A Question I Was Asked:

Why Is Our American Christianity So Shallow?

The Question:

I am American and I think it a pity that most American Christians have gone for 'dispensationalism' which I know never got going too much in Britain and Europe. Over here it's all about a millenium, Israel, prophecy, and, for sure, a 'rapture,' and some of the stuff on prophecy we get given is bunk of the highest degree and yet very sincere people swallow it without criticism. Then we have these millionaire preachers who want you to send them your money. Why have those of us 'across the pond' gone this way? We celebrate that America is a very Christian nation but sometimes forget how much of our Christianity has been subverted by crafty and greedy men. Why did this happen?

UK Apologetics Reply:

A number of factors. Obviously the United States is a very young country. Just think about this: how many major historical events in the United States can be dated to before about 1740? Very very few. Yet 1740 is only about 270 years ago - not too many lifetimes in that! In contrast, Europeans can go back well over 1,000 years quite easily; this point is not disconnected from your question. Most of the ingredients which make up 'dispensationalism' can be easily traced back to Edward Irving, Margaret McDonald and (probably principally) to John Nelson Darby in 19th century England and Ireland. But this odd mix of teachings never took off in Britain, and still hasn't. But one Cyrus Scofield, an American lawyer (not a theologian, nor an acknowledged Christian teacher), got hold of this group of teachings and made them hugely popular across north America, mainly through his 'Scofield Reference Bible.'

Why didn't this Darbyism (or, whatever you want to call it), take off in Britain and Europe? Because of the more widespread acceptance of a form of Christian theology (Protestantism) which had much stronger roots, going back at least to 16th century Germany and with some parts of it being much earlier that that: The' Wycliffe Bible,' for instance, is the name now given to a group of Bible translations into 'Middle English' that were made under the direction of John Wycliffe; these appeared somewhere between 1380 and 1400, so that is long before German Protestantism. These Bible translations were the chief inspiration and chief cause of the Lollard movement, a pre-Reformation movement which rejected many of the distinctive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. So even long before Luther, dedicated Christian teachers like John Wycliffe were pointing out the direction which a new evangelical (fully biblically-based) Christianity should take.

So in England and Europe one was either Catholic or Protestant evangelical by about 1650. These became quite deeply-rooted approaches with a long history. So these approaches to the Holy Bible started to enjoy wide respect and acceptance. As I wrote in my 1998 article, 'The Move Away From Legalism,'

One cannot stress enough the desire of the early Americans to be free of religious control (having often suffered in the Old World because of its excesses). This led to a powerful sense of independence, with a resultant desire to re-discover Christian community and experience. Of course, much good came from this, but this also led to an atmosphere in which more idiosyncratic beliefs were tolerated, in a way in which they would never have been in the Old World. Some of the theological dangers deepened following The Revolutionary War. Nancy Pearcey has written very perceptively of this exciting time in American history, highlighting its strengths - but also its 'downside,'

'For many Americans, the meaning of the Revolution was not just that they had eliminated a king but that they had started a new world from scratch. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," Thomas Paine exulted. "A situation similar to the present has not happened since the days of Noah until now."' ('Total Truth,' Nancy Pearcey, Crossway Books, 2008 paperback edition, p 279). Pearcey further notes:

'...the cavalier rejection of the past stripped the church of the rich resources of centuries' worth of theological reflection, Scriptural meditation, and spiritual experience. It inculcated an attitude that there was nothing to be gained from grappling with the thought of the great minds of the past - Augustine and Tertullian, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. It was an approach doomed, almost by definition, to anti-intellectualism and theological shallowness." (p 281). [these quotes contained within 'The Move Away From Legalism' which is here.]

So Nancy Pearcey, an American herself, laments the "anti-intellectualism" and "theological shallowness" which entered the American church. While both Protestantism and Catholicism certainly travelled to 'the new world,' the early Americans, by and large, wanted to dust off their European-influenced Christian heritage and establish it afresh. They did this through preachers and teachers like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, William Miller and Cyrus Scofield (who delivered the teachings of 'dispensationalism' through his books, such as the 'Scofield Reference Bible'), among many, many other teachers. Some such influences were good, too many were theologically dubious. In general, they were less knowledgeable and less studied influences. A very new country started to look for a 'now' Bible approach rather than an ancient history-based approach. In general, enthusiasm, razzamataz and 'results' started to figure more highly than solid biblical understanding and learning.

So - sad to say - a theological shallowness has sometimes been witnessed within American Christianity. Within Bible prophecy, for example, this all led to what I call the 'American adventuristic prophecy approach,' prophecies started to be tied in with events of recent history, not much older history (which was of less interest to a people with a very short history). Americans mostly want to believe that some specific prophecy was either fulfilled within their own lifetimes, or would very soon be fulfilled. "The time of the end," or "end times," which are clear New Testament references to the period between the first and second comings of Christ, became something concerned with "horrifying events which will very soon befall our nation" (as Herbert W. Armstrong wrote). The apocalyptic writings (mainly Daniel and Revelation) were suddenly not a message for the church in general, but "..only intended for our people at this time.." as both Ellen G. White and William Miller stated, and taught. I well remember the disappointment of one American emailer when I explained to him that at least a large chunk of the Matthew 24 prophecy was very clearly fulfilled in AD70. I knew his problem: a need to 'unlearn' much of his earlier influences.

All of this even led to the 'health and wealth' merchants who teach a perverted gospel concerned with health, wealth and success in this present life. Sadly this has now spread to many places and so-called 'Christian TV' is full of it. Again, the more immediate really does seem of more interest to a people with a short history. But I am not slamming American Protestantism here, just pointing out something which several US-based writers have also remarked upon.

Despite such things the Holy Spirit can convict souls wherever He wills and I believe that many Americans have come to the Lord during the last hundred years, even if they have sometimes come through a doctrinal system which is not perfect; where Christ is preached, people can be saved.

Robin A. Brace. March 24th, 2013.