December 18, 2017

The Great Evangelical Mea Culpa

Layton Talbert

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2006.)

An anatomical anomaly is on the rise these days: many are giving evidence of an essentially Fundamentalist heart trapped in an Evangelical body. True, many well-known Evangelicals have succumbed to the Asa Syndrome — a combination of age and habitual accommodation. Others, however, have for years been sounding self-critical alarms about the direction of Evangelicalism with increasing frequency. Examples include David Wells, Millard Erickson, and R. Kent Hughes, among others. One of the more intriguing and recent examples is Robert Gundry’s Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian (Eerdmans, 2002). But first, a peek at the one who started this trend of self-criticism.

Three months before his death in 1984, Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway) — a book he described as his “most important statement” regarding “the greatest problem we who are Christians face in our generation” (13). “Here is the great evangelical disaster — the failure of the evangelical world to stand for the truth as truth. There is only one word for this — namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age. … And let us understand that to accommodate to the world spirit about us in our age is nothing less than the most gross form of worldliness in the proper definition of that word. And … with exceptions, the evangelical church is worldly and not faithful to the living Christ” (37-38). Schaeffer identified biblical inspiration and authority as the “watershed” issue (44) that would determine whether evangelicals would end up in the ocean of truth or a sea of heresy. But the real watershed, Schaeffer insisted, was not merely a matter of academic doctrine about Scripture but an issue of obedience to it (61, 63). Then Schaeffer cited an intriguing example: “Something is profoundly wrong when a Bible teacher at a prominent evangelical college teaches that one of the Gospel writers made up some of the stories about the birth of Jesus, and that some of the things Jesus said as recorded in the Gospels really were not said by Jesus at all, but were made up by other people later.” Though Schaeffer does not identify the Bible teacher, Robert Gundry published those very teachings two years earlier in a controversial work titled Matthew: A Commentary on His Theological and Literary Art. That historical background makes Gundry’s recent work all the more fascinating.

In Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian, Robert Gundry joins Schaeffer’s mea culpa chorus. Despite a lingering weakness on inerrancy, Gundry’s contribution is a unique, enlightening, and genuinely profitable book that deserves a wide and thoughtful reading. Gundry aimed the book at the scholarly Evangelical community (Subtitle: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America). Some pages contain more footnote than text, and Gundry displays a proclivity for sentences of Pauline proportions. Nevertheless, at only 137 pages the book is not a difficult read. Its Biblical-theological insights into the Gospel of John coupled with its candid analysis of Evangelicalism make it well worth the modest investment of time and money required.

Gundry was not compelled to write “out of disturbance over seeing that North American evangelicalism is on the downgrade, and accelerating.” The book actually “had a biblical genesis.” Gundry was minding his own business, doing a detailed contextual analysis of John’s Gospel, when he discovered that John’s presentation of Jesus as the Word “dominates the whole of John’s Gospel more than has been recognized before,” and that John’s Gospel also demonstrates a “strong sectarianism” that emphasizes separateness and distinctiveness from the world. Those two discoveries led him to conclude that “current trends in North American evangelicalism call for a strong dose of John’s logocentric sectarianism.” His book divides into just three chapters.

Chapter 1 furnishes fresh lexical data to demonstrate his thesis that John’s presentation of Jesus as the Word is not limited to the Prologue but permeates the entire Gospel. That distinctive Johannine emphasis underscores that the Church has, from Christ, an authoritative word for the world that must be heard in all its purity and clarity. In chapter 2, Gundry next turns his attention to a second under-appreciated theme in John — sectarianism. John was no inclusivist, still less a relativist. John’s Gospel “is unalterably countercultural and sectarian, for ‘a sect is a religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists.’” Moving subtly toward his critical analysis of Evangelicalism, Gundry adds that “it is sectarians — those who have separated from the world, who see only in black and white — it is they rather than reformers, accommodationists, and assimilationists who speak with the most controlling authority.” (Does the “accommodation” language sound familiar?) But John’s sectarianism does not invite a disengaged withdrawal from the world, for John emphasizes that God’s Word (Christ) was sent into the world: “John’s sectarianism has sharpened rather than dulled the evangelistic thrust and usefulness — even today — of the Fourth Gospel.”

Finally, in chapter 3, Gundry diagnoses the current state of Evangelicalism by frankly detailing its symptoms.

In the last half century [evangelicals] have enjoyed increasing success in the world of biblical and theological scholarship. They reacted against the separatism of their fundamentalist forbears, who precisely in their separation from the world knew they had from God a sure word for the world. Penetration replaced separation. Evangelical biblical and theological scholars began holding their meetings in conjunction with … societies populated with heretics, non-Christians of other religious persuasions, agnostics, and outright atheists as well as with true Christian believers. And in droves evangelicals (including me) started joining these societies and participating in their activities.

Although a few pages earlier Gundry is quite confident about what John would have thought of someone else’s errors, he becomes disingenuously coy about whether John would have approved of believers engaging in such associations and activities:

So I do not condemn penetration by evangelicals any more than I condemn separation by fundamentalists. Separation was necessary to save the gospel against the inroads of modernism, I think; and penetration has been necessary to save the gospel from irrelevance and a seclusion that threatened to keep it from being heard in the world at large.

But even Gundry admits the costs and casualties resulting from the strategy of penetration have been devastating with little to show for it. Rather than persuading their unbelieving counterparts, the price of scholarly success has been a widespread theological and spiritual “gutting” of Evangelicalism and “a growth of worldliness.” The notion “that evangelicals would resist accommodation to the world,” Gundry confesses, “is turning out to be ill-founded.” “Behavioral standards” have plummeted, as has “interest in and knowledge of Christian doctrine. Symptomatically, the most influential evangelical is no longer an evangelist (Billy Graham), but a psychologist (James Dobson).” Gundry’s remark is equally symptomatic, however, since it ignores Graham’s own devolution into the very postconservative theological errors Erickson describes. In Gundry’s view, “the scandal of the evangelical mind pales before the scandal of evangelical acculturation.” But as he himself indicates, the two go hand in hand.

Do our present circumstances call for John’s Word- Christology, for North American evangelicalism to take a sectarian turn, a return mutatis mutandis, to the fundamentalism of The Fundamentals and their authors at the very start of the twentieth century? … Such a renewed fundamentalism would take direction not only from fundamentalism at the very start of the twentieth century but also, and more importantly, from the paleofundamentalism of John the sectarian, whose Christology of the Word has Jesus come into the world (there is the engagement with it), sanctify himself (there is the separation from it), and exegete God (there is the message to it).

History entitles one to question the impact of Gundry’s thoughtful critique on its target audience. Its effect may be less of a “bombshell” and more like a water balloon — a momentary, uncomfortable interruption to an agenda too entrenched, too intellectually inebriated, too seduced by worldly respectability, to change. The strategy of penetration has evolved into a philosophy of accommodation, so that it is the very fundamentals themselves that have become negotiable.

Fundamentalism has historically championed a militant orthodoxy wedded to personal orthopraxy. Jude 3 has long been its corporate life verse. Faithfully (though not always faultlessly), Fundamentalists have insisted that the wedding between doctrinal purity (orthodoxy) and a biblically distinctive lifestyle (holiness) is a scriptural mandate. Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John all emphasize that necessary union in their epistles. Fearing marginalization and irrelevance, a “New” Evangelicalism mapped out a different strategy. The Evangelical experiment of the past half-century has resulted in extensive damage — a diminishing of biblical standards, a dilution of clear message, and a loss of distinctive identity. If you think that is just a typical, predictable Fundamentalist diagnosis, you have not been reading their literature. Many Evangelicals are acknowledging the failure of the Evangelical strategy and admitting that in the quest for a relevance deemed necessary to win the world, she has befriended the world but lost her churches.

The important lesson to draw from this is not “See, we were right!” Fundamentalist homes, churches, and institutions increasingly confront reminders that neither we nor our children are immune to the same influences that have seduced many Evangelicals. Young Fundamentalists sidling toward the Evangelical fence, tempted by the sight of seemingly greener grass, need to take a closer look and listen carefully to the lowing of the cattle over there. People on both sides of the fence are just as fallen and, consequently, have to wrestle with many of the same kinds of relational and associational issues. In fact, the evangelical statements cited above seem to paint a rather different picture. There’s not just one fence between a tiny pasture and a huge one; both sides of “the” fence appear to be subdivided by multiple other fences. Moving into a broader evangelical orbit doesn’t eliminate the need for difficult decisions about separation, even from many technically within one’s own camp. May Christ grace His Church to reaffirm its commitment not only to the call to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3) but also to the call for personal and corporate purity (Jude 20-23) in absolute reliance on the only one who can keep us from falling (Jude 24-25).

UPDATE: The text in maroon has been added in response to comments below.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


  1. Layton, I left fundamentalism 25 years ago. I have been a very happy conservative evangelical, as a Southern Baptist pastor, Associational Director of Missions, and State Convention Leadership Strategist. I have found a home with Southern Baptist pastors, state staff, and seminary professors, who love Jesus and are very happy in their ministry. I have reconnected with other BJU graduates, who are now Southern Baptist, and are happy to be so. I have yet to meet any persons who left fundamentalism for evangelicalism, and I have met a great many, who were sad that they made the change. Again, I cannot speak for all evangelicals everywhere. But I can speak for myself and many others. We are happy for God’s leading in our lives.

    • Hi Fred, we were classmates at BJU, at least in grad school. I knew your brother better, but always respected the two of you. It appears we have taken different trajectories, but I praise the Lord that you are useful in the Lord’s service. This article is a reprint of a 2006 FrontLine article, just in case you missed that point. I’ll let Layton know that you have commented and he can respond if he cares to. I wonder if you meant to say “weren’t sad” in your third last sentence above. I can fix that for you if you like.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

    • Layton Talbert says:

      Hey Fred,
      You were a bit ahead of me in school so I didn’t know you but I definitely knew of you. Your reply is a fair one, because the concluding statement that seems to have triggered it is poorly worded. While the remark may be true of some (even if it’s not of many or most), the gist I was trying to get at in the article is that people on both sides of the fence are just as fallen and, consequently, have to wrestle with many of the same kinds of relational and associational issues. In fact, the quotations I’ve cited throughout the article seem to me to paint a rather different picture; there’s not just one fence between one tiny pasture and one huge one; both sides of “the” fence appear to be subdivided by multiple other fences. Moving into a broader evangelical orbit doesn’t eliminate the need for difficult decisions about separation, even from many technically within one’s own camp.
      So thank you for the corrective. I’ll be sending Don a replacement statement that I hope will be more accurate.

      • Hi Layton. Thanks for your kind reply. There are differences in the fundamentalist and evangelical mindsets that make it difficult to understand each other. The fundamentalist looks for a reason to separate. The evangelical looks for a reason not to separate. Both groups have fences. But the evangelical has fewer fences, and most evangelical pastors spend much less time worrying about those fences. For example, our state convention would separate from a church that endorses homosexual relationships or marriage. That is a big fence. Our state convention would separate from a church that adopts an Arian view of Jesus Christ. That is another big fence. But matters of music are matters of liberty. At most, it is a small fence. Most likely, it is no fence at all. I don’t like Christian rap, but I would (and do) mentor and support pastors and preacher boys who do. They are reaching a culture that I can’t reach. To me it is a matter of method not message. Ultimately, we are not that far apart. Even though it seems that way sometimes. I am very sure that we will enjoy heaven together one day. And I am truly looking forward to that day. Blessings. Fred

        • Layton Talbert says:

          Hey Fred. I don’t want to drag this out unduly, but it seems that when we talk about ourselves we’re on safe ground, but when we talk about each other we slip into mischaracterization and our misconceptions show. This time it was your turn to say something I feel compelled to take issue with: “The fundamentalist looks for a reason to separate.” Probably some do; and maybe that was more characteristic of the fundamentalism you left, I don’t know and can’t speak to that. But as a description of the fundamentalism I know, it’s a very unfair and inaccurate characterization of spirit and temperament. There’s an old saying you just might have heard: “Walk as far as you can with a man on the right road.” However imperfectly some of us attempt to do that and however differently our consciences may delineate where that “right” road ends, that’s the spirit that characterizes the fundamentalism I know just as much as the evangelicalism you know. Things are never static where people are involved; it seems both of us may have room to adjust our conceptions of each other on our way to that time and place where it will no longer be necessary. God bless, LT

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