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The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation

Chapter 9
The New Evangelicalism

The Separation Question and Decline

The gap between Fundamentalist and non-Fundamentalist Evangelicalism has only increased since the split in the 1950s. Initially, the differences revolved around the question of separation from false teachers. Since that time other issues have widened the breach. There are still some Evangelicals whose main disagreement with Fundamentalism is the matter of ecclesiastical separation. But there are others who have departed farther from biblical teaching and practice.

The first great battleground among Evangelicals was over the inerrancy of the Bible. The early New Evangelicals spoke of "a re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration." But they meant a fuller defense of biblical infallibility against the teachings of Neo-orthodoxy.21 It soon became apparent that some Evangelicals were denying the inerrancy of Scripture. In 1976 New Evangelical leader Harold Lindsell shook the Evangelical world with his book The Battle for the Bible. He detailed examples of how Evangelicals were abandoning inerrancy. One of the most controversial chapters was that on Fuller Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the New Evangelicalism where Lindsell had formerly taught.22 Lindsell showed how some professors had annually signed a creed saying they believed in inerrancy, when in reality they did not. Fuller eventually dropped inerrancy from its creed altogether.

Also in the 1970s, the Evangelical world was unsettled by two books by Richard Quebedeaux: The Young Evangelicals (1974) and The Worldly Evangelicals (1978).23 In these works, Quebedeaux reports a liberalization of the theological and social views of Evangelicals among the younger generation. Theologically, he notes an increased rejection of inerrancy, an openness to discussions with liberals and Marxists as a means of furthering the gospel, an acceptance of theistic evolution over biblical Creationism, and an embrace of some points of Neo-orthodoxy.24 On moral issues, he cited defense of masturbation, a greater tolerance for divorce and remarriage, acceptance of abortion, more prevalent use of profanity among Christians, and acceptance of practicing homosexuals as believers.25 These are but a sample of the views he says are becoming more prevalent among Evangelicals. Significantly, Quebedeaux titles the last chapter of his second book "Today's Evangelicals, Tomorrow's Liberals?"

Still, defenders of Evangelicalism could argue that Quebedeaux's evidence was anecdotal. In other words, he was simply compiling "horror stories" that represented only a fringe of the movement, not its mainstream. This excuse was less valid, however, in weighing James Davison Hunter's Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (1987). Surveying students in nine Evangelical colleges and seven Evangelical seminaries, Hunter documents a shift in views.26 Hunter's conclusions are not as shocking as Quebedeaux's. Attitudes of evangelical students are still more conservative than those of secular students. But Hunter clearly documented a drift in the Evangelical movement. About half the students surveyed believe the Bible can err on matters of science or history.27 About a third believe that those who have never heard of Christ or the gospel can still go to heaven.28 On issues of personal morality, Hunter is able to demonstrate how great the change was from the past. In a 1951 survey, 46 percent of the students questioned thought that attending Hollywood movies was always morally wrong; in 1982 only 7 percent thought attending R-rated movies was always morally wrong. In 1951, 98 percent of the students thought drinking alcohol was wrong whereas in 1982 only 17 percent did.29 Hunter also demonstrates that the teachers in such schools are generally more liberal in their views than the students.30 So concerned were Evangelical leaders about the ramifications of Hunter's work that they held a conference to discuss it.31

A case study in the drift of Evangelicalism is the career of theologian Clark Pinnock. Originally, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Pinnock was a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy and wrote persuasively on the subject.32 Then in the mid-1970s he began to shift. First, he abandoned his position on inerrancy and said that there were historical and scientific errors in the Scripture.33 Then Pinnock abandoned the doctrine of hell, teaching instead that sinners are merely annihilated after death.34 In 1997 Millard Erickson included Pinnock in his discussion of "postconservative evangelicalism." In addition to Pinnock's views of the Scripture and hell, Erickson noted his shift on the doctrine of God. Pinnock was now holding that God is not omniscient, knowing all things past, present, future. For God to be omniscient would limit human freedom. Instead, God knows the past and present but can know only future possibilities.35

Not all Evangelicals are changing as much as Pinnock, of course. Furthermore, some New Evangelical leaders such as Lindsell and Ockenga have opposed this drift. But there is little question that the position of Evangelicalism has moved leftward. An increasingly widespread and particularly surprising example is an openness toward the idea of salvation apart from Christ. Even Billy Graham, long considered one of the more theologically conservative Evangelicals, has supported such a position. In a 1997 television interview, Graham said that God is "calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the nonbelieving world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven."36

Evangelicals have sometimes accused Fundamentalists, unfortunately with good reason, with constantly splintering and splitting over nonessentials. But the New Evangelicals have more than justified Fundamentalist concerns that their openness to liberalism and their desire for respectability would lead Evangelical Christianity into theological error. The split between Fundamentalism and the New Evangelicalism began as a dispute over ecclesiastical spearation.37 It is becoming a divide over a number of crucial doctrines, at least in some circles of Evangelicalism. Fundamentalists find themselves forced to separate from other Evangelicals not simply over disobedience but over false doctrine.

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:

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