The most recent Christianity Today may be the most significant number published in a long, long time. Why? Because the central story, written admirably by Molly Worthen, is about Al Mohler. He’s called “The Reformer.” Well, I’d reserve that term for two or three people, max: Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptist leaders in Switzerland, Germany and the low countries. But no one should underestimate Mohler’s influence in American evangelicalism today.
Some are annoyingly rankled about Mohler and his cover story; others are fuming; while yet others feel it’s about time that CT give some bright ink to Mohler, who has literally built an empire in the Southern Baptist Convention. That empire is noted by Calvinism, complementarianism, cultural conservativism, young earth creationism, and by a zeal for theological correctness and biblicism. The SBC is not entirely agreed on the Calvinism especially, but the shift toward Calvinism is unmistakable and confident.
What does this CT cover say about evangelicalism? What does it say about the unity of evangelicalism? the future of evangelicalism?
As for me, having Mohler on the front cover illustrates what’s happening in evangelicalism. We might as well be honest about it.
What this article shows is the shifting in American evangelicalism, including the inclusion now of Southern Baptists. Mohler grew up SBC and he speaks for its former insularity from evangelicalism when he said the cultural wars were remote and evangelical was a “Yankee word.” When he was in seminary the SBC kept its distance from evangelicalism. But those days have changed; for many today the word “evangelical” is identified with “SBC.”
This “New Kind of Baptist” has theological education at its core. One or two decades more of Southern Seminary’s theological education will create a critical mass for the SBC that will make it more or less a Calvinist SBC. The road from Westminster to Southern will be traveled more and more.
Here’s my big point:Evangelicalism is changing. What used to be called “fundamentalist” is now occupied by the word “evangelical” and we have in the case of Mohler a genuine fundamentalist — and I’m using this word analytically and not derisively — who is reshaping evangelicalism because he’s reshaping the SBC. A number of folks in this article call Mohler a fundamentalist. The term fits. Big deal, it’s a part of evangelicalism and I embrace them as my brothers and sisters, even if we squabble every evening at dinner.
But fundamentalism isn’t the whole of evangelicalism nor is it the heart of evangelicalism. But it is the desire of folks like Mohler to bend evangelicalism toward its fundamentalist history. Not toward some Elmer Gantry history. No, they want it to be bent toward Calvin and Edwards and Hodge and Schaeffer and Carl Henry. What we see at Southern and in Mohler is informed, educated, and intellectually serious.
What we also are witnessing is the end of generous evangelicalism, what I often call Big Tent Evangelicalism that has been noted by a coalition of gospel-oriented people.
But Mohler lives out and preaches a different evangelical story: the evangelical world and America are falling apart at the moral seams, and only a commitment to the old-fashioned story can sew those seams back together and save evangelicalism and America. I don’t think it would be unfair to Mohler to see his approach at times to be apocalyptic.
In my estimation, Mohler’s “story” of who we are and where we’ve been and where we’re headed is compelling, and it’s compelling enough to convince many of the younger leaders to such a degree that they don’t even know that there’s no longer room for John Stott and barely room for JI Packer. In other words, the Story they tell skips the Neo-evangelical era from Billy Graham to the years immediately following Reagan — who helped create the culture wars that have influenced evangelicalism so dramatically in the last generation.
This new story of evangelicalism is sad for people like me who have always believed Evangelicalism was a Big Tent coalition of those committed to the basics of the gospel but more than willing to tolerate differences on all kinds of levels. Evangelicalism for many of us has been a generous evangelicalism. As I said above the numbers are on the side of the older Big Tent coalition, but there is a major, major problem: the old guard coalition is not composed of fighters. They’ve only known peace and cooperation. What is perhaps the secret here is that many of us became evangelicals to escape fundamentalism. For us, there’s no turning back, which means we may find ourselves disenfranchised from evangelicalism.
Today’s scene is not what it was. It’s a new era. When Al Mohler is on the cover of CT, when he represents the shrewd and powerful takeover of a former liberal-to-moderate seminary, when he has publicly claimed any form of evolution is inconsistent with the gospel, and when he is seen as the voice of American evangelicalism, a new world stands before the American evangelical. It’s actually an old world.
The question is Who will speak for the Big Tent coalition? Count me in.
By the way, George Marsden’s book is the place to begin: Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.