Wednesday, July 20, 2011
"A New Evangelical Liberalism" by Phil Johnson
They are church leaders who cultivate a gentle, friendly, pious demeanor but hack away at the foundations of faith under the guise of keeping in step with a changing world.
No Christian should imagine that heresy is always conspicuous or that every purveyor of theological mischief will lay out his agenda in plain and honest terms. The enemy prefers to sow tares secretly, for obvious reasons. Thus Scripture expressly warns us to be on guard against false teachers who creep into the church unnoticed (Jude 4), wolves who sneak into the flock wearing sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15), and servants of Satan who disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
Theological liberalism is particularly dependent on the stealth offensive. A spiritually healthy church is generally not susceptible to the arrogant skepticism that underlies a liberal’s rejection of biblical authority. Liberalism must therefore take root covertly and gain strength and influence gradually. The success or failure of the whole liberal agenda hinges on a patient public-relations campaign.
That is precisely how neo-liberals have managed to get a foothold in the contemporary evangelical movement. Consider how evangelicalism has changed in just a few short decades.
Historic evangelicalism has two clear distinctives. One is a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The other is a conviction that the gospel message is clear and non-negotiable.
Specifically, evangelicals understand the gospel as an announcement of what Christ has done to save sinners, redeem Adam’s fallen race, and usher believers into his eternal kingdom. The gospel is not a mandate for sinners to save themselves, redeem humanity, recover human dignity, safeguard cultural diversity, preserve the environment, eliminate poverty, establish a kingdom for themselves, or champion whatever social concept of “salvation” might be popular at the moment. In fact, the gospel expressly teaches that sinners can be justified only through faith in Christ alone, and exclusively by his gracious work—not because of any merit they earn for themselves.
The Protestant Reformation clarified and illuminated those same two principles—sola Scriptura and sola fide. Indeed, they are sometimes known as the formal and material principles of the Reformation. But they weren’t novel ideas someone dreamed up out of thin air in the sixteenth century. They are and always have been essential principles of biblical Christianity. In the long course of church history, those truths have frequently been clouded and confused, or mingled with (and sometimes overwhelmed by) bad teaching. Yet since the time of Christ and the apostles those truths have never been totally silenced. They are in fact the very backbone of New Testament doctrine.
Historic evangelicalism made much of that fact. From the dawn of the Reformation through the mid-twentieth century, few evangelicals ever thought of questioning Scripture or modifying the gospel.
With the advent of the seeker-sensitive movement, however, evangelicals began to be influenced by a new species of entrepreneurial leaders who marginalized those core doctrines by neglect. Most of them didn’t overtly deny essential biblical truths; but neither did they vigorously stress or defend anything other than their own methodology.
The results were predictable: Churches are now filled with formerly unchurched people who are still untaught and perhaps even unconverted. Multitudes of children raised on a treacly diet of seeker-sensitive religion have grown up to associate the label evangelical with superficiality. Most of them cannot tell you what the term originally meant, and they reject whatever vestigial evangelical boundaries or doctrinal distinctives their parents may have held onto. But they still call themselves evangelicals when it’s convenient, and many have remained at the fringes of the visible movement, decrying how out of step the church is with their generation. That, after all, is exactly what they learned from their parents.
This is fertile soil for liberalism to burst into full flower, and that is precisely what is already happening. Evangelicals are blithely following a number of trends that advance the neo-liberal agenda. Unless a faithful remnant begins to recognize and resist the neo-liberal strategy, evangelical churches and institutions will eventually succumb to rank liberalism, just as most of the mainstream denominations did a century ago… This may sound like an oxymoron, but while treating faith as an academic matter, liberals prefer an almost anti-intellectual, agnostic approach to dealing with the specific truth-claims of Scripture. They like their doctrine hazy and indistinct.
One maneuver neo-liberals have perfected in these postmodern times is an artful dodge when they dislike a particular doctrine but cannot afford to make a plain and open denial. Instead, they will claim, “Scripture is simply too unclear on that point. We can’t really be sure. The point is disputed by top scholars, and who are we to speak with too much certainty?”
Thus without denying (or affirming) anything in particular, and without even technically dismissing the matter under discussion as an unimportant point, the ruse effectively sets the truth aside. The skeptic’s goal is thus accomplished without incurring any of the odium of skepticism.
Heavy doses of that flavor of postmodern, neo-liberal evasion have conditioned multitudes of church members to regard carefulness and precision in handling doctrine as both unimportant and potentially divisive. These days the person who shows evidence of doctrinal scruples is much more likely to be held in suspicion or disdain among evangelicals than the neo-liberals who have deliberately made the study of biblical doctrine seem so cloudy, confusing, and contentious.
In reality—and this is a lesson the church should have learned from both Scripture and church history—unity and harmony cannot exist in the church at all if there is not a common commitment to sound doctrine.
As long as these four trends and others like them continue to thrive within the evangelical movement, the threat posed by neo-liberalism looms large. Conservative evangelicals should not grow apathetic or take too much comfort in the apparent meltdown of Emergent Village and the liberal wing of postmodernized Christianity. Even if the Emergent ghetto does finally and completely give up the ghost, many of the leading figures and popular ideas from that movement will simply blend into mainstream evangelicalism, which is growing less mainstream and less evangelical all the time.
We must pay attention to the lessons of history and stand firm on the truth of Scripture—and we desperately need to be more aggressive than we have been so far in opposing these neo-liberal influences.