Evangelicalism’s Insecure Calvinists

The Proliferation of the Evangelical Self-Critique Book at the End of the Twentieth Century

Gregory Johnson • Saint Louis University • Fall 1999




            After half a century of unprecedented growth in both evangelicalism’s adherents and its cultural visibility, and after the development of a vast network of evangelical seminaries and colleges, publishing houses and periodicals, parachurch organizations and churches, an increasingly vocal cluster of evangelical leaders is questioning whether American evangelicalism can survive its success.[1]  Nestled among the devotionals, bibles and self-help books of the evangelical Christian bookstore, one notices a recent spurt of books criticizing the evangelical movement from within.

Almost all of the authors of these evangelical self-critique books are confessional Calvinists, conservative in their evangelical faith.  All perceive a theological declension within American evangelicalism in which the movement’s historic theocentric theology has been replaced by an anthropocentric and experience-driven faith without a theological grounding.  This “club” of Reformed authors illustrates the declension in various areas of evangelical faith and practice, warning of impending catastrophe unless American evangelicals return to the theologically grounded, God-centered faith of evangelicals past.  These volumes—all written since 1991—demonstrate a pronounced insecurity about evangelicalism’s successes within the movement’s Calvinist branch, an uncertainty that is noteworthy considering that the movement’s modern incarnation began in the 1940s among a small group of northern Calvinists.[2]


1. Join the Self-Critique Club:  On Recommending Each Other’s Books

            If one is fortunate enough to find a collection of these evangelical self-critique books with their original dust jackets intact, one is quickly struck by the recommendations on the back covers of these volumes.  The same handful of names keeps recurring in each volume:  Anglican theologian J.I. Packer, Presbyterian minister and former head of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy James Boice, historian Mark Noll, founder of Reformation & Revival Ministries John Armstrong, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, Prison Fellowship founder and Templeton Award winner Charles Colson, biblical counseling advocate David Powlison, Baptist leader John F. MacArthur, Presbyterian theologian and founder of Ligonier Ministries R.C. Sproul, evangelical sociologists James Davison Hunter and Os Guiness, Reformed theologian David Wells, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler, and Reformed theologian and founder of Christians United for Reformation (CURE) Michael Horton, who also serves as vice-chairman of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, of which many of these authors are a part.  It would appear that when one of these figures composes a book, the others provide the recommendations.

            One is also struck by the number of these books that are multiple author compilations.  Four of the eight works central to this study are compilations, and this same pool of authors—with additions or subtractions depending on the volume—provides the essays within each of these books.  The names read like a who’s who of modern evangelical Calvinism.  With the odd Lutheran thrown in from time to time, these figures are the most recognized confessional Calvinists within Presbyterian, Baptist and Christian Reformed circles, and not a few oversee large Christian radio, publishing and multimedia ministries.  These self-critique authors are writing in consultation with one another; they are reading each other’s works.  Their concerns represent the uncertainties of the theologian’s club of American Calvinism.


2.  The Evangelical Theological Declension Observed

            These authors perceive a declension within American evangelicalism, a decline from a theocentric world and life view to an anthropocentric one, a turn from a life grounded in theology to a life grounded in the personal experience of the divine and the benefits such experience brings.  Perhaps the earliest of these contemporary Calvinist jeremiads is Michael Horton’s 1991 Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism.[3]  Here Horton lays out the program for the works that follow.  Horton speaks of a crisis of truth in the evangelical churches, a crisis badly needing a return to classic Protestant theological orthodoxy.  He writes, “The crisis of truth in our time, even in the evangelical church, is indeed serious.  And it is due in part to our cultural accommodation.”[4]

Horton criticizes the American tendency to want to “make God safe for democracy,” targeting in particular the tendency to market God and Christianity as means toward an end rather than ends in themselves.  This fundamental idolatry, which Horton terms the “How To” gospel, paints sinful humanity as consumers and God as a product, reversing in Horton’s view the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and making humanity—not God—ultimate.  Evangelicals, Horton argues, are more concerned today with their “felt needs”—self-esteem over salvation, religious feelings over religious truth, and individual prosperity over the health of the institutional church.  This narcissistic turn in conservative Protestantism, Horton warns, has made the Christianity of many churches into an idolatrous religion in which Christ is eclipsed by concern for self.  With personal passion, Horton protests:


I’m tired of hearing sermons on “How to Have an Effective Quiet Time” or “How to Get More Out of Your Christian Life.”  Don’t offer me another list of “Four Steps to Victorious Christian Living.”  I’ve tried them all and not only do they fail to answer the deeper questions; they don’t even work for the superficial ones.  ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.’[5]


            Horton credits a shift away from the theocentric theology of the Reformation with providing the background for the modern evangelical church’s decline into narcissism.  He writes:


When we tipped the scales from celebrating God’s glory and grace to human happiness and capacity for good, hedonism was an inevitable consequence.  When evangelicalism left the soli (only) out of Deo gloria (to God be the glory), so essential to the Reformation and Puritan faith, and became a product to be used by consumers in “the pursuit of happiness,” it not only failed to restrain the “Me generation”; it helped foster it.  This is why the theological shift from Reformation realism (God-centeredness) to Arminian optimism is so decisive.[6]



The other authors follow Horton in these same core concerns of cultural accommodation, perceiving behind such compromise a theological shift away from a God-centered Protestant orthodoxy toward a narcissistic recasting of the biblical message.  Indeed, Horton himself would bring other authors into the battle a year after his Made in America with the publication in 1992 of Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?[7]  This project, initiated and edited by Horton, brought to the discussion Boice, Armstrong, Carson, Powlison, Colson, Packer, Sproul, and others, the authors arguing that power had become the idol of American evangelicals—power politics, power evangelism, power church growth, power within, power preaching.[8]  The volume concludes with two essays, the first by R.C. Sproul arguing that theology, as the study of God, is of ultimate relevance, though evangelicals have traded the contemplation of God for lesser things of no ultimate value.  The final essay, by Horton himself, calls evangelicals back to the Christocentric gospel as the final and ultimate enemy of the religion of power.

Also in 1992, Os Guiness and John Seel brought together another eight authors in a single volume No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age.[9]  Again laying down a strong critique of evangelical faith and life in contemporary America, this volume begins by likening the current state of the movement with the immediate pre-Reformation period, an image of veiled gospel and unbridled idolatry.  Guiness and Seel write:


It is time once again to hammer theses on the door of the church.  As on the occasion of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses in the sixteenth century and Søren Kierkegaard’s single thesis in the nineteenth century, Christendom is becoming a betrayal of the Christian faith of the New Testament.  To pretend otherwise is either to be blind or to appear to be making a fool of God.[10]


They continue:


The main burden of this book is a direct challenge to the modern idols of evangelicalism.  But this idolatry is only part of the wider cultural captivity of evangelical churches in America.  We therefore look beyond idolatry to the broader need for revival and reformation within evangelicalism.  Our greatest need is for a third Great Awakening.[11]


Indeed, the volume ends with a lone Arminian voice, Methodist Thomas C. Oden’s essay “On Not Whoring after the Spirit of the Age,” a stern warning to theologians against picking up modernity’s lust for novelty just as modernity itself collapses.

            Guiness and Seel’s group effort was joined that same year by David F. Wells’ widely recognized No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?[12]  Wells argues that the evangelical church in recent years has “cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”[13]  Wells describes a theological declension within the movement since the 1950s.  He writes:


Those who had marched gladly under the banner of evangelicalism and had affirmed the truths of historic Protestant orthodoxy now began to look sideways.  As the theological center began to give way, there arose a multitude of evangelical amalgams with, among other things, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, special interests such as feminism, the pieties of the World Council of Churches, and radical politics.  The most important thing that this potential movement needed—theological unity—grew ever thinner and more insubstantial.[14]


            Also in 1993, the Calvinistic independent Baptist leader John F. MacArthur entered the field of these evangelical critiques, having spent much of the previous decade beleaguered with evangelical infighting over lordship salvation, a debate over whether or not is was possible for a Christian to be genuinely saved without pursuing holiness in daily life.  MacArthur’s new volume, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World,[15] stressed the same themes as had Horton, Guiness and Wells, but MacArthur, with his popular radio, book and tape ministry Grace to You, brought a wider audience than the Presbyterian, Anglican and Congregationalist authors before him.  MacArthur’s primary metaphor for the current state of the church was the English Baptist Downgrade Controversy a century earlier, a debate which pitted Calvinistic preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon against theologically moderate leaders who hoped to soften the “harsh” and “offensive” Calvinism and Biblicism that had previously characterized the English Baptists.  The evangelical church in America today, MacArthur warns—with its reigning pragmatism, user-friendly methods, and low view of God—is in the midst of a theological downgrade as well.

            MacArthur followed up Ashamed of the Gospel in 1994 with Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses its Will to Discern.[16]  With heavy emphasis on the need for theology and for rational reflection on the Bible as the standard by which truth is discerned, MacArthur criticizes both evangelical emotionalism and the Roman Catholic notion of infallible church authority, here targeting two newly perceived enemies:  the joint statement Evangelicals and Catholics Together on the one hand, and the laughing revivals sweeping charismatic churches in mid-decade on the other.  But in targeting the theological “fuzziness” of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, MacArthur was firing upon some of his former allies, mentioning by name Charles Colson who co-authored the statement with Richard John Neuhaus, MacArthur mentioning co-signers Os Guiness and J.I. Packer as well.[17]  Though substantial peace over evangelical-Catholic relations would come a year later, Colson, Guiness and Packer would not be found in any later evangelical critique books.[18]

            By the middle of the 1990s, a new leader had arisen within the club of evangelicalism’s Calvinist critics, John H. Armstrong.  Armstrong edited the last two major evangelical self-critique volumes, The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel in 1996,[19] and The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis in 1998.[20]  The former volume stresses the importance of classic evangelical theology as the definitive characteristic of authentic evangelicalism, documenting a declension in evangelical attitudes to Scripture and the authority of the gospel.  Michael Horton concludes the volume with a call to “recover the plumb line” of biblical authority.  In The Compromised Church, a companion volume to the former work, Armstrong explains, “The crisis that the earlier book spoke of as ‘coming’ is clearly here.”[21]  By 1998, these authors saw not merely a severe theological declension and resulting anthropocentric evangelicalism, but a crisis needing immediate attention.


3.  The Evangelical Theological Declension Further Observed

Other analysts of the evangelical movement (both from within and from without) have noted a marked change in the nature and centrality of evangelical theological life.  Nathan Hatch demonstrates a shift within evangelicalism since 1942 from a theological emphasis characteristic of fundamentalism to a more relational emphasis today.  This shift from a theological to a relational grounding, Hatch suggests, may be due to evangelicalism's success.  The movement’s subculture, he explains, may not be as deep as it once was (with distinctions between evangelicals and non-evangelicals being less clear), but the movement’s current theological “fuzziness” gives it a much broader appeal.[22]

The observations of these conservative Calvinists have also been made on an academic level by sociologist James Davison Hunter, himself an evangelical in the Reformed tradition.  In Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, Hunter examines the changing theological viewpoints among the faculty of major evangelical seminaries and liberal arts colleges.[23]  Hunter demonstrates extensive cultural accommodation among these evangelical academics, themselves considerably to the theological left of their students and having less concern for affirming traditional evangelical doctrines and practices.  Hunter explains, “The symbolic boundaries of Protestant orthodoxy are not being maintained or reinforced.”[24]  He suggests that such reinforcement may now be impossible due to an evangelical “ethic of civility” which makes conservative Protestants want not merely to be tolerant of others, but be tolerable to others.  Hunter writes:


To be sure, there is good reason to believe that conservative Protestantism may be incapable of adequately reinforcing these boundaries....  The first [reason for the inability] has to do with the “ethic of civility.”  ...Evangelicals generally and the coming generation particularly have adopted to various degrees an ethical code of political civility.  This compels them to not only be tolerant of others’ beliefs, opinions, and life-styles, but more importantly be tolerable to others.  The critical dogma is not to offend but to be genteel and civil in social relations.[25]


Hunter continues:


While their adoption of this ethic expresses itself politically, it expresses itself as a religious style as well.  In this latter sense, it entails a deemphasis of Evangelicalism’s more offensive aspects, such as accusations of heresy, sin, immorality, and paganism, and themes of judgment, divine wrath, damnation, and hell.  Anything that hints of moral or religious absolutism and intolerance is underplayed.[26]


Indeed, considering the continuing negative image evangelicals bear in American culture as “intolerant” and “harsh”—despite their characteristic deemphasis of socially offensive doctrines—Hunter deduces that the only way for American evangelicals to reinforce the symbolic boundaries of orthodox Protestantism would be for evangelicals “to operate defiantly against these social and cultural constraints.”  He concludes, “They would have to publicly invoke and rigorously apply the ‘harsher’ and more ‘offensive’ symbols of their faith.”  But, as Hunter notes, by reinforcing Protestant orthodoxy, evangelicals would alienate not only non-evangelicals, but “their own following as well.”[27]  Indeed, Hunter observes that little consensus remains today among evangelicals as to the very nature of the symbolic (theological or practical) boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy.[28]

            Another recent study suggests this theological shift within American evangelicalism—and Protestantism generally—at a more local level.  In All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, Marsha G. Witten analyzes the language of Protestant sermons, comparing mainline versions with their evangelical counterparts.[29]  A scholar working from outside the Christian tradition, Witten discerns extensive cultural accommodation from evangelical and mainline sermons alike, albeit more pronounced among the mainline selection.  She finds that in the great majority of the sermons in her sample, “God is portrayed exclusively or predominantly in terms of the positive functions he serves for men and women.”  She continues, “Chief among these functions is one that can be labeled ‘therapeutic.’  God relieves negative feelings, especially anxiety and doubt.”[30]  While almost all sermons speak of God as a benevolent father, only 16 percent of sermons centrally concerned with God speak of God as also being a transcendent judge.  And even those few sermons in Witten’s study that do speak of judgment never place emphasis upon that judgment; the theme is mentioned only in passing, and even then God’s agency in judgment is downplayed—sinners pass judgment on themselves, God only witnessing the fact.  She writes:


The connection between God’s function as judge and a sinner’s punishment in hell is made only by implication.  The language here suggests that God’s judgment is responsible for the reward of heaven, but human beings alone decide on their course to hell.[31]


Discussing the almost complete lack of fearsome qualities in the God of Protestant preaching, Witten observes:


“The transcendent, majestic, awesome God of Luther and Calvin—whose image informed early Protestant visions of the relationship between human beings and the divine—has undergone a softening of demeanor throughout the American experience of Protestantism, with only minor interruptions.”[32]


The accusation that modern American evangelicalism is functioning with anthropocentric assumptions would appear to find confirmation in Witten’s study of American preaching, where evangelicals fare little better than more liberal Protestants.  Humanity does not exist for God’s pleasure, but God for humanity’s pleasure.  God is not transcendent, and when he appears so, the emphasis is upon his benefits.  The God of the Bible has become a commodity that evangelicals seek to sell to consumers who find God personally useful.  Given their commitment to Protestant orthodoxy, there is ample cause for insecurity among evangelicalism’s Calvinist theologians.


4.  The Evangelical Theological Declension in Practice

            Yet these critiques from within evangelicalism’s Calvinist branch do not merely restate orthodox Reformation doctrines.  Rather they seek to demonstrate the cultural accommodation of the evangelical movement on a practical level by examining various spheres of church life and theology, this declension providing the context for a call back to the perceived theological and ecclesiastical seriousness of Reformation Christianity.  As Wells argues, the evangelical acceptance of the values of modernity “has disordered the warp and woof of contemporary life.  In the one hand it leaves a faith denuded of theology and in the other a life stripped of absolutes.”[33]  Beyond the direct concerns for biblical authority (sola scriptura) and a high view of God (soli Deo gloria), several key areas of church life receive repeated attention.

  The Psychologization of Christianity:  A major concern within these volumes is a tendency among those seeking to integrate Christianity and psychology to make God a means toward a greater end of having positive feelings about oneself.  This is a key theme in Horton’s Made in America, also being the focus of two essays in No God But God, three in Power Religion, and one in The Coming Evangelical Crisis.

  Emotionalism:  The shift from biblical study and rational theological reflection to inner voices and feelings for guidance is a major focal point of MacArthur’s Reckless Faith.  Horton devotes a chapter to the practice in Made in America.  Three essays in Power Religion focus on the parallel infatuation with signs and wonders and the emotional power experiences they produce, an essay in The Coming Evangelical Crisis drawing further attention to the question of continuing prophecy.

  The eclipse of preaching in the evangelical church:  Many of these authors object to the diminishing place of the pulpit ministry in evangelical churches.  Congregations want therapists or administrators, they fear, more than preachers.  Power Religion devotes three essays to the crisis in preaching, The Coming Evangelical Crisis and The Compromised Church one each.

  The eclipse of worship and sacraments:  A major concern within these volumes, evangelical worship is perceived to have shifted its purpose from blessing God to blessing the worshipper through entertainment-style formats.  This “show-time religion,” as MacArthur describes it, is discussed at length in Ashamed of the Gospel, and serves as the object of two essays in The Coming Evangelical Crisis and another three in The Compromised Church. 

  The eclipse of the institutional church:  Evangelicalism, these authors assert, while profiting greatly from the rise of parachurch ministries, has also suffered from a loss of popular respect for the institutional church, many individualistic American evangelicals believing that church membership and participation is optional, to the neglect of the Christian community.  Horton hit on this theme early on in Made in America, and MacArthur devotes his concluding chapter to it in Ashamed of the Gospel.  An essay is further devoted to church discipline in The Compromised Church.

  Marketing techniques and business-like church administration:  The evangelical church’s pragmatic reliance on human-centered marketing techniques for church growth received early attention from Horton in Made in America, the theme continuing in two of Power Religion’s essays.  Two more essays appear in No God But God and a chapter in Ashamed of the Gospel, the theme also surfacing in The Compromised Church.

  Protestant Distinctives over against Roman Catholicism:  A major theme by the middle of the 1990s, Evangelicals and Catholics Together brought about renewed attention to the Reformation themes of sola scriptura and sola fide, the supreme authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone.  MacArthur first stresses these themes in Reckless Faith, where they account for over half the book.  These core Protestant distinctives are visible as a subtext for much of The Coming Evangelical Crisis.  These authors oppose what they perceive to be a redefinition of key theological language (like justification by faith) in order to cover over serious doctrinal differences for the sake of unity in political activism.

  Political Life:  And these authors tend to see much evangelical involvement in politics, be it on the political left or right, as involving an idolatrous trust in human goodness or in political power.  While none of these authors endorses a separatist withdrawal from public life, the concern over evangelical political involvement is the chief focus of three essays in No God But God and two in Power Religion, but receives much less attention in the latter part of the decade than in the former part.

            It is ironic that Reformed evangelical leaders felt the need in the 1990s to accuse evangelicals of idolatrous political activism when fifteen years earlier it was one of their number, Francis Schaeffer, whose jeremiad had first called American evangelicals back into the political sphere after fifty years of perceived public withdrawal.  Schaeffer had accused American evangelicals of exchanging the biblical, Reformed vision of all of life under Christ’s lordship for a self-centered idol of personal peace and affluence.  Schaeffer and Presbyterian elder, physician and later United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop rallied evangelicals around the abortion issue in the late 1970s with their film series and book Whatever Happened to the Human Race?[34]  This effort Schaeffer followed in 1981 with A Christian Manifesto in which he challenged evangelicals to a massive movement to reestablish the foundations of government, law, and western culture upon biblical, Judeo-Christian foundations.[35]  By the 1990s, evangelicalism’s Calvinist caucus was objecting, “We’re up to their steeples in politics!”

  Anti-Intellectualism:  Parallel to the above concerns, many of these authors further object to an anti-intellectual mindset they perceive behind the popular evangelical distrust of theology.  And this anti-intellectualism finds additional critique from the pen of evangelical historian Mark Noll in his 1994 Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.[36]  Describing his perspective as that of a “wounded lover,”[37] Noll opens his volume with a powerful accusation, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”[38]  While evangelicals have been strong on piety and evangelism, zealous in missions and mercy ministries and activism, they have neglected the serious life of the mind, a charge he repeatedly demonstrates by appeal to the continued lack of an evangelical research university fifty years into the movement’s modern incarnation.  Indeed, evangelicals “have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture.”[39]

            Also in 1994, Os Guinness accused evangelicals of anti-intellectualism in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It.[40] Blaming the eight “P”s of polarization, pietism, primitivism, populism, pluralism, pragmatism, philistinism and premillenialism—alongside what he terms the “idiot culture” of postmodern America—Guiness calls on evangelicals to think critically about all of life from a biblically-defined perspective.  Both Guiness’ and Noll’s critiques find precedent in Harry Blamires’ 1963 classic The Christian Mind, in which Blamires disparages the Christian mind for succumbing to the secular drift of western culture at large.[41]  Indeed, the evangelical movement’s modern incarnation began with a self-critique book accusing fundamentalism of anti-intellectualism and cultural obscurantism, Carl F. H. Henry’s 1947 book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.[42]

But in all of these contemporary criticisms of American evangelicalism, personal ethics and morality are nowhere targeted.  Nor are evangelicals in these volumes called to new moral or political crusades in the culture at large.  No new activism is called for.  Rather, the focus is on reforming the theology of the churches with a renewed vision of God’s greatness, holiness, grace and sovereign power.  And behind this emphasis on the highness of God stands a concern for the ultimacy of biblical authority, an authority these authors see attacked on every front, not from the outside, but from within the evangelical movement itself.


5.  The Imminent Evangelical Catastrophe

            These authors speak of the human-centered and a-theological quality of American evangelicalism not merely as one of many issues facing the movement today, but as the fountain from which all other errors flow.  This will result, they warn, in a catastrophe for the American evangelical church.  For Horton, the biblical doctrines of God, salvation, church and eschatology are all at stake.[43]  David Wells writes that, “unless the evangelical Church can recover a knowledge of what it means to live before a holy God... theology will have no place in its life.”  MacArthur warns that the church will be devoured and her spiritual stamina exhausted unless the churches heed the call to turn from worldly accommodation.[44]  Indeed, warns Wells, the decline of evangelical theology is a sure sign of the movement’s “creeping death.”[45]  If in 1996 John Armstrong and his contributors looked to a “Coming” Evangelical Crisis, by 1998, the crisis had arrived with The “Present” Evangelical Crisis.  Such warnings, titles and subtitles bespeak imminent catastrophe.

            Guiness and Seel call evangelicals to reformation and revival and to a humble but radical obedience to the revealed will of God if the evangelical church is to have a future in serving God’s purposes.[46]  Sproul sees at the center of the crisis a popular misunderstanding of the character of God; one that he warns could keep even the most committed of evangelicals from truly knowing Christ.  For Sproul, the question is one of eternal salvation.  He warns:


Everything else can be correct apart from your doctrine of God and you are still a pagan.  You are still an idolater.  You may be an inerrantist; your eschatology might be right on target; you may never miss a quiet time or an opportunity to go to church.  But if you do not worship the right God, you worship and serve a false one.[47]


6.  The Calvinist Jeremiad in Contrast

            These authors paint a narrative of declension, one in which a once faithful evangelical movement has exchanged the serious study of God’s supremacy and a radical commitment to his Word for a pragmatic, human-centered and narcissistic emotionalism.  It is worthwhile to take a closer look at this narrative of declension.  In his Content of Form, Hayden White argues that the narrative genre, far from being an unbiased perspective, is in fact the most value-laden of literary forms.  A particular set of assumptions guides what information in included within the narrative, and what information is shoveled off into the equally value-laden category of the “insignificant.”  Data are thus organized at the service of a larger perspective that infuses them with meaning.[48]

            And narratives of evangelicalism vary.  Not all evangelical assessments of the evangelical movement are so gloomy.  Oxford’s Alister McGrath is positively buoyant in its evaluation of evangelicalism, though McGrath approaches the movement from within its more theological English context.  McGrath’s Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity posits evangelicalism as the only future for Protestantism and as the rising center of Christianity globally.[49]  His Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism,[50] departing from the pessimism of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, argues for the health and vigor of contemporary evangelical thought, qualifying its academic weaknesses as to be expected in a youthful movement experiencing the pains of rapid growth.

            Another Anglican, John Stott, considered by many to be the dean of evangelical Protestantism today, is also positive in his assessment of the evangelical movement.  In Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness, Stott argues for a substantial theological common ground that unites the otherwise varied branches of evangelicalism.  Stott lays out his argument for a core evangelical message in Trinitarian form:  the supreme authority of the Bible as God’s Word, salvation by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ and justification by faith, and ministry in the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.  While evangelicals may find themselves disagreeing on questions of secondary importance, Stott finds an implicit theology holding the diversity of evangelical branches together in unity, even where evangelicals on the surface shun “theology.”[51]

            And even many negative assessments of evangelicalism are not couched within a jeremiad narrative of declension.  Despite the volume’s title, Carl F.H. Henry’s Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief, his published 1989 Scottish Rutherford Lectures, while criticizing evangelicals for not adequately interpreting life in light of a comprehensive biblical worldview, nevertheless avoids the language of evangelical declension and the warnings of impending catastrophe.[52]

  Similarly, Millard J. Erickson’s The Evangelical Left:  Encountering Postconservative Theology, while critical of recent developments within evangelical theology such as a lessening of the authority of scripture, and anthropocentric and experiential doctrines of God and salvation, still does not frame the debate within a narrative of declension.  While Erickson notes the same cultural accommodation as Horton, Armstrong and Wells, Erickson does not warn of impending catastrophe.[53]  The recent cache of evangelical self-critique books discussed in this essay sets itself apart from other evangelical assessments (positive and negative) of the movement by its narrative of declension and warning of impending doom.  Mainline Protestantism has, however, seen a similar warning of impending doom recently in The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity by Thomas C. Reeves, an historian and Episcopal layperson.[54]

            For a movement that began its modern life among the Calvinists, the sometimes strong critique evangelicalism has received in the past decade from its own Calvinist caucus cannot be dismissed lightly.  While most of these Calvinist voices have not distanced themselves from the movement they helped create, their accusations of doctrinal declension, human-centered worship and idolatrous narcissism stand in sharp contrast to the more upbeat boosterism found in a movement that has witnessed a remarkable resurgence in the modern era.  Yet other scholars both inside and outside the evangelical tradition have confirmed their frequently negative observations, and the authors of these recent critiques are convinced that the cultural accommodation of popular evangelicalism has powerfully affected nearly every area of the churches’ ministry.  Their warnings of impending catastrophe and their call back to a theocentric Protestant orthodoxy and Christ-centered gospel, while perhaps offensive within a pluralistic and narcissistic culture, reveal a deep insecurity about the future of the evangelical movement in America.


7.  Postscript:  A Question for Further Study

This paper has served to introduce the reader to a group of literature that could be easily overlooked in the spectrum of evangelical publications.  Beyond indicating insecurity about the firmness of recent evangelical gains on the part of evangelicalism’s Calvinist branch, one key interpretive question remains open for further study.  The question may be variously stated.  Are these self-critique authors simply observing what Hunter and others have observed about American evangelicalism?  Or is their jeremiad something more proactive, embodying a discursive power move, a move that in fact reinforces the classic boundaries of Protestant orthodoxy?  Are these authors merely describing, or is their emphasis on the more “offensive” and “harsher” elements of classic evangelicalism (to borrow Hunter’s language) itself indicative of evangelicalism’s health, as a movement that is actively counteracting the deterioration of its symbolic boundaries?

Indeed, a look at the history of Calvinism reveals a history of jeremiads.  From Beza and other immediate post-Reformation figures decrying the theological declension since the Reformation purity of Calvin’s Geneva to the American Puritans’ Halfway Covenant, Calvinists have often perceived a decline in Christendom generally and their own churches specifically.  As Sacvan Bercovitch observes in The American Jeremiad:


From the start the Puritans had drawn their inspiration from insecurity; ...crisis had become their source of strength.  They fastened upon it, gloried in it, even invented it if necessary... Crisis became both the form and substance of their appeals.[55]


The Calvinists’ strong language of idolatry and judgment has often proven a tool—perhaps knowingly, perhaps unwittingly—of shoring up the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy. 

Are these modern authors in fact carrying out the program James Davison Hunter had predicted would be necessary a decade earlier?  Are they making use of the harsher elements of their religious tradition to preserve the movement’s time-honored definition?  The recent proliferation of conservative Reformed critiques of the evangelical movement may be a sign of the movement’s sickness, or it may be a sign of the movement’s health.  For if the rapid resurgence of evangelical Christianity since World War II has also coincided with an even more rapid resurgence of confessional Calvinism among evangelicals—a resurgence this author has observed—then the Calvinists may find they have less cause for insecurity than they at first believed.  Their declension may prove to be the foundation for a modern revival of confessional Reformation Protestantism.



Armstrong, John H. The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel. Chicago: Moody Press, 1996.


_______. The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis. Chicago: Moody Press, 1998.


Bercovitz, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.


Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind. London: S.P.C.K., 1963.


Carpenter, Joel A. ed. Two Reformers of Fundamentalism: Harold John Ockenga and Carl F.H. Henry. New York: Garland, 1988.


Erickson, Millard J. The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Theology.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997.


Guinness, Os. Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994.


Guiness, Os & John Seel, eds. No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.


Hatch, Nathan O. & Michael S. Hamilton. “Taking the Measure of the Evangelical Resurgence, 1942-1992.” In D.G. Hart, ed. Reckoning with the Past, 1995, pp. 395-412.


Henry, Carl F. H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947.


_______. Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.


Horton, Michael Scott. Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991.


_______, ed. Power Religion: The Selling out of the Evangelical Church? Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.


Hunter, James Davison. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.


MacArthur, John F. Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993.



_______. Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses its Will to Discern. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.


McGrath, Alister. Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.


_______. Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.


Noll, Mark, Alister McGrath, Richard Mouw, & Darrel Bock, “Scandal? A forum on the evangelical mind.” Christianity Today, August 14, 1995.


Reeves, Thomas C. The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. New York: The Free Press, 1996.


Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian Manifesto. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981.


Schaeffer, Francis A. & C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1979.


Stott, John. Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.


Wells, David F. No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1993.


White, Hayden. The Content of Form.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.


Witten, Marsha G. All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.




[1] For a brief survey of evangelical resurgence since the 1940s, see Nathan O. Hatch with Michael S. Hamilton, “Taking the Measure of the Evangelical Resurgence, 1942-1992.” In Reckoning with the Past, ed. D.G. Hart, 1995, pp. 395-412.

[2] For discussion of the northern, Calvinist origins of the neo-evangelical movement in the 1940s, see Mark Noll & Lyman Kellstedt, “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism.” Pro Ecclesia IV.

[3] Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991.

[4] Ibid, 12-13.

[5] Ibid, 57.

[6] Ibid, 82.

[7] Michael Scott Horton, ed. Power Religion: The Selling out of the Evangelical Church? Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

[8] Not the least of which, Alister McGrath, would put a more positive spin on the movement later.  See below.

[9] Os Guiness & John Seel, eds. No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

[10] Ibid, 11.

[11] Ibid.

[12] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1993.

[13] Ibid, 4.

[14] Ibid, 9.

[15] John F. MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993.

[16] John F. MacArthur, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses its Will to Discern. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.

[17] Ibid, 119, for example.

[18] Later moves to qualify their involvement in ECT brought peace to Calvinists who had been divided over the accord.  By the middle of 1995, a group of mostly Calvinist evangelical theologians had prepared a five-point statement to elucidate ways in which Catholics and evangelicals were and were not together, particularly emphasizing the continued disagreement over justification by faith alone.  See “Evangelicals Clarify Accord with Catholics,” Christianity Today, March 6, 1995.

[19] John H. Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel. Chicago: Moody Press, 1996.

[20] John H. Armstrong, The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis. Chicago: Moody Press, 1998.

[21] Ibid, 16.

[22] See Hatch with Hamilton, footnote 1 above.

[23] James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

[24] Hunter, 183.

[25] Ibid. Italics original.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 184.

[28] Ibid, 185.

[29] Marsha G. Witten, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.  All of the sermons in Witten’s selection are taken from the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 from pulpits in two large denominations—the Presbyterian Church USA as a mainline source and the Southern Baptist Convention as an evangelical one.

[30] Ibid, 35.

[31] Ibid, 49.

[32] Ibid, 53.

[33] Wells, 7.

[34] Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1979.

[35] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981.

[36] An interesting exchange among four evangelical leaders— Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, Richard Mouw, and Darrel Bock— occasioned by Noll’s book can be found in the August 14, 1995 edition of  Christianity Today, titled “Scandal? A forum on the evangelical mind.”

[37] Noll, ix.

[38] Noll, 3.

[39] Noll, 3-4.

[40] Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994.

[41] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind. London: S.P.C.K., 1963.

[42] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947.  See Joel A. Carpenter, ed. Two Reformers of Fundamentalism: Harold John Ockenga and Carl F.H. Henry. New York: Garland, 1988.

[43] Horton, Power Religion, 343-350.

[44] MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, xx.

[45] Wells, 301.

[46] Guiness and Seel, 21.

[47] R.C. Sproul, “The Object of Contemporary Relevance,” in Horton, Power Religion, 325.

[48] Hayden White, The Content of Form.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

[49] Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

[50] Alister McGrath, Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

[51] John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

[52] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.

[53] Millard J. Erickson, The Evangelical Left:  Encountering Postconservative Theology.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997.

[54] Thomas C. Reeves, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

[55] Sacvan Bercovitz, The American Jeremiad. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, 62.