Second in a Series

In the first article in this series (January 16) we were noting that the flourishing evangelical renaissance a half-generation ago was not a creation ex nihilo.

Evangelical colleges and Bible institutes were carrying forward a Christian educational heritage forfeited by campuses like Andover, Harvard, and Yale. (Some liberal historians so ignored the founding of their own institutions by evangelical donors that they depicted evangelicalism as a deviant cult.) Still relatively unknown at the height of evangelistic crusades by Charles B. Fuller, Jr., Bob Jones, Sr., Paul Rood, John R. Rice, and others like Merv Rosell who came somewhat later, Billy Graham emerged with Torrey Johnson and Bob Cook in large Youth for Christ rallies. These leaders usually evangelized independently of the tightening ecumenical orbit.

Both Charles E. Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revial Hour” and Walter A. Maier’s “The Lutheran Hour” were attracting immense radio followings long before Graham’s “Hour of Decision.” With the onslaught of such thriving evangelical programming, the Federal Council of Churches, which had preempted most of the available public-service broadcast opportunities, sought federal legislation to prohibit network sale of time for religious broadcasting.

Fuller Theological Seminary did not arise out of the blue, either. Founded with educational trust funds left by the late evangelist’s father, Fuller aimed to do on the West coast much of what Westminster was already doing on the East coast. CHRISTIANITY TODAY was preceded by magazines like Sunday School Times, Moody Monthly, Christian Herald, Eternity, and Christian Life, which on a quite different level sought to link evangelicals across denominational lines. In the mid-thirties, moreover, then president J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., envisaged Wheaton College’s becoming an academically respectable university that would stress, as did Calvin College, the importance of the Christian world-life view.

The evangelical resurgence of the last twenty five years has stimulated ongoing assessment and counter-assessment. The hard right has repeatedly sought to brand a renascent evangelicalism as non-fundamentalist and neo-evangelical, but it has failed to curb the reassertion of neglected dynamisms that once belonged to the evangelical heritage. Dominated by debatable criteria, non-evangelical interpreters also strained to demean the evangelical enterprise (cf. Stewart G. Cole, The History of Fundamentalism, Richard R. Smith, 1931; Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy: 1918–1931, Yale, 1954). Some critics sought to pass off evangelical vitality as a post-World War II phenomenon (Willard M. Sperry, Religion in America, Macmillan, 1948; William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham, Ronald, 1959); others portrayed it as an excrescence of the Graham personality-cult (Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800–1930, University of Chicago, 1970, p. ix). Biblical and Reformation antecedents were minimized, and evangelical continuity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was also largely ignored (Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, Scribner’s, 1965) despite Kenneth Scott Latourette’s comprehensive overviews. Some interpreters more accurately brought into focus only the far right (John H. Redekop, The American Far Right: A Case Study of Billy James Hargis, Eerdmans, 1968; Erling Jorstad, The Politics of Doomsday: Fundamentalists of the Far Right, Abingdon, 1970). Despite mainly liberal-ecumenical sympathies, the two-volume survey by H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation With Representative Documents (Scribner’s, 1960, 1963) reflects evangelical continuities more faithfully than most recent sources because its interpretation is correlated with documentation.

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Meanwhile evangelicals themselves engaged in navel-gazing. What were the implications, they asked, of dispensationalism or of long-range Reformation emphases for evangelical renascence?

Edward John Carnell set The Case for Orthodox Christianity (Westminster, 1959) over against liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, but in doing so alienated dispensational conservatives; almost simultaneously Mennonite scholar C. Norman Kraus depicted dispensationalism as an evangelical deviation (Dispensationalism in America, John Knox, 1958). Resurgent evangelical emphases were scorched in turn by dispensational fundamentalist Robert Lightner (Neo-evangelicalism, Dunham, n.d.), while Charles Ryrie also but with more finesse differentiated dispensationalism from broader evangelical emphases (Dispensationalism Today, Moody, 1965).

Still broader issues underlay the emerging fundamentalist-evangelical tensions, however. Louis Gasper’s The Fundamentalist Movement (Mouton, 1963) saw evangelicals as fundamentalists in high gear, whereas Ronald H. Nash in The New Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 1963) and Millard Erickson in The New Evangelical Theology (Revell, 1968) wrote from different perspectives.

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What distressed the growing evangelical mainstream about the fundamentalist far right were its personal legalisms, suspicion of advanced education, disdain for biblical criticism per se, polemical orientation of theological discussion, judgmental attitudes toward those in ecumenically related denominations, and uncritical political conservatism often defined as “Christian anticommunism” and “Christian capitalism” that, while politicizing the Gospel on the right, deplored politicizing it on the left.

To protest such emphases and to elaborate preferred alternatives, evangelicals reached behind twentieth-century fundamentalism and appealed to a longer past. This longer look encouraged a revolt against a pietism that is not simply uninterested in but even disdainful of serious intellectual pursuits. Even more, it gave new urgency to the question of the implications of the Gospel for the socio-cultural scene from which fundamentalism had withdrawn. And the longer look raised additional questions about the stance of evangelicals yesterday and today in respect to scriptural inerrancy and authority.

Meanwhile those whose theological emphasis had long since moved in a different direction found the term “evangelical” more and more attractive. When addressing the American scene, European theologians labeled their comprehensive theological writings “evangelical” despite their considerable departure from historic Christian commitments. Notable examples are Karl Barth in his Evangelical Theology (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963) and Helmut Thielicke in The Evangelical Faith (Eerdmans, 1974).


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