08 March 2006

Sendin' Some Love to the iMonk

by Phil Johnson

I know. I know. It's been awhile (several months, actually) since I've deconstructed anything from the Internet Monk's blog. I also haven't said anything in ages about the steady stream of sneers and insults aimed this way almost daily from the virtual drinking establishment where the iMonk tends bar.

(I'm thinking of stuff like this, this, and lots more. Of course, I am not really injured in any way—either personally or psychologically—by the Tavernistas' disapproval, no matter how they feel they need to express it. But it is significant, I think, that remarks like those from the BHT are invariably followed by a tsunami of utter silence from the same army of tone-monitors who dutifully crawl out of the woodwork parroting the Rodney-King mantra and writing emotion-laden blogposts about how awful it is for Christians to argue with one another whenever someone makes any criticism of the iMonk's attitude or points of view. That's a rabbit I don't really need to chase right now. But I can't resist pointing it out. I'm also tempted to do a long riff about how such remarks only underscore the hypocrisy of the infamous "Rule 40." But belaboring that point would prolly not be a very good idea, since it would pretty much undo the whole point about how restrained I've been. So let's just keep moving, shall we?)

Anyway, it's not that I'm ignoring the iMonk, or that I don't care what he thinks anymore, or even that his drinking buddies' tireless bastinado against "the TR blogs" has become merely monotonous.

It's just that while the iMonk is well-known as a fearless critic whose disapproving gaze has fastened itself onto almost every feature of the evangelical landscape at one point or another, he turns out to be a rather tender soul when it comes to receiving any kind of criticism. And one hesitates to jar such a fragile psyche any more than absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, I've learned from difficult experience that if I even comment too light-heartedly on someone else's criticism of the Boar's Head Tavern or the iMonk's blog, I'm going to be assaulted by people who ostensibly want a kinder, gentler blogosphere. (And in their zeal to drive that point home, they will raise questions about my manhood, shout me down with tearful pleas to stop the insanity, and employ vulgar language which, if I object to, I'll be derided as a sanctimonious prude and a crusader for outmoded causes. You know: one of "these people [who] are beyond contempt, and beyond reason.")

Those may all sound like very good reasons to ignore the iMonk altogether, but it is clear that on some level, he is influencing people. (A barrage of e-mails from his fans and readers demanding that I answer his criticisms of my teaching was one of the major factors that prompted me to start a blog in the first place.) He seems to enjoy making reference to me in his critiques, and he often aims his critical commentary at doctrines or people I love. He obviously works hard at making himself impossible for me to ignore. But I've been trying really hard anyway.

Now the iMonk has posted two comparatively benign reviews of my seminars from last week's Shepherds' Conference. It really does seem that he is trying (in these two reviews, at least) to be fair with me. But I still think he has got a couple of major points wrong. In the most important instance, his error may stem partly from the fact that all his info about one of those seminars came from an abridged second-hand account of what I said. (That's OK; he acknowledged as much himself at the outset of his review.)

So let me make myself perfectly clear:

The following is not meant as criticism of Michael Spencer. I'm just going to try to clarify some things I think he has misunderstood.

And his misunderstanding here goes to the very heart of what (I believe) makes my perspective so frequently antithetical to the iMonk's. For that reason, I decided it might be worth the effort and worth the dear price I'm sure I'll pay for even bringing it up.

Some helpful background info:

The iMonk has "reviewed" a couple of seminars I've done here and there over the past two years, always dismissing my opinions as unworthy of any serious consideration because of the "the Grand Canyon of scholarly gravitas that exists between Phil Johnson and..."—well, practically anyone else you can think of.

But this time Michael Spencer actually responded to something I really said in the seminar (or at least Tim Challies' summary of it).

In the first of his two recent "Shepherds' Conference" reviews the iMonk more or less dispassionately gave his thoughts on Tim Challies' summary of my seminar titled "Is the Reformation Over?" At the very end of his post he expressed the hope that he was being fair. So I want to take him at his word and give him due credit for that.

Now, here's the thing:

When it comes to identifying the actual problems that have crippled the evangelical movement over the past hundred years or more, I think Michael Spencer and I would find far more to agree about than we would disagree about.

I could say the exact same thing about the so-called "Emerging Church Movement," by the way—and this is one of the reasons iMonk found so much to agree with in my seminar on that subject. I happen to think they have correctly identified a number of serious problems with the evangelical movement these days: its shallowness, its worldliness, its commercialization and trivialization of the gospel; its failure to reach the neediest people in our culture, and its failure to engage the culture itself biblically and correctly. The EC's assessment of the problems is sometimes spot on; but it is my firm conviction that their analysis of how we got here and what we should do about it is almost totally and completely wrong-headed, unbiblical, and historically naive. That is why I object so loudly to the direction the EC movement is headed. It's not because I like being cantakerous.

Ditto for my sometimes vocal opposition to the odd and often offensive mix of ideas that wafts daily out of the saloon doors over at Boar's Head Tavern.

We agree on many (or is it even most?) of the problems we see. Where we disagree is regarding the questions of "Why" and "What now?" And our disagreement is one of those profound and fundamental disagreements that (in all likelihood) may prove ultimately irreconcilable. No wonder it's maddening to both sides.

The iMonk's post-mortem on "Is the Reformation Over" highlights what I think is the major reason for the wide disparity between our opinions:

  • He sees "evangelicalism" only as a 20th-century movement.
  • When I speak of evangelicalism, I'm talking about an idea with a much longer historical pedigree than that.
In other words, the iMonk is comparing bowling balls to oranges when he contrasts D.G. Hart's analysis of the 20th-century evangelical movement with my lament about the decline of the historic evangelical idea.

Here's the heart of iMonk's main "argument" with me:

Michael says:

I believe that what Johnson sees is accurate, but I believe he is assigning too much to evangelicals. Were Evangelicals ever as rooted in the Reformation as they claimed to be? Not in the modern, "evangelical" era. From the outset, "Billy Graham" evangelicalism was ecumenical, not fundamentalistic, and it was there, in the seeds of an ecumenical pragmatism, that the seeds were planted of where we are today.
That is actually a very fine rejoinder to a point I would never even want to make. I agree that the movement that was labeled "evangelical" in the 20th century was off the rails from the start. As a matter of fact, I made that very point in at least three of my seminars at the Shepherds' Conference.

Moreover, if you asked me when evangelicalism derailed as a movement, I would say it was around the middle part of the 19th-century—when no less than the Earl of Shaftesbury pointed out that the word evangelical had already lost its meaning. That was some fifty years or so before the iMonk seems to imagine the evangelical movement began.

Huh? You mean evangelicalism is older than Billy Graham?

The word evangelical actually predates the Protestant Reformation by a generation or two. We might argue about whether anyone prior to the Protestant Reformation was truly evangelical in any meaningful sense, but that's not really germane to the point I was making in the seminar Michael Spencer was critiquing: Evangelicalism existed some four centuries before it derailed, and before it derailed, it was defined by some pretty clear and simple theological principles, at the heart of which lay both the formal and material principles of the Reformation.

Spencer asks incredulously, "Was evangelicalism ever as doctrinal as Spurgeon or the Puritans? Was it ever not ecumenical? Was there ever a time it wasn't fighting its own anti-intellectualism?"

Well, yes. Prior to 1850 it was all those things. As a matter of fact, both Spurgeon and the Puritans were evangelical in the historic sense I am pleading for. They even used that very term to describe their position and distinguish it from Socinianism, Deism, and in some cases, Arminianism. That is my whole point. The movement's abandonment of the historic meaning of the word and the ideas it represents lies at the heart of the Great Evangelical Disaster.

WWHS: What Would Horton Say?

The iMonk's confusion on this rather basic point is remarkable, since he says he has been a longtime devotee of Michael Horton, and the point I was trying to make is virtually the essence of Horton's driving passion, as I understand it. Horton is not arguing that evangelicalism melted down because it was "too evangelical"; he is reminding us that evangelicalism went astray when it left the central, initial, evangelical concerns of the Reformers. (Especially the formal and material principles—not to mention the other solas.) Pretty much the exact same point I was making.

In fact, The Cambridge Declaration, which Horton helped draft, virtually starts out with this statement: "Historic evangelicalism was confessional. It embraced the essential truths of Christianity as those were defined by the great ecumenical councils of the church. In addition, evangelicals also shared a common heritage of the 'solas' of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation."

And it was J. I. Packer, not Phil Johnson, who (in Fundamentalism and the Word of God) described "fundamentalism" as a twentieth-century name for historic evangelicalism.

Get this:

Anyone who honestly thinks I care about preserving the 20th-century movement that co-opted the name "evangelical" hasn't heard a word I have been saying for the past fifteen years or longer.

But just to underscore the big-picture point I am trying to make, here is an exact quote from one of my seminars last week that Challies probably did not have time to paraphrase: "The evangelical movement is essentially dead, and all the motion and activity you see are just maggots feeding off the corpse. . . . [We need] to rescue the idea of historic evangelicalism from the contemporary evangelical movement."

So while I am glad and grateful not to be on the receiving end of another scathing dismissal from the iMonk, I'm very sorry he missed what I thought was the whole point I was trying to make in that seminar.

It's not a minor point, because it determines where you'll look for an answer to what ails the contemporary church. If you take the iMonk's perspective and write the very idea of "evangelicalism" off as a 20th-century anomaly—a nonpareil campaign of Christian anti-intellectuals unlike anything ever in Church history—then the postmodern innovations being peddled by Emergent types will probably look very appealing. But if you appreciate the legacy of historic evangelical principles ("fundamentalism," as Dr. Packer tags it), you might see the importance of distinguishing the idea of historic evangelicalism from the 20th-century movement that co-opted and corrupted the name. And you might be inclined to think (as I do) that a better answer to the corruption of the evangelical movement would be a return to true historic and biblical evangelical principles.

I've been saying something similar about fundamentalism to some of my fundamentalist friends, and they have a hard time getting it, too.

If you read my blog and that's the only point you ever see me make, I'm fine with that. If you get all the inside jokes and cultural references but miss that point, I will have failed in what I'm trying to do here.

Phil's signature


Matthew said...

Very nice - well said, Phil.

Michael Spencer said...

Thanks for the interaction, Phil.

I tend to see church history as a multi-layered business, and would agree with you that it is quite possible to talk about evangelicalism all the way back to Luther, if one chose to do so.

(My Lutheran friends actually are quite offended that we have "their" word, i.e. evangelical.)

But for the purposes of my own writing, I do see American Evangelicalism arising from two things:

1) A rejection of the Reformation theology of Spurgeon. (Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon)
2) The Embracing of the "Evangelical Project" of post-Monkey trial Bible believing Protestants, i.e. Henry, Graham, Ockenga, etc.

This is an ecclectic definition, I admit it and don't mind at all you pointing it out.

I wouldn't say I missed your point, btw. I believe I got it, but as a Southern Baptist, I see something major happening in the early twentieth century. Something that "dissolved" the reformational "hold" on the movement with various corrosives (Pentecostalism, the rise of technology, Pragmatism, Denominationalism, Various forms of ecumenism, Christian publishing, etc.)(cf Horton, Made in America) I do believe this presented us with a much different movement in Billy Graham's evangelicalism than in the evangelicalism of Martyn Lloyd Jones that refused to support Graham in London.

God bless you, Phil. As I said, much appreciation to you for your kind remarks.

Steve said...

Phil, you couldn't have been any clearer. A superb post.

What Michael Spencer doesn't seem to get is that it's faulty reasoning for him to critique your statements about evangelicalism by superimposing his own suppositions about evangelicalism on top of yours.

Evan May said...

Man, that is a freaky picture up there.

Hayden said...

I attended this particular session at the Shepherd's Conference and came away with the point that you stated in your blog. This session was an excellent piece of the whole Shepherd's Conference. (Which in my opinion was the best so far, I have attended 5) One thing that I have always found about your teaching Phil is that your are clear!

Sharad Yadav said...

That was so . . . reasonable. And then Michael's follow up comment . . . has the kingdom of God arrived on earth? My inaugurated eschatology is now completely and totally vindicated.

Thomas Pryde said...

I enjoyed your seminars, Phil, and rest assured...there were a group of fundies present who very much get it. In any case...well said...

vegemitechristian said...

I don't normally like posts that say such things as, "I second that" - but I honestly second your sentiments blue raja. Phil's post and spencer's reply: Amen!

Michael Spencer said...

"Realized eschatology".....I can't believe the language on this blog. Who is in charge?

donsands said...

Nice to see Laurel & Hardy. I love these guys, especially Stan Laurel. Think I check out one of their flicks tonight.

Phil, your labor in the Lord is very much appreciated, and not in vain. 1 Cor. 15:58
The Lord bless you and your fam. Amen.

FX Turk said...

iMonk: Raja says things like "pericope" and "desiderata" all the time. For him, saying "eschatology" is slumming.

SB said...

Why can't we all just get along...wait..umm...we just did...

I feel like I learned something about different perspectives of Evangelicalism without unnecessary pugilism.

Thank you both for treating each other as you would like to be treated.

The Kingdom of God is among you.

Phil I've been listening to some Gracelife--good stuff. It would be awesome to have the fundamentalism, EC,& Romanism lectures on the podcast.

Sharad Yadav said...


You're killin' me!

Dan Edelen said...

I dunno.

I think part of he problem here is that everyone wants to own the word "evangelical" as if it's the final imprimatur on all things Christian.

From what I've read, the movement that is truly "Evangelicalism" didn't stretch back to the Reformers, but was a product of The Second Great Awakening and the work of Methodist circuit riders in the the first half of the 19th century. As such, it was more Arminian than Reformed, though it was definitely an offshoot of Protestantism. The power of that movement was hard to ignore, since more than half of American Christians were Evangelical by the end of Reconstruction.

The problem comes when churches that came before this developed a "me, too" attitude to the term and wanted to be seen as part of the crowd so as not to be left out of the results. Were Lutheran, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Covenant churches calling themselves "Evangelical" before the Second Great Awakening? Let's be honest here. Nothing I've ever read has made that case. But so as not to be left out of the Evangelical "zeitgeist" of the day, suddenly they were pushing to use that term, too.

It seems to me that all this huffing and puffing is over a word. I'm a Christian. If someone wants to label me an Evangelical, then I guess they can. But when we get down to the real definition of an Evangelical and who that term was first applied to, the whole thing gets silly and we wind up with Christian people arguing with each other over the definition of a word that many of them can't historically trace back to usage within their own church group.

So by all means, let's keep ripping each other over a word so the world can sit back and laugh at the silly Christians, rather than being impacted by us staying true to the Scriptures.

marc said...

Shouldn't that be "You're perpetrating homocide upon me"?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Phil. What would you do without the iMonk to bounce off of? We HAVE to recover our memory of history beyond Elvis. There is so liitle that the average church member can grasp about church history and theology because Pastors have not taken the responsibility to instruct. Perhaps because they are ignorant to true Evangelical principles.

Kay said...

So by all means, let's keep ripping each other over a word so the world can sit back and laugh at the silly Christians, rather than being impacted by us staying true to the Scriptures.

Hey Dan,

Wouldn't do to appreciate that an exchange has just taken place in which Christians with a profound disagreement didn't rip each other apart, eh?

Solameanie said...

One of the most interesting books I have read on the Reformation was "Here I Stand" by the late Roland Bainton. It was a biography of Martin Luther. I was especially moved at Bainton's description of Luther (at the Leipzig Debate if I remember correctly) re-examining the teachings of John Hus and calling them "evangelical." He also cited Luther's incredulity that the Catholic Church rejected Hus' teachings. He made quite a stir when the debate reconvened, publically commending Hus. Duke George blurted out "The plague!"

I write all this to say yes, the evangelical idea does indeed go back centuries, and what passes for evangelical these days leaves much to be desired. Excellent post, Phil!

Steve said...

Dan said: "It seems to me that all this huffing and puffing is over a word."

Wrong, Dan. You've just shown you, too, missed the whole point.

Phil has been very clear about where he stands. Others, such as iMonk, are persistently misinterpreting him.

There's nothing wrong with Phil clearing up the record. In fact, I appreciate his taking the time to clear things up because it should help REDUCE misunderstandings that can lead to arguments that go off on rabbit trails.

If people would only pay more careful attention to what they read and hear, it wouldn't be necessary for us (as Phil just did) to provide clarification.

FX Turk said...

Dan E --

Let's assume for a minute that I said something like, "I think all alleged Christians who look down on the practice of Santa are jerks."

Wouldn't the definition of "Christians" and "jerks" matter? You know: if by "Christians" I meant "people reformed by the book of Moroni" and by "jerks" I meant "loveable clods who make prank phone calls", it would mean a lot different thing than if by "Christians" I meant "anyone sociologically under the cover of Christian philosophy" and by "jerks" I meant "impudent cretins who use ignorance like a cudgel".

I think that making one's definitions clear, and using words clearly, is well worth fighting over. Especially when we -- that is, both the BHT and TeamPyro -- are essentially calling some things Christians do "jerky", and whether the jerky things can be un-jerked.

Does that make sense?

Sharad Yadav said...



Kent Brandenburg said...

I'm attempting to wrap my brain around all this and now my roll is empty. Every time I think I'm ready to finish and tape, the edges change or move. What my brain tells me is that this is really about the church and historic orthodox theology, the crowd that makes it into the presence of God and what truly represents how people would have understood the text who were hearing it in that day. It seems that it is all difficult to piece together because God didn't promise to preserve history. When we stand before God, He won't look at our label to see who will stay or depart.

FX Turk said...

I think that we have to consider for one moment something: the terms of a specific discussion are not necessarily the bases for eternal salvation.

God will save those whom He saves on the basis of Christ's finished work alone -- not based on whether they knew all the definitions of "evangelical" or not, or whether they made a good funny about the "jelly" in "evangelical".

However, if I am going to talk to (for example) iMonk about evangelical sloppiness, or evangelical distinctives, it would make a lot of sense to see to it that when I say "evangelical", and I mean "the historic protestant distinctives of Christian faith", that I make sure that iMonk understands I'm talking about something which was more-or-less substantiated by the reformers even if its roots go back to the middle ages or to pre-nicene orthodoxy.

What is at issue here is what Phil and/or iMonk mean when they say "evangelical", and whether one or the other has made a mistake about the other guy's thoughts based either on a misunderstanding or (less charitably) a thick-headed unwillingness to listen.

Good heavens people! When I read Phil's post, I thought he had gone completely cotton-and-baby-oil, and it turns out that he was right and this post is getting a lot of controversy, and I'm frankly stunned.

Steve said...

Kent said: "When we stand before God, He won't look at our label to see who will stay or depart."

How does this comment relate to Phil's post?

Phil was not positing that a person's definition of the word evangelical has a bearing on their eternal destiny.

This only confirms the all-too-frequent propensity for readers to miss the specific point of the discussion and introduce matters that aren't even under consideration.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Steve, I don't agree. Not to attempt to teach you a lesson, but what the gospel is seems to be at the root of what Phil is saying. An evangelicalism that doesn't really save isn't worth saving. Someone who thinks he is saved because he has the label "evangelical," but has been given a 20th century placebo, is in trouble.

donsands said...

"I thought he had gone completely cotton-and-baby-oil"??

Is that like, diapers-and-vaseline-intensive-care?

Michael Spencer said...

I've answered all questions here:


S.G. said...

A term I attempted to coin back in the 80's was a


Despite my best efforts on bulletin boards it faded away. sigh/grin.


SB said...

This is a nice little object lesson for me this week--Tall Skinny Kiwi(King of The Emerging Church in the UK vs. Dr.Peter Master's King of The UK evangelicalism(though Eric Alexander might give a run for that title-I would say Dr.Alexander is Emeritus King)--

Here are the two perspectives colliding in true Ulitmate Fighting Fashion
Watch the Fireworks:

"The ministry itself is a bit too separatist for me and far too attractional in its evangelistic approach - just as it was when Charlie pulled out of the Baptist Union last century. Its also a bit too AW Pink rather than John Stott. Dr Masters doesnt like the word "fundamentalist". He prefers "old evangelical" as opposed to "new evangelical'. I bought his little book on the subject called "Are We Fundamentalists?" which spells out his views quite clearly. Still, you have to respect their stance and their outworking of it."

Obviously most of these readers would respect Dr.Master's more than TSK but Who are you to judge another man's servant? To his own Master he stands or falls. And we will each answer to our Lord on that day.
(I personally am encouraged by TSK love of Spurgeon)

Both are brother's both treated each other as they wished to be treated.

(See Greg Koukl's treatment of the Emerging Church on the recent Stand To Reason podcast 2/6/06

In the UK they have polo and soccer in the US we have football and the UFC(and the Cubs vs Reds)

Dan Edelen said...

Yes, Phil and Michael have been cordial. That's a good thing. But it's not about this post or the iMonk's post. It's about the fact that everyone wants a piece of the word "Evangelical."

There seems to be a lot of talk about this word lately. People love it, loathe it, shun it, co-opt it. The fascination with it makes it the moth's flame.

I write for a living. I understand that words have power. I hate Orwellian Newspeak, too. Yet our language is dynamic. Perhaps "Evangelical" has become so diluted that we're making a fuss over a word that's run it's course. Maybe the "me-too" attitude that we've brought to the word and the thousand-headed dragon of compromise within the Church have sullied the word beyond repair. Those of us who have some respect for what it stood for in the past need to coin something new and let those who simply want to use it as a label have it.

If this word is going to bring division among people who are truly Christ's Church, is it worth it? The Church existed for a long time before that word was coined. If we believe there is something that doesn't have so much dross attached to it now, then let's put a name on it and move on.

Adrian Warnock said...

I have weighed in on this over at my blog.

Lets say both pyro and iMonk get roasted but I see signs of hope!

Darel said...


(Warning: shameless link to my blog above.. but it's trackbacked to here so... nyah)

Michael Spencer said...


I don't feel like I've ever been in a war with anyone over the word "evangelical." I've been in far more conflicts over the word "Christian" or "heretic" or "fundamentalist." I'm more animated by the question of whether everyone calling himself missional is a Gospel denying heretic.

I consider myself to be a post-evangelical reformation Christian humanist living in what is commonly called evangelicalism. My Southern Baptist roots discliamed the word "evangelical" on the grounds that Baptists had a better pedigree. I use it more out of necessity than any other reason. As I said in an earlier comment, Lutherans laugh at all of us. The gang at Here We Stand frequently call themselves Augsburg Evangelicals.

I don't see the term as a prize to be won in debate. My original post simply drew some comparisons and contrasts between Phil and D.G. Hart, and commented on a couple of other matters Phil mentioned in his talk. (NPP/RCC)

peace, MS

Phil Johnson said...

Dan Edelen: "From what I've read, the movement that is truly "Evangelicalism" didn't stretch back to the Reformers, but was a product of The Second Great Awakening and the work of Methodist circuit riders in the the first half of the 19th century. As such, it was more Arminian than Reformed."

Sounds to me like short-sighted historical revisionism colored by wishful Arminian thinking. I'd love to see you cite a credible source for that.

But actually, such a claim is patently and objectively false. A half hour's worth of easy research, starting with the Wikipedia entry on "evangelicalism," and followed by Googling on "the term evangelical", should quickly disabuse you of the above misunderstanding.

Incidentally, Dan, I think you've also misunderstood the point I was trying to make in this post. What I was saying above has almost nothing to do with any territorial dispute about who owns the rights to a label. The more essential point is a lament about how historic evangelical principles have been neglected and abused and largely forgotten by modern and postmodern "evangelicals."

Those who insist Charles Finney and Arminian circuit riders marked the start of the evangelical movement (or worse, that Finney and the Arminians are the very embodiment of all that made evangelicalism great) aren't likely to see my point, even though they themselves are living proof of it.

BTW, for the iMonk: here's another article by Horton on the history of evangelicalism, in which he makes the very point I'm making: Historic evangelical principles are not what's wrong with the evangelical movement today. And it's not that there's a systemic problem with the idea of "evangelicalism" per se. On the contrary, the abandonment of those historic principles is the main reason for the movement's decades-long decline.

Phil Johnson said...

Incidentally, I shouldn't cite the Wikipedia entry on "evangelicalism" without noting that it is marred by some serious flaws—including a number of ambiguous and self-contradictory things about the history of evangelicalism.

(At one point, for example, the article seems to suggest—contra Dan Edelen—that the "movement" came out of the First great Awakening. Elsewhere, it acknowledges that the Puritan movement was known as "the evangelical party.")

The article typifies the historical confusion we have all lamented about the term. It bears all the marks of a Wiki entry edited and added to at various times by multiple people.

But it also gives ample proof that evangelicalism as a movement antedated the circuit riders by some 300 years, and its driving principles from the outset were Protestant and Reformed ideas. Moreover, as the article says, "The Protestant Reformation doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide are primary."

Michael Spencer said...

Phil: I wouldn't disagree a bit about the solas and their influence in evangelicalism, but Hart's critique isn't about the presence of certain principles. It's about the viability of the existence of a historical movement.

So, for example, talking about Grace Church and Lifeway Publishing is to be talking about evangelicalism. I enthusiastically applaud the idea that GCC is operating on classic Reformation priniciples (in a particular grid) but Lifeway is another story.

Yet Lifeway has a great influence in "evangelicalism" than any number of churches. I believe this "evangelicalism" is the more typically American one, it is the one that dominates the wilderness as I see it, and it is the reason I am proud to be a post-evangelical.

Were I sitting where you sit, it would admittedly be possible to be more optimistic. But in my seat, the view is dismal.

It's the Reds in August, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

You guys think there's a problem defining "evangelical". iMonk mentions his issues with the word "Christian". Well, Challies blogged on this article today, which throws even more of a curve ball on the "Christian" word.

apodeictic said...

As someone who peruses and enjoys both blogs (Pyromaniacs and the Internet Monk) let me weigh in to the debate here.

If you look up the word 'evangelical' in the Oxford English Dictionary (and I dare say any other good dictionary) you will see the word can be used in a number of different ways.

Now that masterpiece of lexicography was compiled many years ago. No doubt we could add to the usages of the word 'evangelical', particularly considering North American experience.

The word 'evangelical' is very much like the word 'catholic'. You have very different groups each claiming to be the true heirs of this term. Both papists and protestants to this day claim to be 'catholic', usually to the exclusion of the other group. But who is truly 'catholic'? Well that depends on your point of view. The papists claim that they are the true catholics and that protestant 'schismatics' have deviated from the catholic faith. Similarly protestants claim to be truly catholic and, moreover, that the Church of Rome has abandoned the catholic faith.

You are never going to get agreement between a Papist and a Protestant on which group is truly 'catholic'. Moreover, I can imagine an internet blogwar where each side claims the other is continually 'misunderstanding' and 'misrepresenting' their views on 'catholicism'. In reality there is neither misunderstanding nor misrepresentation -- just fundamental disagreement.

No Phil, iMonk didn't misunderstand you. I don't even think he misrepresented you. He just has a fundamentally different view of what 'evangelicalism' is and when it began.

It's a matter of debate whether 'evangelicalism' began at (or even before) the Reformation. According to an 'evangelical' of course evangelicalism arose at (or before) the Reformation; evangelicalism is on that view the true heir to the Reformation. But according to (some) critics of evangelicalism, it arose much later and is even a bastardisation of the Reformation faith. You guys are not really misunderstanding or misrepresenting one another, just fundamentally disagreeing on what 'evangelicalism' is.

Now here's a little experiment for you to see if 'evangelicalism' is the faith of the Reformers. Try saying in German 'I'm an evangelical'. (I have had to grapple with this, having lived in Germany.) What do you say? 'Ich bin evangelisch'? Or do you say 'Ich bin evangelikal'? What is a German speaker likely to understand by each of those terms? Each of these words can mean 'evangelical' in English -- but 'evangelisch' and 'evangelikal' are NOT synonomous. The first means 'evangelical' in the sense of 'protestant'. You can say 'protestantisch' in German but the usual term (in Germany at least) is 'evangelisch'. If you say 'ich bin evangelisch' you are likely be understood as saying you are 'protestant' -- 'evanglisch' as opposed to 'katholisch' (Catholic) -- or even 'Lutheran' -- 'evangelisch' as opposed to 'reformiert' (Reformed). 'Evangelikal' on the other hand is a fairly new innovation because the German word 'evangelisch' didn't really capture the 'evangelical' phenomenon of the English-speaking world. So if you said 'evangelikal' most Germans wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about. They wouldn't even know the word exists. The only people who use it are adherents of a small strand of protestantism that wants to identify as 'evangelical' in the sense that is used in the English speaking world (theologically conservative, emphasising a 'personal relationship' with Jesus Christ, often less liturgical and more 'lively' in worship etc).

Now what about going the other way in our little experiment: How would you translate 'die Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland'? Would you call it an 'evangelical' or 'protestant' church? (This church is on the whole theologically very liberal!)

What do we make of all of this? German already had a word for 'evangelical' but it didn't cover the same territory as the English word 'evangelical'. In German to be 'evangelical' is to be protestant and to be protestant is to be 'evangelical'. But what about that 19th and 20th century phenomenon of the 'evangelicals'? What do we call them? Well German theologians invented a new word in German to describe this.

What does this imply about evangelicalism beginning at the Reformation? Maybe it did, and maybe the 'evangelische' church in German has abandoned the gospel and the faith of the Reformers... Or maybe 'evangelicalism' as it is known in the English speaking world is a recent phenomenon which doesn not represent the faith of the Reformation.

It is not only in Germany that I had to struggle with this. As an Australian 'evangelical' Anglican I struggled with this before going to Germany. I have always wondered whether I would be counted as an 'evangelical' in the USA. In the USA 'evangelicals' are usually dispensationalist, baptistic and non-denominational (how often do you see 'evangelical' contrasted with 'mainline' protestant?). I'm none of those and in my view evangelicalism has nothing to do with any of those things. But to the average 'evangelical' in the USA I'm probably the antithesis of evangelical!

So did 'evangelicalism' arise at the Reformation or some time in the 19th Century? The answer is both in my view. What passes today as 'evangelicalism' in the USA (and increasingly everywhere else under the influence of American 'evangelicals') began in the 19th Century in my view. The majority of American 'evangelicals' are not historical evangelicals in my view. They are the products of a later movement. If that's what it would mean for me to be an 'evangelical' in the USA then I would have no hesitation in ditching the label. But there is another kind of 'evangelicalism'. And that kind began at least at the Reformation, arguably earlier. Whether you want to call that 'evangelicalism' or 'Reformation Christianity' I'm not too fussed.

Dan Edelen said...


Here's a better test:

Go to the Christian Classic Ethereal Library (www.ccel.org) and do a search on the word "evangelical." That enormous database of Christian texts should tell us everything we want to know about how the word is used and when.

1. The first thing we notice is that the majority of the returns are from history texts. Those texts are from modern authors writing after 1850. They're essentially going back and superimposing the word "evangelical" over what they interpret to be Evangelical. Hmm.

2. What we don't see hardly at all is any use of the word by Christians writing before the 19th century. The word is virtually unknown. This supports my premise. Curiously, one of the texts there that does use the word extensively is by Arminius! (However, I suspect this is merely a choice on the part of the modern English translator of the document.)

3. On the other hand, the word DOES start cropping up in writings by Christian authors post 1850. Again, this supports my premise.

4. The search results also show internal denominational documents. From the results, we see that the word "Evangelical" is non-existent in the titles of churches prior to the 19th century. However, those same returns point to a massive renaming of churches post-1850 to include the word. The Evangelical Lutheran Church's decision to add the word to its title in the 1870s is merely one instance of this. Again, this proves my point, especially about "me-too"-ism.

I would summarize by saying that the lack of the word occurring in documents penned by Christians prior to the 19th century supports the premises I outlined in previous comments. Again, historians can add words over the top of whatever they want to in an effort to take the old era and make it understandable to the new era. But when folks of the era in question are not using the word, well, what more can be said?

Phil Johnson said...

iMonk: "Were I sitting where you sit, it would admittedly be possible to be more optimistic. But in my seat, the view is dismal."

Again, though, there is no sense in which I am "optimistic" about the movement. I've said that it's well and truly dead and the sooner it dissipates, the better. I don't know how to be any more clear about that.

In and around the quivering corpse of the movement—often in peripheral places and tiny churches you'd never notice—there is a remnant of knees that have not bowed to Baal. I believe they represent the only viable future for the earthly expression of that entity against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.

As I've said before, I'm not an optimist. I'm a Calvinist. So I believe Christ's plan and purpose will be perfectly fulfilled in God's timing, so I'm not feeling morose or defeatist about the future of Christ's work on earth.

And if those who remain faithful want to give up terms like evangelical or fundamentalist, I have no problem with that. But they can't be faithful and give up true, historic evangelical and fundamental principles.

You evidently don't believe that. You're not only prepared to give up on the movement; you're down on the principles as well. And that, I think, is a very serious error.

Phil Johnson said...

Dan: Keep reading. Use of the word goes back at least to Tyndale. I'm sure when you realize that, you'll concede my point, huh?

You can easily find an authoritative account of the history and dervation of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Michael Spencer said...

>You're not only prepared to give up on the movement; you're down on the principles as well. And that, I think, is a very serious error.

Simply not true, as my life attests. I am sorry that as long as our relationship remains at this level, you will never understand that. And as to my "principles," what am I believing, confessing, preaching, teaching and living for these 30+ years?

I am devoted to the church of Jesus, not to evangelicalism or fundamentalism or some denominational Kingdom. To the cause of Christ's church I am gladly giving my life. I am as optimistic about that cause, Kingdom and ecclesia as I can be.

Again, I appreciate the attempts at interaction. As always, it ends sadly for me, as I always sense a certain kinship, but in the end, the predictable last words of condemnation.

Peace, MS

Kirby L. Wallace said...

Maybe this will do little more than reveal my nearly complete lack of "churching" and technical training, but...

I honestly do believe that God has given us a carefully, and painfully exacting scripture in which He has purposely left ambiguities and other such fodder for debate.

Debate, argument, and even outright bickering are not "division." They might even be rightly called "godly entertainment for the purposes of enlightenment and instruction."

Something which God has given us to chew on and "sport" with while we tarry.

How does iron sharpen iron except they be brought into sharp and harsh contact with each other? You don't sharpen a sword by just waving the whetstone in the air over it.

Ungodly division would be the likely result if I called you a heretic AND enticed people to go out looking for you and give you a good shellacking. I think I could draw the line there.

But argument - however "heated" - seems to me to be far from "ungodly", but in fact a necessary component of spirtual growth (at least for the people likely to benefit from it).

I do not like the conducting of this business in front of the church in general, or in front of "babes in Christ", but among those who are mature and so inclined, I say "have at you!"

I am almost impossible to offend, yet very easy to enflame. What a great combination! What fun! What benefit! I take as much pleasure (sometimes) from a good trouncing as from a good victory so long as both sides are at it amiably.

In the simplest example I can give, I'd say that it would be a great honour to suffer even a humiliating smackdown at the hands of someone like Phil.

There is no reason to fear God (in the sense of mortal danger) for those in Christ. He says we may approach him boldly in Christ, even though we all know that every last one of us is a wretched sinner. Neverhtheless, and in spite of our wretchedness, He says to us "sinner, come near!" and we may come without fear of rejection.

How then can we not come near to each other in our likewise wretchedness if God Himself invites us to come to Him!

Kirby L. Wallace