A growing backlash against the strength of evangelicalism calls for a review of church history.
The 1970s marked a tremendous increase in the popularity of evangelical Christianity worldwide. But popularity not infrequently elicits backlash. A symbolic center of attack is to be found in the evangelical expression “born again”—made current coin through the title of Chuck Colson’s spiritual autobiography and film. Direct and indirect critiques of the evangelical movement are beginning to appear in the form of attacks on “born againism.”
A relatively mild example is an article in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s official newsletter, The Reporter (March 1, 1982). The executive secretary of the denomination’s Board for Evangelism Services, Erwin J. Kolb, tides his remarks, “Can a Lutheran be ‘born again’? A look at baptism, spiritual growth.” He describes an alleged “born again” experience occuring to a good Lutheran church member as a result of television preaching. Says Kolb, “one has to come to one of two conclusions: this was a real conversion experience, or this was a high point in spiritual growth.”
He admits that “it is possible for a person to grow up in the Lutheran church and have a faith that is an intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel without relying upon it for salvation.” But since “a person is ‘born again’ when baptized as a baby,” Kolb clearly prefers the interpretation that a good church member is born again “not as a first-time experience but as one in many ‘born again’ experiences in a life of Christian growth and maturity.”
Such an article seems to confirm the suspicion evangelicals often express of those “sacramentalists” who substitute infant baptism for conversion and whose churches are therefore full of unregenerate members. Kolb (whose denomination is surely “evangelical” in the best historic sense of the term) would have done better to recognize that even if one holds to the baptismal regeneration of infants, it is still true that every person who reaches the age of accountability needs to confess Jesus Christ as personal Savior and believe in him with the heart to be saved (Rom. 10:9–10). Thus “sacramentalists” should be as enthusiastic in promoting “decisions for Christ” as other evangelicals—perhaps more so if they follow Kierkegaard (who followed Luther) in declaring that “no Christian is more than one day old.”
Far more serious, however, is Eric W. Gritsch’s just-published book, Born Againism: Perspectives on a Movement (Fortress Press).
Gritsch, a church historian who stands outside the evangelical camp, asserts that “what has been called the born-again movement in the United States is rooted in a revival of the millenial hope that existed in the 1790s at the time of the French Revolution, and the quest to be born again is expressed in affirmations that are shaped by what has been dubbed ‘fundamentalism and pentecostalism’ ” (p. 11). For him, the evangelical movement is an amalgam of eschatalogical speculation, biblical inerrancy, and charismatic experience—all three theologically aberrational. Indeed, “the born-again movement is part of a widespread dissent from the mainstream of American Protestantism.… Speculations about the end time, biblical inerrancy, and a drive for holiness came to be the distinctive features of ‘evangelicals’ so that [quoting Sidney Ahlstrom] ‘most Europeans regard them, along with baseball and wild-west movies, as American creations’ ” (p. 103).
As a theologian of subjectivistic “existential encounter” (pp. 10, 105), Gritsch considers the inerrantist and charismatic aspects of evangelicalism as the rational and emotional sides of a misdirected quest for certainty. And “when the fundamentalist-charismatic desire for rational and emotional security is combined with speculations regarding the end time, especially millennnialism, a powerful movement is born, intent on cleansing institutional Christianity from dangerous ‘secularizations,’ be they humanistic, communistic, Americanistic, or whatever” (pp. 103–4).
We are not interested in critiquing Gritsch’s analysis of the historic development of evangelicalism in modern times. Our concern is simply to note that it is absurd to regard present-day international evangelicalism as a deviant phenomenon of church history.
Even if we accept Gritsch’s rather naïve tripartite analysis of evangelicalism, it proves just the opposite of what he claims:
• Eschatology has been a practical concern of the church since its earliest days—indeed, the patristic writers prior to Augustine, such as Irenaeus, were generally premillennialist (see Froom, The Prophetic Faith, 4 vols.).
• The inerrancy of the Bible has been consistently maintained by the mainstream theologians of Christendom throughout church history; one could cite, merely as illustrations, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Newman (cf. my God’s Inerrant Word [Bethany]).
• Personal conversion has been central to Christian experience ever since Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road. Since critics of “born againism” are particularly loath to recognize that personal decisions for Christ are theologically normative, it may be well to recall Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed” at Aldersgate when the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans led to his conversion, and Augustine’s saving encounter with Christ when, hearing a child cry tolle, lege (“take and read”), he took up, read, and believed Romans 13:13–14 as God’s very Word.
In brief, theological aberration from the mainstream of Christendom is to be found, not where born-again decisions for Christ are preached, but where, for any reason, they are denigrated.
Dr. Montgomery, an attorney-theologian, is dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Orange, California, and director of its European program at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.
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