The current crisis in evangelicalism

Jonathan Stephen of Affinity surveys a number of linked and worrying trends

"..We are not only to separate from what is false but also to unite with what is true. How vitally important it is, faced with the current crisis in evangelicalism, that all those churches which see the necessity of being Bible-centred should declare and demonstrate their unity in the gospel. Never did we need each other more!"

Nearly a decade ago, a book was published called The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press). It spoke of ‘disturbing theological emphases’ and ‘dark clouds’ were ‘forming on the horizon’. Well, now these ‘dark clouds’ are breaking over our heads, which is why we must speak of ‘The Current Evangelical Crisis’.

"Virtually every conceivable religious deviation can now shelter under the umbrella of evangelicalism, if it so wishes..."

Postmodern heresies

The reason why there is currently a huge crisis in evangelicalism as a whole is the result of the megashift which has occurred in the way the world thinks over the past 40 years or so. This dramatically altered mindset has invaded and infected vast swathes of professing evangelicalism. So much so, that the term itself has become virtually meaningless. Virtually every conceivable religious deviation can now shelter under the umbrella of evangelicalism, if it so wishes.

To explain this crudely and simplistically, confessional, historic, classic evangelicalism has been branded a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment — and therefore the epitome of modernist thinking. We have now entered a new age called postmodernism, and evangelicalism has been substantially reinterpreted according to very different patterns of thought. Moreover, the process has been extremely rapid because there has been so little resistance from within evangelicalism itself. In fact, quite the reverse. Why should this be? Because it has been the deliberate policy of evangelicalism, ever since its renaissance after WW2, to be fully involved, both academically and culturally with the world it wished to reach. This policy was a reaction (perhaps, with hindsight, a fatal over-reaction) to the anti-intellectual, culturally-disengaged stance of American Fundamentalism. The inevitable consequence has been that much of the world’s reinterpretation of evangelicalism has been positively welcomed and absorbed by evangelicals themselves.

Now, accepting this scenario at least prevents you from becoming a neurotic conspiracy theorist! What I mean is this. When you begin to research all the different assaults on ‘Bible-centred Christianity’ (my preferred description of classic, conservative, confessional, historical evangelicalism), you soon discover all sorts of links cropping up between the ideas and the people involved. But I don’t think we need believe in a secret, worldwide nexus of radical theologians bent on taking over evangelicalism! I simply draw the conclusion that there are many theologians wittingly, or unwittingly, compromised by the same postmodern thinking.

"Open Theism redefines the nature of God and in the process produces a new god — one who is true to the spirit of this age — a god who will build up our human self-esteem. This god does not know the future. He takes risks, learns, makes mistakes and changes his mind..."

Authority and authenticity

Postmodern presuppositions undermine the traditional evangelical understanding of what the Bible is, and how it should be understood. Even where some conception of divine control over the contents of the Bible is still admitted, biblical interpretation becomes a total free-for-all. The postmodern mindset is highly suspicious of all authority claims, especially those that are exclusive. Inevitably, the ancient creeds, and the confessions of faith of the 16th and 17th centuries come under the closest scrutiny: Whose interests were they serving? What cultural blinkers were those who framed them wearing? Postmodern evangelicalism is not afraid to abandon doctrinal positions consistently held down the centuries. It is far more likely to be driven by immediate and present experience. That is where, in its view, true authenticity lies.

Open Theism

Now all we can do is cast a quick eye over these things. I want to begin with Open Theism, because in many ways it incorporates so much of the endemic heresy within contemporary evangelicalism.

Open Theism redefines the nature of God and in the process produces a new god — one who is true to the spirit of this age — a god who will build up our human self-esteem. This god does not know the future. He takes risks, learns, makes mistakes and changes his mind. His greatest attribute is love. The god of Open Theism has been described as a ‘cosmic gentleman’. He will do his best to see all people get to heaven but, as human beings are totally free to do whatever they want, this is ultimately beyond his control. All this the Open Theist will try to justify from what he would consider a totally fresh look at Scripture. Vast numbers of professing evangelicals feel drawn to this revolutionary teaching. Steve Chalke accepts the basic Open Theist position — and all his views are compatible with it.

I’ll mention two names most closely associated with Open Theism. Clark Pinnock is a Canadian theologian. But he began to question inerrancy in the 1970s, became increasingly Arminian and charismatic, and eventually edited a book with the title The Openness of God in 1994. More obviously on the front line campaigning for Open Theism today is Greg Boyd, who ministers just over the way from John Piper in St. Paul, Minnesota. Boyd and Piper are both in the same denomination (Baptist General Conference) and you can follow many of their long debates on the web. Greg Boyd has links with Roger Forster’s Ichthus Fellowship in London. His website is called ‘Christus Victor Ministries’. I mention this because that is the name of the atonement model which Open Theists prefer to that of penal substitution. It teaches that, through his death and resurrection, Christ has been revealed to be Lord of creation and the conqueror of death and Satan. According to this model, the atonement is not essentially about personal salvation from the guilt and punishment of sin — although those who are inspired to trust Christ will be saved as a result.

One more thing about Open Theism. It has a thoroughly ecumenical agenda, with the potential of uniting wildly disparate pseudo-Christian beliefs. Word of Faith proponents (like Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland), who claim words and faith can control God, are obviously interested. I have even seen it suggested that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints regards the Open Theist agenda as a means by which Mormonism might gain acceptance within the fold of mainstream ‘Christianity’.

The New Perspective

Next we come up with the New Perspective on Paul. This is a school of thought which claims that Paul’s letters have been misinterpreted at vital points for centuries (here we go again) and that this requires a major overhaul of his theology. E.P. Sanders outlined the theory in a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), but the expression ‘New Perspective’ was coined by another theologian, James Dunn, in 1982. Neither would claim to be evangelicals and their ideas would probably never have troubled us had they not been taken up by N.T. (Tom) Wright, the current Bishop of Durham, who is generally held to be an evangelical.

Now, Tom Wright is a brilliant theologian and is often utterly orthodox. But the New Perspective destroys the central evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone — and it is Wright who has popularised this heresy in his book, What St. Paul Really Said (Lion).

Based on unbelieving scholars’ interpretation of rabbinical writings, Wright claims that the Judaism of the first century was not a religion of self-righteousness, where salvation depended on human works and merit. Theologians of the past, like Augustine and Luther, have mistakenly interpreted Paul’s conflict with the Judaisers in the light of the disputes of their own day. The Reformers have all fallen into the same trap of believing that justification was essentially about the doctrine of salvation. In fact, says Wright: ‘What Paul means by justification ... is not “how you become a Christian” so much as “how you can tell who is a member of the covenant community”’ (WSPRS p.122). Justification is simply the announcement that we have been united with Christ, as we have heard and received the good news that Jesus is Lord. N.T. Wright would have us believe that he (and theologians who don’t even accept the Pauline authorship of most of Paul’s letters) are the first to to have correctly understood the doctrine of justification since the Church Fathers!

Wright tells us that the principal question in Galatians is whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised or not. Did they need the ‘badges’ of the Jewish race to be accepted as part of God’s community? ‘Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences...’ (WSPRS p.122). When Paul refers to ‘the works of the law’ as having no saving efficacy, Wright argues that he is referring only to what we might call the ceremonial aspects of the law (circumcision, diet, washings, etc.). Justification, according to the New Perspective, has far more to do with the identity of the church than with the standing of the individual before God. That is why Wright regards it as ‘a second-order doctrine’, and constantly expresses surprise that people get so worked up over his interpretation!

Quite frankly, it is not difficult to show that Scripture is against the central tenets of the New Perspective. But that’s not my purpose here. What is amazing is that so many professing evangelicals are prepared to swallow such a radical reversal of historic, biblical understanding. It is especially ironic that the proponents of the New Perspective accuse Augustine and Luther of reading a conflict from their own time back into the New Testament, when it is surely Wright and his friends who are in fact guilty of reading 21st-century social values back into the letters of Paul!

Furthermore, like all postmodern heresy, the New Perspective serves false ecumenism. Wright is totally open about his ecumenical motives. The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on as a result of hard ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in one family’ (WSPRS p.158).

So, apparently, the doctrine which above all others has divided Roman Catholic from Protestant for centuries turns out to be the very doctrine which demands their unity. There are many of Tom Wright’s theological insights for which truly Bible-centred evangelicals can be grateful, but his contribution to the New Perspective on Paul is not one of them. In fact, taken in isolation, it certainly does not look out of place on the broader canvas of Open Theism. (We should not be surprised, for example, to learn that it champions the Christus Victor atonement model mentioned above.)

Penal substitution

Lastly, we are faced with Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus. And on the front cover we find a commendation from none other than N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham: ‘Steve Chalke’s new book is rooted in good scholarship’, he says. Well, it’s actually rooted in the sort of postmodern scholarship which, the more you look at it, looks uncannily like old-fashioned liberalism — with its emphasis on the undiscriminating love of God and its focus on the social aspects of the gospel.

Of course, all the fuss has been stirred up by Chalke’s dismissal of the doctrine of penal substitution. Throughout church history there have been various different models used to describe how the atonement was achieved (e.g. ransom, satisfaction), but penal substitution is the most comprehensive. Penal substitution simply means that Christ died in the place of sinners on the cross, receiving the righteous punishment that they deserved. In recent years, however, some theologians have been saying that we have got this wrong, and that this concept of ‘redemptive violence’ is really a construct of later, Western thinking. (Where have we heard all this before?)

Steve Chalke himself admits that his theology has changed over the last ten years and he no longer preaches what we would call the orthodox gospel. He regards penal substitution to be a wrong and pagan doctrine. Mind you, his portrayal of penal substitution is a dreadful parody of what the Scripture teaches. He sees an angry God who can only be appeased through bringing about the violent death of his Son. He says that the penal substitution model makes God a ‘cosmic child abuser’.

Unsurprisingly, Steve champions the Christus Victor model, which features so strongly in Open Theism and the New Perspective. What I find particularly shocking is the way in which this false teacher was yet again so warmly endorsed and received this past Easter at Spring Harvest. What is the future of an ‘evangelicalism’ that places doctrine so low on its list of priorities? And what is the future of those who imagine all is well with their souls simply because few question their right to wear the ‘evangelical’ label?

The emerging church

I’ve just given you three examples of how a no-holds-barred, postmodern critique, implacably suspicious and arrogantly dismissive of the centuries-old convictions of Bible-centred Christianity, is wreaking havoc within professing evangelicalism. Who wants to resist such teachings, when they are so in tune with the spirit of the age? Who really cares anyway, when contemporary evangelicalism is much more about experience than doctrine? So let’s not worry about generations of godly scholars, earnestly and prayerfully seeking the Holy Spirit’s help in interpreting the Bible. Let’s believe and do whatever makes us and those we want to reach with the gospel most comfortable. But what gospel are we left with? Quite likely, one that’s shorn not only of any offence — but also of any necessity.

The effect this new thinking is having upon the Church is simply devastating. Beyond the, by now, rather routinised subjectivism of the so-called ‘new church’ movement, we are now seeing what is generally termed the ‘emerging church’. All too often, these latest manifestations of postmodern Christianity have no shape, no roots, no purpose — and no definable gospel.

What we must do

What are we going to do about it? First, we must be absolutely committed to Bible-centred Christianity, which, as I’ve said, by my definition is shorthand for the confessional, conservative, classical evangelicalism that has been handed down to us. And we need this commitment, not because we feel safer when things are preserved in aspic, but because we are determined ‘to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). We do not believe that the Lord has allowed his people to be deluded about essential gospel truth for centuries. Nor do we think we see postmodern interpretations of the Scripture resulting in increasing godliness among those who embrace them. On the contrary, we fear that those who abandon the historic, evangelical understanding of God, his Word and his gospel seem to grow more and more like the world. And we are not surprised. Of course, we must not rest in a mere dependence on sound doctrine. Our longing is to know more of Jesus and introduce him to others as their only hope. But the true knowledge of Christ and the preaching of the true gospel both depend entirely on a true understanding of God’s unique revelation, the Bible.

Second, that’s why we must examine every aspect of our church’s life and witness. Where did this new idea or practice come from? Why are we doing things like this? What unhelpful influences are affecting us? Are we as careful in our church associations as we ought to be? Let’s throw out everything that is worthless in our churches. Paul tells Timothy to eradicate false teachers and the effects of their teaching from the Christian community. Only then can we be useful to the Master. That doesn’t mean we cannot be contemporary — that we are to try and preserve a pre-1960s style culture in our churches. True Christianity is not culture-bound. Like King David, we are called to serve our generation, not one that is past. But we are to engage with our world with great care and discrimination.

Then, finally, both as individuals and as churches, we are not only to separate from what is false but also to unite with what is true. How vitally important it is, faced with the current crisis in evangelicalism, that all those churches which see the necessity of being Bible-centred should declare and demonstrate their unity in the gospel. Never did we need each other more!

|This is the substance of an address given at the recent FIEC conference at Pwllheli in North Wales.

(Affinity, 0118 956 9103 &|

Jonathan Stephen

© Evangelicals Now - June 2005