Future of Evangelicalism
Is There One Evangelicalism?
(One pastor asked me to have lunch with him "just to find out what made me tick." He assured me that it was not an inquisition. But the whole conversation revolved around open theism. At the end of our two-hour conversation he said, "Roger, what may I tell the pastors who know we had lunch today about your position on open theism." It was clearly what is colloquially called an attempted "sucker punch." This same pastor went around calling open theism "Socinianism," as if open theists denied the deity of Christ or the Trinity!)
These were attitudes and approaches to theological issues that resonated more with fundamentalism than with classical, mainstream evangelicalism. I saw my days numbered in that beloved school, not because I was an open theist (I was not and am not) but because I didn't consider it a heresy and I didn't "side with" the right people.
This was not just an isolated incident. Across the board among evangelicals a spirit of fear settled in: fear of heresy lurking behind every bush or fear of heresy hunters who were out in the open seeking heresies where nobody had yet found them.
Most of those leading the charge against open theism were Calvinists and I detected in their rhetoric a decidedly anti-Arminian thrust. As one leading Calvinist opponent of open theism said publicly about Arminians, "They are all headed there." I came to believe it would soon no longer be safe to be publicly Arminian in that environment. (That school and the denomination that controls it have a history of allowing both Calvinists and Arminians without discrimination in their ranks.)
My heart has grieved over what has happened to the evangelical movement. On the one side one finds popularizers peddling a "gospel" of health and wealth through positive thinking. On the other side one finds fundamentalists trying to exclude as non-evangelical everyone who doesn't think just like them. The middle (which I think of as the historical evangelical position of tolerance of differences of opinion within a general embrace of historic Christian orthodoxy) is hard to inhabit. People there get shot at from both sides.
It seems to me that perhaps what held the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist evangelical movement together were two powerful forces: the NAE (founded in 1942 to be inclusive of many different "styles" of being evangelical) and the huge organizational influence of Billy Graham (who was disliked by fundamentalists for his inclusiveness). Now, both are waning in influence. How many contemporary evangelicals listen to the NAE? Many know little about Billy Graham, and his influence is minimal (although he is still considered an icon).
In the absence of any central, unifying force(s) evangelicalism is simply fragmenting. So, these days, when asked if I'm an evangelical my answer takes a long time. Most people aren't willing to listen that long. My answer is, "Yes, but . . ." When asked about my evangelical heroes I have to draw mainly on people of the past: in theology Bernard Ramm, in politics Mark Hatfield, in biblical studies George Eldon Ladd. It's not that I haven't kept up; I certainly try to. But where are the giants of evangelical life and thought like those men who, during their lifetimes, influenced two or three generations of evangelicals?
So, I can longer call myself simply "evangelical," but neither can I give up on the term. I have to say I'm a "postconservative evangelical" and beg people to listen for just a little while as I explain. I've published two entire books and many articles about what I mean by the term.