This article is the first in a series about ongoing sea changes in Evangelicalism today. The series will utilize Scripture and church history in an attempt to clarify those issues that are tending to weaken, break down, and misdirect Evangelicalism. Even though the effects are obvious, the forces behind these changes are not.
The First Great Evangelical Meltdown
But such appearances are illusory.
From a biblical and historical point of view, it might rather be said that Evangelicalism is actually weakening and collapsing in the United States in a manner equivalent to a meltdown. And this meltdown is only equaled by another meltdown that took place in the early part of the 20th century called the “Liberal (or Modernist) / Fundamentalist controversy.” I will discuss this first meltdown in a few minutes for understanding it is very important in grasping what is occurring in the Church today.
Our present age uses the word Evangelicalism in many ways. I use the term to refer to a historical movement that had its roots in the 16th century Reformation and that gained great power during the 18th century revival in England and America, known in America as the First Great Awakening and in England as the Evangelical Revival. That type of Evangelicalism manifested two basic qualities:
(1) An enormous emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that Christ died to save sinners, and that this is the basic message of Christianity and of the Bible; and
(2) The certitude that the Bible is the very Word of God and that it is the greatest authority in and over the Church.
These Evangelicals accepted and embraced the historical creeds—the Nicean Creed, the Apostles Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. They did not see themselves as something new, but they harkened back to the roots of the Apostolic Church and differentiated themselves from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Evangelical spirit in the United States has had a lot of ups and downs. One of the high points was the First Great Awakening, just mentioned. There was also a Second Great Awakening just before the Civil War, but it was much more of a mixture due to the introduction of the idea that human beings could generate revival by their own works. It was very clear that the First Great Awakening came by God alone, but it was not so clear in the Second Great Awakening who people believed was really in charge.
This next section is necessary to provide the groundwork for understanding the Second Great Evangelical Meltdown.
The Liberal (or Modernist) / Fundamentalist Controversy
What I call the First Great Evangelical Meltdown occurred in the early 1900s in contrast to the First Great Awakening in the 1700s. It was widely accepted in the early 1900s that Evangelical and Reformed thinkers and preachers were promoting the true Gospel. They also had strong intellectual backing through schools like Princeton Theological Seminary, which was considered a bastion of Evangelical orthodoxy. However, heretical and unbiblical views of Christianity began entering the Church around that time, especially through the seminaries and universities. These assaults focused particularly on the authority of the Bible.
The two main assaults were, first, a philosophy of naturalistic science that claimed the biblical picture of the origin of the universe was an archaic myth and that science trumped the Bible; and, second, an attack on the Bible itself that came mainly from German theological schools steeped in Enlightenment Rationalism and German Romanticism (more about that later). These schools claimed that they could tell what was “really true” in the Bible and what was “myth.” One of the “myths” that they claimed was just superstitious thinking was the Resurrection of Christ. They also taught that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament. These heresies took the American seminaries and universities by storm, and later the denominations. Unfortunately, the churches were vulnerable partly because they wanted to be academically “relevant” to “modern people.”
Another factor that contributed to the First Great Meltdown was the rise of the social gospel around the beginning of the 20th century.
Promoters of the social gospel assumed that the biblical Gospel wasn’t really true because “of course Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead.” Therefore, the only thing left for people who wanted to affect society was to do good, because of course Christ talked about being helpful to the poor and the sick, the alienated, and so forth. And since there was no longer a Gospel of grace and salvation to believe in, they said that what we have left is the social gospel: “Go into all the world and do social good works.” In other words, “deeds not creeds.” Many came to see this as the mission of the Church. The world missionary movement that had flourished just before this controversy arose changed its basic focus from bringing the Gospel to the nations to going to the nations “recognizing” that the “hidden Christ in all nations” was already there. This became the theology of the World Council of Churches.
This truth gap in the mission of the Church left a big hole, and into that hole poured Marxist thinking, which agreed with liberal theology that all that mattered was to “do good to people.” The Marxists believed that capitalism was the great cause of suffering, war, and poverty, and as the liberal theologians gradually embraced Marxism, the Marxists were happy to use the churches for their own purposes. During this process, almost every mainline church either capitulated or split due to the terrible conflict. The groups called Fundamentalist united on the fundamental truths of Scripture that the liberal churches denied (more about that below). The liberal churches focused on the social gospel and gradually turned away more and more from biblical preaching, teaching, and eventually even from biblical morality. In many circles psychological methods replaced biblical sanctification in the search for the transformation of the inner man.
This situation has continued up through today and, if anything, is snowballing. The mainline churches are continuing in their liberalism and are moving more and more towards Marxism. The Fundamentalist churches are now moving more and more into the syncretism that they abhorred during the first Great Meltdown. In addition, the following influences in Evangelicalism are very strong:
- The marriage of psychology and mysticism;
- Compromises with Roman Catholicism in the political arena;
- The popularity and spread of the spiritual formation / contemplative prayer movement and Romanticism; and
- Literary apologetics and an undiscerning embrace of culture, especially through the popularity and influence of such writers as C. S. Lewis and the Inklings and the compromising Anglican style.
What is fundamentalism? Understanding the word fundamentalism can be very confusing because the first manifestation of Christian fundamentalism was basically a movement uniting Evangelical churches in their stance against liberalism. A document called The Fundamentals promoted five basic biblical truths that defined the movement: the inerrancy of Scripture, Christ's virgin birth, the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ, Christ's bodily Resurrection, and the historicity of Christ's miracles.
The coalition included Reformed as well as dispensational theologies, and though they had theological differences they were united on the need to stem the tide of liberalism (Modernism). However, after the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial (1925), a lot of the Reformed churches withdrew and the coalition broke down. Thus, what became Christian Fundamentalism as we know it today basically changed to reflect certain characteristics of dispensational thinking that were more central to dispensationalism than to early Fundamentalism.
The term fundamentalism has been misused in the media to mean “fanatical,” but originally Fundamentalism was a movement of conservative Evangelicalism. Until recently the conservative-fundamentalist element formed the main group of Evangelicals. The current movement though does not necessarily represent all of conservative Evangelicalism. For example, the Missouri Synod, a body of conservative Lutherans, agrees with all the basics of The Fundamentals, but they are not considered Fundamentalists today because they are not dispensational.
Basically, then, Evangelicalism became broken and fragmented, which is its condition today.
This, then, in very broad brushstrokes, is what I mean by the First Great Evangelical Meltdown. This first meltdown allowed for the flourishing of what I call the Second Great Evangelical Meltdown—a situation that is occurring all around us right now and that coming articles will discuss.
The next part of this series will focus on The Pied Piper of False Freedom and Clarifying the “Postmodern” Rhetoric. And then we will move into looking at the Second Great Evangelical Meltdown—what I see happening today in the churches and among Evangelical leadership as they attempt to deal with the increasing floods of compromise and deception.
I welcome your comments.
1. Machen, J. Gresham. 1923. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
2. Marsden, Charles. 1980. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870–1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Note: Marsden has prejudices about Fundamentalism that sometimes come through in his work.
3. Packer, J. I. 1958. Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.