I sympathize with them. They have in mind treacherous pitfalls, and they are right to warn younger generations.
When they bristle, they say that they have seen it all before. They have certainly seen gross errors and dismal failures, but I'm not sure that what they saw then is equivalent to what they are seeing now. Reading George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism gave me a fuller (pun intended) understanding and appreciation for why red flags immediately fly high at the first intimation of perceived compromise.
For my part, I find nothing whatsoever to endear me to the objectives of the original New Evangelicals. I agree with some of their specific critiques of the fundamentalist movement, but I think they proposed solutions that were thoroughly wrongheaded and more damaging than the problems they intended to resolve. Although I possessed these opinions before I read Marsden, they were powerfully reinforced by his perspective of the history of Fuller, and, more specifically, the motivations and attitudes of the original new evangelicals—Ockenga, Henry, Fuller, Carnell, and others.
On the other hand, I sensed several substantial differences between the original new evangelicals (hereafter NE) and today’s questioning fundamentalists (hereafter QF) that could encourage traditional fundamentalists (hereafter TF) to reconsider drawing such direct correlations.
1. NE’s wanted to “redeem culture.” Their observation that American culture was increasingly secular and hostile to Christianity was accurate. Their hope to revitalize authentic spirituality in American culture was noble. Nevertheless, the NT does not impose such a cultural mandate on the Church. The NT mission of evangelism and discipleship is targeted towards individuals and ecclesiastical communities, not cultures. Invariably, making disciples of all the nations will impact national culture. That does not change the fact that nations are not disciples; people are. My sense of the QF’s is that they are interested in personal evangelism and discipleship (at least in word if not in deed), not cultural revitalization.These observations are simply my opinions. My understanding of the NE’s is based on my reading of what both fundamentalists and evangelicals have to say about them, particularly in the context of the history of NE’s and Fuller as told by Marsden. My understanding of QF’s is based on my exposure to them through those that I know, those that I’ve read, and what I’ve observed through others’ observations. My estimation of neither group is scientific, and I could be way off base; I offer this perspective merely as food for thought. Well, let me take that “merely” back. I also offer these thoughts as a warning to QF’s that they take extreme care to avoid the motivations and attitudes of the NE’s that led to devastating results.
2. NE’s possessed a flawed theology. I do not know enough to say whether it was a flawed ecclesiology, anthropology, or theology proper. Perhaps it was all three to varying degrees in different individuals. The essence of their strategy was that American culture and the apostate mainline denominations could be won if only fundamentalist-evangelicals would engage in a scholarly academic dialogue. They were convinced that the force of their arguments would carry the day.
This strategy reveals a faulty ecclesiology in that the vehicles of their strategy were para-church educational institutions (Fuller, Christianity Today, etc.), not the Church itself. Carl Henry deplored the direction Fuller took, but even very late in his life, he said that his great regret was that evangelicals failed to establish a first-rate university in the New York/New Jersey area at the height of Graham Crusades. To him, this was a turning point. Interestingly, not at all unlike Henry's perspective is the pervasive fundamentalist opinion that "As go the schools, so goes the movement" (scan about 35:00 in to the interview at the link above and listen for the next few minutes). Christ’s promise, wholly to the contrary, is that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
Their anthropology was also likely faulty in that they believed that unregenerate minds would respond to superior intellectual arguments. This tendency seems incongruous with their professed Calvinistic inclinations. This high view of man that minimized the effects of the fall and exaggerates his innate capacity to respond to the gospel may well point to a corresponding low view of God Himself. YF’s certainly do not have everything figured out in their theology, but my sense is that they are far more pessimistic about institutions and human nature and far more interested in the priority of church health than the NE’s and perhaps than their fundamentalist forbears as well.
3. NE’s unabashedly pursued academic prestige. This objective of recognition and respect was necessitated by their belief that superior intellectual arguments would redeem American culture and recover mainline denominations. They believed that they first needed prestige in order to gain a hearing. The vociferous nature of their rejection of dispensationalism seems to have been motivated more by the intellectual elites’ scorn for the system than by actual exegetical argumentation.
Fundamentalists occasionally allude to the trend among QF’s towards attending seminaries such as SBTS, TMS, or RTS as evidence of a similar quest for prestige. (Several people have told me that more RTS Charlotte students are alumni of BJU than of any other institution.) I simply do not sense this motivation at all among QF’s. QF’s do seem to be attending these particular schools in increasing numbers, but it seems to me that they are going to these schools because they like the theological distinctives and ministry training these institutions will provide, not any elevated academic prestige that they offer. I do not sense a similar trend towards institutions such as TEDS, DTS, Westminster, or others that are as prestigious if not more so. Quite to the contrary, my prediction for the future is that more QF’s will attend infant institutions with little or no academic stature, such as Bethlehem Institute or Sovereign Grace Pastors’ College. The motivation for this trend will certainly be theological affinity, not intellectual prestige.
4. NE’s wanted to make the gospel attractive to the world in order to make it more likely to be accepted. Ironically, the easy believeism/free grace theology common in traditional fundamentalism demonstrated similar tendencies. QF’s seem much more likely to hold a “hard to believe” lordship salvation view. They demonstrate little desire to package the gospel in slick marketing in hopes that its attractiveness will be enhanced.
5. NE’s pursued evangelistic success through institutions and succumbed to movement politics to sustain those institutions. QF’s seem more likely to pursue unity around doctrines that are central to the gospel without regard for institutional loyalties. Concerning doctrinal differences, they seem more affected by the proximity of those doctrines to the heart of the gospel than by the pattern of toleration of those differences in fundamentalist history.
6. NE’s elevated social action to a priority near or equal to evangelism. Although it is not altogether clear to me whether they were attempting to appeal to the social concern of the mainline denominations or simply trying to obey their understanding of biblical imperatives to care for the poor, I’ve seen precious little evidence that the NE’s social concern was specifically connected to evangelistic strategy in any coherent fashion. QF’s demonstrate a similar interest in social concern, but I sense no interest in a social concern that is divorced from evangelism. To the contrary, the demonstrations of social concern that have been most evident among QF’s are specifically tied to evangelism. It is rather difficult for me to understand how this approach is inconsistent with the singular stipulation that James, Peter, and John placed on their endorsement of Paul’s ministry of the gospel—“to remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10).
7. NE’s repudiated separation from apostate mainline denominations as an essential part of their strategy. They wanted to dialogue with apostasy in order to win it. A common misconception about NE’s is tied closely to this observation. It seems that many fundamentalists believe that NE’s practiced separation from unbelievers and apostates but refused to practice secondary separation (from those who refused to separate from those who refused to separate, etc.) The simple fact is that NE’s always wanted to maintain the closest possible ties with the mainline denominations regardless of how far they deviated from orthodox doctrine. Although it is true that the NE’s wanted to foster some autonomy by creating institutions that were organically independent of the denominations, when the denominations counterattacked with power plays of their own, the NE’s consistently folded in a pattern of compromise and repudiation of their separatist heritage. Despite the affinity of QF's for some conservative evangelical leaders (who do not fit the historical distinctives of the NE’s), they demonstrate little evidence of a desire to cooperate with actual apostates.
If I am right, that doesn’t make the tendencies of the QF’s acceptable; it simply exposes some flaws in the analogy between the QF’s and the NE’s. The discussion of the merits of the perspectives and opinions will continue, and it should. The essence of my argument is that similarities between some of the ideas of the QF’s and the NE’s do not necessitate similarities in their motivations, strategies, methods, and outcomes. A key step will be taken towards dealing with the central issues when more TF’s engage those theological issues rather than relying on argumentation that poisons the well.