Stretching the Evangelical Tent Right and Not Left

Stretching the Evangelical Tent Right and Not Left July 5, 2015

Stretching the Evangelical Tent Right and Not Left

I’ve long advocated a “big tent” view of “evangelical Christianity”—here and in my published writings. My tendency has long been to accept as authentically evangelical any Christian who claims to be evangelical and who fits the basic profile generally accepted by evangelical historians of the movement: George Marsden, Donald W. Dayton, Mark Noll, David Bebbington, Randall Balmer, et al.

Some people naturally want to know why it matters. Who cares who’s authentically evangelical? Well, for many people it doesn’t matter. However, in the U.S., anyway, there exists a large community of influential administrators of colleges, universities, seminaries, publishing houses, publications, non-profit organizations, etc., who need to know who belongs to the evangelical community and who doesn’t. They don’t have time to interrogate every applicant or potential author (etc.) and they want to hire and publish fellow evangelicals. But being “evangelical” is not tied to any specific denomination or church. It is, as John Stackhouse likes to say, a “transdenominational movement.” So even denominationally affiliated evangelical schools and other organizations will often hire and work with “other” evangelicals—persons affiliated with denominations other than their own—so long as they are genuinely evangelical.

This need to distinguish authentically evangelical persons and institutions from liberal and fundamentalist (extreme left, extreme right) Protestants arose in the early 1940s as a “felt need” as former fundamentalists preferring to call themselves “new evangelicals” coalesced to form a coalition for cooperative purposes—an alternative to the American Council of Christian Churches (separatistic fundamentalists) and the Federal Council of Churches (later the National Council of Churches) (“mainline” liberal). The main organizer of the new evangelical movement that gave rise to the National Association of Evangelicals was Harold Ockenga. Out of his organizing work arose (some indirectly) Fuller Theological Seminary, the NAE, Christianity Today and numerous other moderate (non-fundamentalist, non-liberal) cooperative organizations.

The NAE adopted a very broad statement of faith that did not include (for example) biblical inerrancy, premillennialism or young earth creationism. Some of the new evangelicals believed in these, but they generally agreed to permit disagreement within evangelical ranks over these secondary doctrines. Among the ranks of the NAE and the new evangelicalism generally were Protestants from many traditions: Holiness-Pentecostal, Reformed-Presbyterian, Anabaptist-Baptist, Lutheran etc. It was an amazingly diverse coalition of non-fundamentalist, non-liberal Protestants who agreed on basic Christian orthodoxy (biblical authority, deity of Jesus Christ, a supernatural worldview, Trinity, resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone through Christ’s atonement alone, and the necessity of personal decision of faith [conversion] for authentic Christian existence).

As I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelicalism (my uncle served for many years on the national board of the NAE and our home and church were filled with evangelical publications, music, books, etc.) I was taught to believe that “we” were different from two other groups of Protestants who were possibly saved but were very wrong about the contours of authentic biblical-evangelical Christianity: fundamentalists and “mainline churches.” The fundamentalists were not evangelicals in our sense of the word because they elevated secondary doctrines to essentials (e.g., young earth creationism and premillennialism), refused to have Christian fellowship or cooperate with non-fundamentalists, and were generally cranky, divisive, separatistic people who specialized in splitting and dividing.

As I look back on my own spiritual-theological tradition (that I grew up in) I now realize we were somewhat fundamentalistic ourselves insofar as we tended to privilege the most literal interpretation of the Bible possible. But at least the leaders of our denomination emphasized that we were “irenic” whereas true fundamentalists were not. A kind of informal litmus test for distinguishing evangelicals from fundamentalists was Billy Graham and his associate evangelists (John Wesley White, Leighton Ford, etc.). The fundamentalists were those hyper-conservative Protestants who would not cooperate with such evangelistic endeavors. (I remember attending a Billy Graham crusade when I was twelve and seeing a group of Baptist fundamentalists picketing the event and handing out tracts to those entering the stadium from the parking lot. I asked my father about them and he replied they were fundamentalists who considered Billy Graham “dangerously liberal.” Later he explained they also thought we, Pentecostals, were possibly demon-possessed because we spoke in tongues.)

Throughout college and seminary nothing was drilled into my mind more firmly by my teachers than this: fundamentalists and evangelicals are different tribes of generally conservative Protestants. I went around asking my teachers, denominational leaders and as many scholars as I could find to pin that down more precisely. Most of them answered that fundamentalists were not evangelicals because evangelicals were cooperative and irenic and distinguished between “essentials” and “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. Also, fundamentalists, I was told, were separatistic in refusing to have Christian fellowship with other Christians whom they considered tainted by fellowship with liberals, Catholics, and worldly nominal Christians. This was called “secondary separation.”

Repeat: During the 1950s and 1960s into the 1970s “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” were different tribes of conservative Protestant Christians. They shared many beliefs in common, but they had different ethoses.

Imagine my shock and surprise, then, when I attended the 2001 Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail conference at Beeson Divinity School and found among the keynote speakers a self-proclaimed fundamentalist who was very critical of Fuller Theological Seminary and “neo-evangelicals” in general for “compromising the gospel.” NOT on the roster of speakers were any progressive evangelicals or what I had come to call “postconservative evangelicals” such as Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, Miroslav Volf or Scot McKnight. Also NOT on the roster of speakers (as I recall) were any Pentecostals. The tenor of the event was retrieval of traditional-conservative evangelicalism leaning toward fundamentalism. I interpreted it as an attempt to broaden the evangelical tent to include fundamentalists who, in my experience as an evangelical, had traditionally excluded themselves from so-called “neo-evangelicalism.”

(One reason I interpreted the conference that way was the appearance around the same time of a volume by keynote speaker Richard Mouw entitled The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage [Zondervan].)

Then, a few years ago, I was invited to contribute a chapter to an edited book on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Zondervan). Again, imagine my surprise to see included as one of the “four views” on evangelicalism a “true blue” fundamentalist. True, I was also included to represent “postconservative evangelicalism,” but the two very conservative authors were permitted by the editors to suggest that my account of evangelical faith was a betrayal of authentic evangelicalism even though I did not deny and even affirmed all the hallmarks of historical-theological Christian orthodoxy and evangelical faith broadly defined. (I suspect the fundamental issue that caused the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical authors to deny my status as authentically evangelical was inerrancy, but, as I pointed out, even Carl F. H. Henry, the “dean of evangelical theologians,” denied that belief in biblical inerrancy is a “superbadge” of evangelical identity.)

Other events, publications, caused me to conclude that influential forces within the evangelical movement were attempting to broaden the “evangelical tent” to include fundamentalists—separatistic biblical literalists who had traditionally made a habit of harshly criticizing “neo-evangelicals” for compromising the gospel because they (we) did not interpret Genesis or Revelation as they did and for having Christian fellowship and cooperation with non-fundamentalist Christians. These were the heirs of the fundamentalists I grew up knowing as anti-Billy Graham and anti-Pentecostal! Now they were being embraced as standard evangelicals.

My own tendency has long been to embrace as fellow evangelicals fundamentalists insofar as they want to play nice with other evangelicals and not specialize in pointing an accusing finger at other evangelicals for having a “compromised gospel.” But that was part of the DNA of American fundamentalism and, to a certain extent, still is. But major movers and shakers of American evangelicalism now want to broaden the evangelical “tent” to include true fundamentalists who don’t want to play nice with other evangelicals while at the same time narrowing the evangelical “tent” to exclude postconservative/progressive evangelicals who believe in generous orthodoxy. In other words, the center of the evangelical movement is shifting and has been since about 1980. And the evangelical “tent” is gradually being broadened to include fundamentalists and narrowed on the other “end” to exclude progressive evangelicals.

If there is ever to be another “Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail” conference (or something like it—a kind of “summit” of evangelical scholars) what I would like to see is a broader spectrum of evangelicals represented on the roster of keynote speakers. If the conference includes separatistic-literalist fundamentalists it should by all means also include progressive/postconservative evangelicals (at least one) and a Pentecostal. I won’t hold my breath, though.

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