Last time, I noted discussions surrounding “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” but that doesn’t bring us to the present.
If one reads Francis Schaeffer’s last book, one might have thought Evangelicalism was on the ropes. Yet that does not match our present experience. There is a renewed vibrancy and fervor in many quarters of Evangelicalism. So what has happened?
Fundamentalists were likely wrong about Evangelical’s in part because they examined Evangelical’s in light of 1948-53. But the position of Evangelicals in the 70s, 80s and 90s was significantly different than the first generation of Evangelicals. During the early years of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy.
But second generation “neo-Evangelicals” were significantly different from those of Ockenga’s generation; they fell into what is perhaps the most common misconception about denominations: most people, including many preachers do not choose their denominations on the basis of a creedal statement, they choose their creedal statements based on their denominations. Many believers remain with the denomination they were raised in, or if they change denominations, it is often over other issues (such as being tired of infighting). What many Fundamentalists should have understood, even from the beginnings of the conflict, is that some Evangelicals were not necessarily favoring compromise as a strategy, they were Evangelicals by default.
I think the answer to the question of the Evangelical recovery is found in the “battle for the Bible” at Evangelical seminaries. Those fighting these battles were not fighting a “sham” battle for the Bible, rather they picked up the battle that the Fundamentalists weren’t fighting – they were too busy fighting about Evangelical capitulations to theological liberalism to actually spend much time or resources battle theological liberalism, itself.
In this regard, Evangelicals engaging in the battle for the Bible actually used the tactics of an earlier generation of Fundamentalists (for example, requiring professor’s at Evangelical schools to sign creedal statements, expelling those who taught heresy, etc) instead of those used by Evangelicals at the beginning of the controversy. The first Fundamentalists, afterall, did not begin by separating from liberals, they rather fought the liberal takeover of their denominations from within until such time as they thought they could not win. Separatism was the Atom bomb of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, the final tactic left when the battle for the denominations seemed over.
Similarly, Evangelicals were fighting the fight of the faith within the denominations they had been raised in, or had entered into with a spiritual mentor. Thus, even if they did not use the name, “Fundamentalist,” they’re relationship to fundamentalism was similar to that of Gresham Machen.