; I think the term remains a helpful identifier, even if there are some who carry the label who do not (in my terms) fit the profile. But until recently, that has been more to do with an innate optimism and ecumenism than with any hard facts. So what, if an evangelical is no more than a person who likes Billy Graham. Billy Graham is nice, isn’t he?

Roger Olson, who has been part of what we now call ‘evangelicalism’ for his entire lifetime, has just written an outstanding pair of posts on this subject called “The Future of Evangelicalism”. His argument, in brief, is that the evangelical movement is dead, but the evangelical ethos lives on – and that this is not particularly a problem. The two posts (here and here) are immensely thought-provoking in their summary of the past, present and future of evangelicalism, and I highly recommend reading both of them. For now, though, I will offer a quick summary.

Olson begins, after some introductory remarks about his personal history, by sketching the history of the evangelical movement. The evangelical ethos, of course, goes back to Wesley and Edwards and the Great Awakenings of the 1740s and 1800s, and is widely regarded as being summarised well by Bebbington’s quadrilateral: biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. But the distinct movement known as ‘evangelicalism’ began, quite specifically, in St Louis in 1942, when the National Association of Evangelicals was founded. The previous decades had seen the evangelical ethos spread into very diverse theological expressions – Reformed theology like the Old Princeton school, the holiness spirituality of the Keswick movement, the revivalist preaching of Moody and Finney, Methodists, Baptists, the premillenial dispensationlism of the Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostalism, and more recently fundamentalism – and the founders of the NAE, like Harold John Ockenga, envisioned “an alliance of denominationally diverse, relatively conservative, revivalistic Protestants who wanted to be culturally engaged, socially progressive (at least up to a point), and intellectually respectable.” The resulting movement, which called itself ‘evangelicalism’, was symbolized by Billy Graham, Carl Henry and Christianity Today, the NAE, Eternity, World Vision, the Christian College Coalition, Youth for Christ, InterVarsity and so on, and reached the peak of its influence in the 1950s.

The movement, for Olson, began to dissolve in the mid-1970s after Hal Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible, a book that in its defence of inerrancy both made the idea look faintly bizarre in places, and raised it to the level of a shibboleth for orthodoxy. Until that point, the public ministry of Billy Graham in particular had held together two groups with very different theological frameworks: those who looked to the Old Princeton school (from Alexander, Hodge and Warfield to Machen and beyond), with their emphasis on Calvinist doctrine and inerrancy, and those who looked to the Holiness-Pentecostal and pietist traditions, which were both more Arminian and less tightly theologically defined. (The analogy with the separation of the British Charismatic movement in the 1970s here is interesting, but for another time). Gradually, the two groups drifted apart, over issues like inerrancy, political involvement, predestination, the attributes of God, gender roles, and the possible salvation of the unevangelised. Don Carson and John Piper championed one side, Clark Pinnock and Stan Grenz the other, and people like Rich Mouw and Timothy George tried to hold the middle and keep “evangelicalism” together. (It should be said that this is a very American reading of things – but then, at least theologically, a huge majority of influential evangelicals have been American).

Thirty years later, in Olson’s terms, we have three major groups. On the right are what he calls the neo-fundamentalists: The Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Carson, Piper, Grudem, Mohler, Keller, Trueman, and one assumes Driscoll, Chandler and the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd. In the centre, he says, we have the mediating evangelicals: George, Mouw, David Neff and Christianity Today. And on the left are the post-conservatives: McKnight, the Missio Alliance, Olson himself, Sojourners and Jim Wallis, Relevant, Greg Boyd, and presumably also emergents like Brian Maclaren and Rob Bell. Olson admits that these people would not self-identify that way – but he also argues that, like evangelicalism, they are “relatively cohesive affinity groups, alliances, coalitions”. From a transatlantic perspective, he seems to be right; you can usually tell that, when a new issue comes up for discussion, the battle lines will form as they do in Olson’s overview, with the mediating evangelicals sitting in the middle.

For Olson, then, the evangelical movement is dead:

The movement has no future that I can see. It is hopelessly broken into smaller groups, parties, movements of their own. Very little dialogue happens across the divides between them. For the most part, with very few exceptions, neo-fundamentalists only talk with each other … Evangelical heresy-hunting and name-calling are dividing us and causing outsiders, as well as many insiders, to think of evangelicals as intolerant and mean-spirited. Some evangelicals seem to thrive on controversy, patting each other on the back for exposing heterodoxy where it has previously gone unrecognized. Neo-fundamentalism is a real threat to the evangelical spirit. On the other hand, I’m not much encouraged by some of the reactions to neo-fundamentalism. Many younger evangelicals are running as fast as they can and as far away as possible from doctrine, Bible study, evangelism, and anything that smacks of tradition.

The evangelical ethos, however, lives on. Olson sees huge numbers of evangelicals still committed to biblicism (a love for the Bible which encourages devotion as well as study, Bible memorisation as well as Bible translation), conversionism (the idea that a person must repent and trust in Jesus Christ for authentic Christian life), crucicentrism (cross-centred proclamation and devotion) and activism (missions, evangelism and social action), even if their disagreement over issues like inerrancy, evolution, gender roles and predestination make them forget how much they share in common. In fact, he suggests, it is only when people think there is a united evangelical movement, and that they need to contend for its soul, that diversity causes such problems. Wesley and Whitefield got along well when they weren’t talking about election, you see.

I’m sure Olson’s terminology, and division of the landscape, could be questioned and challenged in various places. (Neo-fundamentalism, to my mind, is a rather odious label). And I’m sure his prognosis will not convince everyone. But he writes well, he knows his onions, and he’s provided a clear and (in my view) helpful answer to the question of whether ‘evangelicalism’ is dead. In brief: the evangelical movement is over, but its spirit lives on. Sounds about right to me.

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