Dr. Kenneth Boa concludes his reflective and illuminating three-part study on Christianity and Faith as we enter the third millennium.
Evangelicalism: In Search of a Biblical Balance
Although the term evangelical (from the Greek euangelion, “good news,” or gospel) was used as early as the sixteenth century to express the Reformation emphasis on the gospel, the movement that bears its name originates in 1942, the year when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed in the United States. It has been associated from its early years with evangelist Billy Graham and such theologians as Carl F. H. Henry. By the late 1940s evangelicalism had clearly distinguished itself from its fundamentalist roots as a movement that sought to defend the gospel without being reactionary.
Billy Graham became known internationally by the 1950s as an evangelist who preached a simple, old-fashioned gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and who would work in his crusades with all Christian denominations (even with Catholics) in order to bring the gospel to as many people as possible. A quick and dirty, but fairly accurate, rule of thumb to distinguish evangelicals from fundamentalists might be that American evangelicals generally commend and support Graham, while fundamentalists (even if they acknowledge his contributions) generally criticize Graham for his openness to Catholics and the mainline denominations.
The larger point is that evangelicals, while they reject liberalism, do not typically insist on complete separation from churches or church bodies that include or tolerate liberalism in varying degrees in their midst. Evangelicals are much more likely to support efforts to renew the mainline denominations than to abandon them (although some evangelicals can also be found in historically fundamentalist churches).
Again, the line between fundamentalists and evangelicals is a blurry one. There are denominations that split away from their mainline parent bodies but which see themselves as simply carrying on their historic denominational tradition. These include the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, both of which are extremely conservative theologically but which do not fit the usual fundamentalist profile in certain respects. For example, these denominations use and respect the ancient creeds and are more appreciative of Christian history than most fundamentalists. They tend to be less literalistic in their interpretation of Scripture than fundamentalism. Yet they also tend to be fairly intolerant of theological differences from their doctrinal distinctives on the part of other evangelical denominations, a trait common in fundamentalism. It is therefore somewhat arbitrary whether one classifies these denominations as fundamentalist or not.
Evangelicalism, then, is a broad term referring to Protestants who uphold an orthodox theology, maintain a conservative view of Scripture as the word of God, and emphasize the importance and centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the Christian faith. Fundamentalism shares the evangelical doctrine and evangelistic focus of evangelicalism, but takes a more hard-line, separatist, and generally reactionary approach to the evangelical faith.
While evangelicalism in theory avoids some of the extremes found in fundamentalism, there are plenty of problems associated with the evangelical movement. Most of these have to do with the question of how Christianity is to relate to the larger culture or cultures in which it finds itself. American evangelicalism in particular has all too often mirrored the American obsession with success and power, while at the same time other evangelicals live in virtual isolation and retreat from “the world.” While many evangelicals appear preoccupied with doctrine, both essential and speculative, most seem to have lost their passion for truth and to be more interested in self.
Perhaps one of the most basic pitfalls into which some evangelicals fall is to define themselves primarily as an alternative to fundamentalism. To do so is to become reactionary in the opposite direction, with the potential result an accommodation of the evangelical message to the pressures of appearing “contemporary” and anything but “fundamentalist.” Such a danger can be avoided only by seeking to learn from the positive contributions of fundamentalism and by incorporating the sound biblical principles and motives that it embodies at its best.
Nathan O. Hatch has identified three “pressing challenges for American evangelicals on the eve of the 21st century.” The first is the “rampant pluralism” of evangelicalism, with “its populist and decentralized structure, and its penchant for splitting, forming, and reforming.” As such renowned leaders as Carl Henry and Billy Graham are expected soon to pass on, it is unclear who will emerge as the new leaders of evangelicalism and what new shape the movement will have. The second and related challenge is the need “to recover a higher view of the Church as an institution” — the need for evangelicals to gain a higher respect for the historical institutions and traditions of Christianity. The third challenge is the need for “nurturing first-order Christian scholarship.” This last challenge is difficult for evangelicalism because its decentralized structure has resulted in its lacking such institutions as a major research university and in its developing its own evangelical publishing houses and associations within which its research efforts are largely directed at internal disputes.
Evangelicals, then, have much learning and growing to do. What they have going for them is their adherence to Scripture as the source and standard for faith and values. Whatever the shortcomings of evangelicals individually and as a movement, the answers will surely be found in the word of God.
To allow one’s ideas and values to become controlled by anything or anyone other than the self-revelation of God in Scripture is to adopt an ideology rather than a theology; it is to become controlled by ideas and values whose origins lie outside the Christian tradition — and potentially to become enslaved by them. . . . The only way Christianity can free itself from subservience to cultural fashion is to ensure that it is firmly grounded in a resource that is independent of that culture. The traditional evangelical approach is to acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture as a theological and spiritual resource, and the contemporary task as interpreting and applying this resource to the situation of today.
It is this question of the application of the authoritative revelation of God in Scripture to the cultural issues of our changing world that must occupy our attention. As McGrath warns us, it is all too easy for evangelicalism to become corrupted by the culture instead of working as salt and light to the culture.
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