Beyond Evangelical: Part V

“The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.”

~ John Stott

Note: The entire “Beyond Evangelical” series (including this post) has been compiled into an 80-page eBook with many new chapters added. Click here to learn more about the eBook.


We continue our series on “beyond evangelicalism.” If you’re new to the blog, click here to read the previous parts.

Some Christians today are using the phrase, “the new evangelicals.”

Last year, Gabe Lyons (author of The Next Christians) called me on the phone to ask me what I thought about his new book (which he kindly mailed to me). What I’m writing in this post and in the next installment (Part VI) of our series is what I said to him in that conversation.

I dare suggest that there are two main types of new evangelicals today. One is not new at all. The other is, well, new in a sense.

Let me first address the evangelicals that are not new. This group of Christians used to be called “neo-evangelicals” during the 1950s through the 1980s.

F.F. Bruce, G.E. Ladd, Bernard Ramm, Harold Ockenga, and Carl F. Henry were just some of the movers and shakers of the neo-evangelical movement.

The neo-evangelicals criticized fundamentalism as being separatist and confrontational with the culture.

In 1947, Carl F. Henry wrote his famous book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry’s book ignited the spark, and in the 1950s through the 1980s, neo-evangelicalism thrived. The neo-evangelicals lamented the way in which fundamentalism isolated evangelical Christians from the culture. Neo-evangelicals wanted evangelicals to penetrate the culture, redeeming it for Christ, rather than eschewing it.

The neo-evangelicals were fiercely committed to the Scriptures, but they criticized the fundamentalist view that the Bible had some sort of journalist accuracy that would yield an answer to every question posed to it. This made fundamentalists break out in hives.

The neo-evangelicals passionately believed in the reliability, truthfulness, and divine inspiration of the Scriptures, but they balked at certain affirmations of biblical authority (like “plenary” and “inerrancy”).

F.F. Bruce (the modern-era equivalent to N.T. Wright) once remarked that he was content to just say that the Bible was “true.” (This statement made some fundies break out in boils. Hives, now boils. Sigh.)

The neo-evangelicals also stressed that the gospel contains a strong social component. Social activism, therefore, is part of the gospel message (they said). The gospel should be exhibited in both word and deed.

In the 1980s, “the Religious Right” emerged on the Christian landscape, bringing into being a new form of fundamentalism. The resurgent fundamentalism of the Religious Right beat back the neo-evangelical movement into obscurity. The net effect was that Christians forgot that neo-evangelicalism even existed. It virtually disappeared from the radar.

What is more, the resurgent fundamentalism captured the attention of the media. And so in the eyes of today’s media, evangelicalism = the Religious Right.

In reaction to the Religious Right, neo-evangelicalism is reemerging again, being incarnated in the evangelical left and the moderate wing of the emerging church movement. Yet many of its proponents aren’t aware of the history of neo-evangelicalism. They think that it’s something brand new.

But the “new evangelicals” aren’t new at all. The main difference between the neo-evangelicals of the past and today’s “new evangelicals” (or “next Christians”) is that the latter is sprinkled with a good measure of post-modern terminology.

But strip it back to its core, and it’s essentially the same thing.

Don’t miss my point.

I’m not critiquing neo-evangelicalism. F.F. Bruce, one of my favorite scholars of all time, was a neo-evangelical. I’m simply saying that it’s not “new.”

So who are the evangelicals that would be more accurately described as “new”? They are those who have gone beyond evangelicalism. I’ve already spelled out the four notes that represent their burden, passion, and belief.

But to put it in a sentence, those who have moved beyond evangelicalism are aligned neither with the left nor the right. They believe the gospel goes beyond the old categories of personal salvation and social justice.

Don’t misunderstand. Such people have existed for a long time. But as a phenomenon (or “tribe”), they are quite new.

This blog is dedicated to providing a voice for those who have gone beyond evangelical and a means for them to connect with one another.



  1. Michael says

    I can not find the post that you made recently about all the different people you have interviewed and different camps (Methodist, Bishop of Durham, etc.). I really like that you said that, though I believe Christ came for the organic expression and what beats in His heart is His eternal purpose, that all would see the Son is the apple of His eye. Though you speak heavily on this purpose I do like that you state that to go beyond evangelical is to see that we all have a desire to put Christ in the center and not just in such words that have been rattled out many times, but to have a life that has been transformed by the Spirit in Christ to the Father for His purposes. That in all things we long for the Godhead to be the very fiber of our beings, that when we breath in oxygen or hear or see, that we realize the deceleration of His glory in everything, seeing that everything has His finger print and declares His eternal purposes in this earth (Heaven coming to earth). I say all that to say thanks for bringing that up. I just had an older missionary man at my house who has been in Brazil for the past six years and is moving to Angola to further the kingdom. He is a doctor and he will be working with four people groups, reaching them by plane from the city, for they are unreached, and though he lives in a different expression, his heart has been captured by the dominion of Christ and His love for the people of the earth. How could we ever fight against the Hand of the Lord, even if it is not done perfect these peoples hearts are for Him. Thanks for bringing that up in recent posts.

    • says

      You may be thinking of Part IV. After every post in the series, you can click on the previous post and the post following. This way people can go through the entire series that way.

  2. David says

    Where do the new calvinists (that’s the popular term used to describe them) fit in all of this? My impression of them is that they are not that conversant with people in emergent groups or with new evangelicals. I’ve heard certain people call them neo-fundamentalists because they look back rather than forward and remain within a certain theological framework. I only ask because they are quite active these days.

      • David says

        I read it and I am still confused. You say the following,

        “In reaction to the religious right, neo-evangelicalism is reemerging again being incarnated in the evangelical left and the moderate wing of the emerging church movement.”

        New Calvinists surely wouldn’t identify themselves with the above statement. If they are not new evangelicals (neo-evangelicals)then what are they? I understand the four streams you identify in Part II but I don’t see how those four streams fit into the schema

        fundamentalist–>neo-evangelism–>religious right–>new evangelicals

        Maybe I’m missing something.

        • Sarah says

          My husband and I were part of the new Reformed until we got sick of the legalism and harsh and hard attitudes toward others. Read Frank’s part 2 of this series and he explains where they fit in. This post is really about neoevangelicals. It’s a different conversation. Many of the new Reformed are more fundemantalist than they are neoevangelical, but again this is a different subject.

          • says

            Sarah: Right on. The activists in Part II are simply a resurgence of the neo-evangelicals with postmodern lingo (and concepts) peppered in. That’s really the point.

          • David says

            The reason I am asking is because I end up talking a lot with the Calvinists (the systematizers) and they are not that easy to talk to. They would lump together the two categories of evangelicals you mention in your post and dismiss them as the emergent/post modern bunch, at least the ones I talk to. They wouldn’t make the distinction you are making. If you take a review from Publisher’s Weekly on your book Pagan Christianity notice the following sentence, “Churches should not have buildings nor should they worry about doctrinal statements. Such radical ideas will best be received by Emergent and postmodern readers.” Just that sentence shows that the reviewer doesn’t make the distinction. Now, that’s not fair. I think people that persist in dismissing you in that way are misrepresenting you but that is exactly what some people do. I guess I am just trying to understand the roots of this New Calvinism since I so often find myself inevitably in brushes with them, not of my own choosing. It seems like their general stance nowadays is to glory in their theological framework and shun anyone else who is seeking fresh light from the Bible. Just to give you one example, here are a few sentences from a book review on The Joy of Calvinism,

            As young Calvinists there are a number of markets that we’ve “cornered” in recent years. We’ve pretty much locked down the “knowing our theology” market, we almost single-handedly killed the emergent church a few years ago, and we’re beginning to see Calvinists influencing broader non-historically-Calvinistic denominations and universities.

            It’s that kind of smugness that I find abhorrent and so I was trying to understand how that has come to be. But I understand that that’s not the focus of this post but it sort of kind of is.

          • says

            Thanks, bro. Publisher’s Weekly has some good reviewers and others not very good. Some aren’t even Christians and they review Christian books. Their review of PC misrepresented the book as Barna and I are not “Emergent,” but they do that with many other authors. Anyone who reads the book with an open mind will see what’s it’s about and not about. Even so, thanks for your input. A lot of neo-Reformed (ex- and present-) read this blog. So I’m sure they will appreciate what you and Sarah said.

  3. John says

    Frank, after reading the comments I want to say that I consider myself a fundamentalist who is part of the Religious Right. While I think the emerging church movement is wrong and I’m not where you are with what you are calling beyond evangelicalism, I appreciate your analysis and especially the irenic way you discuss the issues. I look forward to reading your next essay on the subject.

  4. John says

    Thanks for this blog series, very insightful indeed.

    “This blog is dedicated to providing a voice for those who have gone beyond evangelical and a means for them to connect with one another.”

    This statement really helps frame a lot of what you are saying such that for those of us who do not identify as being beyond evangelical your words can be put in context.

    That said I see where my own journey overlaps with the historical and current streams you’ve described so it does shed light on why I believe and think some of the things I do.

    I sometimes wonder if one of the weaknesses of a current trend or stream is the lack of awareness of their weaknesses… as those caught up in it are often focused on the weaknesses of what they are moving away from and the benefits of their new approach and understanding. Its sometimes only in retrospect when the fruit is revealed and we have some historical distance that areas of weakness are more easily exposed.
    All that is to say is that the beyond evangelical tribe/movement, will become part of history like all other movements as each stream is merely an aspect of christ manifest in people over the course of history to my mind.

  5. Mike says

    Frank (or any others who care to reply) I have a question regarding this section:

    “The neo-evangelicals passionately believed in the reliability, truthfulness, and divine inspiration of the Scriptures, but they balked at certain affirmations of biblical authority (like “plenary” and “inerrancy”).

    F.F. Bruce (the modern-era equivalent to N.T. Wright) once remarked that he was content to just say that the Bible was “true.” (This statement made some fundies break out in boils. Hives, now boils. Sigh.)”

    I was born in the late ’80s so all this is of no familiarity whatsoever. I am gathering that neo-evangelicals did not believe in the inerrancy of scripture but from what cause(s)? And what is the distinction is simply saying the Bible is “true”?

    Thanks – this is an interesting read.

    • Pete says

      Hi Mike

      I’m not going to answer your question, only say that I have a similar one. Firstly, can someone tell me the difference between inerrancy and “true”?
      Also can someone tell me that if the Bible is Scripture (i.e. sacred, holy and inspired by the creator of the universe), then why is it considered unreasonable to assert that it is inerrant (i.e. it’s without error in everything that it addresses)?
      If it is not without error, then why should I believe any of it?
      I realise that there are seeming contradictions in the Bible, but I don’t see why that can’t be a matter of us misunderstanding certain parts of it. Surely it’s either true or it’s not, isn’t it?

      • Valdez says

        Mike and Pete,

        The modern idea of inerrancy was an attempt to state a sort of Christian epistemology, i.e. a way of justifying truth claims prior to the reception of the specific claim by pointing to a way of deriving such claims that is supposed to be beyond doubt. But this is scratching where there’s no itch. No epistemology has won general consent and people get through life without looking to any such theory to give an a priori justification for their beliefs.

        The modern theory of inerrancy states that we can be sure that a statement in the Bible is a true proposition just because it’s in the Bible even if the proposition has nothing to do with the saving truth of Jesus Christ. In other words, we can believe in Christ because such a belief is authorized by its appearance in the Bible. If this were true then if the Bible had identified Simon Magus as the Messiah we would have to believe it.

        That no evangelical actually believes that an adherence to Biblical inerrancy secures orthodoxy can be seen in the fact that evangelicals rightly see Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult even though they firmly hold to Biblical inerrancy. It really is sufficient for our salvation and sanctification if we view the Bible as true in its presentation of Christ and his work for our sakes. How many angels were at Christ’s tomb makes no difference to us. Someone who is in error on that question will have lost nothing.

        • says

          Valdez is correct. Some evangelicals hold to the idea that the Bible has no errors whatsoever and it answers every question under the sun that’s brought to it. Other evangelicals say that as it concerns the core message of Scripture as it concerns Jesus Christ, it is true and accurate and inspired.

          However, it may have a few copyist errors here and there, but that doesn’t negate it’s original message nor make it untrustworthy. To go deeper, I suggest N.T. Wright’s “Scripture and the Authority of God”

    • says

      Here are F.F. Bruce’s actual words on that score:

      CT question, “What term would you prefer to use in describing the Bible?”

      F.F. Bruce: “Truth. What’s wrong with that word? The truth of Scripture is what we’re talking about. If one says that the Scripture is the Word of God, why bother about terms like ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’?”

      CT, April 7, 1989, p. 24.

  6. Melissa says

    This series is awesome! I’m 29, found your blog at Rachel’s. Loving it so far! Who else reads Rachel’s blog too?

  7. Tim says

    I’m 33 and have been involved in several groups that would be characterized as the progressive or left in christianity. I had no idea about this history and it’s really shed light on some things. I appreciate your insights and how gracious you are when presenting them. Just read the other parts of the series and I’m being drawn to the beyond evangelical view. It’s speaking to me. Passing this post on to my friends.

  8. Josh says

    Perhaps I don’t know enough about theology to comment intelligently on the subject. The very term “evangelical” confuses me. I am a Christian and I am fascinated by the various sects and movements, especially those of the 20th Century,within Christianity.

    When I see the “neo-evangelicals” you described above, or the self-described “post-modern Christians”, what I see is 21st Century Jesus People.

    Whether or not the “Jesus People” and the “Jesus Movement” were influenced by the theologians you referenced in your piece, I don’t know, but it sounds like they were, at least to a certain degree.

    The Jesus People took Christianity and, for better or for worse, attempted to make it relevant to the culture of the time.

    Also, I believe that if you examine the evolution of Christianity or the 20th Century, you’ll see a distinct pattern, with alternating periods of progressive and conservative forms of evangelicalism.

    It seems that the progressive evangelical thought of the early 1950’s you described, gave way to more conservative thought in the late 50’s/early 60’s. However, I know that at some mainline seminaries, especially those in the Methodist Church, this progressive theology was especially popular.However, the evangelical movement took a conservative turn during the late 50’s and early 60’s.

    It began to change again during the counter-culture revolution. As I mentioned above, the Jesus People tried to make Christianity relevant to the culture of the time and took the evangelical movement in a decidedly progressive direction.

    Then we had the rise of the “Moral Majority” during the late 70’s and early 80’s. This spilled over into the 90’s when we saw an upshot in the charismatic movement. Obviously now, we are in a period where progressive evangelicalism is once again en vogue.

    Fascinating stuff to watch from afar….

  9. Tom says

    Excellent summation. I’ve been following the recent debates in the blogosphere between emergents and Reformed. Your post puts all of this in a historical context without putting anyone down. I have been influenced by the neo evangelicals of the C.F. Henry type, but many christians today are unaware of them or their history as you point out. I appreciate your ability to write on complex issues in a simple and gracious way. Looking forward to the next part.

  10. Nate B says

    Thanks Frank for once again helping us to understand history. It is amazing how quickly we forget our past. This is my first post but I have been reading your blog for the past year now. I am especially enjoying this Beyond Evangelical series and looking forward to part VI.

  11. Jim Wright says

    Frank, with all due respect (and I mean that!), you don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

    Your “history” of the “religious right” and “neo-evangelicals” and “fundamentalism” is so off base as to be shocking.

    I know: I lived it and was involved at the highest levels and also as one of the most touted grass roots leaders back in the ’80s. I was the object of books and national media for my leadership and organizing back during the time you now want to discredit with dubious and outright false “history”.

    Where did your rhetoric and history from, the Washington Post and New York Times? I mean, are you characterizing us based on those who continue to have an agenda of statism and liberal utopianism – such that you now have become a mouthpiece for the those who want to discredit what was accomplished back in the 80s because they fear we might block them once again?

    Really, if you think that those of us who established your reader’s right to home school, open church schools, not pay for abortions with tax dollars…

    If you think that those of us who set up crisis pregnancy centers and homes for women and placed millions of children in Christian homes rather than see them killed…

    If you think those of us who beat back the mob and the flood of porn in the corner grocery store, who passed the laws to affirm parental rights, and who did so many other things you now take for granted….

    If you think we were fundamentalists or even mostly influenced by fundamentalism, you must be smoking something illicit.

    Fundamentalists had a dualistic world view that separated the secular and the spiritual and thus had no theology for civic and political engagement. They were the ones who caused the mess we had to address, because of their theology of retreat, defeat and escape.

    The main influences for those of us who actually lived out our faith and made a difference back in the ’80s (as opposed to those who now want to espouse revisionist theories about us) were the very neo-evangelicals you say we rejected!

    Frank, it is one thing to be ignorant of history, but it is another thing to twist history or rely on the antagonists of a movement to now redefine the motives and activities of your own brothers and sisters – so as to now promote your own pet theories about “beyond evangelicals”.

    Beyond evangelicals, as one who has actually taught church history at the college and grad level, seems to me to be nothing new. It certainly looks like warmed-over pietism from the 1800s. Get real! There’s little that’s “new” in what you are advocating, even though I agree with much of what you’ve written regarding the grand epic and centrality of Christ.

    So tell me, in your revisionist history, what and who are your sources? Who did you actually interview from those days, before besmirching brothers and sisters who cared enough to get involved when our nation’s cultural walls lay in ruins?

    Like Nehemiah, we held a trowel in one hand to re-build the walls, while also needing to hold a sword in our other hand to hold off the crazies who wanted to close our Christian schools, promote abortion with our taxes, open the flood gates for vile obscenity on every street corner, undercut the family and promote their statist ideologies.

    Frank, you seem to only want to see the sword that we needed to hold outward at the time, while ignoring the trowels and the wonderful positive things folks like us did – and now you want to sit on our shoulders to enjoy our successes while distorting our theological lineage, our motives and the good we did.

    Trust me, Frank, our intellectual heritage did not trace back to Moody or other fundamentalist influences. Those folks who were trapped in their fundamentalist ideologies were at the margins, and had no staying power because their theology didn’t provide a framework for civic engagement.

    We, in contrast, rejected the separatism and dualism of fundamentalism. We understood the concepts of jurisdiction and delegation as they were being articulated by what you call the neo-evangicals – especially as those concepts related to the different spheres of society and the supremacy of Christ’s Lordship. We never sought to confuse church and state, but neither did we shrink from proclaiming objective truth and virtue as it related to the state. That, my friend, was very counter-fundamentalist.

    You may disagree with our focus and our efforts back in the ’80s. But don’t claim to be so “new” by disparaging and twisting the truth about so many others.

    I think you owe us an apology, and a retraction.

    • Valdez says

      This comment begins by engaging in the logical fallacy called “poisoning the wells”. By assuming the rightness of the positions taken by the religious right it deligitimates all those who disagree before they even open their mouths. These positions are in dispute among people who, on both sides, sincerely love Christ and his people and are determinned to submit to the teaching of Holy Scripture and it is unfair and logically fallacious to poison the wells of discourse on these matters by assuming that one side is correct beforehand.

      As for the application of the term “fundamentalist” to the religious right and since many of its advocates apply the term to themselves and since the doctrinal positions seem to be identical to those of the fundamentalist, it really doesn’t seem too arbitrary to view the religious right as a revision of fundamentalism, a sort of ‘neofundamentalism, than a brand spanking new entity.

      The notion that we’re called to restore a Christian America falls afoul of historical reality. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, champion of the Constitution, our first Secretary of State, and our third President, was a Deist rather than a Christian and compiled the “Jefferson Bible”, an edition of the Gospels that cut out the miracles (Jefferson didn’t believe in them) and presented Jesus as a great moral teacher and nothing more. John Adams was also a Deist and told the leader of Tunisia (Adams was our second president at the time) that the United States is not a Christian nation. Several others among the nation’s founders were also Deists who struggled alongside Protestant and Catholic Christians in the American Revolution.

      There no such thing as a “cultural Christian” (a term created by Francis Schaeffer). America is not the people of God. America is one of the “principalities and powers” alongside of all other nations. Christians are regenerate and forgiven members of the body of Christ and the people of God are the society that subsists in that body, the church. It is there, and not with either liberal or conservative politicians, that our loyalties lie.

      • says

        Thx. Valdez. To Jim’s comment: Nothing to worry or fret about here. This wasn’t/isn’t an attack on fundemantalism or fundmentalists. There’s nothing in there of the kind. Nor are any specific issues mentioned. The post simply explains (in brief) the history of neo-evangelicalism and makes the point that we’re seeing a resurgence of it right now under a new label with some new language. History repeats itself and people call it “new”. That’s the main point.

        The source material on the historical perspective is abundant and accessible: I suggest you begin with Carl F. Henry’s book, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism”; then David Fitch’s book “The End of Evangelicalism;” “Four Views of the Spectrum of Evangelicalism” (HarperCollins); Gabe Lyon’s “The Next Christians” goes into some of this as does Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible.” To read those who specifically reacted to fundamentalism (which my post did not), pick up Tony Jones’ “The New Christians” or Rachel Held Evans “Evolving in Monkey Town” and some of Brian McLaren’s early work. Also see Dave Tomlinson’s book “The Post Evangelical” and Graham Cray’s “The Post Evangelical Debate.”

        While I’m not part of the Christian left (or right), if one reads some of these folks, they will get updated on the recent debate between left and right among 20 and 30-somethings who are on (or lean) left going on today.

        Throughout the years, CT featured articles tracking the neo-evangelicals and fundmentalists as they dialogued and disagreed. Also the work of Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden which breaks all this down in helpful ways. Sadly, neo-evangelicals (like F.F. Bruce) were excoriated by some fundamentalists and were (very wrongly) called “heretics.” Hence my comment about “breaking out in hives.” ‘Tis true and ’tis slang.

        Anyways, that’s just some of the context behind the post, which mind you, is part of a series. All told: there’s nothing in the post that attacks or disparages fundemantalists, neo-evangelicals, beyond evangelicals, or anyone else. (Thanks for noticing, Tom.) Such things have to be brought to the post rather than derived from it.

        God bless, fv, Psalm 115:1

      • Steve says

        I used to be a history professor and Frank and Valdez are correct. The religious/christian right makes up fundamentalists. This is common knowledge “the new Religious Right combined conservative politics with evangelical and fundamentalist teachings” source/

        “The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a surge interest in politics by organized fundamentalists in the U.S.” under religious/christian right.

        Frank, your post was both accurate and written with a good spirit. I can’t say that about the other comment; it seems angry and came off condescending.


  12. Ross Rohde says

    You stated:

    But the “new evangelicals” aren’t new at all. The main difference between the neo-evangelicals of the past and today’s “new evangelicals” (or “next Christians”) is that the latter is sprinkled with a good measure of post-modern terminology.

    I agree with what you are saying. Having lived through much of this I feel it is an accurate assessment. I do however wonder if the new evangelicals not only sprinkle their thoughts with postmodern terminology, but actually frame their thinking in the postmodern worldview. I suspect, for example that their thinking would be less dualistic and somewhat more relativistic, which has its good points and weak points.

    I’m also intrigued by the idea that the capturing, and in my opinion, manipulation of evangelicalism by right wing politics was a reversion to fundamentalism. I’d never thought of it that way before, but tend to agree.

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