With the death of John Stott last year and the recent death of Chuck Colson, a formative generation of evangelicalism is passing away. Other formative figures are well into their retirement. Billy Graham is 93 years old, and J. I. Packer is 85 years old.
I lament the passing of this generation for the obvious reasons that any passing of great persons of faith is lamentable. Their presence and their example is an encouragement to us all. But, I lament the passing of this generation for another reason. It is the passing away of a moderate evangelicalism — not moderate in its fervency to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, their unrelenting focus on the core of Christian faith — conversion toward Christ — made them moderate in respect to those who would draw the lines much tighter on what it means to be an evangelical.
Thus, Billy Graham famously worked with mainline Protestants and Catholics, much to the consternation of fellow evangelicals. Billy Graham would also question strict exclusivism (for example, in his perfectly expressed reply to Larry King on this topic). John Stott would take his own exploratory path on the scope and means of salvation, the nature of hell, and so forth. As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stott and Packer, along with Roger Nicole, supported women’s ordination. Most of the leaders of this generation were open, in varying degrees, to evolutionary science and most certainly an old earth. I use these examples because they are the hot-button issues among the Gospel Coalition crowd.
With Chuck Colson, the controversial matter was, like Billy Graham, his ecumenical stance toward Roman Catholics. Along with J. I. Packer and other evangelical leaders, Colson worked together with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to form Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The reaction against ECT, by R. C. Sproul et al., is much ado about nothing in my opinion. The recognition that Christ is proclaimed in the Catholic Church, and is active and working in the Catholic Church, should be a common assumption among all Protestants, even as we hold dear a Justification based upon the complete and sufficient work of Christ.
The new generation of evangelical leaders — those to whom young seminarians look toward for guidance and inspiration — is notably hostile to these moderate elements of the generation past. The likes of a Chuck Colson and Billy Graham would not get invited to speak at the major conferences currently, such as Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. If an aspiring evangelical leader today were an inclusivist, evolutionist, affirming of women’s ordination, or ECT-affirming, they would be accused on a number of fronts for diluting the “purity” of the gospel. Thus, it is not surprising to see Tim Challies, one of the most popular Piper-esque bloggers today, criticizing Colson for working “against the Lord’s church” and laboring “for outright sinful causes.” Why? His work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
This mindset is, frankly, saddening and a wee bit maddening, but that is our future. Goodbye, moderate evangelicalism! Thanks for all the hard work.