“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.
All of this sets up the tee for Part VI of our series . . . which I’m hugely excited about. You’ll see why when it’s published next week.