As a 23-year-old, I walked onto the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky in the summer of 1988 to begin my M.Div (this was five years before Al Mohler became president). I was excited and eager. I had experienced a profound conversion as a 12-year-old boy. In college I had read C. S. Lewis and dipped into Francis Schaeffer. So, I was eager to begin my studies. After graduating from college, I packed up all (or most) of my earthly belongings, drove to Louisville, and delivered pizzas that summer to make a little money. Without knowing much about the word “Evangelical,” I was walking headfirst into an institution which would in a few years be a leader in North American Evangelicalism.
I really did not know what I was walking into. There was a lively discussion at Southern in those days, including special guest lectures and symposia concentrated on questions like “What is an Evangelical?” and “Southern Baptists and Evangelicals.” As I remember, the whole discussion intrigued me. Persons like David Wells and Richard Mouw would come to the seminary to lecture and participate in these discussions.
I was introduced to one of the theological leaders of Evangelicalism, David Wells, when he came to speak at SBTS. He gave a wonderful chapel address, and after chapel there was a panel and Q and A with Wells and another professor. The topic included a discussion of biblical inerrancy. At one point in the discussion Wells asked a brilliant question to the Southern faculty member: “If Jesus were to pick up one of the four gospel accounts and read it, would he recognize himself in that account?” As I listened to the question I thought: “Well, of course he would recognize himself.” The situation at Southern began to become crystal clear to me when the Southern professor hesitated, hemmed, hawed, and eventually was unable to say that Jesus would recognize himself if he were to read one of the gospel accounts. It was a brilliant question by Wells, and very helpful to me as a young theological student.
As I was trying to navigate my way through the morass of issues facing any theological student, I was introduced to the work of Carl F. H. Henry, often called the “Dean” of evangelical theologians back in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I went to the library and checked out all the volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority (published in six volumes from 1976 to 1983). I poured over many pages of this monumental work, and this was one of my chief early inductions into evangelical theology. I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Henry personally send me a used set of God, Revelation, and Authority when I informed him at a lecture that I was having difficulties finding a set. Such were the many kindnesses that I found as I came into contact with Evangelicalism.
From the Protestant Reformation to Princeton: An Historical Sketch of Evangelicalism
While my introduction to Evangelicalism began in the 1980s, there is quite a history to uncover in order to understand what Evangelicalism is, where it came from, and where it may be going. Thus, let me turn from my evangelical biography to a general survey of Evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism has in one sense been difficult to define, and it is fair to say that in our present day we are witnessing at least something of a crisis. Therefore, instead of beginning with a definition, let us go back to the beginning and consider something of the story that I entered when I stepped onto the campus of Southern Seminary.
At the most basic level, when we speak of “Evangelicalism” we are speaking of historic Protestantism. We are merely speaking of the Protestant movement of the 1500s, which saw itself simply as a reforming movement, as representing the best of the 1500 years which had preceded it, and as the truest bearer of the apostolic gospel during its own era. Very soon one would see “Lutheran” Protestants and “Reformed” Protestants, as well as the Radical Reformers (or Anabaptists), and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
The seventeenth century would give rise to both Protestant Scholasticism, the continuation of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the birth of Pietism, and the beginnings of modern philosophy (especially Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and John Locke). In turn, the eighteenth century would witness the continued development of Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism, the continuation of the Radical Reformers/Anabaptist, the birth of the Baptists, and the continued growth of modern philosophy. The century would end with the publication of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1799), perhaps the singularly most important theological work of its era, and with its publication Protestant Liberalism was born.
The nineteenth century saw the continued growth of Protestantism, but now amidst and against a burgeoning Protestant Liberalism. Protestant Liberalism flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through various giants: Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Adolf Van Harnack (1851-1930), and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), just to name a few. Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812, would become a bastion of conservative Reformed Protestantism in the nineteenth century through the first third or so of the twentieth century. Luminaries like Charles Hodge, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, and Geerhardus Vos would be key models for many Evangelicals.
J. Gresham Machen would serve as a leader of sorts during the last decades of Old Princeton, and would eventually found Westminster Theological Seminary (outside of Philadelphia) in 1929. In retrospect Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923) was particularly important. The book argued that Protestant Liberalism was not a strand or version of Christianity, but that it was not true Christianity at all; it denied essential components of the Christian faith and offered in its place an altogether different religion.
Something seems to have been in the air following World War II. Intellectuals were casting around in an attempt to make sense of two world wars, but there also seemed to be an energy to do what was necessary to build (and re-build) institutions. In terms of conservative Protestant Christianity, the 1940s saw the emergence of the “Neo-Evangelicals,” with persons like Carl F.H. Henry and the formation of Fuller Theological Seminary. This seminary, led by radio evangelist Charles Fuller, opened its doors in 1947. The founding faculty consisted of Everett Harrison, Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Lindsell, and Wilbur Smith. Carl Henry would also serve as the first editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, which would launch almost a decade later, in 1956. Billy Graham was the founder of Christianity Today. The 1940s also saw the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, which sought “to be a ‘middle way’ between the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches and the progressive Federal Council of Churches.” Seven years later, in 1949, academic interests among Evangelicals brought forth the Evangelical Theological Society, with Clarence Bouma of Calvin College serving as the first President.
1. This description is taken from the National Association of Evangelicals website.
While Billy Graham first began to preach in 1937, is it perhaps his 1957 evangelistic crusade in New York City which solidified his name across American, and indeed the world. Graham would preach 17 evenings (every Saturday for 17 weeks). Over these 17 weeks the cumulative total of attendees was around 2,397,400 persons. Graham, who had founded Christianity Today, was by all measures the most recognizable preacher in the world.
While not an academic like Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer would emerge in the late 1960s as a kind of prophetic voice in the wilderness, speaking of “the God who is there,” and asserting that this God “is there and he is not silent.” Schaeffer inspired many Evangelicals to take worldview questions seriously, he encouraged his own version of presuppositional apologetics, and he focused on the state of the church as well as the ethical and political ramifications of Christianity, especially during the final published volumes of his life—works like How Then Should We Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto.
Harold Lindsell published two books that serve as something like distress signals concerning Evangelicals and biblical inerrancy. Together, The Battle for the Bible (1976) and The Bible in the Balance (1979) expressed concern about the loss of belief in biblical authority amidst Evangelicals. Previously, J.I. Packer had made his own case for the importance of biblical authority, in his 1958 book ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God. So, Lindsell’s call to arms was not quite a new issue in the 1970s. In fact, this call for biblical inerrancy would impel the “conservative resurgence” (or “fundamentalist takeover,” depending on your perspective) launched in 1979. This was a successful attempt to change the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, which at times (or by some) had been somewhat ambivalent about “Evangelicalism.”
Keeping an eye on the Bible, the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy was formed in 1977, and ICBI would release the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. A slew of published books would follow the release of the Chicago Statement. The two with perhaps the most significant impact would be the edited volumes by Donald A. Carson and John Woodbridge: Scripture and Truth (1983) and Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (1986). In the same vein, Carson published something of an update to (at least) the first volume with the 1248 page The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (2016).
David Wells also expressed his own set of concerns starting in the 1990s. Emerging from his visit to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wells published No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? in 1993. To this volume, he quickly added four more related books that attempted to analyze the problems of the Evangelical movement: God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1995), Above All Earthly Powers (2005), and The Courage to be Protestant (2008).
Evangelicalism Institutions and Influencers
While in many ways Evangelicalism seemed vibrant and robust at times, even kindred spirits have expressed significant criticism. For example, scholars like Carl Trueman and Darryl G. Hart have at times been cool (to put it mildly) to Evangelicalism, instead stressing the importance of one’s own particular tradition. For example, might it not make more sense to say, “I am a Presbyterian” or “I am a Baptist,” rather than “I am an Evangelical”?
Closer to own moment, it is hard to speak authoritatively about Evangelicalism today. And this entire issue of Christ Over All intends to explore in some detail the history of Evangelicalism. Interestingly, while just some thirty years ago the presence or influence of Southern Baptists would have been modest, today various Southern Baptists exercise a significant influence and have a considerable presence within the Evangelical Theological Society. Five of the nine board members in 2022 are active Southern Baptists, and each year many of the academic papers at the national meeting are given by Southern Baptist scholars.
At the institutional level it is probably fair to say that the mantle has passed—in some senses—
from Fuller Theological Seminary to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (at least if one is thinking of biblical inerrancy and classic Protestant theology).
While I have given only a thumb-nail sketch above about the history of Evangelicalism (especially the twentieth-century), it can be quickly seen that the history of Evangelicalism is largely an institutional history (e.g., Westminster Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Christianity Today, Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Baker Book House, InterVarsity Press, Crossway Publishers, Together for the Gospel), as well as a leadership history (e.g., J. Gresham Machen, Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, Donald A. Carson, and R. Albert Mohler).
More recently, this history has moved online, as outlets like Christianity Today have rebranded and The Gospel Coalition is one of the most-trafficked websites in the Christian world. At the same time, the leadership history of Evangelicalism has continued apace. While Billy Graham organized mass evangelistic events across the world, large-scale conferences like Together for the Gospel, Passion, and other Evangelical interest groups continue to dot the calendar of various parts of Evangelicalism.
Such “interest groups” mark another facet of Evangelicalism’s story. While we often speak of Evangelicalism as one monolithic entity, there has been—especially since the 1960s—a divide between conservative and progressive, egalitarian and complementarian, and Side A and Side B Evangelicals. Such divisions are an important part of the Evangelical experience and one that leads to a recent assessment of Evangelicalism.
It is a challenge to assess the state of Evangelicalism, and the books, articles, and podcasts that attempt to provide analysis are legion. That said, one recent contribution is Aaron Renn’s well-known taxonomy of Evangelicalism, where he outlines three key eras of Evangelicalism:
- Positive World (Pre-1994): The society is generally positive toward Christianity.
- Neutral World (1994–2014): The society is generally neutral toward Christianity.
- Negative World (2014–Present): The society is generally negative toward Christianity.
Renn also suggests in a recent lecture (“The State of Evangelicalism”), that whereas Evangelicals used to see themselves as engaged in culture war between Evangelicals and the world out there, now Evangelicals are more engaged in kind of internecine struggle within Evangelicalism. But I wonder if that is true.
From the moment I became aware of what Evangelicalism was (the 1980s), there were already skirmishes. Ron Sider was using the Levitical food laws to argue that the U.N. should control food prices (in his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger). On the other hand, Ronald Nash and Carl F. H. Henry were much more friendly toward a generally free market approach to economics. In short, Evangelicalism—like every family—seems to have enjoyed its family squabbles from virtually the very beginning. We might even reach back to the 1500s, with the intractable disagreement between Luther and Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper at the Marburg Colloquy. Nonetheless, Renn is a voice worth listening to as Evangelicals chart their way into the future. So, a few observations are in order.
First, one should reflect on the life of the typical Evangelical church in relationship to what we are calling “institutional” and leader-centered Evangelicalism. For example, the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has exercised significant influence upon, and exercises significant participation within, what we might call institutional and leader-centered Evangelicalism. However, the average Southern Baptist church member may have little interest in and cognizance of what academics and “thought leaders” mean when they speak of “Evangelicals.” That is, Southern Baptists will likely go on living as Baptists, planting churches, and engaging in home and international missions, without always giving much attention to what is an “Evangelical.” Thus, the 1970s book Are Southern Baptist Evangelicals? asks a pertinent question. At the same time, Southern Baptists are (un)arguably the largest denomination amongst Evangelicalism. Also, when one goes to the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society one sees scores of evangelical academics who are Southern Baptists.
Second, it would seem that whatever unanimity ever existed within Evangelicalism is extremely attenuated (to put it mildly) or has largely dissipated. On my reading, The Gospel Coalition, brought into being by D.A. Carson and Tim Keller, served for a while as a kind of internet “glue” to hold many Evangelicals together around common interests and theology. But at the level of institutions and leaders/personalities, there seems to be increasingly little that ties Evangelicals together now. It is difficult to predict if other institutions or leaders will emerge who will unite Evangelicals.
Third, one wonders if the current lack of unity and lack of a unifying institution or leader was at some level present from the very beginning of Evangelicalism (at least Evangelicalism in the twentieth century). If “Evangelical” is taken to mean classical Evangelical theological, pastoral, educational, and missional commitments and emphases, “Evangelical” work can continue quite separate from any kind of unifying institution or leader. That is, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Free Church, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, et al., could continue to evangelize, disciple, teach, and love God and neighbor in strikingly effective ways without an “Evangelical” institution or leader to unify the various denominations and churches which would happily consider themselves to be “Evangelical.”
Fourth, and last, one should note perhaps what would be (or has been) lost. There is something encouraging and perhaps energizing about thinking one is a part of a movement larger than oneself, one’s own church, and one’s own denomination. Evangelicalism as an institutional and leader-united movement may or may not revive anytime soon. Nonetheless, churches can continue to be faithful communities, Christian schools and colleges can continue to try and offer a distinctively Christ-centered education, denominations can continue to work for the advance of the gospel, and Christian families can continue to try and be faithful witnesses and raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
I am not alone in the above assessment of Evangelicalism, but perhaps I have exaggerated the decline of this movement. As I consider my own life, I interact with institutions that have been deeply shaped by Evangelicalism and continue to carry on the movement’s values and beliefs. For example, my wife and helped found Augustine School, a Christian liberal arts school in Jackson, Tennessee. Over the last several years the school has adopted as conditions of employment and board membership The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, The Nashville Statement, and the Danvers Statement—all of these most definitely products of Evangelicalism. Lord willing, within a few days of this story being posted I will be giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Denver, Colorado—a society which is robust and growing. I have had the privilege of publishing books with InterVarsity Press—a flagship Evangelical publisher—and Crossway books, which represents what we might call the next generation of Evangelical publishers. Even this website, Christ Over All, carries on—in one sense—the revered and ancient Christian tradition of trying to bring about renewal within our corner of the Christian world. In a sense, we are trying to encourage the renewal and strengthening of Evangelicalism itself.
So, even if the term “Evangelical” is contested, gospel work will continue on—Lord willing—unabated. As I write this, my oldest son is studying theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with one of the finest theological faculties anywhere. My wife and I drove to downtown Jackson today to hear our second son Daniel preach at the local food kitchen to a dozen or so folks in tough situations. My daughter is studying Spanish, and has a heart for missions and ministry amongst Spanish-speaking folks. My wife has returned to SBTS to study biblical counseling, so she will be further trained in Scripture and Evangelical theology as she attempts to encourage and minister to the many women God seems to bring her way. Gospel—Evangelical—work continues.
In short, with or without what we call “Evangelicalism,” people of the book, people of the evangel can continue to be faithful in the indiscriminate communication and publication of the gospel message. If a generally united Evangelicalism emerges (from the ashes?), this could be a wonderful thing. But Evangelical work can continue without a “movement” per se. May God help every person and church committed to the evangel of Jesus Christ to continue faithful, God-honoring Evangelical work.