Eighth in the Series “Evangelicals in Search of Identity”

Not all proposals for advance necessarily guarantee or even promise dramatic evangelical breakthrough. Some may, however, be helpful in arresting fragmentation and in promoting a degree of progress.

1. The basic evangelical need is not for structural reorganization of a paraconciliar sort, nor for a channeling of evangelical bodies into currently existing conciliar structures. The future of the ecumenical cause lies neither in least-common-denominator cooperation nor in ecumenical pluralism that fixes attention on sheer numbers and aggregate weight. What evangelical renewal does require is recovery of the larger sense of evangelical family, in which fellow believers recognize their common answerability to God in his scripturally given Word and their responsibility for and to one another within the body of faith. Unless the new society gains visibility as an identifiable fellowship of holy love, righteousness, and joy, Christians will speak to the chaotic fragmentation of national life only in terms of isolated individual faith that needlessly forfeits corporate vitality.

In short, evangelical Christians must repent of the radical independence that aligns believers against believers in a spirit of competition and even of suspicion and judgment. In this context it would be interesting to trace the origin of such pejorative terms as “evangelical establishment,” “neo’s,” and “fundys,” terms that recall the Pauline censure of those who insisted ‘ “I am Paul’s man,’ or ‘I am for Apollos’; ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I am Christ’s.’ ” “Surely,” the Apostle exclaimed, “Christ has not been divided among you!” (1 Cor. 1:12, 13, NEB). What does it mean in the present circumstances of an increasingly divided evangelicalism to invite the world to a fellowship quickened by the Risen Lord and indwelt by the Holy Spirit? The most promising steps in a new direction may best be ventured not in national or regional conventions but in local fellowships where neighbors and townspeople affirm their oneness in Christ.

Much of American Christianity is moving into a post-denominational, contra-conciliar, and non-institutional era in which multitudes are reaching above all else for Christ’s headship over the Church, for dynamic renewal by the Spirit, for the light of the authoritative Scriptures on their problems, and for an extended spiritual family that demonstrates New Testament vitalities within a notably godless society. The cohesive shelter of spiritual unity becomes the more urgent as previous alternatives become increasingly dysfunctional.

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This is not to say that structural concerns are unimportant. Institutions are indispensable to any movement’s durability, and it is a mark of maturity when evangelicals realize that institutions must be properly nurtured and cultivated and their goals persistently deepened. But evangelicals, who in the realm of secular social concern have long emphasized that significant renewal will not be brought about by an altering of social structures without personal change, need now to apply this conviction to their own growing disunity.

2. The presentation of a rationale for Christian faith is an evangelical imperative. While it is true that the evangelical movement is conspicuously evangelistic, many disenchanted liberal and even neo-orthodox observers think conservative Christianity is growing not because its positions are intellectually tenable but rather because of its emphasis on an intimate personal relationship with God, prayer, and inner devotional experience. Evangelicals cannot effectively confront the anti-intellectualism and intellectual vagrancy of recent modern theology by overlooking intellectual problems and pressing hurriedly for decision.

To be sure, the call for prompt evangelistic commitment commendably enlists many whose lives are emotionally frayed and volitionally frustrated. But it often turns off those who argue that a leap into intellectual darkness exerts no more claim to be authentically Christian than to be subjectively mystical; others it leaves vulnerable to doctrinal counter-claims.

Neither piety nor moralism alone can hope to prevail over the dismal ethical decline of our day, nor will a blurred presentation of beliefs seriously challenge today’s radical secularism and existential subjectivity. Instead of feeling threatened by secular concepts with which they cannot agree, evangelical Christians need to raise up a rationally competent generation that is both literate in the humanities and articulate in its beliefs. Interest in serious theological literature has so deteriorated that some classic landmark books sold two generations ago would now hold little publication appeal. Many evangelical writers today are riding the crest of apocalyptic, charismatic, and personal-confession fads. Sales of religious books as such have zoomed in this decade of shifting beliefs and values; one in every four American families buys at least one religious book every year. The Bible continues to outsell all other religious works, but apart from that reader interest centers in personal-experience-oriented material.

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Theological superficiality in congregations often reflects theological leanness in the pulpit. Some ministerial counselors have noted that clergy in continuing-education classes frequently choose case-study courses that presumably help them cope with conflict-situations with church leaders; meanwhile congregations long for theological preaching that illumines their own problems.

The high diversification of short-interest literature among both Catholics and non-evangelicals discourages secular religious publishers from serious commitments; in some cases religion departments are being absorbed into the general publications program. In evangelical circles, however, serious religious reading continues to maintain a notable foothold, and the number of laymen who seek a literate faith is on the rise. Zondervan and Word have joined Eerdmans in scheduling scholarly works of intellectual merit, and new marketing techniques are confirming the suspicion that a substantial and appreciative market exists for theologically significant publications.

The most influential theological scholarship will doubtless continue to be that by devoted individuals who earnestly grapple with the problems of the day; enduring systematic theology is not done by symposium or team effort, however valuable such joint ventures continue to be. The present crisis in theology—a period in which the most influential ecumenical scholars disagree over the very nature and task of the discipline—calls qualified evangelicals to invest their fullest energies to produce serious theological, philosophical, and biblical literature across the entire spectrum of theological controversy and engagement. To expedite this task evangelicals might well take inventory of international resources, including both existing literature and qualified scholars. If areas of need were defined and competent scholars were enlisted to grapple with them both independently and cooperatively, the many fields of inquiry could be competently covered.


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