Update: Those of you who keep mentioning that this post is disjointed need to remember that it is simply some interaction with the main points of Phil Johnson’s talk. There’s no attempt for this to stand alone; it’s not meant to be polished or comprehensive.
Tim Challies is “liveblogging” the Grace Community Church Shepherd’s Conference. One of his posts is a summary of Phil Johnson’s session on “Is The Reformation Over?” While I have no intention of resurrecting blogwars of the past, I am going to interact with this post. Please realize that I am interacting with Challies’ summaries, and not Phil’s actual words. (Challies is doing an obviously great job.)
I am interested in this topic for several reasons. I have written on this subject in an early IM essay called “Throw Luther From The Train: Will We Save The Reformation?” Many of my IM essays deal with many of the same concerns that Johnson voices, particularly with Charismatic excesses and an abandonment of the heritage of the Reformation by evangelicals. Many of my essays on worship and the condition of contemporary evangelicalism are from a position similar to Johnson’s. I have been deeply influenced by many of those who influence him.
At the same time, my position on Roman Catholicism, my appreciation of N.T. Wright and my openness to some aspects of the emerging church have marked me out as part of the “problem” within evangelicalism as critics like Johnson see it. MacArthur-influenced Reformed Baptist fundamentalists on the web have weighed my blogging and found me wanting, to say the least.
Of more interest to me is the question of the current trajectory of evangelicalism. As the banner of this site now proclaims, I believe we are in a post-evangelical landscape. I would differ with many of my Reformed friends at this point. I believe the “new reformation” is going to be a matter of how much the reformation affects a “post-evangelical” Christianity. The horse has left the barn as far as evangelicals are concerned. There is no saving what was once evangelicalism. It has become something else, or more correctly, it has fractured into a post-evangelicalism characterized by no coherent characteristics.
Because this post-evangelicalism has not yet take a clear shape, those, like Johnson, who are part of a large and thriving segment of conservative evangelicals will see the situation more in terms of how evangelicalism compares to their own community. Those of us who are in a post-evangelical wilderness may see evangelicalism differently. I do not claim that my perspectives are universal or obvious. In fact, one reason I value the perspective of a larger number of voices within evangelicalism is because there is no dominant perspective that I believe is reliably reporting what is happening.
Johnson via Challies gives his summary of the current situation.
Evangelicalism used to be defined by a clear, specific theological stance. It used to mean that a person had a faith built on two pillars: the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The Five Solas were a guide to the major doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Two of them in particular stand out as the key issues over which the bulk of the debate took place: sola scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, and sola fide, the material principle of the Reformation. Note that these are the distinctive doctrines of Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals, until recently, affirmed these doctrines. Only in recent years has the expression Evangelical been broadened to include people who deny these pillars.
In contrast, D.G. Hart has suggested there never was anything that coherently could be called evangelicalism and that what we see falling apart in front of us never had the characteristics we frequently assign to it as a movement. It was, from its inception in the imagination of well meaning fundamentalists wanting to move into broader cultural influence and respectability, an array of shallow and largely unaccountable movements that had more in common subjectively than objectively. It had little substance to define it or hold it together.
Robert Yarborough, reviewing D.G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism, says:
It is just such questions that Hart takes up in the second half of the book, “The Unmasking of Evangelicalism.” He argues that evangelicalism is rich in external homogeneity (“cameras, bright lights, and microphones” p. 125) but thin in classic church character as seen in doctrinal identity, governance, and rooted liturgical practices. Too much evangelical scholarship has been too narrowly centered under the dictum “no creed but the Bible’s inerrancy” (ch. 5). A final “stick of dynamite in the deconstruction of evangelicalism” (p. 174) has been the rise of worship styles unabashedly imitative of popular entertainment forms. It is particularly here that Hart sees evangelical expression as marking a serious break with both the form and substance of Christian worship across millennia and cultures.
…Hart knows whereof he speaks, however rightly he interprets the data. His argument that “evangelicalism is not a tradition” (p. 186), because “Christian traditions, unlike evangelicalism, rely on structures of succession and accountability that run counter to popular sovereignty” (p. 187), is compelling. My experience in the evangelical subculture since the 1970s confirms his point. My sense thirty years ago was that “evangelical” stood for vibrant theological truth, the veracity of the gospel, and the Scriptures boldly lived out, in contrast to liberal compromise of the Christian faith, on the one hand, and conservative stifling of the faith, on the other, through sterile tradition that did not change lives. Today I see that, for many, “evangelical” is about emotional expression in highly stylized fashions and enclaves that lags just a few years behind popular media and entertainment forms but tries ever harder to catch up. Truth is not the issue; fervent self-expression with a thin Jesus overlay is.
I believe that what Johnson sees is accurate, but I believe he is assigning too much to evangelicals. Were Evangelicals ever as rooted in the Reformation as they claimed to be? Not in the modern, “evangelical” era. From the outset, “Billy Graham” evangelicalism was ecumenical, not fundamentalistic, and it was there, in the seeds of an ecumenical pragmatism, that the seeds were planted of where we are today.
D.G. Hart is on target when he reminds us that evangelicals have fallen to where they are largely because they have no structures, no accountability and no depth….all things that my Reformed Baptists friends tend to have and value highly in their own communities. One might even ask if the critics of evangelicalism these days ARE evangelicals themselves?
Challies summarizes Johnson again:
All of this has changed in recent years. An Evangelical is no longer a person defined by theology but by experience or church membership. “Evangelical” has been stripped of doctrinal content. Mainstream Evangelicals have been assaulted by movements that seem to be motivated by removing the doctrinal distinctives: The lack of theology in the Church Growth Movement, the anti-intellectualism of the Charismatic movement; the neo-ecumenism in Promise Keepers and other movements, the new understanding of justification in the New Perspective on Paul, the denial of propositional truth in the Emerging Church, and so on. These have all worked to the detriment of Evangelicalism. So now, Evangelicalism which was once a movement defined by doctrine, understands doctrine to be divisive and of secondary importance. The obvious casualty in all of this is the gospel. Catholics and Protestants have long agreed that the heart of the debate is the gospel, but now people would have us believe otherwise.
Was evangelicalism ever as doctrinal as Spurgeon or the Puritans? Was it ever not ecumenical? Was there ever a time it wasn’t fighting its own anti-intellectualism?
Johnson’s assignment of the “New Perspective on Paul” a place in the demise of evangelicalism is predictable, but highly unlikely. The NPP doesn’t come from evangelicalism, and few evangelicals have any idea what the NPP is about. This is a highly scholarly discussion, and the manifestations of it at the local level- i.e. the Auburn Avenue Movement- are isloated. Is there a significant person in the top 50 evangelicals in America who has really been influenced by the NPP?
The Charismatic movement has the most credibility as a source of a dissolving evangelicalism, because it has been the most pragmatic, least doctrinal, most culturally adaptive and least intellectual component of evangelicalism. This is a movement with virtually no accountability or institutions, no meaningful confessions and little interest in relating to the Reformation. I agree with Johnson that much of the demise of what was good in evangelicalism can be laid at this door. Especially to be credited are the leaders of evangelicalism who watched while Charismatics took the major places in media, music, publishing, broadcasting and the shaping of the spirituality of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are now thoroughly Charismatic-ized, even if they reject Charismatic doctrine. The Charismatic “style” of Christianity has triumphed in an evangelicalism that never tried to defend itself.
(The Fundamentalist rejection of the Charismatic movement is, again, a position that makes sense within some corners of conservative evangelicalism, and little sense elsewhere.)
The Emerging Church is all about the denial of “propositional truth,” according to Johnson. Again, this is typical of the larger conservative criticism of the emerging church. The warnings of men like D.A. Carson are needed and well placed, but the equating of “emerging” with “no doctrine” is a rush to judgement. The emerging/missionally shaped church has some components that are the worst of evangelicalism’s demise, but it also has seeds within it that need to be watered. Dan Kimball’s idea of a “Vintage” Christianity ought to make anyone who cares about history, scripture, theology and integrity at least take notice. If the critics continue to whip a straw man resembling the worst of Brian Mclaren as all there is to emerging, those critics are going to miss much they will later wish they had encouraged.
The best hope of a post-evangelical reformation of a Biblically healthy Christianity in the west rests with the Reformation churches AND with the emerging, missional churches that are seeking to break the mold of a vacuous evangelicalism. It is the emerging churches that hold the promise for moving past so much that is wrong, and reclaiming much that is right. Hold on before the whole movement is flushed down the drain as “anti-truth.”
Johnson’s primary complaint- that evangelicals are falling into the arms of Roman Catholicism- makes much sense if Hart’s critique is true. Where will post-evangelicals find an alternative to the post-evangelical wilderness? Will it be in churches who insist that young earth creationism and entertainment oriented worship go right along with sola scriptura and sola fide? Will it be with churches who have no appreciation for the “great tradition,” but continue feeding us mega-churches and mega-church pastors as our models? Will it be with a movement with an embarrassment of shallowness in intellectual and cultural life?
The appeal of Rome is seldom its “gospel.” The appeal is on many levels where evangelicalism- especially conservative and fundamental varieties- is failing.
In all honesty, is the problem ECT, Timothy George and Chuck Colson? How many Peter Kreefts and Scott Hahns jumped ship over ecumenical evangelicalism? Hardly. It is traditional Catholicism that is making converts, and it is making them from largely conservative evangelicals who are looking for something in conservative, fundamentalist post-evangelicalism that isn’t there.
John Paul II and Benedict the XVI are seen as spiritual leaders of substance, in contrast to what evangelicalism these days calls a leader— anyone with two books and a church over 1500 members. If the discussion were about doctrine, I think Johnson’s team would have no fears of large scale Catholic influence in evangelicalism. But with the current post-evangelical breakdown, not only in doctrine but in every other department, Rome looks like it has its act together. Reformed apologists who want to stay focused on what Trent said about justification don’t get it. The appeal of Rome is its claim to be THE CHURCH in every aspect. And the more you contrast evangelicalism with Catholicism outside of reformation doctrines and historical abuses- intellectually, culturally, academically, politically, and on and on- the more evangelicalism suffers.
I hope this is a fair response, and I welcome any corrections to what was said in the session.