Time for a group hug?

Just when one might think that the waters were getting calm, Kevin Bauder decides to do a cannon ball in the fundamentalist pool! Since I imagine the conversation will pick up quickly, let me say right up front that I agree with most of what he wrote. I would imagine that most of what we agree on is recognizable to those who are familiar with this blog. So, I’ll jump right to the place where I slightly differ with what seems to be his main point, which I take to be the claim that conservative evangelicals are not new evangelicals. I’ll state my difference right up front—I believe that this discussion is too complicated to make that assertion at this point. Let me suggest at least two reasons for why I think this.

First, it is not very clear what constitutes conservative evangelicalism. Among the names cited by Dr. Bauder are men with beliefs and practices that differ significantly in relation to classic new evangelicalism. John Piper and Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC), for example, seem to take a position quite similar to many of the original new evangelicals on matters of ecclesiastical separation and social issues. Namely, they will speak out for biblical truth, but have chosen to maintain ecclesiastical partnership within an association of churches which formally declined to expel the error which Dr. Piper spoke out against. Also, BBC was fully engaged in the Rock the River Tour last summer that was put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Others in Dr. Bauder’s list would no doubt feel uncomfortable with both of these moves.

If one uses the signing of the Manhattan Declaration as any kind of measuring stick, it would seem to me that there would be at least four distinct kind of responses found among the men listed by Dr. Bauder as conservative evangelicals: signers who don’t see a problem with signing it; signers who signed hesitantly and defend it with careful qualifications as to the secular nature of it; vocal opponents of signing the document; and silent non-signers. I’m not trying to nitpick here, just trying to show that there doesn’t seem to be a conservative evangelical position that is clear. And if the conservative evangelical position isn’t clear, then it seems hard to make definitive statements about how it is different from new evangelicalism. I, like Dr. Bauder, am encouraged by many of the signs that I see, but it seems premature to come to firm conclusions yet.

Second, and something of the flip side of the first reason, is that it is not really clear how we are defining new evangelicalism in the main assertion of Bauder’s article. If it is being defined strictly based the matter of separation from false doctrine and false teachers, then most of the men, ministries, and movements cited are different to some degree from classic new evangelicalism. The question really comes down to what degree they differ from the original position. The early new evangelicals like Ockenga and Henry, even Carnell, were very much opposed to Catholicism, for instance. The original faculty at Fuller was very staunchly inerrantist and a main motivation for Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible was to argue this point. The original new evangelicals were more theological solid and prone to vocally defend that theology than we fundamentalists sometimes give them credit. What they originally were repudiating was any necessary change of relationship when men and ministries persisted in theological error. I wonder if there is anything like consensus among the conservative evangelicals about this point, and I wonder how some of them differ from the early new evangelical views (i.e., those which held sway between The Uneasy Conscience and Graham’s 1957 NYC crusade).

And if the full original agenda of new evangelicalism (as articulated, for instance, by Ockenga) is used as the standard, then I would suggest that many of these men and ministries are much closer to new evangelicalism than fundamentalism. IOW, they agree with the original vision and are intent on fulfilling it. The Gospel Coalition was very clear about its desire to do so. Russell Moore (of Southern) has written very aggressively in defense of Carl Henry’s views and the very title of the book seems to make his view clear—The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.  Al Mohler too has written clearly in defense of the idea that evangelicals may engage in co-belligerence outside of gospel boundaries for the sake of social issues.

It is beyond my point here to engage the question of whether the other stuff on the new evangelical agenda was acceptable or not, but I think it is worth noting that the issue of separation was not the only thing that mattered to either the new evangelicals or the fundamentalists.

I guess I find myself back at a spot where most of these discussions end for me these days. I think they are all handicapped by the use of labels from the 20th century which no longer fit and, therefore, don’t serve the discussion well. By thinking of three circles—new evangelicalism, conservative evangelicalism, and fundamentalism—all of the energy of the discussion goes into who’s in and who’s out. The unavoidable problem, though, is that nobody can define in and out at this stage of the game. So, where I differ with Bauder is that I don’t think that we can say anything definitive about a group. We need to look at individual men and ministries, find out what they believe and how they apply those beliefs, and then draw our conclusions.

Dr. Bauder is certainly correct in reminding us that these men are not our enemies. We may not agree with one another on important issues, but these disagreements are between brothers. Some disagreements, though, can adversely affect fellowship even among brothers.


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