Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Great Evangelical Identity Crisis continued...

My article, The Great Evangelical Identity Crisis (1980-2010) was published in this month's The Gospel Truth Magazine. I posted the first part of the piece on the blog back in September, here. This is how it continues,

Evangelicalism contested

With the redefinition of Evangelicalism has come a loss of theological coherence in the Evangelical movement. Doctrines that could once be taken for granted as hallmarks of Evangelical teaching have been disputed by those who claim to belong to the Evangelical camp. Steve Chalke caused a furore of controversy when he likened penal substitutionary atonement to “cosmic child abuse”. John Stott questioned the traditional Evangelical teaching on the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked . J. I. Packer has been at the forefront of Evangelicals and Catholics together, a movement that aims at rapprochement between Evangelicals and Rome. Andrew McGowan recently argued that we should reject biblical inerrancy in favour of a reworked concept of infallibility. Others are looking longingly in the direction of Karl Barth for theological inspiration that is Reformed, but not as we know it . The so-called Emerging Church, associated with Brian McLaren, has regrettably sacrificed faithfulness to the truth in the name of engaging postmodern culture. If certain sectors of Evangelicalism are no longer centred on the biblical evangel, and others are busily picking away at Evangelical distinctives, then it is no surprise that the movement is beginning to lose its identity.

Reformed recovery

But the story of Evangelicalism in the last thirty years is not all bad news. One of the encouraging features of the Evangelical scene in the UK has been the recovery of the Reformed faith. Amongst other factors, the resurgence was heralded by the writings of A. W. Pink, the preaching of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the theological teaching of John Murray, and publications of the Banner of Truth Trust .

We are now well into a second generation of Reformed preachers and churches who did not come under the direct influence of the likes of Lloyd-Jones. There are presently literally hundreds if not thousands of Reformed preachers and congregations in the UK, not to mention the widespread recovery of the doctrines of grace in the States. Reformed Christianity is now a well established part of the Christian landscape in Great Britain, with many conferences, publishers and movements seeking to strengthen the cause.

For the first generation engaged in the recovery of Reformed theology there was the excitement and joy of new discovery. Now we are seeing men and women who have been involved in Reformed churches for the whole of their Christian lives. The present generation needs to appreciate afresh the sheer wonder and grandeur of the Reformed vision of the Triune God of sovereign grace. But theological recovery is not enough. Calvinistic doctrine is of little use if it does not lead to its proponents living vibrant godly Christian lives that adorn the truth as it is in Jesus.

It is often suggested that Calvinism has a stultifying effect on the evangelistic effort of the churches. But out of love for the lost and zeal for the glory of God in the salvation of the sinners, many Reformed churches are giving fresh emphasis to evangelism, and church planting. As well as traditional means of outreach like door-to-door work, literature distribution, open air preaching, and special evangelistic services, in recent years, many churches have run courses like Christianity Explored. We need to pray that the Lord will make these activities effective in the salvation of many in our day.

Both in the UK and the USA, the resurgence of the Reformed faith has crossed the dividing line between traditional Calvinistic churches and the Charismatic movement. This has had an impact on the worship style adopted at Together for the Gospel and other big conferences. We can see something similar happening in the UK at New Word Alive. New Frontiers Charismatics gather with Free Church and Anglican Evangelicals to hear the likes of Don Carson against the backdrop of Charismatic style worship. It is a good thing that Charismatics are being drawn to the doctrines of grace. But there are still some differences between the traditional Reformed Churches and our Reformed Charismatic brethren. The use of noisy music groups, song leaders and other accouterments of Charismatic worship is one of them, not to mention the issue of the continuation or not of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. I'm not saying that fellowship with Calvinistic Charismatics should be curtailed, but real differences should not be swept under the carpet.

Rather worryingly, there is a danger of traditional Reformed churches in the UK fragmenting over issues that are important, but not of the essence Calvinism such as Bible translations and the singing of recently composed hymns. Progressives need to be reminded of the value of being grounded in the theological and spiritual heritage of the Reformed faith. Friends with a more retrospective mindset need to heed the challenge of bringing the gospel to the contemporary world. The needs of the age are too urgent for us to be wasting energy on in-fighting, when we should be pooling our resources for the cause of the gospel in our land.

Evangelical future

We have reflected on the recent history of Evangelicalism. Does Evangelicalism have a future? Only in so far as it holds to the evangel revealed in Holy Scripture that was recovered at the Reformation. The triune God of the Gospel is still mighty to save sinners and revive his work in our time. Ultimately the future of Evangelicalism is in God's hands. "Revive your work, O Lord in the midst of the years!"


Colin said...

'Rather worryingly, there is a danger of traditional Reformed churches in the UK fragmenting over issues that are important, but not of the essence Calvinism such as Bible translations and the singing of recently composed hymns.'

Having thought on this for many years, I have come to the conclusion that this tendancy owes more to US fundamentalism than to Calvinism. Ironically historically this has perhaps been more associated with Arminians (in the US).

Exiled Preacher said...

Yes, some people seem to have a Reformed soteriology, but in attitude they are fundy rather than Refd.

Ben said...

A helpful summary, thank you.

'Loose' in the first para should be 'lose'.

On fragmentation, do you mean that this applies to the Reformed movement in the UK, or to local churches themselves? The latter, I think, would be much more serious than the former.

Exiled Preacher said...

Typo corrected, Ben. I think the Reformed movement in the UK is in danger of fragmenting into different camps - retro, prog etc. This fragmentation can sometimes be seen within local churches, as people fall out over Bible versions and the singing of contemporary hymns.

Colin said...

'I think the Reformed movement in the UK is in danger of fragmenting into different camps - retro, prog etc.'

Absolutely, but I wonder if it was ever a movement ... after the MLJ / Stott split.

the 'retro' element ... as you have said would want nothing to do with the 'prog' (see Peter Master's articles on the 'new Calvinism)...

the 'prog' is probably only reformed in terms of soteriology, and has it's eye on broader (not necessarily reformed) coalitions eg affinity / the gospel partnerships and bigger numbers (you can join their churches without holding to any particularly reformed (baptist) credentials).

I suspect over time these tendancies will negate any particularly 'reformed' emphasis in these conservative evangelical churches ... which at a time of a reformed resurgence of some sort in the US is to me an opportunity missed ...