On Friday, I posted the following quote about evangelicalism, asking for your best guess as to who said it:
“Today, Protestant [Evangelicalism] although heir-apparent to the supernaturalist gospel of the Biblical and Reformation minds, is a stranger, in its predominant spirit, to the vigorous social interests of its ideological forebears. Modern [Evangelicalism] does not explicitly sketch the social implications of its message for the non-Christian world; it does not challenge the injustices of the totalitarianisms, the secularisms of modern education, the evils of racial hatred, the wrongs of current labor-management relations, the inadequate bases of international dealings. It has ceased to challenge Caesar and Rome, as though in futile resignation and submission to the triumphant Renaissance mood. The apostolic Gospel stands divorced from a passion to right the world. The Christian social imperative is today in the hands of those who understand it in sub-Christian terms.”
The correct answer is Carl F. H. Henry (1913 – 2003). (Congrats to Mark Steinacher and Daryl Climenhaga!)
The reason that I find this quote (and the book from which it is taken) so interesting is that something very much like it could have been written by someone today in the emerging or missional church movements (the diction and style would be different, of course). The frustration with the status quo in contemporary evangelicalism, the desire to engage culture and society in a meaningful and thoughtful way, and the plea that the church must take the socio-ethical implications of the gospel seriously all resonate very much with those who are rethinking the nature, purpose, and mission of the church today . . . and who are trying to do so critically yet faithfully.
The quote is also interesting becasue, ironically, Henry was one of the founding fathers of the modern evangelical movement in North America (or, more properly, the neo-evangelical movement)! I imagine that some would find it shocking to discover that a passage like this was written by an evengelical . . . even more shocking that it was written by one of the founders of the movement!
Those more familiar with the history of evangelicalism know that it has (in its best and purest forms) always combined spiritual piety with social activism. John Wesley, a quintessential evangelical who typified the evangelical conversion experience (with his heart being “stragely warmed” when he realized that God had forgiven his sins and justified him freely by grace through faith), was deeply concerned with issues of social justice. He preached among the poor and helped them achieve upward mobility, he advocated and practiced acts of mercy toward the down and out, he cared for addicts and alcoholics, he evangelized and discipled people effectively, he networked people into loving communities in which they enjoyed supportive relationships, and he spoke out against the social evils of his times. (One of his last letters was written to William Wilberforce, to encourage his efforts to abolish slavery; see the letter here). Wesley is not an anomally in this regard. In fact, he fits very nicely into the historian David Bebbington’s classic description of evangelicalism as being characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism (having a central place for the Bible as ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice), and crucicentrism (an emphasis on salvation through Christ’s work on the cross).
Getting back to Henry, the above quotation comes from his 1947 book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In that book Henry uses the terms ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ interchangably, because at the time they were virtually synonmous. ‘Fundamentalism’ did not originally mean what the word connotes today (i.e., we tend to think of irrational, world-denying, supersticious, even militant religious belief when we hear the word). Rather, ‘Fundamentalism’ had to do with affirming ‘the fundamentals’ of the Christian faith, over against theological Liberalism (which denied things like the divinity and resurrection of Christ), philosophical naturalism, and reductive secularism. Between 1910 and 1915 several scholars in the emerging ‘Fundamentalist’ movement published a set of essays collectively entitled The Fundamentals. As the movement progressed through the early twentieth century, it unfortunately became increasingly isolationist in its relationship with culture (and with other forms of Christianity), uncritical in its thinking, and myopic in its worldview. It came to define itself more by what it was against (especially theological Liberalism) than by what it was for. It founded its own schools and created its own narrow networks to train its adherents and to mobilize (right-wing) political influence.
Henry and a number of others who were part of the movement became increasingly dissatisfied with it. They launched the National Association of Evangelicals and founded Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. At the urging of Billy Graham, Henry became the founding editor-in-chief of Christianity Today in 1956. He inspired a new generation of Christians who were committed to a form of Christianity that was both theologically orthodox and socially, culturally, and intellectually engaged.
A third reason why I like the quote is that it reminds evangelicals (like me) of their roots. This is important for at least two reasons. First, awareness of our historical roots can help evangelicals resist the current resurgence of fundamentalism (in the worst sense of the term, as the degenerate offspring of the earlier ‘Fundamentalist’ movement) within the ranks of evangelicalism. In reponse to the ambiguity, decentering, and fluidity (even relativism) of postmodernity, many evangelicals, in their desire to hold onto a “firm foundation,” have unfortunately embraced aspects of fundamentalism (especially its epistemology and its “ghettoizing” tendency). This embracing often comes in a passive form: If we can’t face the storm, perhaps if we seek shelter and wait it out it will go away? Additionally though, more active fundamentalists, in their attemt to seek greater acceptance for thier positions as well as greater social recognition, have been infiltrating organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Theological Society in the US (the situation in Canada is quite different; having attended the CETA – Canadian Evangelical Theological Association – conference earlier this year, I can tell you that the environment and concerns of this group are very different from the ETS). For more on this trend, see Roger Olson’s recent blogs on evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
The second reason why remembering our historical roots is so important is that doing so can inspire our efforts to reform evangelicalism in the present. I find it greatly reassuring to know that my evangelicals forebears were also frustrated with the status quo of the church and that they too longed for something new AND were courageous and committed enough to do something about it. Many today are arguing that evangelicalism is a lost cause. This may well be true in the American scene: the “movement” is no longer much of a movement; it is fragmented, divided, polarized, and generally failing to foster social transformation befitting the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and embodied. (How’s that for a generalization?! I’m simply repeating what lots of others have been saying though, perhaps most notably people like David Fitch and other missional church advocates, not to mention emerging/emergent church thinkers and practitioners).
Whether or not evangelicalism is a lost casue is a matter open for debate. And whether or not one still claims to be part of the movement, I do hope that all of us who have evangelical roots can make an effort to remember where we came from and perhaps even be inspired to dream about a new kind of evangelicalism for the future.