Has evangelicalism become more conservative?

Or, more fundamentalist?

That may sound like a silly question. Surely the opposite — evangelicals becoming more liberal — is actually what’s happening. Look at Rob Bell! Isn’t he symptomatic of what’s going on in our midst?

No, I’m not convinced. Bell is an anomaly — a fringe figure, with an enthusiastic fan base but still on the fringe. Who, then, truly represents far greater swaths of the evangelical landscape? Names like Al Mohler and John Piper, bloggers like Justin Taylor and Tim Challies, conferences like Desiring God and Ligonier, ministries like Sovereign Grace and Crossway Publishers, and parachurch organizations like The Gospel Coalition, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and the CBMW. Despite this variety of networks and leaders, there is remarkable cohesion and a monolithic vision. This is where seminarians are being fed, and truly there is a lot of good (spiritual) meat to be found. I even attended last year’s Desiring God conference and largely praised it. At RTS, these ministries are where the students find sustenance, and I’m sure the same can be said for non-Reformed seminaries: TEDS, Southwestern, Gordon-Conwell are full of energetic young men with their ESV Study Bibles, a string of Crossway books on the shelf, and John Piper sermons on their laptop. Once again, there are far worse trends that could beset evangelicalism, so my criticism has to be tempered. In fact, I would say this is a mostly positive trend, as I’ve touched upon before.

Yet, I cannot help but compare this group of leaders and networks to the great leaders and networks of the past, when evangelicalism was forged anew through the likes of J. I. Packer, John Stott, Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, Christianity Today, and so on. Plus, I’m thinking of the influential Reformed scholars of this time, such as Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole. How would these men fair today? Not too well I’m afraid.

  • Most of them accommodated evolutionary science, to some degree or another.
  • Most of them were inclusivists. This includes, most famously, Billy Graham.
  • Many of them supported women’s ordination. This includes Roger Nicole at RTS and, with some qualifications, J. I. Packer and John Stott.

I could list more examples, but these are particularly volatile issues among The Gospel Coalition crowd. The Gospel is at stake; the authority of the Bible is at stake — yet, if this is so, how did evangelicalism of yesterday not think so? The answer is, briefly, that the evangelicalism of Graham and Stott grasped the essentials of our faith better. Among our new crop of leaders, this has been lost.



    • That’s interesting. I’ve always thought of evangelicals in Europe as being more tempered because of the greater dominance of the mainline churches in Europe. In America, the mainline churches (the traditional Protestant bodies) are now overshadowed by the dominance of the various free churches (Southern Baptists, Assemblies, etc.), so we’ve lost that tempering influence.

  1. Kevin,

    I agree that these trends are largely healthy. I always say that where there is genuine piety and commitment to Scripture, you can deepen, mature, and correct it, but it’s much harder to work form a lack of these back to them.

    I also agree that there current mainstream leaders are different from the architects of new evangelicalism, but I think the situation is more complex than you allow for. What follows are just some important points in my view, not really criticisms of what you’re saying.

    First, there has been a general shift from British leadership to American leadership, and that with mixed results; it’s important to see though that that came about largely through the success of new evangelicalism in the areas of academics and publishing. It’s also not clear to me that British evangelicalism currently has leaders of the stature and importance of Stott. Second, there are some genuinely powerful and important movements that you do not mention, the most important, in my view, being Tim Keller/Redeemer.

    Third, you pass over the entire issue of what happened to in the New Evangelicalism itself; both Marsden in his history of Fuller and Dorrien in his excellent book on evangelical theology show clearly, in my view, that what started at Fuller was deeply unstable, which is why it took (if I remember correctly) less than a decade for fuller to change it’s statement on inerrancy. Fuller does a lot of excellent work, but no one denies it’s now part of the left-end of Evangelicalism. I am not convinced Evangelicalism (here meaning the fruit of the new evangelical movement in reaction to Fundamentalism) has ever quite worked through the issue of instability and potential incoherence that are represented by Fuller’s founding and subsequent history. But it’s only fair to recognize some reaction against this, however regrettable it’s results may have been, was both inevitable and indeed important for the preservation of a more robust orthodoxy (there was – and still is in similar circles – a lot of “bad faith” about issues like inerrancy, i.e., people pretending it was not something most of the church has believed and would have readily assented to if they saw it articulated in some kind of creed).

    Finally, whenever people get upset about a kind of intellectual slippage among Evangelical leaders, my main concern is with how they understand the problem. In my own view (and a lot of my work is dealing with this more directly, and I’ll eventually “apply” it to the more narrow circles of American evangelicalism) there fundamental problems have to do with American intellectual and cultural life vis-a-vis the European tradition, and the impact of that issue on the reception, comprehension, and response of American Christians to the fundamental issues of modernity. But I’ll won’t say more about that here, other than to note that, if I’m right, a lot of the more provincial concerns we have, while very important for all of us within the conservative Christianity, have to be (at least for a certain level of engagement) placed in this much deeper framework in anything satisfactory is going to emerge.

    • Excellent, Joseph! That makes a great supplement to the post. I was actually thinking of both Keller/Redeemer and Fuller when I was writing the post, but I didn’t have time for the necessary complexities involved by bringing them into the discussion. Keller, of course, is largely exempt from my criticisms of “the Gospel Coalition crowd,” which I suppose makes them less “monolithic” than I claimed.

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