Is The Neo-Evangelical Coalition Worth Saving?

Yesterday 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 coalition and what are its attractions and problems? Let us go back to the Reformation for a moment to set a baseline. As 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 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 were 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 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.

Protestant Confessionalists: A Neglected Category

In the midst of the various trans-denominational movements there have always been outliers. Perhaps Wax would call them separatists but that would not be correct in the least. There were confessionalists in the in seventeenth century who dissented from Pietism. It has never been the case that piety means pietism. These are two distinct things. John Thomson was an orthodox, confessional minister in the American Colonies who dissented from the First Great Awakening. In the nineteenth century there were those who dissented from the Second Great Awakening, e.g., the early John Williamson Nevin or B. B. Warfield at Princeton. Even Charles Hodge lived uneasily with the movement. When we think of Hodge we do not think of an evangelical. We think of a Presbyterian. In the early twentieth century, J. Gresham Machen made common cause with fundamentalists and others in defense of ecumenical Christian truth but he did so as a confessional Presbyterian.

Thus, we come to Trevin Wax’s essay, which is a defense of the coalitions and the impulse to restore and preserve something of the old neo-evangelical movement and its precursors in Pietism and Revivalism. He appeals not to a ecclesiastical confession but to some respected representatives of the old neo-evangelical establishment,  e.g., John Stott, J. I. Packer and to some respected leaders of the newer coaltional movement, e.g. Tim Keller. This is indicative of the nature of the neo-evangelical project. It was always organized around great personalities and the successor movements are just as dependent upon them. They are still children of the First and Second Great Awakenings. They seek to perpetuate Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley and Reformed confessionalists are the John Thomsons of our time.

He is worried about the “ex-evangelical movement” and “the debates of the last decade” which seem to have “jeopardized one of the primary insights from this cross-denominational renewal movement—that the gospel in its biblical fullness frees us from the false choice between a separationist fundamentalism that personalizes the gospel to the detriment of its public implications, and a social gospel liberalism that prostitutes the gospel for other agendas by shedding fundamental doctrines that get in the way of ‘progress’.”

His paradigm has only two choices: separationist fundamentalism (e.g., Bob Jones) and “social gospel liberalism.” He positions the leaders of the neo-evangelical coalition (he names Carl Henry and Billy Graham) as heirs of the Reformation and thus links the evangelical movement of the Reformation directly to the neo-evangelical movement.

The (neo) evangelicals he wants to emulate opposed the liberals on Scripture, rejected separatism, and “sought to recapture the ethos of earlier Protestant leaders like John Wesley and Richard Allen, Amy Carmichael and William Wilberforce—men and women who embraced the fundamental truths of Christianity and demonstrated the power of the gospel in ways that shaped the culture.”

I honestly do not recall the neo-evangelicals invoking the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen (1760–1831) but they certainly did see themselves as their heirs of the earlier coalitions among the revivalists and social reformers and like the neo-evangelicals before him, Wax wants to organize evangelicals around two core convictions: the truthfulness of Scripture and social influence.

His appeal to the Reformation is interesting. Were we to ask Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and their successors what it was that made them evangelical, the first thing out their mouths would have been the gospel of salvation sola gratiasola fide and a commitment to unique, final authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura). Are these the marks of coaltional evangelicals? It does not seem so. Where the confessing Reformed churches have drawn a line in the sand regarding the so-called New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision, the coalitional movements have been indifferent to them.

The next thing out of the mouths of the Protestants was their affirmation of ecclesiastically sanctioned confessions. These were all churchmen who identified with particular traditions and a particular view of the church and sacraments. Evangelical in the sixteenth century did not mean what it came to mean in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, few of the neo-evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century would have been recognized as evangelicals in the Reformation. Inasmuch as most of them were Baptists their relationship to the Reformation was, as people say, complicated. They wanted to have the Reformation solas without the Reformation doctrines of church and sacraments.

When I taught briefly at Wheaton College I used to ask my students to which churches Luther and Calvin belonged and they typically knew or could guess. When, however, I asked them about the churches to which Graham, Ockenga, and Henry belonged they were completely puzzled. They knew the names. We were, after all, in the Billy Graham Center but they could not say to which churches the leaders of the neo-evangleical movement belonged because, for the most part, those church traditions were immaterial to the major work of those figures.

Then there is Machen. He was a fundamentalist in the original sense of the word but he was not a narrow separatist of the sort we now associate with the word fundamentalist. He was a great defender of the ecumenical fundamentals of the historic Christian faith and quite willing to make common cause with others of like mind but he did so not as an evangelical in the modern sense but as a Presbyterian who confessed the Westminster Standards. As Darryl Hart has been reminding us for a few decades, there is another category, which Wax omits in his taxonomy: Protestant confessionalists.

The difference between Protestant confessionalists and the neo-evangelicals is that, though we are willing to make common cause with others who share our concern for the ecumenical truths of the Christian faith—we are not sectarians in that sense of the word—the neo-evangelical agenda is both too reductionist and too ambitious. By all means let us uphold the historic Christian doctrine of Scripture. We should bless the neo-evangelicals and others who fought the Battle for the Bible against the progressive evangelicals just as we should bless the original fundamentalists for standing on Scripture against the liberals and higher critics but there is more to be affirmed.

For confessional Protestants our identity is not first of all with the trans-denominational coalitions nor with social improvement but with the Scripture as confessed by the churches and in the churches. We are evangelicals in the Reformation sense of the word. Pietism did not advance the Reformation and neither did the revivalist movements. Certainly Christians want to engage the culture from a Christian perspective but the outcome of that engagement does not belong to us. Bob Godfrey is right to criticize the “myth of influence,” which animates the evangelical coalitional movements. Is this separatism? Not at all. It was the Reformation who gave us the doctrine of vocation and it is under that rubric that we engage God’s world as citizens of his twofold kingdom but these categories are largely alien to the coalitional evangelical movements.

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. We should speak to our culture as confessing Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Anglicans and not as “evangelicals.” Let Christians meet on what Mike Horton calls “the Village Green” to talk but let us return to our own homes and rooms, as it were, i.e., to the visible church, her confession, and her life together, where we actually live the Christian life.

Are we “ex-evangelicals”? That all depends upon how one defines the word evangelical. If the Reformation confessions (e.g., the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism et al.) define evangelical then no, but the word has not signified that for a long time. William Abraham and Donald Dayton are right that the Pietist movements and especially the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transformed the old evangelical identity into something that would be largely unrecognizable to Reformers. They would have condemned both the First and  Second Great Awakenings as enthusiasm. In that regard, the evangelical movement as it has existed after the First Great Awakening and certainly since the early nineteenth century has more to do with Thomas Müntzer than it does with Martin Luther or John Calvin. If so, then the tension between the Reformation and the Sixteenth-Century Radicals remains irreconcilable. The Radicals represented another eschatology, another reading of redemptive history, another ecclesiology, and other ethos. It is not ours and it cannot be.

The life of the confessional Protestant is not in coalitions but in Christ and in his visible, institutional church. It is a life lived in God’s twofold kingdom, organized around the keys of the kingdom and not the keys of the culture.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. The “Village Green” was a successful place in America and its media for talking, hasn’t it been, to anyone, maybe until the Marxist attempt to silence discussion lately? And this was not hammered out in Europe until the religious wars were over post-1648, and in the U.S. until Rhode Island started the forbidding of established churches in its own case? Reluctantly, we have to admit, don’t we, that we didn’t “return to our own homes, as it were, to the visible church” until established churches were not our goal? that we wanted what England officially still has, an established church?

  2. Evangelicalism is nothing if it does not focus on the Gospel of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Our confession is that it is through the preaching of the Good News about Jesus Christ that God calls people to salvation; not through the ministrations of the right organization. Where there is agreement on the person and work of Christ, its appropriation by man, and the authority of the Bible, there should be discussion across dneominational lines.

    • Peter,

      The CREC calls itself a “Communion.” It began as a “Confederation,” which is ironic since the former “presiding minister” (if memory serves) is a great advocate for the League of the South, the Confederacy, and Southern slavery as a benevolent institution.

      The CREC is I, think a federation or a denomination. Acts 29 is a movement. The CREC forms committees and ostensibly exercises discipline over ministers and churches.

      Given the choices, it’s a denomination.

      Does it have the marks of the true church according to Belgic Confession art. 29? No, it does not. It tolerates the Federal Vision (several of the leading proponents are advocates of the FV), which is a corruption of the gospel.

      It tolerates paedocommunion and both infant baptism and Baptist practice. It does not have a pure administration of the sacraments.

      Does it practice discipline? The CREC committee produced a report regarding their “presiding minister” but took no actual steps to do anything about the behavior detailed in the report.

      So, in my opinion (not speaking for my federation or for anyone else) the CREC is a denomination but it is not a true church.

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