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The New Pragmatism

Category Articles
Date November 1, 2000

Earlier this year the late Dr James Montgomery Boice delivered a series of three messages–the Den Dulk Lectures–at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California. The following are his opening words which appeared in ‘Update’, the Westminster Seminary in California magazine and used by permission:–

* * *

These are not good days for the evangelical church as three recent books agree: No Place for Truth by David Wells; Power Religion by Michael Horton; and Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. Though the titles speak clearly, the subtitles are even more revealing. Respectively, they are: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church, and When the Church Becomes like the World. These three careful observers agree that evangelicalism approaches abandoning its truth-heritage.

A Thirty-Year Perspective

I returned to the United States from Europe in 1966 to work at Christianity Today. The 1960s were a time of rising influence for evangelicals. Under the leadership of Carl E. H. Henry Christianity Today challenged the theological trends in liberal churches. Evangelical seminaries grew large and numerous. Evangelical churches emerged from their suburban ghettos to engage selected aspects of the secular culture. One decade later, Newsweek magazine would call 1976 ‘the year of the evangelical.’ From 1968 to 1980, I was part of a mainline church. Like other churches, it was declining because it had adopted the world’s ways in the four following areas:

The World’s Wisdom: Liberals ceased to seek wisdom from God through the Scriptures and became deaf to the reforming voice of God in the church. Undermined by rationalism, they were no longer able to receive the Bible as God’s Word to man, only as man’s word about God.

The World’s Theology: I will define the world’s theology as the view that human beings are basically good, that no one is really lost and that belief in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation, though it is helpful for some people. Liberal churches could not abandon biblical terminology and still pretended to be Christian. But biblical terms were given different meanings. Sin became ignorance or the oppression of certain social structures. Jesus became a pattern for creative living–an example or a revolutionary. Salvation became liberation from oppression. Faith became awareness of oppression and the willingness to do something about it. Evangelism meant working to overthrow entrenched injustice.

The World’s Agenda: The theme of the 1964 World Council of Churches was: ‘the world must set the agenda.’ Liberals believed that the church’s concerns should be the concerns of the world, even to the exclusion of the gospel. Hunger, racism, ecology, ageing–whatever issue was crucial to the world was to be of first concern to Christian people.

The World’s Methods: God has given us methods to do his work: participation, persuasion and prayer. But mainline churches jettisoned these methods in favour of power, politics and money. A cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker got it exactly right. One pilgrim on the Mayflower said to another, ‘Religious freedom is my immediate goal, but my long range plan is to go into real estate.’

The Worldly Churches: What hit me like a thunderbolt several years ago is that what I had been saying about liberal churches in the 1960s and 1970s now can be said about evangelical churches too. Have evangelicals now fixed their eyes on a worldly kingdom and chosen politics and money as their weapons? About ten years ago Martin Marty, a shrewd observer of the American church, said that by the end of the century evangelicals would be ‘the most worldly people in America.’ He was probably too cautious. Evangelicals fulfilled his prophecy before the turn of the millennium.

The World’s Wisdom: Evangelicals are not consciously heretics. Is the Bible God’s Word? Of course! Is it authoritative? Yes, that too. Inerrant? Most evangelicals will affirm inerrancy. But many do not think the Bible adequate to meet today’s challenges, or sufficient for winning people to Christ. They have turned to felt-need sermons, entertainment or ‘signs and wonders.’ The Bible is insufficient for achieving Christian growth; so they turn to therapy groups or Christian counselling. It is insufficient for making God’s will known; so they look for external signs or revelations. It is inadequate for changing our society; so they establish evangelical lobby groups in Washington and work to elect ‘Christian’ congressmen, senators, presidents and other officials. They seek change by power politics and money.

The World’s Theology: Like the liberals, evangelicals are giving new meaning to the Bible’s words, pouring secular, therapeutic content into spiritual terminology. Sin has become dysfunctional behaviour; salvation, self-esteem or wholeness; and Jesus, an example for right living. Sunday by Sunday people are told how to have happy marriages and raise nice children, but not how to get right with God.

The World’s Agenda: Francis Schaeffer said that happiness is the maximum amount of personal peace and sufficient affluence to enjoy it. Forget world hunger, racism or ecology. The world’s agenda is to be happy. But is not this the message of much evangelical preaching today? To be happy? To be satisfied? Though its most extreme expression is found in health, wealth and prosperity preachers, the gospel of the good life permeates evangelical preaching, failing to expose sin, and to drive men and women to the Saviour. True discipleship is hard.

The World’s Methods: Evangelicals now emphasise numerical growth, physical plants and money. Pastors tone down the hard edges of biblical truth and use bizarre evangelistic methods and entertainment to attract more people. Many support a National Association of Evangelicals lobby in Washington and social action groups to advance specific legislation. One church attracts worshipers by imitating radio news programs that promise: ‘Give us twenty-two minutes, and we’ll give you the world.’ Their Sunday ‘Express Worship’ service is, according to the pastor, ‘not one person delivering the truth to you, but a shared experience.’

When you put these contemporary evangelical characteristics together–pursuit of the world’s wisdom, acceptance of the world’s theology, adoption of the world’s agenda and utilisation of the world’s methods–it is hard to escape feeling that today’s evangelicals have fallen into the trap of the liberals before them.

Yet, as Gene Veith writes, Christianity thrives ‘not by trying to offer people what they already have, but by offering them what they desperately lack–namely, the Word of God and salvation through Jesus Christ.’

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to call the church, amidst our dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the Reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship and life. Central are the five solas of the Reformation: Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone and glory to God alone. the evangelical church must repent of her sin and recover her historic Christian faith. Like the Reformation, we must move forward by the power of the Word of God. We can experience the same blessing and influence the reformers had if we hold to a full-orbed gospel and do not compromise with the culture around us, as we have been doing. if we hold to these doctrines, our churches and those we influence will grow stronger, while other churches go the way of the liberals before us, not vanishing entirely but becoming increasingly significant as an effective religious force.

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