Dog Bites Man; Evangelicalism is Collapsing (Again)

The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, wrote an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor (you know, the Mary Baker Eddy Christian Science Monitor — so it must be true), on the impending demise of evangelicalism.   The piece has received lots of attention and been forwarded around the e-superhighway; I received at least three emails with links to it.

What accounts for the editorial’s popularity, aside from Matt Drudge having linked it on his site?  One reason has to be Spencer’s contention that evangelicals have let politics overwhelm the gospel, and not just any politics, but the politics of the Right.  Spencer writes:

Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

This is, of course, true, but it is nothing new.  American Protestants of the revivalist persuasion have long tied gospel proclamation to social reform.  This was the argument of my advisor, Timothy L. Smith, in Revivalism and Social Reform.  And this twin commitment to converted individuals and reformed society is what laid the foundation for the Protestant mainline, the ecumenical movement, the Social Gospel, and the compromise of historic Protestantism.

(Aside from the oddity of getting hysterical over a reality almost two hundred years old, Spencer does not seem to think it possible to be a conservative Protestant and a conservative American without mingling or confusing those identities, seeing one as what’s good for the church, the other as what’s healthy about the American polity.  But that’s a conversation for another time.)

Spencer’s conclusion is that evangelicalism needs a funeral.  Still, he is hopeful.  He thinks that if evangelicalism can find its charismatic self it can recover its spiritual vitality, and that if  the evangelicals leaving the fold for Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism can still appreciate their evangelical pasts a basis for Christian unity may result.

We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.

Mark Galli, one of the editors at Christianity Today, drew the short straw and wrote a reply that proves precisely why Spencer is wrong, why evangelicalism will continue, why the gates of hell and the corridors of power will not prevail against it.  Galli says that evangelicalism is:

a word that describes a phenomenon that transcends time and place. British historian David Bebbington talks about it in terms of certain theological emphases and behaviors (crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism). I think of it more as a religious mood. It is a spiritual sensibility that includes pessimism about human nature, a longing to be converted from the worst of our selves, mystical moments when Jesus Christ is experienced, a conviction that nothing can be redeemed without suffering and that resurrection is ultimate reality, and a passion to make a difference in the world.

Galli adds that evangelicalism runs from Paul, to Anthony of the Desert, Francis of Assisi, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

And that is why evangelicalism will not go away.  It is simply the beautiful vision of Christianity in the eye of the beholder.  It is no respecter of creeds, churches, liturgies, or even scholarly analysis.  It is the form of Christianity that lets me be me, or whatever I want it to be.  Anyone can define evangelicalism any way they want.

Collapse?  Heck, it’s never been healthier.


34 thoughts on “Dog Bites Man; Evangelicalism is Collapsing (Again)

  1. Hi Darryl…
    The Christian Science Monitor piece was a truncated version of a 3-part series of posts that Spencer did recently. I thought the originals were clearer, more nuanced, and more detailed than the final CSM-article version. There’s probably still plenty there to debate/disagree with, but at least you get more context and some specifics. Spencer has collected those 3 posts here:


  2. I’ll recycle comments I made on this article at another blog:

    First, I might be biased, because I’ve never figured out what the attraction of the Internet Monk was.

    Second, I tried to give the article a chance, but right off the bat, his claim that “In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished” is at best debatable. Towards the end of the 20th c. evangelicalism flourished, but in the first half of the century, the common wisdom would not have seen much of a future for Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and Evangelicalism (to whatever extent there was something called evangelicalism).

    Third, I’m using _Prophecies of Godlessness_ in my Religion in America class, which traces the enduring theme of predictions (whether as warning or celebration) of the imminent disappearance of religion in America. It provides some perspective.

    And fourth, of course therapeutic consumer-driven megachurches are going to collapse. Haven’t the likes of Os Guinness, John Seel, and Mike Horton been predicting this for over a decade?


  3. Even though I’m no longer “Confessionally Reformed” I am glad to see this site.

    I’ve never been much of a fan of the “iMonk” either, but at times he makes some interesting posts.

    I think that he is right to the extent that the country is becoming less and less Christian. More and more people are identifying as atheists, agnostics, etc. and fewer and fewer seem to identify with any semblance of Biblical Christianity. Of course it remains to be seen whether his predictions come to pass, but it’s not difficult to foresee such a scenario, especially if you assume that much of “evangelicalism” today is culturally based.

    This can be seen even in the “Bible Belt.” To borrow a phrase from Mencken, evangelicalism has been “down with a wasting disease” for some time and of course to a large extent his diagnosis is nothing new. Schaeffer, Wells, Guinness and many others have been saying similar things for decades.

    The abject failure of the “New Evangelicalism” coupled with the disaster of hyperseparatistic, legalistic fundamentalism that wasn’t fundamental enough in many respects (both of which seemed to move in opposite directions in reaction to each other) was the biggest disaster to befall evangelicalism in the 20th Century.


  4. DGH
    I have noticed something about the way we have looked at this subject that may cast some light on why we take a different approach to the use of the term ‘evangelical’. When people like Hodge, Shedd and Warfield use the term they did it in a way that was pretty much synomous with ‘Protestant’,i.e. those who could affirm the distinctive ‘solas’ of the Reformation. They did not ( to my knowledge) ever speak of ‘Evangelicalism’ as such.


  5. The iMonk should appeal to you in this sense: like Warfield he believes in theistic evolution. He also shares, of course, Warfield’s downgrade on the Word of God that made you all finger-crossers when you claim to hold to the very first chapter, and supremely important chapter, of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    The iMonk probably wouldn’t appeal to you in this sense: he’s not much of a reader. Claims on his blog he has ADD and it’s difficult for him to concentrate on books rather than blog posts and magazine articles.


  6. Christian
    “Warfield believed in theistic evolution” -What do you base that on? BBW never claimed to be any such thing. He catagorically affirmed the complete historicity of the opening chapters of Genesis with special emphasis on a real Adam and Eve and a time ,space historical Fall( serpent included). If you will take time to carefully read Warfield ( and not just well intended folk like my former professor Mark Noll),you will discover that he makes a distinction when spaking about the subject of evolution in terms of macro vs. micro-a very important distinction and as such BBW was no more a ‘theistic evolutionist’ than John Calvin!


  7. Look at the last three bullet points on this page:

    Here is one of them:

    “An example of mediate creation in Warfield’s thought would be the creation of Adam. His body could have been created by a long evolutionary process as postulated by Darwin, et al. However, the creation of his spirit, by divine in-breathing, was a supernatural act of creation. He gives the formation of the God-man Jesus Christ as another example. And as a “creationist” rather than a “traducianist” he also saw the ongoing formation of human beings as acts of mediate creation.”

    Enough said.

    Read all the bullet points. The author has obviously made a genuine effort to distill Warfield’s nuances on the subject. The sum of it all, though, as you can see hardly pardons him from a belief in theistic evolution. It is the typical: “I don’t believe in theistic evolution, however…”

    He attempted the same liberal nuances regarding his downgrade on the Word of God. Read Letis for that, which I know you have and are probably still in denial.


  8. “The terms macroevolution and microevolution were first coined in 1927 by the Russian entomologist Iuri’i Filipchenko (or Philipchenko, depending on the transliteration), in his German-language work Variabilität und Variation…”

    Year of B. B. Warfield’s death: 1921.

    The ongoing dance of the Darwinian evolutionists to avoid the bullets shot at their feet by evolution skeptics did not involve the macro/micro distinction in Warfield’s day. And to cite the macro/micro distinction the way you have is very, very modern in terms of it being used against the evolutionists.

    Question: do you believe in evolution? Answer: micro, yes. So did dog breeders in 400 AD. Do I think fish turned into race horses? No.

    That’s how we talk to evolutionists in this day and age, that type of snarkiness wasn’t happening in Warfield’s day. Darwinists hadn’t exposed this weakness yet, or conceded it implicitly.


  9. Christian: thanks for the links to Letis and the APC. Let me get this straight, you complain on this blog about Reformed academics. But wasn’t Dr. Letis an academic, and a Reformed one at that? Can you explain how you discern a good academic from a bad one? (Warfield didn’t even have a Ph.D.) Also, since the APC administers the sacraments, isn’t it also guilty of perpetuating Romish garbage? At least in the Roman Catholic church I can get a drink.


  10. >Ah, yes -Theodore Letis ,I should have guessed.We might as well be discussing the lost city of Atlantis.

    That’s an outrageous statement, and you know it. You’re banking on the fact that the majority of followers of Reformed academics simply don’t know the issues Letis wrote on. Your statement represents two things we find in Reformed academia: shallowness (Letis simply wrote of things that are beyond your ‘interests’) and a resort to sophistic dishonesty as your main tactic to defend the indefensible. Not impressive.


  11. >Christian: thanks for the links to Letis and the APC.

    I couldn’t find the link to Letis. It is his B. B. Warfield, Common-Sense Philosophy and Biblical Criticism.

    >Let me get this straight, you complain on this blog about Reformed academics. But wasn’t Dr. Letis an academic, and a Reformed one at that?

    I refer to the shallowness of modern day Reformed seminaries on little subjects such as the Word of God, and also of the shallowness in graduates of modern day Reformed seminaries in falling back on ritualism and clericalism due directly to their shallowness on the Word of God. On the other point, if my memory serves me, I am pretty sure Letis was not Reformed in a denominational sense. I’m thinking he could have been Lutheran, but I could be wrong on that.

    >Can you explain how you discern a good academic from a bad one? (Warfield didn’t even have a Ph.D.)

    With Reformed academics and Reformed doctrine itself we have the standard of history to go by. Ph.Ds can be in accord with the standard but they are not the standard. On the subject of the Word of God the standard clearly was abandoned in the 19th century. Remove the foundation and the building isn’t worth much after that.

    >Also, since the APC administers the sacraments, isn’t it also guilty of perpetuating Romish garbage? At least in the Roman Catholic church I can get a drink.

    There’s a difference between the Romish garbage of sacerdotalism, including sacerdotalism-lite that is ritualism and clericalism, and what Reformed doctrine teaches (what the Bible teaches). It is the difference between holding to baptismal regeneration and knowing that regeneration is effected, when it is, by the Word and the Spirit.

    When you’re shallow on the Word (i.e. you can’t even see the 19th century downgrade), though, you’re shallow on the Spirit.

    In this sense Calvin was a bare foot mystic compared to the common Reformed seminary graduate of today.


  12. Here’s a quote from the Letis essay:

    I quote from Letis’ essay “B. B. Warfield, Common-Sense Philosophy and Biblical Criticism” (in The Ecclesiastical Text”, pp. 26-27):

    Only eight years after Warfield’s death [in Feb 1921], the higher criticism entered Princeton and the seminary was reorganized to accommodate this. The facile certainty that Westcott and Hort’s system seem to offer Warfield evaporated. Later text critics abandoned the hope of reconstructing a “neutral” text and today despair of ever discovering an urtext, the final resting ground of Warfield’s doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. Warfield had given earnest expression to his hope that,

    The autographic text of the New Testament is distinctly within the reach of criticism….we cannot despair of restoring to ourselves and the church of God, His book, word for word, as He gave it by inspiration to men. [“The Rights of Criticism and of the Church”, The Presbyterian (April 13, 1892):15]

    Fifty years later, the Harvard text critic, Kirsopp Lake, offered a more modest assessment:

    In spite of the claims of Westcott and Hort….we do not know the original form of the Gospels, and it is quite likely that we never shall. [Family 13 (The Ferrar Group (Phila., The Univ. of Penn. Press, 1941), p. vii]

    Warfield’s Common Sense adoption of German methods would be more fully developed by others at Princeton who would no longer find his appendage of the inerrant autographs theory either convincing, or any longer relevant for N.T. studies.

    Make no mistake about it, Warfield’s textual theories, taken in good faith from Westcott and Hort – which he was open to after his studies in German criticism at the University of Leipzig in 1876 – single-handedly turned the Reformed Communities from their former view of the WCF and its prizing the texts-in-hand to the (what turned out to be) never-to-be-found-or-restored autographic texts. This was the watershed. And today men of good intentions seek to make the best of it, developing theories and stances so as to defend what they say is a trustworthy Bible.


  13. Let me say as clearly as I can. Letis’s whole hypothesis is as badly flawed as that being advanced by the Answers In Genesis folk. A.I.G. contend that Old Princeton fell into the hands of the liberals because Hodge and Warfield went soft on Darwinian evolution. Letis, on the other hand, puts the blame solely on Warfield’s misguided confidence in the Westcott/Hort textual theories. Van Til( who I knew and discussed this with him on more than one occasion) would roll on the ground laughing at either of these suggestions. Old Princeton fell because of the vision of the seminary president J.Ross Stevenson and English Bible professor Charles Erdman, who wanted to turn Princeton into a seminary that would reflect the broader views of the PCUSA,i.e. as represented by the infamous Auburn Affirmation. This was secured when the seminary was reorganized and the board reconstituted with two members who actually signed the Auburn Affirmation.This is what prompted Machen & co. to leave and found Westminster. So I repeat myself ,this had absolutely NOTHING to do with either of the distortions being advanced by the A.I.G. people or Ted Letis & co.


  14. Gary’s right. In fact, — though he would not put it this way — PTS was taken over by non-doctrinal evangelicals. There wasn’t a liberal within 30 miles of the campus. Plus, any single-cause theory of theological decline is simplistic even if reassuring.


  15. Christian: eight years after Warfield’s death, Barthianism rose up at PTS to take the place of BBW, not liberal higher criticism. And btw, your theory does not account for Warfield’s views on the Bible prevailing at WTS. You may want to try to blame Warfield for Enns. If you do, please let me know. I’ll be sure to watch that show.


  16. DGH
    Yes, and that was one reason Van Til told us ‘you are not Evangelicals!’ It was the self-professed middle-of-the-road Evangelicals like Erdman that led the to the demise of Old Princeton. Something Van Til never forgot.


  17. Reassure yourselves all you want. The Word of God is foundational. You miss this because your valuation for the Word of God is the valuation critical text scholars have instilled in you.

    As for this:

    “Have you ever taken a course in textual criticism-can you read Greek? If not, put a lid on it.”

    You can’t shut God’s elect up, default Romanist. Go kiss your pope’s ring. Either one. Whichever one gives you the most pleasure. (Yes I know you will delete this before your pathetic friend can see it, DG Hart. You are followers of the Beast, and you are fortunate you still have time to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before I and my King hunt you down on the coming day.)


  18. (not so) Christian: the beast I follow these days, if you must know, is a three-year old, eight pound chatty cat named Isabelle. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were threatening me.


  19. “You can’t shut God’s elect up, default Romanist. Go kiss your pope’s ring. Either one. Whichever one gives you the most pleasure. (Yes I know you will delete this before your pathetic friend can see it, DG Hart. You are followers of the Beast, and you are fortunate you still have time to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before I and my King hunt you down on the coming day.)”

    WOW, first you can read hearts, now you can tell who is and who isn’t regenerate! Do you know Darth Vader by any chance?


  20. Paging Nick Mackison: how is that hash committee coming along? Some here could use a relaxing counter-measure to the ‘shrooms clearly being popped.


  21. Zrim, I got so chilled out, I didn’t get round to organising the committee. What’s in the fridge…?

    I love Christian’s winsome approach, i.e. agree with me or I’ll kill you. He’s clearly read Brian McLaren.


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