Christianity Astray: Is "New Evangelicalism" Really Pseudo-Evangelicalism?

Copyright © 2003 by Phillip R. Johnson. All rights reserved.

For more of Phil's sermons and messages go to:


Perhaps you page through each month's issue of Christianity Today as I do—baffled and disconcerted to see that venerable magazine being used as a platform for so many of the dubious fads and disturbing theological trends that constantly flourish at the fringes of the evangelical movement. Until now, all I could think to do was wince and chuck the magazine in the circular file. But from now on, I'm going to express my frustration by writing about it.

March 2004

The February issue of Christianity Today anticipates the magazine's 50th anniversary (still two years away) by beginning a series of special articles called "Evangelicals: The Next 50 Years." The series is introduced with a one-page piece (p. 37) titled "The New Evangelicals in the New Century."

Rehearsing how CT was born, the introduction says, "Billy Graham helped start CHRISTIANITY TODAY to do for evangelicals what The Christian Century had done for liberal Protestants."

Indeed, for several years now, CT has been doing for evangelicals exactly what its liberal counterpart once did for the mainstream denominations: It has systematically blurred the boundaries of the movement, muddied our theological distinctives, forfeited biblical integrity in pursuit of "academic respectability," and bartered away the uniqueness of authentic evangelicalism for a mess of ecumenical pottage.

These days CT's editors are careful to portray their rivalry with The Christian Century as a friendly one. They more or less acknowledge with pride that both magazines have moved and are now much closer together. ("Though we still lock theological horns with the Century from time to time, a look at both magazines shows that we have learned from one another over the decades.")

It's obvious, however, that CT's editors still regard their magazine as the evangelical movement's unofficial house organ. While tacitly acknowledging that they have shifted stance, they show no interest in relinquishing the name "evangelical" to the old evangelicals. They clearly believe their own Centuryfied, increasingly-ecumenical perspective represents today's evangelical mainstream. They think they speak for the movement and would be quite happy to set its agenda. They have in effect co-opted the word evangelical.

Ironically, CT's editors note with a tone of disapproval that U.S. News and World Report recently featured a cover article on evangelicalism without ever precisely defining the word evangelical.

"That's a problem in general," the CT editors opine. "Scan books and journal articles from the last two decades, and you'll find that evangelical is used to describe a theology, a subculture, a religious attitude, a mission emphasis—and some even argue it represents a mythical group!"

Yet while saying the lack of evangelical definition is "a problem," CT's editors offer no clear definition of their own. Instead, they imply that (as a sort of early birthday present to themselves) now would be a good time to reimagine the whole movement: "It seems to us that as this magazine approaches its 50th anniversary, it would be good to think afresh about the movement associated with the word evangelical."

It seems to us, however, that's precisely what CT has already been doing for several years: reconceptualizing what it means to be "evangelical." No one has done more than CT to prop up and popularize the notion that it's possible to advocate open theism, postmodernism, Roman Catholicism, neo-orthodoxy, or whatever—and still legitimately call oneself an evangelical.

It's an interesting and obvious tactic. By moving the boundaries of evangelicalism, CT has expanded its own constituency. Perhaps CT's editors also imagine that by artificially inflating evangelicals' ranks they automatically increase evangelicalism's clout. Whatever their rationale, CT itself surely deserves the lion's share of credit (or blame) for modern evangelicalism's lack of definition. They have been deliberately obfuscating rather than defining the term for years.

Historically, the word evangelical first came into widespread usage along with the Protestant Reformation. William Tyndale used the expression "evangelical truth" as a synonym for the gospel. By the 18th century, the adjective was being used to describe "that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of 'the Gospel' consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Naturally, as Protestants, evangelicals affirmed both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola Scriptura and sola fide). They were also committed to the exclusivity of Christ; believing that His atoning work is the only hope of salvation for sinners. That usage of the term evangelical has been crystal clear for at least two and a half centuries.

In other words, in the historic sense of the word, when we speak of the evangelical movement, we're speaking of those who share 1) a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; 2) a belief in the necessity and the efficacy of Christ's atoning work; and 3) a profound sense of urgency about getting the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world. The simplicity of the definition is the very thing that gives clarity to the expression. There is not really much that's vague about the historic meaning of the term evangelical.

Notice: the distinguishing characteristics of historic evangelicalism are weighty, foundational, and fundamental principles—not peripheral matters. That is why evangelical convictions have always transcended denominational lines. Those vital truths established an unshakable core of unity and remarkable harmony on matters that are of the essence of the gospel. Yet they allowed for amazing diversity on peripheral issues.

Among the "old" evangelicals, the core issues and the peripheral ones have always been more or less clearly delineated. A hundred years ago, when the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines first began to be blurred (by the very same movement that gave birth to The Christian Century,) leading evangelicals published a landmark series of articles called The Fundamentals, reaffirming the evangelical essentials. CT's founders all professed unity on those vital doctrines.

These days, however, evangelical unity is being sacrificed at the altar of a politically-correct notion of ecumenical "diversity." The distinction between core and peripheral doctrines is once again being systematically obliterated—only this time CT, not The Christian Century, is leading the way. The term evangelical has become so ambiguous that it is now practically useless—thanks in no small part to CT's own editorial direction.

The current series of articles in CT is a case in point. It illustrates how the magazine seems hell-bent on making "evangelicalism" as broad and enigmatic as possible. It seems CT's "new" evangelical movement has more in common with the old ecumenical movement than with historic evangelicals.

This is not to suggest that CT's editors utterly ignore the notion of evangelical unity. At least they give it lip service. They direct readers to the "Editor's Bookshelf (page 75), where editor David Neff previews a book by Thomas Oden and J. I. Packer. These senior theologians survey and synthesize 50 years of evangelical faith statements and find a consensus worth considering."

"Worth considering?" The old evangelical consensus was deemed essential. And unlike CT's current editors, the old evangelicals didn't engage in a lot of hand-wringing about whether their doctrinal distinctives might "become shibboleths—precise word tests to discover who is in and who is out" (p. 76). They despised artificial ecumenical homogeneity as much as they treasured their evangelical unity.

But Neff's summary of the Oden-Packer book shows just how much things have changed. Instead of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, Oden and Packer speak of "our 'cohesive account of the canonical Scriptures and their integral canonical interpretation'—fancy language for our ingrained habit of looking to the whole Bible and recognizing the same voice as we trace the inner links between its parts" (p. 76). The necessity and efficacy of Christ's vicarious atonement have also either evaporated or been diluted beyond recognition with radically toned-down language; Oden and Packer speak instead of "the Christ-centered story of redemption" (p. 76). And evangelicals' commitment to the exclusivity of Christ and the urgency of the gospel message has subtly morphed into "interdenominational opportunities for witness, protest, fellowship, evangelism, and service (p. 76)."

Whereas "the evangelicalism of 50 years ago focused narrowly on issues that emerged from the confrontation with modernism," CT's editors tell us the new evangelicalism "has become 'an ecumenically significant reality'" (p. 76). The truths today's evangelicals are concerned with are no longer "a series of facts, but truth understood in a dynamic, relational, and personal fashion" (p. 75)—i.e., subjective ideas rather than objective facts.

All the high-sounding language can't obscure the fact that this new brand of "evangelicalism" is fundamentally different from the historic evangelicalism most of CT's original constituency adhered to.

Remember, the old evangelicalism was defined by those few clear-cut, essential, core beliefs all evangelicals held in common. But there's no mistaking that the new evangelicalism's chief characteristic—and the main thing the CT editors want to celebrate—is its vast diversity. The movement is so "dynamic and varied" that it practically defies description. No one has "the last word" in defining it. "And that is part of the fun and the frustration of being an evangelical" (p. 37).

Oddly enough, however, the first word in analyzing the new evangelicalism comes from a well-known editor of The Christian Century. The lead article in the anniversary series was written by Martin E. Marty. Marty has long been a bitter critic of evangelical narrow-mindedness, but even he observes that "evangelicalism today, like its counterparts, has tremendous diversity" (p. 39).

The article that follows is by Telford Work, assistant professor of theology at Westmont College. Work's article likewise suggests that broad diversity is the key to "what evangelicalism is all about" (p. 41).

The editors of CT solemnly assure readers that Telford Work is "an evangelical professor at an evangelical institution of higher learning." We are not so sure. Professor Work's Web site reveals that he denies the historicity of several biblical characters and events. He also has a decidedly unevangelical interpretation of the fall of Adam. He certainly would not have been deemed "evangelical" in the old sense of the term.

But Professor Work does nonetheless claim to be an evangelical. Summing up his paean to evangelical diversity, he says, "The reason Paul could address his letter to all the saints in Corinth is the reason we can all be called evangelicals. It is a label I still bear with pride."

Well, we still think it's the wrong label. What Telford Work and CT's editors are promoting is not historic evangelicalism at all; it is merely a 21st-century postmodern twist on the old ecumenism. And we think it's past time for true evangelicals to reassert the classic distinctives of our faith with the same kind of bold clarity our spiritual ancestors insisted on.

Written by Phil Johnson

For more of Phil's sermons and messages go to:

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