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Division in the evangelical house

Division in the evangelical house March 29, 2011

In a recent post here I mentioned the division among evangelicals between those I call neo-fundamentalists and those I call postconservative evangelicals.  I do not claim that all evangelicals must fall into one of these two camps.  Rather, many of the leading evangelical theologians and biblical scholars fall into one of them.

I do NOT consider all “traditionalists” neo-fundamentalists.  Neo-fundamentalism is NOT defined by beliefs held; it is defined by HOW beliefs are held and HOW disagreement is handled.

According to Marsden, Noll, Carpenter, Balmer and other leading historians of the evangelical movement in the 1940s and 1950s self-identified fundamentalists such as Carl McIntire and self-identified new evangelicals (the term Marsden uses for them) such as Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry did not so much disagree about doctrines as about attitudes and behavior.

One major disagreement that led to division was over the “essentials category.”  Ockenga and Henry MAY have agreed with the fundamentalists about matters such as premillennialism (I’m not sure they did, but that’s not the issue), but they disagreed with them about how important it is.  Must one be premillennialist to be a Christian?  Many fundamentalists were saying yes.  The new evangelicals were saying no. 

Also, the fundamentalists claimed Pentecostals cannot be evangelicals (and perhaps are not even Christians).  The new evangelicals wanted a “bigger evangelical tent” that includes as many as evangelically committed Christians as possible.

In short, the fundamentalists were, from a new evangelical perspective, too narrow minded, mean-spirited, anti-intellectual (in terms of adapting to the “material facts” of science, for example), divisive and separatistic.  Division within the evangelical house had to happen.  The new evangelicals claimed the fundamentalists caused the division when they refused to join the NAE and by their caustic behavior toward fellow evangelicals.

The two evangelical movements went their separate ways for decades and there is still real division between self-identified fundamentalists and heirs of the new evangelicals.  In my opinion, this was fully in display at the Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail conference at Beeson Divinity School in 2001.  A leading self-identified fundamentalist professor of theology spoke and rebuked new evangelicals such as those at Fuller Theological Seminary for compromising the true evangelical faith.  And that AFTER Fuller Seminary president Rich Mouw gave a very conciliatory talk about the need for new evangelicals to rediscover and revalue their fundamentalist roots.

One plenary speaker condemned open theism as “just process theology.”  I stood in line at the microphone for quite a while waiting my turn to ask him a question.  When it was my turn I challenged his equation of open theism with process theology on the ground that open theism affirms God’s omnipotence and creatio ex nihilo.  He did not even both to answer me.  He just said “Olson, you and I are never going to agree on this so just sit down.”  It was a public humiliation of both of us (but not intended as a humiliation of himself by the speaker, of course). 

The man who told me to “just sit down,” refusing to engage in dialogue over this very important issue, is not a self-identified fundamentalist, but at that moment he was BEHAVING like one (as fundamentalist behavior was viewed by the new evangelicals of the 1940s and 1950s).

The organizers of the conference did not invite a single progressive or postconservative evangelical to speak.  All the speakers were conservative evangelicals with the possible exception of Rich Mouw who, at least at that time, was rejecting the label “postconservative” and who published an article in Books & Culture describing himself as a conservative evangelicals.  (I certainly do NOT consider Mouw a neo-fundamentalists, however.)

I observed my friend and co-author Stanley Grenz reach out to those I am calling neo-fundamentalists even as they were vilifying him in their talks and publications.  For the most part, they refused to engage in dialogue with him.  My friend Greg Boyd reached out to a leading conservative evangelical critic of open theism who was speaking in constituent churches misrepresenting open theism.  The theologian refused to meet with him.

I attended a conference of conservative Reformed evangelicals.  I thought we were going to have productive dialogue.  That never happened.  The members of the organization sponsoring the event refused even to sit with those of us they considered liberal or on our way toward liberalism at meals. 

I could go on and on and on with many more examples.  I’ll cite just one from personal experience.  In 1998 an influential pastor, author and speaker called me to have lunch with him.  He pastored a constituent church of the denomination controlling the institution where I taught.  When I met him at his church he volunteered to drive to a restaurant for our lunch conversation.  I had high hopes of productive dialogue because this pastor had been giving the college a very hard time about open theism and women in ministry.

The pastor said to me “This is not an inquisition; I just want to get to know you and find out what makes you tick.”  He repeated his promise that this was not an inquisition several times.  However, during lunch, it became clear to me it was an inquisition.  He tried to get me to take a strong stand against open theism with him and when I refused he said he would get me fired.  His words were “I won’t let you do that.”  When I asked how he would stop me (from remaining friendly to open theism) he said “I’ll get you fired.”

When we parted ways in the parking lot of his church he said “Roger, should I tell the pastors who know we had lunch today….” and repeated back some of the things I said during our lunch conversation.  That made clear it WAS an inquisition.  He was not asking my permission; he was just wanting to make sure he told them what I said correctly.  I considered this unethical behavior–an evangelical behaving badly.

I have a recording of two leading conservative evangelical theologians discussing open theism and Clark Pinnock specifically.  They were carrying on this conversation in front of a live audience, but the recording does not make clear when or where.  One of them declares Clark Pinnock “not a Christian,” his theology “pagan,” says Pinnock denied the omnipotence of God, and declares he would not have fellowship with Pinnock.  (Of course, anyone who knew Clark knew he believed in God’s omnipotence.)

This is the problem–evangelicals behaving like fundamentalists (as the new evangelicals regarded fundamentalists in the 1940s and 1950s and after that).  I do NOT say all self-identified fundamentalists are unethical. Rather, I am saying that using unfair tactics (misrepresentations, character assasination, heresy-hunting using questionable means) was, from the new evangelicals’ perspective, a flaw in much of the fundamentalist movement and the new evangelical movement needed to be purged of that bad behavior.

My argument is that something similar is happening now.  A group of conservative evangelicals are behaving in the same ways as the fundamentalists of the 1940s and 1950s.  (What does one make of a Baptist group requiring missionaries to sign statements that they do not speak in tongues even in private?  [This particular Baptist group does not have a doctrinal statement forbidding speaking in tongues and never has had one.]   To me, that’s the same attitude and behavior as the fundamentalists who refused to join the NAE because it included Pentecostals.)

From my perspective, SOME conservative evangelical theologians, denominational leaders, biblical scholars, etc., have DE FACTO already declared, by their behavior, the division between them and postconservative, progressive evangelicals who, generally speaking, believe in the same basic doctrines they believe in.  (To his dying day Stan Grenz affirmed biblical inerrancy, but some of his critics insisted he didn’t mean it because in Theology for the Community of God he placed the doctrine of Scripture within the doctrine of the Holy Spirit!) 

There comes a point when one has to give up and say “Okay, have it your way.  We’re not part of the same movement anymore.”  I am saying that.  They may go their way and I and mine will go our way.  We both use the label “evangelical,” but it is too general to cover all of us without qualification.  To me, they are behaving like fundamentalists, so that’s what I’ll call them with “neo-” in front to distinguish them from Carl McIntire and the older, separatistic fundamentalist movement (that still exists but does not participate in evangelical endeavors).

The problem is, both sides of this divide want influence in evangelical parachurch organizations and sometimes in evangelical denominations.  Many of the neo-fundamentalists are setting up their own, alternative institutions to rival more mainline, middle-of-the-road ones they suspect of being compromised theologically.

In many ways, it is the old fundamentalist/new evangelical split repeating itself.  I have come to think it is permanent and there is no point in trying forever to reunite the two sides.  It’s exhausting and one simply puts oneself at risk because some of the neo-fundamentalists, so long as they are given recognition as evangelicals, can do great damage to you.  (Some of them have invented quotes and attributed them to me to damage my reputation and influence.)

REPEAT–I AM NOT saying that all conservative evangelicals are neo-fundamentalists.  Some are and some are not.  The neo-fundamentalists are recognizable among the conservatives by their aggressive behavior toward fellow evangelicals, their willingness sometimes to use underhanded means to “win,” their inclusion of non-essentials of doctrine among the essentials of Christian orthodoxy and their obsession with “evangelical boundaries” with the clear intention of excluding people from evangelicalism who grew up in it, have always been part of it, are influential within it, but whom they consider doctrinally unsound using extremely narrow definitions of doctrinal soundness.

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