Thursday, March 23, 2006

Back to the (no) Future with Liberal Evangelicals

In his book, Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995, (IVP 1997), Oliver Barclay makes a distinction between "classical" or "conservative" evangelicals (CE's) and "liberal evangelicals" (LE's). He is writing of the state of evangelicalism in the 1930's at this point,

CE meaning those who maintain a doctrine of the reliability, sufficiency and final authority of the Bible, and as a result maintain also the substitutionary character of the atonement and seek to bring people to an experience of new birth... LE's, while they maintain typical evangelical emphases, do not maintain, and often repudiate, the total reliability of the Bible and usually do not preach substitutionary atonement, even if they stress the cross in a doctrinally undefined way. (p. 12)
Barclay charts the decline of the LE movement, as LE's became less and less evangelical and more and more liberal in their teaching. His description of the liberal evangelical movement of the 1930's certainly rings some bells today. Some of today's evangelicals dismiss Biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement and the eternal punishment of the wicked. They seem more like the liberal evangelicals of the 1930's than classic evangelicals. Barclay concludes his book with a sober assessment of the future of evangelicalism if we follow the liberal evangelical model of doctrinal compromise and accommodation to the spirit of the age,
What, then, of the present and the future? The portion of history I have sketched suggests strongly that evangelicalism will not advance by cultural and intellectual compromise, as advocated by the LE tradition...The danger is that, as many evangelicals did then, we should either compromise the truth or dilute it to a point where there is little biblical substance left. (p. 137)
But, suggests Barclay, there is an alternative, better future for the evangelical movement:
All down the centuries God has blessed the recovery of biblical truth, and we cannot expect to find greater blessing in anything else. There must me a commitment to biblical Christianity in dependence on the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand the Bible, and to apply its teaching to ourselves and to the hearts of believers and unbelievers alike. Given that foundation, it should be possible to recapture for a more nearly biblical position much more of the life and thought of the churches, and from there, of the life and thought of the community. It will not be easy, but we cannot aim for less. We must pray for that, and work in genuine dependence upon God who alone is able to bring it about. (p. 142)


Stephen said...

Good post. It's always good to have a historical perspective to see what is at stake.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks Stephen,

Today's LE's think that they are being up-to-date, cool and trendy. Yesterday's LE's thought that too!