Is The Neo-Evangelical Coalition Worth Saving?

Is The Neo-Evangelical Coalition Worth Saving?

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, October 19, 2021

What animates the confessional Reformed churches is a holistic theology, piety, and practice lived out in the context of congregations and in the life of the broader institutional church. We are animated by a theology that we share with our Reformed forebears, which we have not amputated or substantially revised. We are animated by our commitment to gathering Sabbath by Sabbath with the covenant community to hear the law and the gospel preached, the sacraments administered, and grace and mercy lived out during the week.

Recently, Trevin Wax crystalized the case for preserving the neo-evangelical coalition, which emerged after World War II and in so doing, for Reformed confessionalists, he has also made the case against the neo-evangelical coalition. What is that the coalition and what are its attractions and problems? Let us go back to the Reformation for a moment to set a baseline. As the Luther began to recover Augustine’s doctrines of sin (i.e., total depravity) and grace (sola gratia), Paul’s doctrine of imputation and his definition of faith (sola fide), along with the biblical distinction between law and gospel (with some help from Augustine) and the doctrine of sola Scriptura the Reformation message spread from Wittenberg throughout Europe and the British Isles. In the Reformation an evangelical was one who confessed those truths and others. To be an evangelical was to be about the gospel and a very particular understanding of it but, in the Reformation, the evangelicals were so within increasingly distinct ecclesiastical traditions and confessions. That process of distinction is known to scholars as confessionalism, when it is considered as a bottom-up movement and as confessionalization, when it is considered as a top-down movement. By the 1550s there were two distinct Reformation churches: the Lutherans and the Reformed. They had distinct views of the two natures of Christ, the way Scripture regulates worship, and the sacraments among other things.

The Rise Of Trans-Denominational Movements

There did develop in the seventeenth century a trans-denominational movement centering on religious experience, Pietism. This movement was the seedbed for the modern evangelical and neo-evangelical movements. In the eighteenth century another trans-denominational movement emerged, which was related to the Pietists: the revivalists. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revivals of varying kinds swept across the American Colonies (the First Great Awakening), then Europe to a lesser degree, and again in the USA (i.e.,  the Second Great Awakening) and Europe (e.g., the Réveil).

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even as Pietism and Revivalism producing great fervor and social activity (e.g., poverty relief, anti-slavery movements, temperance movements) the eighteenth-century Enlightenment movements were conquering the universities, the intellectuals, and the elites. By the late nineteenth century most in those sets had accepted the rationalism (the superiority of reason over all other authorities), empiricism (the superiority of sense experience over all other authorities), or romanticism (the superiority of the inner life over all other authorities) and had lost confidence in Scripture and the historic Christian faith. In response the children of Pietism, Revivalism, and those who still affirmed the old Protestant confessions, theology, piety, and practice sought to defend the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith.

By the end of World War II, the West was tired of near constant conflict, whether marital or ecclesiastical and the fundamentalist movement had become increasingly narrow. The great hero of the early fundamentalist movement, J. Gresham Machen, was dead and some of those who had studied with him wanted to retain his high view of Scripture but they also wanted to move on. They wanted to influence the broader culture and to leave behind his commitment to the Westminster Standards and his Presbyterian view of the church and sacraments. Scholars call this movement, led by Carl F. H. Henry, Henry Ockenga, and Bill Graham, among others, neo-evangelicalism. This movement would seek to be both faithful to a small number of core theological commitments and culturally influential. To that end they began to build institutions. They built Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California where they would seek to produce theologically conservative graduates who were solid like Old Westminster (Machen’s school) but not ecclesiastically narrow like Machen nor pugnacious as he was accused of being. They founded a magazine and located it in Washington, D.C. the capitol of the USA and of the world.

That project lasted about three decades. The Baby-Boomer children of the neo-evangelical founders were a generation that knew not Machen. They did not see the point of holding on to the historic doctrine of Scripture while jettisoning so much of the rest of Christian history (e.g., the Reformation confessions, churches, and sacramental convictions). This move, symbolized by Fuller’s revision of their view of Scripture (i.e., “limited inerrancy”) provoked the “Battle for the Bible” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the same time, the leading edges of the progressive movement within the neo-evangelical establishment was also pushing the boundaries on the doctrine of God by arguing that God cannot know or control the future. They called themselves “Open Theists.” Others revised the doctrine of the Trinity so argue that the divine unity was more one of society than one of being. There were other revisions such as Daniel Fuller’s proposal that justification is not through faith alone but through faithfulness, which, mutatis mutandis, continues to reverberate in the theology of John Piper, one of the fathers of the so-called Young Restless and Reformed movement. About the same time, in the early 1990s, some of the older neo-evangelicals (e.g., J. I. Packer) along with their more progressive evangelical children sought to negotiate a settlement on the Reformation doctrine of justification in order to facilitate a cultural common cause in the face of an increasingly hostile and post-Christian culture. The late 1990s saw another wave of progressive evangelical movements, now increasingly led by Generation Xers. They called themselves “emergent” and they developed two factions, one slightly more conservative of the past and the other more critical of the past.

The YRR movement, which was stimulated by the theological drift among the evangelical children of the neo-evangelicals, sought to get the old neo-evangelical band back together. This impulse in the 1990s and early 200s produced a flurry of coalitions, e.g., The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which was a response, c. 1995, to the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” documents and movement. About a decade later we saw the emergence of The Gospel Coalition, and Together for the Gospel, among others.

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