Saturday, January 24, 2015

The revisionist history of the New Evangelicalism

One manner of dealing with historical criticism is to refute it. Another way, the dishonest and lazy way, is to do historical revisionism and read the opposition out of the records. In the history of the New Evangelicalism, the established historiography claimed only 3 sides to the conflict: the Liberals, who compromised on doctrine, the Fundamentalists, who were so militantly opposed to compromise that they lost their love for the brethren and the lost, and the New Evangelicals, or just "Evangelicals," who stood firm on doctrine yet seek to be winsome and loving to all. Conspicuously absent from the revisionist historiography is the notion of a 4th group: Confessional Protestantism, those who stood firm on sound doctrine as taught in the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, and sought to do ministry with an ecclesial focus. We reject Liberalism for its toleration of heresy, we reject Fundamentalism for its imbalance of doctrine, AND we also reject [New] Evangelicalism for its compromise of the truth.

Justin Taylor has decided to dip his toe into the issue by speaking about the "three type of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals after 1956." As we can see however, Taylor made the same revisionist error of omitting Confessional Protestantism, whether that is due to ignorance or intentional maliciousness is another question. In the interest of correcting this deficit, I have decided to add the fourth column to his chart:

 
Confessional Protestantism
Personal separation from sin
advocated
Ecclesiastical separation from liberals/ modernists
advocated
Relationship of evangelism and social action
emphasized evangelism over social action
Style of combatting Modernism
militant
Attitude towards Billy Graham
opposed (less strongly), but do not necessarily regard as apostate
Attitude towards NAE
opposed
Attitude towards self-designation of "fundamentalist"
rejected
Geographical concentration
?
Representatives
J.G. Machen, Reformed churches

By defining the Confessional Protestant position out of the picture, the New Evangelicals, or its latest reincarnation in the "New Calvinism," can claim to be the moderate position between the extremes of Liberalism and Fundamentalism. Furthermore, they can claim, and do claim, continuity with the Reformation, even though they do not belong there. In the one hand, they held up the portrayal of the Liberals, which every true Christian would reject as having compromised the faith. In the other hand, they held up the portrayal of the angry Fundamentalists, using the worst excesses of that movement as an example to tar the rest. They thus seem both strong on doctrine (contra Liberalism) yet charitable towards others (contra Fundamentalism). Confessional Protestantism however cannot be so easily tarred, so it is probably better to revise them out of the picture, since after all they are generally not a big and vocal group, and some can be co-opted into their camp.

Between Confessional Protestantism and Separatist Fundamentalists, the major difference is the balance we achieve through focusing on the historic creeds and confessions of the Church. Separatists Fundamentalists, due to the anti-intellectualism held by many of them, tend towards imbalances resulting in factions and schisms. The prevalence of Dispensationalism in many parts of separatist Fundamentalism has resulted in a cottage industry of elaborate eschatological charts, filling in the blanks where Scripture is silent. Is it not any wonder that factions and schisms will result from such doctrinal imbalances, where belief in a pre-tribulation rapture (nowhere taught in Scripture) becomes definitive of orthodoxy in some circles? Confessional Protestantism, by focusing on the pattern of sound words, do not suffer from such schisms found in Fundamentalist circles, schisms which may be exaggerated by the New Evangelicals to prove that the separatists are short on Christian charity.

The focus on the historic creeds and confessions of the Church of course means that it is less a movement than a church, thus tied to denominations. It is understandable that Evangelicalism hate denominations, but that doesn't make the link to denominations wrong. Perhaps that is another reason why Evangelicals like Justin Taylor wish to ignore Confessional Protestantism. In all fairness, Taylor is not the only one to do so; most of the histories regarding Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the 20th century do the same, and all of them are wrong in their omission. One wonders how many of them actually read what John Gresham Machen believed concerning ecclesiology and the Fundamentalism of his time, instead of just focusing on his battle with Modernism.

We return to the beginning of Taylor's article, where he mentions three "definitions" from Dr. Dockery. I will add in the fourth "definition," and thus we will see the different spirit in Confessional Protestantism.

An Evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham;
A Liberal is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a fundamentalist;
A Fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is apostate. AND
A Confessional Protestant is someone who deplores Billy Graham's compromise and lack of biblical ecclesiology, while acknowledging both the good and the bad he has done for the spread of the Christian faith.

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