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The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation

Chapter 9
The New Evangelicalism

Rise of the New Evangelicalism

After the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, as we mentioned in Chapter 6, Fundamentalists began to develop their own network of independent schools, periodicals, mission boards, and denominations. But with this independence came a loss in national status. No longer were Fundamentalists part of the major denominations that dominated American religious life. Fundamentalism itself had become a negative term to most Americans, synonymous with bigotry and ignorance. A segment within Fundamentalism began to want to reform the movement and to change its image. Some Fundamentalists began to use the less controversial label Evangelical.

Historian Joel Carpenter points out how Fundamentalism faced two possible courses of "reform" in the 1940s. One way was to "strengthen" Fundamentalism. Leaving the basic position of Fundamentalism unchanged, this approach would raise the intellectual level of Fundamentalist apologetics and theological writings. Also, it would attempt to moderate the more caustic language that Fundamentalists had used in the heat of controversy. The other course of reform sought to "revise" Fundamentalism. This approach sought to take Fundamentalism in a different direction in scholarship and especially in regard to the matter of separation.6 This second method became the philosophy of the New Evangelicalism. The spokesman for the movement was Harold J. Ockenga, sometimes called the Father of the New Evangelicalism. He was pastor of the historic Park Street Congregational Church in Boston and the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Supporting Ockenga in this effort were several other young Evangelical intellectuals, including Carl Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today.7

The statements of Ockenga provide a summary of the basic views of the New Evangelicalism. Ockenga was one of the first to use the term New Evangelicalism, and he outlined the movement's basic beliefs in his foreword to Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible.8 Those beliefs, and the Fundamentalist reaction to them, sparked a major controversy and division within the Fundamentalist ranks.

First, Ockenga spoke of New Evangelicalism's "determination to engage itself in the theological dialogue of the day" and the need for "the reengagement in the theological debate." The New Evangelicals believed that Fundamentalism was not conducting biblical study at a sufficiently high level of scholarship. There was a need, they said, for interchange with liberal scholars. As part of that move, several talented young Evangelicals began to attend prestigious graduate schools in America and Europe.

Fundamentalism is not opposed to intellectual study, and Christians need to be aware of all shades of scholarship. The question is what compromises are made to the Christian faith in order to achieve this "higher level" of scholarship. What is being surrendered by Christians in their efforts at "dialogue" with liberals? At first, New Evangelicals protested that they simply wanted to compete with liberals in their own fields of study and to witness to them of Christ.9 Fundamentalists, however, feared that the movement was heading toward acceptance of liberals as orthodox believers. Bob Jones Jr. wrote, "In effect, they [the New Evangelical leaders] said to the enemies of Christian faith, ‘We will call you "Christian brothers" if you will call us "doctor," "professor," and "scholar."’"10 Sanderson mentions how critics feared that New Evangelicals would either absorb liberal beliefs or at least accommodate liberal ideas. He also notes that critics thought that the New Evangelicalism risked setting a bad precedent that would cause later generations to accept liberalism.11 The passing of years has revealed the validity of these fears, as we shall see.

Second, Ockenga wrote of the need for "the reexamination of theological problems such as the antiquity of man, the universality of the Flood, God's method of creation, and others." Almost from the beginning, the New Evangelicals suggested accommodation toward evolutionary theory. The national embarrassment of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" was apparently still with them. Some questioned belief in Creationism, a young earth, and the Bible's account of Noah and the Flood. They did so, heedless of the impact of such questions on the historicity of the Bible and on biblical teachings such as original sin and Christ's work as the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; I Cor. 15:21-22, 45).

Third, Ockenga also issued a "summons to social involvement" and a "new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life." This belief was not originally a call to the liberal idea of the social gospel, although Fundamentalists were concerned when Ockenga said things such as, "There need be no disagreement between the personal gospel and the social gospel."12 The social gospel (discussed in Chapter 7) downplayed or eliminated personal salvation in favor of social reform. The original New Evangelicals did not favor this kind of social gospel. They wanted to state what the Bible said concerning social issues, to denounce sin in any form it might take.

The years have seen a shift in social theory among some Evangelicals, however. Originally, it is clear that men such as Ockenga and Carl Henry sought a testimony on social issues that was based on the redemption of the individual through Christ. Henry, for example, wrote in 1947, "Only an anthropology and a soteriology that insists upon man's sinful lostness and the ability of God to restore the responsive sinner is the adequate key to the door of Fundamentalist world betterment."13 As the years passed, younger Evangelicals began to stake out other positions that threatened to redefine the gospel. After surveying contemporary Christian attitudes toward social action, Robert Horton concludes that many Evangelicals view social action as a form of evangelism rather than a means to evangelism. Others, he points out, make social reform a part of the gospel itself.14

Such a position distorts the gospel by adding to it. Fundamentally, the gospel is the redemption of sinners by Jesus Christ through His atonement. "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (I Tim. 1:15). There is a social dimension to Christianity (Matt. 5:13-16; Gal. 6:10), but it is a result of the salvation of individuals through the gospel, not part of the gospel itself. Furthermore, there is a danger that stress on social action can make the church a mere tool of conservative or liberal political factions.

Finally, and most important, Ockenga proclaimed a "ringing call for a repudiation of separation" and aimed for "the recapture of denominational leadership." Rather than pulling out of compromised associations, the New Evangelicals wanted to stay in the denominations and even reenter those that Fundamentalists had left. We have already reviewed many of the New Evangelical arguments against separation in Chapters 1-5. From the beginning, Fundamentalists protested that the New Evangelicalism was leading Christianity toward too close an identification with the world system. Unquestionably, the New Evangelicals were taking an attitude that although false teaching might be wrong, Christians could profitably work with false teachers themselves. The actions of these New Evangelical "reformers" led many Fundamentalists to reluctantly break fellowship with these Christians who rejected the scriptural teaching concerning separation from false teaching.

In a 1957 press release Ockenga not only set forth the ideology of the New Evangelicalism but also listed its main institutions. These included the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, Christianity Today magazine, and the campaigns of Evangelist Billy Graham.15 It was Graham who became the focus of the movement and its most influential leader.


The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address: www.bju.edu/store.)

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