December 18, 2017

Benefits We Derive from Evangelicals

Don Johnson

When it comes to the Evangelicals, it is often our concern to sharply distinguish ourselves from them. Since the late 1950s, Evangelicals have followed a different path than Fundamentalists. Consequently, we are very concerned about distinguishing the pathway, lest there be confusion on the part of observers. Some of those observers are inside Fundamentalism, but, for various reasons, are paying less attention to the distinctions than they ought. Or at least they seem to be paying less attention, even to the point of devaluing the distinctions. Other observers may be outside fundamentalism and are curious about what motivates our distinctiveness. We ought to be able to give biblical reasons for the choices we make to all observers.

Since we focus so much on those things that distinguish us, some observers accuse us of an overly negative viewpoint and others accuse us of hypocrisy when we mention or use evangelical literature and other productions in our own ministries. We need to provide clarity here also. There are ways to benefit from evangelicals without disturbing our fundamentalist position.

I’ve recently read an evangelical work, one that is very helpful on a critical issue for Christianity, the doctrine of inerrancy. The book is called Inerrancy and The Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenge of Harmonization. The author is Vern Sheridan Poythress, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. As far as I can tell, he is a thoroughly orthodox believer, though we would differ with him on some theological points, especially on church polity, and most likely we differ on philosophy of ministry in ways that affect our fellowship with other believers.

In his book, he makes several striking observations, including this one:

My primary challenge in [interpreting the Bible] is myself. I am a finite, fallible human being. I am also affected by remaining sin. And sin affects biblical interpretation. So I cannot be an ideal example. Of course, neither can anyone else subsequent to the apostles. God designed the church, the people of God, to work together. We strive together, ‘with all the saints,’ to comprehend ‘what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to … know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:18). We help one another. In particular, any contribution I may make builds on the insights of others before me. And if I do a good job, my contribution becomes in turn a source of help for others after me. So you must understand that this book represents part of a path toward a future fullness of knowledge, when we will know God ‘even as [we] have been fully known’ (1 Cor. 13:12).[1]

As I read this bit, I was struck by its truth and significance for the question of using and benefiting from the work of evangelicals. The following points are true about all Christians, fundamentalists and evangelicals alike:

  • We are finite, fallible human beings.
  • We are affected by remaining sin.
  • Our sin affects our biblical interpretation
  • Our interpretations cannot be held alone as the only ideal example of Christian truth.
  • We cannot know everything.
  • We do not hold a corner on spiritual insight or gifts.

Each of these points are true. None of us are apostles.[2] The consequence of this is that we need the help of other Christians. We need their insights, the fruit of their struggles in and for the faith. As Poythress says, “we help one another.”

Thus we find works by Christian experts in many fields to be very helpful. Some men spend their lifetimes studying particular areas of ministry or of biblical truth. Their labors are made publicly available, sometimes at little or no cost. For example, consider the following:

Many more could be named, but these suffice as examples. We profit from all this work. Our fundamentalist colleges use their works as textbooks in various fields. All of this is legitimate use of the labors of others, we are enriched by one another as we absorb the matters they have studied, especially as they submit to the supremacy of the Word of God in their chosen subject matter. There is no compromise in this.

There are, of course, differences. We couldn’t enter into any kind of ministry partnership with many of these men from whom we benefit. Often, their associations, philosophies, and practices are incompatible with a fundamentalist understanding of Biblical obedience. We must serve our God first of all and loyalty to him demands keeping a distance from the errors of men whom we otherwise count as brethren. At times, that loyalty to God may require public identification, rebuke and/or warning. Nevertheless, if the apostle Paul could use pagan poets to facilitate his communication of truth, we can surely use the work of other Christians even though we have grave disagreements in many areas.

On the other hand, we could wish that evangelicals might avail themselves more freely of the work of fundamentalists in the field of separation, ecclesiology, and philosophy of ministry. There are signs that some of them are paying a little attention to what we say. May they benefit from our works as we benefit from theirs. Surely a stronger Christian testimony would be the result.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and The Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenge of Harmonization, p. 15. Emphasis mine. []
  2. The claims of charismatics notwithstanding. []

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