Thursday, March 02, 2006

Phil Johnson on Neo-Evangelicalism

From today's seminar session, Dead Right Part Two: Taking a Second Look at Fundamentalism
I'd love to give a short history of neo-evangelicalism. In fact, I got some criticism last year because I didn't say much about neo-evangelicalism, and someone who doesn't know me very well evidently surmised that my silence meant I am sympathetic with that point of view.

I'm not. I never have been. In fact, I would love to spend an hour with you someday dissecting the utter irrationality of the neo-evangelical perspective, because it's shot full of fallacies; it's self-contradictory, it has been utterly and completely detrimental to the evangelical movement—and it's therefore pretty easy to critique. Iain Murray did a great job of unmasking the follies of neo-evangelicalism from a British perspective in his book Evangelicalism Divided.

But I'm really feeling the constraints of time, and this is, after all, a seminar about fundamentalism; not neo-evangelicalism. So if someone came hoping to hear me go off against neo-evangelicalism, you're going to be mostly disappointed again, I'm afraid.

But I will say this: the essential philosophy behind neo-evangelicalism was entirely wrong-headed from the start. The whole principle that makes neo-evangelicalism distinct from historic evangelicalism is by definition a compromise.

Furthermore, the motives that drove neo-evangelicals were pretty clearly tainted from the get-go. There was too much craving for academic respectability (even though the secular academy itself is inherently hostile to the gospel). There was too little attention to the many biblical admonitions reminding us that "friendship with the world is enmity with God." In fact, according to James 4:4, worldliness is the worst kind of spiritual adultery. And as Jesus told the disciples repeatedly, if we're faithful, the world will hate us. Why should we crave respect from the same world-system that hated Him and put him to death? Isn't that the epitome of unfaithfulness, and the very spirit of Judas Iscariot? So the drift of neo-evangelicalism was predictable, and the ecumenical breakdown of the entire evangelical movement over the past two decades is its inevitable fruit.

It seems to me these days that neo-evangelicalism has pretty much gained complete control of the entire evangelical movement. Today the visible evangelical movement is so overwhelmed with shallow neo-evangelicalism that most people in the movement think that's what historic evangelicalism is. Frankly, if you're looking for examples of virile, dynamic, doctrinally-rich historic evangelicalism, you're not likely to find it very prominently displayed on the best-seller racks in evangelical bookshops, on the pages of Christianity Today, or in press releases from the National Association of Evangelicals. In other words, neo-evangelicalism is living and graphic proof of how easily and how quickly a little leaven can leaven the whole lump.

So those are the definitions I'm starting with. And although I have some criticisms to make about the fundamentalist movement, I hope it's clear that I am not trying to recruit young fundamentalists to the evangelical "movement." Nor am I suggesting that evangelicalism as a movement has somehow succeeded where fundamentalism failed.
I'm pleased, but not surprised, to see this analysis. I posted some similar thoughts earlier this year here. Read the full transcript (with apparently a few alterations) of Johnson's seminar here. You might not agree with every point, but a friendly critique from a theological ally is worth consideration from those who intend to be intellectually honest and ecclesiastically constructive, particularly for those in a movement that has published fairly little self-examination.


SocietyVs said...

Lately I have been doing some study of my own, not on some theology or denomination, but just from the bible in general. I noticed it says 'a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand'. Do you think that Christianity has divided itself, which to me seems obvious, with all the denominational 'riff-raff' out there. The link missing is a Paul like dude preaching the church to come back together, never mind the words, the spirit of the movement is what's important. We can argue all day over denomination and theology, which I have a degree in, but the most important thing is 'one faith, one God, one body'.

Ben said...

The problem with that argument is that the professing "body" doesn't share the same God or the same faith. That is why theology matters. There can be no "one body" if there is no "one faith" and "one God." The problem is less that Christianity has divided itself that it is that much of "Christianity" has ceased to be Christian.

Ashley said...

"The link missing is a Paul like dude preaching the church to come back together..."

Ever heard of Bishop Tom Wright societyvs?