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The Old Evangelicalism

Category Articles
Date April 20, 2006

The following are two appreciative and critical reviews of the stimulating book, The Old Evangelicalism, by Iain H. Murray. The first review was by Pastor Mark R. Brown of Pennsylvania and appeared in New Horizons, February 2006. He writes as following;

This book may be regarded as the capstone of a trilogy on the theme “The old is better,” following Revival and Revivalism and Evangelicalism Divided (1950 – 2000). It offers a collection of conference addresses that promote the doctrines and emphases of the older Calvinistic evangelicalism. In fact, this book elaborates on the theme of The Forgotten Spurgeon, by Murray, and Today’s Gospel, by Walter Chantry, books that introduced me to the old paths when I was a naïve Billy Graham evangelical as a teenager.

Orthodox Presbyterian pastors and people in the pew should read this book to sharpen their understanding of Calvinism compared with the approach of the new evangelicalism. The chapter on “Christ Our Righteousness” reminds us that there is no truth that we should value more than the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness – his doing and dying in our place.

However, the chapters on “John Wesley” and “Christian Unity” will prompt Orthodox Presbyterians to stretch their thinking. Can we really learn anything from John Wesley? Murray thinks we can profit from his emphasis on the love of God in Christ to lost sinners.

The chapter on church unity will probably bring out the most discussion in O.P. circles. Murray sees Christian unity beyond that of external denominational mergers. He is not opposed to denominations, but worries that fidelity to Christ comes to be identified too much with denominational loyalty. He favors a wider Christian unity and cooperation in agencies for missions, literature, etc. A well-known example of this would be the Banner of Truth Trust, which is supported by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists.

In sum, there is much to challenge and stimulate us to godliness in this volume. I thank God for Iain Murray’s fifty years of service to the church and the influence of his books for posterity.

* * *

The second review appeared in the April-June 2006 Bible League Quarterly, Issue 425 and is written by Brian Garrard. He writes;

This book is comprised of addresses given at Conferences for preachers and missionaries, and later revised. In it, Mr. Murray seeks to lay out for us the important doctrines of the Christian faith and calls us to return to them if we are to see “a new awakening of the church.” As ever in a work of this nature, there are going to be areas of disagreement and even controversy, and readers will certainly find them in this volume. We feel constrained to draw attention to a matter which is found in the final chapter. On pages 208-210, the author discusses whether it is right to remain “in denominations where errorists are tolerated and even honoured.”

Mr. Murray appears to favour the idea that it can be right to stay in such church groupings, and cites Wesley and Whitefield who remained in the state church, and also Church of Scotland ministers who continued with their denomination even under the reign of Moderatism in the 18th century. The justification for this is interesting: the author argues for a distinction between local congregations and the denomination. The former is a true church, and there may be good reasons for separating from that, he states, while the latter cannot rightly be regarded as a church at all. Therefore, separation from denominations is not necessarily such a clear-cut matter.

At this point we read Mr. Murray’s words again and try to assure ourselves that we have understood him aright, but there is no mistaking it. We may have to withdraw from a local congregation, he says, “but the duty of withdrawal from a denomination is not necessarily equally clear. Regard for gospel opportunity, concern for numbers of Christians still within a denomination, and hope for the reversal of a situation, can be conscientiously held…” (page 208). And all because, the author asserts, a denomination is not a true church at all.

Three things, however may be said in reply to this:

1. Are we right to hold up Wesley and Whitefield and Church of Scotland ministers as examples? Who is to say that they were right? After all, other churches were formed in England as a result of the evangelistic activities of Wesley and Whitefield and these were quite separate from the state church. In Scotland the same thing eventually occurred. If it could be argued that men of the past were right to stay where they were, it is presumptuous on our part to think we can do the same, especially as the Christian scene is in a worse state today than it was in the 18th century.

2. Is it right to continue when the very foundations have been ploughed up? For example, when Liberal theology is rampant and sacramentalism and Arminianism hold sway? When sodomy is tolerated and women ministers are accepted and encouraged, and worldly worship pervades? The list could go on. When is enough clearly enough? Such attempts to get compromised Evangelicals “off the hook” will not do.

3. Should we spend our time trying to justify fellowship with “errorists”? Whatever we may call a grouping of Christian believers, be it a church, denomination, fellowship, congregation, house-group, society, etc., it makes little difference. The principle holds true that we do not make common cause with those who are enemies of the Gospel. We deplore a sectarian spirit, and seek to be truly catholic and love the people of God everywhere. But – and it is an important “but” – the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel-purity of His church matter even more.

All-in-all, while there are many good and profitable things in the book, this part is “an uncertain sound” and lacks the robust and clarion leadership we used to hear from the Banner of Truth.

Brian Garrard

Iain Murray’s response.

The noteworthy feature of the review is that Mr Garrard concentrates his remarks solely on a few pages (208-210). I do not object to that because, like Mr Garrard, I think their point has particular relevance at the present time when true Christians are found in many different church situations. But I cannot recognise my point in what is criticised. Mr Garrard says the discussion of these pages is ‘whether it is right to remain “in denominations where errorists are tolerated and even honoured”. He goes on to suggest what I say represents ‘attempts to get compromised Evangelicals “off the hook”,’ and that I am justifying ‘fellowship with errorists.’ I hope readers will check for themselves to see that that is not what I am saying.

I wrote (p.206), ‘Denominations, as such, are not scriptural institutions … their justification ought to be that they stand for important biblical truths.’ If they do not do that then the purpose of their existence is gone. My conviction is plainly stated: ‘Doctrinal indifferentism is a great and dangerous evil’ (p.209). But – and this is where Mr Garrard and I apparently disagree – I do not believe that where Christian stay in ‘mixed denominations’ our fellowship with them must necessarily end. The fact is that considerable numbers of believers today, as in the past, are in that situation. I do not justify it but I seek to explain it. My argument is that separation from evil and serious error in a local church is plainly a scriptural duty; but the case is not equally clear when it comes to denominations. I wrote of cases ‘where faithful men have done their utmost not to condone wrong and error, and have withdrawn from fellowship with unbelievers, yet they have remained in denominations where little or no discipline existed outside their own local congregations. They believed that more good was to be done for the gospel by their remaining than by their removal. We may disagree with their thinking (and no case can be made for Christians listening to, or supporting, unfaithful teachers’) (208). My point was that although disagreement continues it ought not to lead us to repudiate fellowship with all who truly belong to Christ. To deny such unity appears to me to say that Christian unity depends on more than a saving faith in Christ. This is the point of the pages criticised and it occurs in the context of a chapter in which I argue that Christian unity and Church unity cannot be treated as identical. The unity of the ‘church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven’ is presently only imperfectly visible.

Iain H. Murray

The Old Evangelicalism (ISBN 085151 9016) retails for $26.00 (US), £14.00 (UK and ROW) and can be purchased from the Banner of Truth book catalogue

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