Since beginning my blog in January, I notice that many people use the terms evangelical and fundamentalist interchangeably. Often people familiar with my beliefs about Jesus and the Bible are puzzled when I call myself a progressive evangelical. This is somewhat understandable for two reasons.
How Can One be a Theologically Progressive Evangelical?
First, though many evangelicals have become more theologically progressive over the past few decades, other evangelicals have become more fundamentalist in outlook; and the more fundamentalist evangelicals are most visible. Secondly, ‘progressive evangelical’ sometimes refers to those who focus on social issues and hold socially liberal political views.
Therefore, I will describe myself henceforth as a theologically progressive evangelical; I am NOT a fundamentalist.
An evangelical is one who is enthusiastic about the good news of Jesus and wishes to share it with others.
The Self-Isolation of Fundamentalism
During the fundamentalist-modernistic controversies, many fundamentalists developed caustic, militant attitudes. In defending their views, they became ‘fighting fundamentalists’, and many of them refused to remain in denominations and associations that tolerated modernism.
As they lost control of the theological battles, they closed ranks to form a new fundamentalist culture characterized by rigid doctrinal positions, legalism, and a dismissive posture toward non-fundamentalists. They often related to others with judgmental castigation and separation.
Separation involved being separate from the ‘world’, so there was a strong legalistic element. But separation also meant non-cooperation with other Christians, which developed, in some cases, into the observance of three degrees of separation. The first degree is separation from modernists (anyone who is not fundamentalist). The second is separation from anyone who associates with modernists, and the third degree is separation from anyone who associates with anyone who associates with modernists.
The 20th Century Neo-Evangelical Movement
In the 1940s, some fundamentalist began to disavow the tendency toward separatism and isolation. They agreed with the fundamental doctrines but wanted interaction and dialog with those outside the movement, and they repudiated the harsh, angry, combative attitude associated with fundamentalism. Leaders of this movement away from fundamentalist isolation included Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham.
Harold Ockenga was right in the middle of the fundamentalist controversy. He was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and followed J. Gresham Machen when he and other professors left Princeton in protest to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. But he didn’t like the negative, anti-intellectual turn fundamentalism took.
Ockenga was very much involved in all three major institutions of the new evangelical movement: The National Association of Evangelicals—NAE (1942), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), and Christianity Today Magazine (1956).
Billy Graham was a young fundamentalist Baptist preacher who attended Bob Jones University, Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College. Graham served in several capacities among fundamentalists, including as President of William B. Riley’s Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis.
In 1949 Graham, then 29, scheduled a tent revival in Los Angeles that exceeded all expectations and made him a nationally known figure. Though fundamentalist leaders were at first proud of their successful preacher boy, they began to back away when Graham insisted on cooperating with Christians of all stripes in his evangelistic crusades. Some fundamentalists supported Graham, but Bob Jones invoked the third degree of separation against prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice because Rice maintained fellowship with Graham who associated with modernists.
Graham participated in the transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism and became the public face of evangelicalism much as Dwight Moody did in the 19th century. Perhaps his most significant act was founding Christianity Today Magazine to help bring the evangelical community together.
Drifting Trends in Evangelicalism
Evangelicals wished to shed the attitudes of fundamentalism but agreed with the fundamental doctrines. However, in the new spirit of dialog and openness even fundamental doctrines began to be questioned.
In the 1970s inerrancy of the Bible became a hot issue, with evangelicals weighing in on all sides; it was reminiscent of the old fundamentalist controversy. Some evangelicals began to abandon other doctrines such as hell, creationism, and substitutionary atonement. Today, evangelicals embrace a range of views foreign to the old fundamentalist consensus.
On the other hand, there has been a re-fundamentalism of some evangelicals. Moderates were vanquished from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. The Moral Majority politicized many evangelicals around social and cultural issues. Creationism resurged as a hotly divisive issue. Many evangelicals are now as harsh, angry, and combative as their fundamentalist forebears.
I view this negative trend with great sadness; but, at the same time, theologically progressive evangelicalism continues to grow. In this I see great hope. Next time I will discuss the hope of theologically progressive evangelicalism.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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