How Evangelicals Became Theological Liberals

Evangelical Christianity has long been known for its emphasis on theological orthodoxy, a high view of Scripture, and an adherence to sound doctrine. Indeed, one of the defining distinctions between evangelicals and theological liberals over the past few centuries was the fact that evangelicals took the Bible seriously and saw sound doctrine as essential for the Christian life.

These were distinguishing features of evangelicalism and unashamedly so. But all that is now being undone. For various reasons many evangelicals are caving in and capitulating to the surrounding culture. That includes buying into relativism, subjectivism, and worldly notions of tolerance, acceptance and the like.

Truth is no longer championed, the Word of God is no longer seen as the supreme authority, and biblical morality is now seen as passé and restrictive. Doctrine has been abandoned and feelings have been put on a pedestal. Personal preference now reigns supreme in many church circles, and those who stand strong on biblical doctrine are dissed as being narrow-minded, judgmental and unloving.

Many of our biggest and most popular megachurches in the West today are the most reluctant to proclaim the hard truths of Scripture, to stand strong on doctrine, and to clearly and faithfully exposit Scripture on a regular basis. Instead we have entertainment galore, and a celebrity culture.

theology 15There are some notable exceptions of course, but on the whole, most of our big churches are competing with each other to see who can have the most hip and groovy entertainment experience. The black auditoriums, the strobe lights and the smoke machines are often top priorities, while the Word of God and its proclamation – especially on the hard issues of the day – are noticeable by their absence.

Thus today most of the clear Christian distinctives once fought for and championed have all but disappeared. Sin is almost never heard of in so many of these megachurches. The wrath of God is certainly not heard about. Hell is never mentioned.

The two distinct humanities and their eternal fate is seldom mentioned. The holiness of God is hardly even spoken of. The need for repentance is just the stuff of a bygone era. I have even heard contemporary pastors in large churches saying all this stuff was maybe OK to discuss back then, but not today.

All this stands in marked contrast to evangelicalism of several centuries gone by. If one simply looks at the various warnings and clarion calls for orthodoxy by the evangelical leaders of the recent past, we see how much of a contrast there now is to what we find today.

They fought with all their might to retain core biblical truths no matter how much they were attacked, ignored or downplayed by everyone else – both within and without of the church. Let’s consider just a few of these voices. H. Richard Neibuhr warned about this very thing for example.

Although he was not a conservative evangelical by any means, he rightly lamented in his 1937 volume The Kingdom of God in America the emptiness of liberal Protestant theology in which “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

As was said in the 19th century about the religious scene in America’s northeast, especially about the Unitarians congregated in and around Boston, this liberal theology comprised three elements: ‘the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighbourhood of Boston’.

One stalwart of the importance of biblical truth and doctrine was of course B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). In a 1916 article he wrote this:

The habit of calling ‘Evangelical’ everything which was from time to time characteristic of that church or which any strong party in that church wished to make characteristic of it—has ended in robbing the term of all meaning. Along a somewhat different pathway we have arrived at the same state of affairs in America. Does anybody in the world know what ‘Evangelical’ means, in our current religious speech?
The other day, a professedly evangelical pastor, serving a church which is certainly committed by its formularies to an evangelical confession, having occasion to report in one of our newspapers on a religious meeting composed practically entirely of Unitarians and Jews, remarked with enthusiasm upon the deeply evangelical character of its spirit and utterances.
But we need not stop with ‘Evangelical.’ Take an even greater word. Does the word ‘Christianity’ any longer bear a definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is…
We hear of Christianity without dogma, Christianity without miracle, Christianity without Christ. Since, however, Christianity is a historical religion, an undogmatic Christianity would be an absurdity; since it is through and through a supernatural religion, a non-miraculous Christianity would be a contradiction; since it is Christianity, a Christless Christianity would be—well, let us say’ lamely (but with a lameness which has perhaps its own emphasis), a misnomer.
People set upon calling unchristian things Christian are simply washing all meaning out of the name. If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing.

Of course entire books were written on all this. One of course was the classic 1923 volume by J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. A few quotes from that classic work are worth sharing here:

But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine. There should certainly be no debate with regard to Paul himself. Paul was not indifferent to doctrine. On the contrary, doctrine was the very basis of his life….
But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance in Galatia, for example. There were rival preachers there too. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8)….
It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.

Another keen defender of biblical doctrine was Anglican layperson Dorothy L. Sayers. Consider a few great lines from her 1940 booklet Creed or Chaos?:

The thing I am here to say to you is this: that it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ….
And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology….
If Christian ministers really believe it is an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored, and bewildered.

Or consider two other great defenders of evangelical truth, writing over a century ago. J. C. Ryle in his 1877 volume Holiness, said this: “Never, never be afraid to hold decided doctrinal opinions; and let no fear of man and no morbid dread of being thought party-spirited, narrow, or controversial, make you rest contented with a bloodless, tasteless, colourless, lukewarm, undogmatic Christianity.”

And William Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, said this in the late 1890’s: “The chief danger of the twentieth century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, and heaven without hell.”

And famous Catholic thinkers have rallied to the importance of doctrine in an age that distains doctrine. G.K. Chesterton said, “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” Or as Fulton Sheen put it:

Modern religion has enunciated one great and fundamental dogma that is at the basis of all the other dogmas, and that is, that religion must be freed from dogmas. Creeds and confessions of faith are no longer the fashion; religious leaders have agreed not to disagree and those beliefs for which some of our ancestors would have died they have melted into a spineless Humanism. Like other Pilates they have turned their backs on the uniqueness of truth and have opened their arms wide to all the moods and fancies the hour might dictate. The passing of creeds and dogmas means the passing of controversies. Creeds and dogmas are social; prejudices are private.

Much more recently Protestant theologian Michael Horton put it this way in Christless Christianity:

Secularism cannot be blamed on the secularists, many of whom were raised in the church. We are the problem. If most churchgoers cannot tell us anything specific about the God they consider meaningful or explain basic doctrines of creation in God’s image, original sin, the atonement, justification, sanctification, the means of grace, or the hope of glory, then the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of secular humanists.

Yes the evangelical world is often its own worst enemy here. We have eschewed sound doctrine, biblical theology and total reliance on the Word of God for whatever the surrounding culture is pushing at the moment. And what it is pushing has nothing to do with the old evangelical verities.

Of course I am quite aware that lifeless orthodoxy is not the solution. We need on-fire, Spirit-filled lives of commitment and dedication to Christ, but we also need a return to basic biblical doctrine. The same John Calvin who said “Zeal without doctrine is like a sword in the hand of a lunatic,” also said this:

“Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart.”

Or as A W Tozer more recently put it. “You can be straight as a gun barrel theologically and as empty as one spiritually.” So the answer to an evangelical church big on emotion and entertainment but weak on teaching and doctrine is not to just reverse things.

We need both. We need orthodoxy and orthopraxis. But at the moment we have very little of the former, leading to a real deficiency in the latter. John Piper ties it all together:

“Right thinking about God exists to serve right feelings for God. Logic exists for the sake of love. Reasoning exists for the sake of rejoicing. Doctrine exists for the sake of delight. Reflection about God exists for the sake of affection for God. The head is meant to serve the heart.”

[2039 words]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.