08 August 2008


by Phil Johnson

Reforming Evangelicalism?
Too late.

(First posted 22 July 2005)

or the record, I have no sentimental attachment to the term evangelicalism or the visible movement that now employs that name. What's important to me are the principles of historic evangelicalism. I have explained a little more fully what those principles entail in an article posted here. Those wishing to delve into this theme more deeply should also read the document and subsequent discussion posted here.

The question of whether the evangelical movement is dying, dead, irrelevant, irreformable, or whatever, is not my primary concern in the series of articles I've been posting. If asked, I would say the large movement that has represented "American evangelicalism" for the past century and a half (beginning roughly with D. L. Moody and culminating in Billy Graham) is in its final death throes. (Billy Graham himself hardly seems "evangelical" most of the time nowadays.)

Actually, that's a really optimistic assessment. My strong suspicion is that the movement is well and truly dead, and we shouldn't mistake the bloated and expanding size of its corpse, or its occasional spontaneous post-mortem twitches, for signs of real life.

I'm not interested in reviving or reforming that movement. Neither church history nor Scripture gives us much encouragement to work for the reformation and perpetuation of organizations and movements. Earthly institutions and human campaigns always decline and decay. Even the Protestant Reformation had its main impact outside the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic priesthood, and the papacy—although those were the visible institutions the earliest Protestants originally set out to reform.

Institutional reform almost always fails. Twentieth-century evangelicals who stayed in the mainline denominations ultimately failed to reform any of them. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or discouraged by that, but we should learn from it. Our concern should be for truth and principles, not for visible institutions, organizations, and movements.

To be as clear and concise as possible: What I am eager to see preserved and perpetuated are the sound, biblical ideas that sparked the evangelical and fundamentalist movements, not the corrupt cultures that ultimately overwhelmed them and led to their predictable demise.

My main aim in this current series of posts is to delineate some of the important differences between sound evangelical and fundamental principles and the various fads and manias most people today falsely refer to as "evangelicalism."

For those who haven't time to look it up, here's what I have written elsewhere about how to define true evangelicalism:

Historically, the word evangelical first came into widespread usage along with the Protestant Reformation. William Tyndale used the expression "evangelical truth" as a synonym for the gospel. By the 18th century, the adjective was being used to describe "that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of 'the Gospel' consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Naturally, as Protestants, evangelicals affirmed both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola Scriptura and sola fide). They were also committed to the exclusivity of Christ; believing that His atoning work is the only hope of salvation for sinners. That usage of the term evangelical has been crystal clear for at least two and a half centuries.

In other words, in the historic sense of the word, when we speak of the evangelical movement, we're speaking of those who share 1) a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; 2) a belief in the necessity and the efficacy of Christ's atoning work; and 3) a profound sense of urgency about getting the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world. The simplicity of the definition is the very thing that gives clarity to the expression. There is not really much that's vague about the historic meaning of the term evangelical.

Notice: the distinguishing characteristics of historic evangelicalism are weighty, foundational, and fundamental principles—not peripheral matters. That is why evangelical convictions have always transcended denominational lines. Those vital truths established an unshakable core of unity and remarkable harmony on matters that are of the essence of the gospel. Yet they allowed for amazing diversity on peripheral issues.

Phil's signature


Shaun Marksbury said...

It is very dangerous to begin defending and unquestioningly follow movements and institutions over and above Scripture. Liberalism or Pharisaical religion are the end results of this, both of which is present in various Evangelical circles.

Good points, Phil, with valid applications elsewhere as well!

John said...

"Yet they allowed for amazing diversity on peripheral issues."

But in being so caught up in the peripheral issues, we have lost sight of those things that make us truly evangelical. Going by your definition, there are very few who qualify. Very few.

May the Lord revive and reform His church!

Caleb Kolstad said...

Looking fwd to this series

tcblack said...

Egad but it certainly does seem that the post-mortem twitches of evangelicalism are the only things that the world at large sees of it.

Warren Chua said...

"Our concern should be for truth and principles, not for visible institutions, organizations, and movements."

ive been wanting to write something like this.

emphasizing that instituions wont last.

from religious institions to businesses, its spirit tends to decay and becomes more robotic.

we're tired of hearing those new labels of religion as if they guarantee their relationship with our Lord.

Labels dont define us. only by fruits can we tell the difference.

Chris said...

So true, and so necessary for us to be reminded of these vital distinctions frequently, as the errors of our fathers were very much like our own (probably because they were so much like ourselves!)

However, I've recently been emailing an old friend I've reconnected with after many years, and quickly discovered that we have some significant differences over peripheral doctrines even though we both hold to reformed theology. In fact, our emails have read more like heated debates, as he is committed to his views and I am committed to mine. We also disagree over our take on politics. Now, I love this brother, but making headway in our communication is nearly impossible. Objectively speaking, the problem is not over whose peripheral doctrines are correct, but rather that he does not accept the very concept that "peripheral" doctrines really exist at all, explaining to me that anything we call peripheral will inevitably become essential (as peripheral doctrines are viewed as essential by all who embrace them...peripherally). In fact, he seems to believe that the view we have in [the importance of] politics plays a significant role in our theology. Now, it is important to note here that his politics are not of the "typical" American evangelicalism ilk, but rather more libertarian, and one key disagreement is that I tend to take a more apolitical view towards horizontal politics (thanks in part to your series on politics Phil, of which I'm grateful) and his is more engaged. My friend is committed to the lordship of Christ, the doctrines of grace, and intellectual integrity in everything he studies, but I've been challenged by this notion that the peripheral does not/should not exist at all...particularly by someone who thinks politics (tertiary in order of importance, following essential doctrines and then peripheral ones).

NothingNew said...

"not the corrupt cultures that ultimately overwhelmed them and led to their predictable demise."

That's a great point that doesn't get mentioned enough.

Stefan Ewing said...

In the Sharper Iron forum and the related article, mention is made of a 2005 Shepherd's Conference session that Phil gave on the modern evangelical movement.

The session paper is here (PDF format). I look forward to reading it later today.

There are a number of other interesting-looking sessions given that year by Mr. Johnson and others. The entire list is here.

Pierre Saikaley said...

The principles of true evanglicalism are alive! They function out of the beautiful uniqueness and razor sharp exclusivity of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

It seems to me that we can do no better than what Paul commanded Timothy in his pastoral letter at 2Timothy 4:1-5.

ChiefsSuperfan said...

I appreciate your definition of Classic Evangelicalism, Phil and happily adhere.

I have wondered much in recent years that a weakness in the Evangelicalism of a forbears was a underdeveloped doxology and especially as it relates to soteriological/Christological truth.

How we define ourselves gives away what we are on the most basic, essential level. And if we begin with the Gospel we show ourselves first to be soteriological.

Yet, I wonder if our definition should not include an inexorable tie to the doxological. And it should display where our taxonomy begins. Do we begin with Theology Proper (as I assume would Jonathon Edwards)? Or, do we start with the Gospel and man's great need?

Maybe I am being anal about semantics. :)

But, I suspect that Classic Evangelicalism inadvertently spawned a generation of believers who felt that we (and our eternal destiny) were at the core of God's plan for the ages.

In reality, and I would assume everyone here agrees, at the core of the Lord's will is His own glory.

So, if we believe that, should not our seminaries reflect a doxological first taxonomy and shouldn't what we are at the core as confessing Evangelicals as God-glorifiers be articulated in our definition?

I wonder what that would look like in a written fashion.