A Certain Sound

Fred Moritz

This is Part One ♦ Part Two

“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).

We live in theologically confusing days. In less than two centuries the world witnessed the birth of theological liberalism and its replacement, neoliberalism. Neo-Orthodoxy arose in opposition to liberalism, but refused to return to true orthodoxy. Various theological positions have developed within that part of Christendom that is characterized by nonorthodox theology. Significant changes also took place in conservative theology in roughly that same time frame.

The Fundamentalist movement coalesced over a fifty year period (from about 1870 to 1920) as a response to theological liberalism. The period from the 1920s to the 1950s witnessed the Modernist-Fundamentalist conflicts, both inside and outside of the mainline denominations. Then Harold John Ockenga led a movement of disaffected Fundamentalists in the formation of a new kind of evangelicalism after World War II. Ockenga and his followers took the term “New Evangelical” to identify themselves.

The New Evangelicals repudiated the Fundamentalist emphasis on Biblical separation from apostasy.[1] This repudiation of Biblical separation resulted in the New Evangelical twin strategies of infiltrating liberal denominations and ecumenical evangelism. Fifteen years after Ockenga’s statement, Kenneth Kantzer noted that this difference over separation became a “practical cleavage as to strategy” between the two groups.[2]

Over time most within the New Evangelical camp began to identify themselves simply as “Evangelicals.” In 1991 Kenneth Kantzer, himself an Evangelical, noted that there were many in the movement whom he could not vote to ordain.[3] There were and are significant doctrinal and theological aberrations within the Evangelical camp: a rejection of inerrancy, open theism, evangelical feminism, gender neutrality in Bible translation, Charismatic theology, rejection of eternal retribution, and more.

Today there is a new group of leaders within the Evangelical movement who have distanced themselves from many of the liberalizing elements that developed in the New Evangelicalism. They mostly identify themselves as “Conservative Evangelicals.” Kevin Bauder has observed,

Conservative evangelicalism encompasses a diverse spectrum of Christian leaders. Representatives include John Piper, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, Charles Ryrie, Bruce Ware, Bryan Chapell, Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Tim Keller, John D. Hannah, Ed Welch, Ligon Duncan, Tom Nettles, C. J. Mahaney, Norman Geisler, and R. C. Sproul. Conservative evangelical organizations include Together for the Gospel (T4G), the Gospel Coalition, the Master’s Seminary, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (at least in its better moments), and Ligonier Ministries. These individuals and organizations exhibit a remarkable range of differences, but they can be classed together because of their vigorous commitment to and defense of the gospel.(( http://www.centralseminary.edu/resources/nick-of-time/169- lets-get-clear-on-this; accessed March 18, 2010.))

The Fundamental Baptist movement has seen its own divisions and deviations as well. Perhaps the battle over Bible texts and translations, specifically the King James Version, with attendant debates over inspiration and preservation, is the most notable.

Some of the divisions in the Christian world have transcended the previously cited movements. These issues include music, the “worship wars,” Covenant Theology and Calvinism, and a broader debate over Bible translation philosophy.

We certainly live in a day of theological confusion. Steering the ship of our churches and ministries through these treacherous waters presents a challenge to pastors and institutional leaders.

A ministerial student recently asked if it would be possible, in the midst of all this confusion, to articulate in a positive manner those things for which we stand. He seemed to be voicing Paul’s statement that the trumpet needs to give out a “certain sound.”

David Doran has offered some guidelines that seem helpful. In a recent post he led three successive paragraphs with these statements: “The real issue of our day is theological and ministerial agreement, not label or membership card in some club. … Fellowship means you share something and the more you share the stronger the fellowship. … Throw away the labels and ask these two questions: Of what are you in favor? To what are you opposed? Agreement on those two items will more likely produce workable partnerships and real fellowship.”[4]

One brief article cannot deal with all the issues, but it can at least enunciate some very basic Biblical truths for which the FBFI has always stood. We must give a “certain sound” on these issues.

Conservative Evangelicals

It is important to evaluate our Conservative Evangelical brethren. They are our brothers in the Lord, and at the same time they are a diverse group within themselves. Phil Johnson, part of the MacArthur ministries, calls himself a “paleo-evangelical” and has given an incisive analysis and indictment of historic New Evangelicalism.[5]

Some actions of the Conservative Evangelicals look no different from the actions of the older New Evangelicals. Some of the leaders within the new grouping signed the Manhattan Declaration. The authors of this declaration, which primarily focuses on social concerns, strongly sought and obtained the support and signatures of numerous leaders within the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. The declaration itself is political rather than theological, but it states in part,

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right— and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.(( http://manhattandeclaration.org/read.aspx. The declaration articulates commendable positions on life, marriage, and religious liberty. As Bible believers we preach about those crucial matters. Many Fundamentalist churches involve themselves in activities to promote those issues. Individual believers can and should be politically active to promote those good issues in the public square. It is to ecumenical religious cooperation in connection with these goals that we object.))

This statement is inconsistent at best. As leaders in the Together for the Gospel movement some of those signatories will defend the gospel against a gospel of works and sacramentalism. They will do so on the basis of the authority of Scripture. Yet they signed a declaration that contradicted their own doctrinal affirmations, identifying their Orthodox and Catholic cosignatories as “Christians.”

We speak kindly but on the basis of Biblical authority. The gospel is the message revealed by God. It is the message of salvation by grace without any work of man (Gal. 1:9–12; 2:16). Our Catholic and Orthodox friends affirm that salvation is by grace but that it is received by the sacraments. By the standard of the Scriptures, a sacramental gospel must be judged to be a false gospel.

When men who believe, affirm, preach, and unite together to defend the gospel sign a declaration that proclaims Catholics and Orthodox as “Christians,” they betray the very gospel they affirm, and they negate the good they are attempting to accomplish. This kind of action is no different than the compromise we witnessed in the New Evangelical movement forty years ago.

Dr. Albert Mohler serves as president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. We applaud his accomplishments of ridding Southern Seminary of theological liberalism. Yet Mohler signed the Manhattan Declaration, chaired a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade in his city, cooperated with theological liberals in that effort, and he honored one of his liberal predecessors, Duke McCall, by naming a new building after him. Obedience to Scripture on one hand and disobedience on the other sends an “uncertain sound.”

To be continued in tomorrow’s post…

Dr. Fred Moritz serves as a seminary professor at Maranatha Baptist Seminary and as executive director emeritus of Baptist World Mission.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Harold John Ockenga, Introduction to The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 11. Ockenga twice uses the word “repudiated” in reference to the ecclesiology, social theory, and separatism of Fundamentalism. []
  2. Know Your Roots: Evangelicalism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Madison, WI: 2100 Productions, 1991), videocassette. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. http://gloryandgrace.dbts.edu/?p=290; accessed March 18, 2010. []
  5. Phil Johnson, “Where Evangelicalism Went Astray,” March 18, 2009. Adapted from Johnson’s seminar at the Shepherds’ Conference, entitled, “What Is an Evangelical?” []