Has Evangelicalism Lost its Soul?

Recently, Scot McKnight writing in Jesus Creed, a prominent blog for ‘progressive’ evangelicals posted a lament, “The Scandal/Loss of the Evangelical Soul.” He begins with a standard definition of evangelicalism taken from David Debbington with the following pillars: (1) the authority of the Bible, (2) the centrality of the cross, (3) the necessity of personal conversion, and (4) Christian action in evangelism and social work.

McKnight identifies four disturbing signs pointing to the crumbling of evangelicalism: (1) The Bible Diminished, (2) Mission Work Has Become Social Work, (3) Where are the Pastors? And (4) Atonement Confusion.

The consequences are distressing:

The pietist basis of Christian activism in evangelicalism, an activism that was first of all evangelistic, missionary-shaped and church-planting oriented, has been swallowed up by social justice activism. Evangelicalism of the 19th Century was clearly socially-engaged but it was socially engaged as a piety-based and evangelism-based movement…
Along this line, words like sanctification — growth in holiness — and holiness itself are heard only in a small circle of the Neo-Reformed and pervade organizations like The Gospel Coalition. In this they are entirely consistent with the core of what “activism” means in evangelicalism. But outside those circles, who’s writing or preaching or speaking about holiness? Not many. Sanctification among such crowds smacks of Puritanism and we’re back to Jonathan Edwards, and that’s a big No-No. But evangelicalism always had its Wesleyan and holiness and sanctification dimension.
Pride is no longer accorded those who faithfully read and teach the Bible, who glory in the cross of Christ, who preach conversions and transformations, and who are engaged in a piety- and evangelism-based activism that encompasses the whole person.
The center of gravity of too much of evangelicalism has shifted away from these crumbling core themes to something else, but in the process evangelicalism has lost its soul.

Trevin Wax from the Gospel Coalition in his article “Have We Lost the Soul in Evangelicalism?”  agrees that evangelicalism has shifted from the model of evangelicalism exemplified by John Stott and Billy Graham. However, he offers a different take on how this shift took place – it is not disproportionate political activism that causes the crumbling of evangelical pillars; it is the reverse – the crumbling of evangelical pillars leads to disproportionate political activism.

“Contrary to what you may think, the pillars are not disintegrating due to our over-involvement in politics, but the reverse. The evangelical movement is “swamped” in political fervor because the four pillars have crumbled.” The classical confessions have been displaced by “common experience” as the basis for evangelical identity, whereas, “At its best, evangelicalism includes both the confessional and experiential—doctrine plus passion, confession plus conversion. This has been one of the hallmarks of the neo-evangelical movement as a whole.”

However, Wax sees hopes amidst what McKnight sees as crumbling evangelicalism.

“Where are the pastors?” They are in some of the fastest-growing seminaries in the country, which tend to put a high emphasis on both the confessional and experiential sides of evangelical identity.”
Where are the scholars and authors who maintain a full-orbed view of the atonement? I see them in places like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, or highlighted by The Gospel Coalition, where the defense of penal substitution as a central motif of the atonement does not preclude the wider angles of what Christ’s work has accomplished. (It can, at times, but I think this criticism is overblown.)
The soul of evangelicalism has not been lost. It has shifted. It is shining out from doctrinally conservative and devotionally committed evangelicals—those represented in large part by denominations and networks that lean to the right theologically.
What Scot laments is the loss of evangelicalism’s soul in center-left to far-left circles, where, unfortunately, the experiential elements of evangelical identity became paramount, leading to theological drift that robbed churchgoers of the gravity of eternal judgment, the authority and relevance of Scripture to today’s situation, and the urgency of conversionistic evangelism.

Sober thoughts for Malaysian evangelicals, or, would it be the case that Malaysian church leaders don’t really care? This would only confirm our worst fears that Malaysian evangelicalism has indeed drifted far from its classical heritage which is integral, that is, confessional-pietist and evangelistic-activistic.

But if God is sovereign and merciful to his church – wherein lies the silver lining in the dark clouds?

3 thoughts on “Has Evangelicalism Lost its Soul?”

  1. That evangelicalism in so many areas and in some parts of the world seems to be drifting away from such fundamentals as the Bible as God’s inerrant word, penal substitution, biblical morality etc is deeply worrying. The excellent little book by John Stott, “Christ the Controversialist” rewards serious study for these troubling times. But one must also wonder whether support for the current American president given his insensitivity, prejudices, character and controversial alliances, by many who would regard themselves as evangelical ( and reformed), is the best way of ensuring that our light shines before all people inorder that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.

  2. I try very hard not to join debates on USA politics, especially in these days when accurate information is hard to come by as mainstream media no longer care to present non-partisan news. But, there I go where angels who are better informed fear to tread.

    Briefly, I will just say that whether one votes for Trump or Hillary is NOT an evangelical essential. But I think it is fair to give evangelicals who voted for Trump the benefit of doubt that they did not make a hasty and blind decision, but agonized over and grappled with conflicting concerns. Both candidates have big character flaws. Trump’s flaws are pretty obvious and leave a bad taste to voters (for both Christians and non-Christians, and especially women) looking for evangelical virtues. The voters are also disgusted by allegations of Trump’s sexual indiscretion.

    Hillary’s political record is strewn with a long trail of allegations of corruption (eg. funding for the Clinton foundation, looting White House, her hacked private server etc, her ‘evolving’ moral position on abortion and homosexuality and same-sex ‘marriage’. She is no innocent given her complicity with the Obama administration in the abuse of power over IRS targeting political opponents, Benghazi disaster lies, illegal immigration voters (much like BN’s Project IC in Sabah), etc. Hillary also cannot be dissociated from the Obama’s administration and liberal court judges’ assistance to LGBT movement in a relentless war/campaign to drive Christians away from the public arena, colleges and other public institutions etc. In the end, it is not only evangelicals, but many non-Christians who also had a hard time deciding whether to vote for Hillary.

    All these complicated issues forced evangelicals to make the ‘better’ of two very bad choices. In the end, for many evangelicals what possibly tipped the balance was the issue that the next President will be appointing at least one Supreme Court judge when SCOTUS was at a fine-balance. Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court judges are appointed for life.

    SO, will all their aversions, many evangelicals held the noses and voted for Trump. The elections outcome: The good news is that Hillary lost, the bad news is that Trump won. Did the evangelicals make the right choice? Only time will tell.

    In any case it is not the President but the ‘winner’ in the ongoing Presidential-Activist Supreme Court-Congress fracas who runs the USA. Regardless, all the signs are that a divided USA is in decline (not sure how Trump can reverse history and ‘Make America Great Again’) will lose its global domination. We are in for a troubled world which requires what is hopefully a benevolent top dog.

    Obviously, I hold to a Hobbesian view of global politics rather than a Kantian view of cosmopolitan politics. In the end, Christians don’t look to the USA or the West for the prospering of the global Church and the Kingdom of God. Salvation in the end does not come from kings/presidents (whether East or West) but from God alone.

    In matters of ambivalent politics, evangelicals need to give each other freedom to vote according to their hopefully, enlightened conscience. Yes, everything is politics, but politics is not everything. The life and light of the church should be set on a hill and not placed under borrowed tainted political lampshades.

    Time to pray and rededicate our lives to serve God with new vigor in times of danger an opportunity, especially with increasing political abuse of power and rising religious extremism in Malaysia.

  3. Dr. Kam Weng’s analysis of the liberal agenda and Hilary Clinton’s qualifications ( or deficiencies) for office are beyond reproach. The crucial question though is, how enlightened was the conscience of those who voted for Trump? Let me illustrate this by two experiences separated by more than thirty years. I was working at the chemistry department,University of Southampton in the mid 1980’s and lived on the top floor of an apartment not far from the university. I was shocked to discover that a rather nice Italian lady who lived on the ground floor of the same apartment had been a supporter of Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. Her justification was that Mussonlini had given many Italians like her dignity and jobs whereas you English, she said giving me a stern look, considered people like her to be dirty foreigners. I might add that though I was born in England and a British citizen, my parental birthplace was Sierra Leone, West Africa, so I suppose I am English though descended from freed slaves Centuries ago.( Her remarks had, you must admit, a delicious irony).
    The second incident or collection of incidents of the same type, happened in wake of Trump’s success. In expressing my horror at the election result, a dear brother remarked that I had ignored the fact that Obama had appointed many muslims to senior positions in his administration. ( Are anti Islam sentIments like these helpful to our witness?) I heard one American complain on the news during the election campaign that immigration ( presumably by Mexicans etc) had destroyed the job prospects for people like him. He voted Trump. Another lady complained she had no wish to be a minority in her own country. She voted Trump. Yet another remarked in the wake of Trump’s views on women that Amercans were voting for a president not a pope. She also voted Trump.
    A pastor and Trump supporter, I saw on the news recently, was campaigning to ensure that no refugees be allowed to come to live in his town concerned as he was with Sharia law and their higher birth rates. The tragic pictures of refugees fleeing Syria were a matter of indifference to him. What would The Lord Jesus say?

    Now the USA is not Nazi Germany ( at least not yet, Trump’s reported views on the value of torture for suspected terrorists notwithstanding). We should nevertheless remember that conditions imposed by the allies on a defeated Germany after the First World War resulted in her humiliation. The army was restricted to 100,000 men, the navy to a token force. The Germans were instructed by the British that if they did not sign the treaty a blockade around Germany would be erected. The Germans knew that this meant starvation and the deadline for their reply wa set for 24th June 1919. Not surprisingly the German republic was blamed. The German mark fell to 7000 marks per dollar. The Germans defaulted on their war payments. French troops occupied the Ruhr area, the German industrial heartland. The German economy was asphyxiated. For Trump’s expression ” American carnage” ( admittedly under different circumstances), you can substitute “German carnage”. The church in Germany perhaps in particular the Lutherans, were ripe for takeover by Hitler’s extremist philosophy. Hegelian dialectic philosophy seemed to leave little room for Christian humility. What was needed according to some was a religion suitable for the German temperament. According to Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Christianity was the most seductive lie that has ever existed. Liberal German theology attempted to demythologise the New Testament. The preparation for Hitler was well underway.
    Surely in these unstable times we would be wise not to repeat the errors of the past.The point is that economic circumstances prevalent today:globalization, TPPA, Islam and terrorism, rampart liberalism, have all contributed to a siege mentality both in the USA and to a degree elsewhere. Xenophobia has not lost its seductive and destructive power simply because the devil and father of lies as always prowls about seeking someone to devour. Jews in Israel who have accepted Christ refuse to call themselves Christians I am told. preferring the term “messianic Jews”. The memory of anti semitism and the tragedy of the church’s role in it is still very much present. Much prayer and reflection is needed. May we continue to turn to God with contrite hearts inorder that he might turn to us.

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