Pragmatism: Protestant Self-Critique Number One

Pragmatism: Protestant Self-Critique Number One November 19, 2018

[from the original 1994 manuscript of my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism; this portion dated 6-20-91]

1. Pragmatism: A Definition

Pragmatism, according to the dictionary, is defined as follows:

An American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. (Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam, 1971, 667)

2. A Distinctly American Philosophy

It’s no surprise that pragmatism was an American phenomenon, since Americans are a notoriously “practical” people with a marked aversion to abstract ideas, metaphysics, and creeds. Some think this derives from the “frontier spirit,” in which there was “much to be done” and little time for contemplation, or from Puritanism, with its emphasis on the practical virtues of thrift, industry, etc. Be that as it may, it is clear that this indigenous American philosophy has penetrated deeply into American Protestantism, with its unique flowering of diverse, numerous and sometimes flamboyant sects. Yet it is based on an obviously false premise, as evangelical apologist Norman Geisler points out:

3. Norman Geisler 

On purely pragmatic grounds we might conclude that both theism and pantheism are true, since they seem to work for adherents of each world view in accordance with their aspirations. But both cannot be true because they are mutually exclusive ways of viewing ultimate reality . . . At best pragmatism manifests the application but not the justification of a world view. It indicates whether a view about reality really works when applied to life. But workability and truth are not identical. Some things work very well but are not right (e.g., cheating). Other things do not seem to work as well in the short run, and we cannot determine the long run (e.g., honesty) . . . Pragmatism is not a sufficient test for the truth of anything. (Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1976, 141-142)

We will first quote two Catholic sources before we cite evangelicals with regard to pragmatism’s pervasive and popular penetration of Protestantism (a deliberate alliteration).

4. Louis Bouyer

The section of Protestantism originally most tenacious of the divine sovereignty came to adopt a moralism which grew more and more explicit. It soon culminated in that religion of efficiency, of worldly success identified with the blessing of God, and ultimately in the almost complete pragmatism which constitutes the religion today of so many Americans . . . a strict application of the formula, ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’ – a corruption, in fact the exact antithesis, of true Calvinism, though proceeding logically from its principles. For, on the assumption that man must be nothing so that God may be all, it is impossible to restore man to his right place without creating a ‘humanism’ . . . in which the tendency is for man to treat God as an equal . . .

A strong trend may be discerned running through modern Protestantism, not merely to make use of Christianity to improve the conditions of life, to obtain or ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but to justify God to man on the sole ground of utility . . . Instead of God being the sole end of the world and of man, man becomes the sole reason for God . . . Once the principle was laid down that the greatness of God supposed the nothingness of man, man could not be raised up again without God being proportionately lowered, and it belonged to the logic of the system that man should dream of domesticating God, so as to reach the fulness of his own development. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 206-207)

5. Glenwood Davis, Jr., a former Baptist and Presbyterian pastor, now Catholic, tells of the importance of pragmatism in the evangelical world:

The only real validation of my calling was that I got results when I preached. Getting results seemed to prove everything in my circle of associates . . . All of my inner conflicts . . . were dismissed conveniently as coming from the Devil, ‘for after all,’ I reasoned, ‘I’m having a great deal of success winning souls for Jesus!’ (“Leaving the Fundamentalist Wilderness,” part 2, This Rock, June 1990, 17-18)

6. “The Electronic Church”

Nowhere is Pragmatism more evident than in the “electronic church” of T.V. preachers. The financial and amorous foibles of several of these “icons” of our consumerist culture are well-known. Here we will examine some of the ideas and assumptions underlying the “T.V. church.”:

A. Jon Johnston 

We have substituted technology for direct, personal involvement and ministry . . . Mass-market, mechanized technique has come to dominate our approach . . . We often attempt to employ mechanical means to ‘process’ people into a saving faith. Accepting the results-oriented principles and procedures of America’s advertisers, we attempt to sell the gospel in the same way that McDonalds hawks hamburgers . . . by employing methods of technological manipulation. (Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1980, 191,193-194)

B. Carl F. H. Henry 

What awaits a movement if its idolized spokesmen are given more to . . . public relations or to national image than to powerful convictions, . . . more to statistics than to substance? (Carl Henry At His Best, Portland: Multnomah Press, 1989, 66)

C. Charles Colson 

The church has been crippled from within by an invasion of barbarian values and habits. Nowhere is this more evident than in the electronic church, where lavish ministries compete for audience share and viewer dollars as surely as network programs vie for ratings and advertising dollars. There are notable exceptions, of course. Billy Graham . . . has used television for years to faithfully preach the gospel. But much of the electronic church has given in to the prevailing moods of the culture it purportedly exists to confront. (Against the Night, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1989, 102)

7. Charles Colson

. . . Mother Teresa’s simple truth: God calls us to faithfulness, not success. We are motivated not by flattering statistics . . . No, our goal is simply obedience . . . no matter what happens – or doesn’t happen – around us . . . a holy perseverance that only God himself can give. (“A Way of Escape at San Quentin,” Christianity Today, March 3, 1989, 72)

Some evangelists see converts as trophies in a big game hunt and measure their success by numbers . . . The result of all this is a watered-down message that, in large part, accounts for today’s epidemic spread of easy believism, Christianity without cost. (Loving God, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983, 95)

For many, church growth has become the goal, larger and more elaborate sanctuaries the measure of spirituality . . . This ‘bigger is better’ mindset is deadly . . . Our standard is not earthly success, but faithfulness to God’s calling. (Who Speaks For God?, Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1985, 27, 29)

It’s a dangerous and misguided policy to measure God’s blessing by standards of visible, tangible, material ‘success.’ The reason is simply that often the evidence of God’s blessing will not be discernible to us . . .

Too much today, we evangelicals attempt to gauge the ‘success’ of our work in terms of church membership, new construction, new programs, national publicity or prestige, or souls saved per pew. The inference is that when things are prospering ‘God is blessing us’ and, conversely, that when things are going poorly, or unpublicized, God’s blessing is not upon the work or it is unimportant.

This tendency of holding up success as proof of God’s blessing is one of the most heretical notions abroad in American Christendom today . . .

In the last analysis, the real test of any ministry’s success is not the number of its converts, or the size of its budget, or its reputation, or even the fruits of its labors – significant though they might appear to be . . . God calls us, not to success, but to faith – obedience and trust and service – and He bids us to be unconcerned with measuring the merits of our work the way the world does. We are to sow; He will reap as He pleases.

‘Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,’ the Apostle Paul exhorted the early church. Let that – and nothing else – be the standard of our Christian ‘success.’ (Ibid., 186-188)

8. Donald Bloesch 

A persistent temptation of modern evangelicalism is to rely on human strategy and technique in carrying out the great commission to make disciples of all nations . . . Evangelicalism needs to break out of its ideological bondage to technological materialism and affirm once again the freedom of the gospel. The Word of God makes its own way in the world. It calls for our acclamation and honor but not for any undergirding to insure its success . . .

Busyness is considered more important than being in the truth, activism more commendable than contemplation. Evangelism is regarded as a technique to be mastered, not as a surprising movement of the Spirit into which one is caught . . .

The electronic church, which is consciously evangelical, generally features those who are seen as successful according to the standards of a consumerist, technological culture. Sin is often portrayed as failure to make something of oneself rather than as revolt against God . . .

Activism is . . . one of the banes of evangelical religion today, and it is integrally tied up with anti-intellectualism. Evangelicals, it seems, want people who are energetic, not thoughtful. Busyness in the name of Christ appears to take precedence over being in Christ.

The custom of counting conversions is a distinctly modern phenomenon . . . The evangelist George Whitefield wisely refused to speak of the number of conversions at his revival meetings . . . He remarked: . . .

There are so many stony-ground hearers which receive the word with joy, that I have determined to suspend my judgment, till I know the tree by its fruits [from Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, vol. 1, Banner of Truth Trust, 1970, 137] . . .

The nagging question arises: Is our reliance on church growth techniques or on the surprising work of the Holy Spirit? (The Future of Evangelical Christianity, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983, 6, 10, 99-100)

9. J. I. Packer 

Packer, a well-known and very important evangelical and professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, adds to this recurring theme:

When I came to North America, I found that most churches, pastors, seminaries, colleges, and parachurch agencies and agents were in the grip of this secular passion for successful expansion in a way I had not met in England. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, and others all spoke as if: (1) numerical increase is what matters most, (2) numerical increase must come if our techniques and procedures are right, (3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does, and (4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal . . .

Nor is it that I am against churches growing numerically . . . When I see church growth that is qualitative as well as quantitative, I am thrilled. But when numerical growth is idolized, so that churches and their clergy get rated failure for not achieving enough of it, my heart sinks . . .

A few weeks ago . . . there came my way a new book titled Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome. The authors, Kent and Barbara Hughes, pastor and pastor’s wife . . . tell how the quest for numerical success nearly broke them, and how they learned that faithfulness, godliness, and loving service are the divine measure of real success in ministry. ” . . . `How good is a timely word!’ (Prov 15:23). The sickness of worshiping growth more than God is rampant; here, however, is a cure. (“Nothing Fails Like Success,” Christianity Today, August 12, 1988, 15)

10. Vernon Grounds

This noted scholar and president of Conservative Baptist Seminary in Denver, reiterates the above:

We have allowed the world to impose on us standards of success that are not biblical; and here I mean American evangelicals . . . Evangelicalism is bowing before the bitch goddess of success. It worships at the shrine of sanctified or unsanctified statistics. We are sinfully concerned about size . . . God’s standards of success differ from the world’s (Lk 16:15, Hebrews, ch. 11, I Cor 13:1-3, Matt 20:25-7, 25:21) . . . God’s approval is the important point. (“What’s So Great About Success?,” Leadership, vol. 2, no. 1, Winter 1981, 54-56)

11. A. W. Tozer

Tozer (1897-1963), the Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor and great writer whom many view as a modern-day prophet, wrote inimitably in a piece entitled “Pragmatism Goes to Church”:

It is not by accident that the philosophy of pragmatism around the turn of the century achieved such wide popularity in the United States. The American temperament was perfect for it, and still is . . .

Since practicality is a marked characteristic of the American people they naturally lean strongly toward the philosophy of utility. Whatever will get things done immediately with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of undesirable side effects must be good. The proof is that it succeeds; no one wants to argue with success. It is useless to plead for the human soul, to insist that what a man can do is less important than what he is . . . Deeds you can see . . . So who cares about ideals and character and morals? These things are for poets, nice old ladies and philosophers. Let’s get on with the job . . .

Pragmatism has had and is having a powerful influence upon Christianity in the middle years of this century . . . We are affected by a kind of religious tic, a deep inner necessity to accomplish something that can be seen and photographed and evaluated in terms of size, numbers, speed and distance . . . Christian leaders compete with each other in the field of impressive statistics, and in so doing often acquire peptic ulcers, have nervous breaks or die of heart attacks while still relatively young.

Right here is where the pragmatic philosophy comes into its own. It asks no embarrassing questions about the wisdom of what we are doing or even about the morality of it. It accepts our chosen ends as right and good and casts about for efficient means and ways to get them accomplished . . . Any question about the scripturalness of things or even the moral validity of them is completely swept away. You cannot argue with success. The method works; ergo it must be good . . .

As one fairly familiar with the contemporary religious scene, I say without hesitation that . . . a very large part of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it. Religious methodology is geared to it; it appears large in our youth meetings; magazines and books constantly glorify it; conventions are dominated by it; and the whole religious atmosphere is alive with it.

What shall we do to break its power over us? . . . We must acknowledge the right of Jesus Christ to control the activities of His church. The New Testament contains full instructions . . . about . . . what we are to do and how we are to go about doing it. Any deviation from those instructions is a denial of the Lordship of Christ . . .

The answer is simple, but it is not easy for it requires that we obey God rather than man, and that always brings down the wrath of the religious majority. It is not a question of knowing what to do; we can easily learn that from the Scriptures. It is a question of whether or not we have the courage to do it. (A Treasury of A.W. Tozer, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, 254-256)

12. John MacArthur

The skilled and popular Bible expositor who is heard on nationwide radio, has written a book (Our Sufficiency in Christ, 1990) attacking pragmatism as a corruption in the evangelical church (along with excesses of psychology and mysticism).

13. My Own Experience

I myself, as a former evangelical missionary to college students, was constantly subjected to this culture-bound mentality of demanding “results.” The ironic thing about this is that the most able exponents of true evangelical tradition, such as those cited above, have strongly refuted this outlook as unbiblical and indeed, sinful. Do the innermost principles of Protestantism inexorably bring out this pragmatic impulse, despite even the hostility of the wisest evangelical leaders? Louis Bouyer and other Catholic observers would affirm this.

Whatever the case, to fight this overwhelming tendency is tantamount to attempting to reverse the direction of a mighty river. Thus, my own attempts to do so proved, for all intents and purposes, perfectly futile, no matter how hard I sought to appeal to Scripture, reason, or great Protestants past and present – one of the most frustrating and remarkable experiences I’ve had as a Christian. In March, 1989, while still an evangelical and a missionary, I wrote the following in exasperation, in a paper on this topic:

To gain God’s approval (Heb 11:2, 39) is the epitome of ‘success.’ . . . The accolades of men rate a very poor second to that! Since an evangelist, biblically speaking, is simply one who ‘proclaims the gospel’ (the outcome is not included in the definition, nor is such a ‘requirement’ found anywhere in Scripture), a ‘successful’ evangelist is one who is faithful and persevering in proclaiming the gospel. An unsuccessful evangelist is one who fails to do the same.

I found many evangelicals who agreed with my estimation:

A. Garry Friesen 

Spiritual success is . . . faithfulness to the commands of God . . . whether the outcome is a great revival or a slammed door . . . Any argument from experience is of dubious value. For it is simply impossible to judge the ‘success’ of an action or a ministry strictly on the basis of its observable outcome. (Garry Friesen with  J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God, Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980, 93-94)

B. Amy Carmichael (the great missionary to India):

Our Master has never promised us success. He demands obedience. He expects faithfulness. Results are His concern, not ours. (The Gold Cord, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 37)

C. Howard Snyder 

Success is measured by faithful service. (In Robin Keeley, editor, Eerdman’s Handbook to Christian Belief, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982, 402)

D. John R. W. Stott 

Evangelism must not be defined in terms of results, for this is not how the word is used in the New Testament . . . To ‘evangelize’ in New Testament usage does not mean to win converts . . . Evangelism is the announcement of the good news, irrespective of the results . . . The essence of evangelism lies in the faithful proclamation of the gospel . . . The results are in the hand of Almighty God. (Christian Mission in the Modern World, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975, 38-40, 56-57)

E. J. I. Packer 

The question whether or not one is evangelizing cannot be settled by asking whether one has had conversions . . . Evangelism is just preaching the gospel . . . The non-appearance of quick results is no sign of failure . . . It is God’s prerogative to give results . . . If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts . . . our approach . . . would become pragmatic and calculating . . . Our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to . . . brainwashing. (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1961, 37, 40-41, 118-121, 27-29)

F. Billy Graham

Of all people, Billy Graham  could lay claim to “success” according to the criteria of the American god/idol pragmatism, as perhaps the preeminent evangelist of the 20th century (from either the biblical or pragmatic perspectives on what is “successful”). But he agrees with all the other opinions compiled above:

Nowhere do the Scriptures tell us to seek results, nor do the Scriptures rebuke evangelists if the results are meager . . . Evangelists . . . cannot convert anyone; that is the Spirit’s work. (The Holy Spirit, New York: Warner Books, 1978, 211-212)


Photo credit: Protestant evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018); photo from 11 April 1966 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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