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?