I’m cleaning out my office and clearing out a great lot of books One of the volumes I found is Carl F. H. Henry, Basic Christian Doctrines (New York: Holt, Rhinehart, Winston, 1962). Included in this collection of very brief entries are G. C. Berkouwer, Geoffrey Bromiley, F. F. Bruce, E. J. Carnell, Anthony Hoekema, P. E. Hughes, J. T. Mueller, Cornelius Van Til, and many others. The ecumenical breadth of the collection is impressive.
It features the sorts and quality of writers one used to find in the pages of Christianity Today, which is, in fact, where these essays were first published. As an undergraduate, twenty years later, I stumbled upon CT in the stacks and sat down to read the old issues of CT. I recall being struck by the changes that overtook CT in the late 1970s. David Wells chronicled this transformation in the first volume of his trilogy, No Place for Truth.
Even though several of the contributors are not ecclesiastically or confessionally Reformed, the influence of Reformed theology is evident throughout the volume from the organization of the topics to Leon Morris’ essay on the atonement to the essays on the covenants of works and grace to John Murray’s entry on sanctification. The broad evangelical influence is also evident, however. E. J. Carnell wrote the entry on church government and J I Packer wrote the entry on the nature of the church. No old side or old school Presbyterians there. Merril Tenney, who probably won’t be confused with John Calvin, wrote the essay on baptism and the Supper.
In its way, it’s a snapshot of the old neo-evangelical coalition. 45 years later it’s unthinkable that such a volume drawn from the pages of CT would look anything like this. Would CT even run a series on basic Christian doctrines? Some of the authors who contributed to this volume might be asked to contribute, e.g. Packer and Nicole, but judging by the relative scarcity of confessional Reformed contributors to today’s CT, the Reformed contribution would be considerably smaller, perhaps even a token. One cannot imagine that there would still be a chapter on the covenant of works. Of course, in that instance, we couldn’t blame CT since it’s hard to find a confessional Reformed theologian who still believes it! It’s hard to imagine a chapter on the “mediatorial” work of Christ cast in terms of his work as Prophet, Priest, and King. Would there be an essay affirming the same doctrines of Scripture or the same doctrine of God as published in 1962? Do evangelicals today feel any obligation to the older Protestant doctrine of Scripture? It doesn’t seem so. Wouldn’t there be an essay on the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and an entry on the Social Trinity, and entry on the orthodox doctrine of God and an entry advocating Open Theism, an entry affirming imputation and an essay denying it? There’s an essay in the 1962 volume on “other means of grace.” Would evangelicals today even be willing to speak of “means of grace”? How many Reformed folk today would embrace such language?
This is not a call to go backwards. The fragmentation of the old neo-evangelical coalition was unavoidable. Henry, Ockenga, and particularly E. J. Carnell tried to marry Reformed soteriology to churchless and confession-less evangelicalism. It was an unstable marriage that couldn’t last. EJC attacked bitterly “old Westminster” (including Machen) as narrow and bigoted before the mid-1960s. That tirade was a clear signal that EJC wanted a divorce from old Westminster and the ecclesiology and confession it represented. This collection of essays is indicative of what had been but not what would be and certainly not what is today. As Darryl Hart has pointed out, all the king’s horses can’t put Humpty together again.
What this volume means is not that we should try to recover 1962, but rather it signals that whatever parts of a theology, piety, and practice we downplayed and whatever we cashed in for the sake of the coalition, it was too much. The modern evangelical “movement” wasn’t a friend to confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The difference is that many of us couldn’t see it clearly in 1962. Old Westminster was a fairly obscure place during WW II. By the early 1960s it was being taken more seriously. Not longer after this it would become a “player” in big time evangelicalism.
My sense, from conversations with Robert Preus and others, is that the LCMS confessionalists saw that this marriage between confessionalists and non-confessionalists couldn’t last. Van Til saw it as early as 1930s. Today, we might be able to make temporary common cause with elements of the evangelical movements to achieve specific goals (Mike Horton’s metaphor of “evangelicalism” as Village Green works here), but Reformed theology is organized around the covenants. It is churchly, confessional, and sacramental, and contemporary evangelicalism is none of these things and there’s no evidence that it’s going become any of these things.
Our future is in our confession of the faith, in the positive, winsome and forward-looking proclamation of the Word, in planting confessional churches, and training pastors to embrace the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. First, however, we have to decide that, in fact, there is a Reformed identity to embrace. We must decide that we’re not a mere subset of contemporary evangelicalism, (and retrospectively considered, we never were). So long as we continue to see ourselves as just another branch of the larger evangelical movement we shall never realize our potential. So long as it is the case that our worship is indistinguishable from broad evangelicalism, so long as we continue to parrot the latest evangelical trend, we will continue to provide no clear alternative to broad evangelicalism. When the latest evangelical fad becomes too much, let our evangelical friends find in us a genuine representation of Reformed theology, piety, and practice and not a poor imitation of contemporary evangelicalism.
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]