August 17, 2017

The Evangelical Disaster

Rolland McCune

The New Evangelicalism arose in the 1940s out of a dissatisfaction with and a series of complaints against Fundamentalism. One of the major issues was Fundamentalism’s alleged lack of scholarship and inability to command the attention of liberal and neoorthodox thinkers. Fundamentalists were charged with an intellectual and educational deficiency that prevented them from producing academic material that received the respect of unbelieving scholars. This issue was resolved in the founding of the Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947 as an academic center and flagship think tank for the new group.

Other Evangelical schools and scholars joined the new life of the mind in the effort to intellectually capture the American culture for Christ. Harold John Ockenga, one of the founding fathers of the New Evangelicalism, declared that the new movement would “face the intellectual problems and meet them in the framework of modern learning.”[1] Many held the idea that not only did Fundamentalism lack scholarship, it was anti-intellectual—actually against learning.

This charge by the New Evangelicals was not quite true. A more mature perspective reveals that many of Fundamentalism’s leaders had impressive academic credentials, and, what is more, Bible-training schools, institutes, colleges, universities, and seminaries have always followed in the train of the Fundamentalist cause. But Fundamentalism hated godless scholarship and education while New Evangelicals craved prestige among that very kind of intellectuals.

There was a declaration of movement in Evangelical thinking that was announced by an article entitled “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?”[2] The areas mentioned involved an increased emphasis on scholarship, a willingness to dialogue with liberal theologians, a friendly attitude toward modern science, a reexamination of the work of the Holy Spirit, and a shift away from elements of dispensationalism. An innocent-sounding but ominous note was “a reopening of the subject of Biblical inspiration.” But it was the practice of dialogue that proved to be disastrous for the Evangelicals.

Evangelical dialogue assumes that those who deny the Bible still have some truth to bring to the table for mutual understanding, spiritual enrichment, and possible adaptation. It puts the Biblical truth-claims into the smorgasbord of ideas as an option alongside a bevy of unbelieving notions, presupposing that critical scholars and Bible-believers are unprejudiced and all share a common ground of neutral “fact” as a basis for interaction. The dialogue technique became ruinous for the New Evangelicals as some of their thinkers ceded truth bit by bit into the hands of the enemies of Christ and the Bible, the first doctrine to fall being the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Once the Scriptures are adjusted to modern thought, other doctrines fall in a domino effect. Inspiration is what gives the Bible its divine authority; it is the method God used to give His infallible revelation through human beings in human languages. When certain New Evangelicals elevated human reason over the truth-claims of Scripture, they lost divine authority for their novel ideas. Problems eventually arose, causing doctrinal upheavals within their ranks. Interestingly these internal controversies and farout positions have hardly been enough cause for the conservative types to make a clean break since separation is the scarlet sin in the Evangelical mind. Instead calls go out for more prayer, more open-mindedness, and more effort to find some kind of middle ground for the new ideas to be absorbed into the movement.

One such problem was the “lostness” of the heathen, or the status of the unevangelized before God. Evangelicals are still debating the condition of those who have never heard of Christ and the gospel, which is strange since the Bible is quite clear on the subject. One intellectual leader objects to what he called the “fewness doctrine” of Fundamentalists who hold of course that salvation is to be found only by personal faith in Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 4:12). This scholar wants to widen God’s saving mercy to include what he thinks is noble and positive in the world’s religions; he wants a “theological globalism” in order to enter into dialogue with them with fresh ideas.[3] Again, it appears that acceptance by liberals and secular elitists is what is driving the departure from Biblical truth. And why not? In this man’s case the Bible’s authority was vacated decades ago when the doctrine of verbal inspiration and inerrancy was given up.

Lest one think that the notion of finding salvation in other than the Christ of the Bible is only for high-minded intellectuals, consider what the foremost evangelist of the last half century had to say.

[God is] calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven. . . . I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.[4]

Another area of controversy in Evangelicalism is the destiny of the finally impenitent. It was a small step to go from disagreement over the status of the unevangelized to debating the eternal fate of all the unredeemed. And as before, Biblical doctrine (eternal punishment, in this case) proved unpalatable for certain Evangelical leaders and thinkers, so two alternatives have been suggested. A few have espoused the view that at least some of the inhabitants of Hell will eventually be transferred to heaven, or that “God’s redemptive love is present in hell.”[5] A more popular position for others is annihilationism, which holds that the finally impenitent will be reduced to extinction or nonbeing.[6]

It may be asked why these Evangelicals adopted views that were long held only by liberals and false cults. And the answer is not far away: They chose to follow a rival authority of the Bible, namely human reason. God is said to be unjust, if not unspeakably cruel, if He punishes someone eternally for sins committed in a relatively short amount of time. Obviously man sets the standard here for what is holy and just, and God must conform to it. This forgets that God is His own standard; He can conform to no higher than Himself (Heb. 6:13). God is what His attributes are; He is infinite and eternal holiness, righteousness, and justice. Therefore, sin against God is of infinite proportions and in a perfect moral order must be dealt a limitless retribution. Even human jurisprudence holds that the punishment must fit the crime; that it is not unjust to execute people or lock them away for a lifetime for something committed in a matter of minutes. Or that slapping the queen of England is of immeasurably greater consequence than slapping a mosquito on a hot summer night.

By faith Abraham resigned himself to the truth that the Judge of all the earth will do right in meting out the just deserts of sin and wickedness, even to close relatives and loved ones (Gen. 18:25). Trouble and confusion result when emotions rather than God’s revelation are allowed to set the agenda. And so one influential Evangelical confesses, “Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal punishment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”[7] He goes on to state that emotions are not a reliable guide to truth, but the Bible believer is left with the lingering notion that this person’s position is fair neither to Scripture nor the character of God.

The lostness of the heathen, the exclusiveness of the way of Christ to Heaven, and the eternal punishment of the finally impenitent can hardly be more clearly presented in the Bible. Denial of these doctrines arises from a standard or authority that is definitely other than the word of God.

As I stated in the beginning, it was an ominous note when the subject of the inspiration of the Bible was reopened by the New Evangelicals in 1956. In fewer than twenty years the new movement was embroiled in the inerrancy controversy from which it has never recovered. The New Evangelicalism had become, even in the minds of some of its early leaders, a prodigal son in a far country, and it has been rapidly drifting toward irrelevancy ever since. Fundamentalists warned early on of the manifest destiny of tinkering with the doctrine of Scripture, but of course to no avail.

We Fundamentalists have always been a people of the Book, but history—Biblical and recent—has testified of the dangers of drifting into a cavalier attitude toward the Bible’s authority in favor of supposedly more up-to-date thinking. Could it be that some of our own number find it more intellectually respectable and comfortable to follow some of the reasoning and methods of a failed and discredited “New” Evangelicalism than the tried and true “old” Biblical paths wherein is the good way (Jer. 6:16)?


Dr. Rolland McCune was professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. News Release, December 8, 1957. []
  2. Christian Life, March 1956. []
  3. Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), and also his article “Why Is Jesus the Only Way?” Eternity (Dec. 1976). []
  4. An interview of Billy Graham by Robert Schuller on the telecast from the Crystal Cathedral, May 31, 1997, as reported verbatim by Robert E. Kofahl, “Graham Believes Men Can Be Saved Apart from Name of Christ,” Christian News (Oct. 20, 1997), p. 15. []
  5. For example, Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row), 2:225–27. []
  6. For example, Clark Pinnock, “Fire, Then Nothing,” Christianity Today (Mar. 20, 1987); and John R. W. Stott in his dialogue with a liberal, David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988). []
  7. Evangelical Essentials, p. 314. []


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