• Keith Mathison

A Plea and Warning for Evangelicalism


On February 15, 2021, Christianity Today published an article by Chris Kugler entitled A Plea and Warning for Evangelicalism. Kugler claims that some scholars (apparently including himself) get exasperated trying to live within evangelical circles. What's the problem? According to Kugler it is this:


"It’s because so much of evangelicalism—with respect to philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics—is at least 30 years behind the curve."


He specifically mentions as examples evangelical views on young-earth creationism, women in ministry, Calvinism, and social justice. Evangelicalism, he believes, is not up to date on these topics.


I find it interesting that he mentions these specific issues because there are debates within evangelical circles on all of them: the age of the earth, the role of women in ministry, Calvinist doctrines, and the meaning of social justice. So what does it mean to say that "evangelicalism" is 30 years out of date on these issues? That implies that evangelicalism is some kind of monolithic entity with a single view on these things. It would be helpful to know how Kugler is defining evangelicalism because he appears to be limiting his understanding to certain segments within it.


Evangelicalism has always been notoriously difficult to define. I sometimes wonder if it has been reduced to a mere label with no real meaningful content any longer. Because it covers such a wide spectrum of views and because there is no agreed upon statement of faith that all self-professing evangelicals agree upon, it is a slippery notion.


As a confessionally Reformed Christian, I also find it interesting that he lists Calvinism among the four things evangelicals are behind the times on. What does that even mean? I am aware that there are some evangelicals who hold to the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism" without understanding the ecumenical creeds, but Calvinism (or more properly Reformed theology) has a confessional heritage that includes the ecumenical creeds. Reformed theology has historically taught classical Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology. I urge those evangelicals who have only been exposed to bits and pieces of "Calvinism" to acquaint themselves with the Reformed confessional heritage. The Three Forms of Unity include the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. The Westminster Standards include the Westminster Confession, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism.


Kugler then goes on to say:


"The sad thing is, most Biblical scholars and Theologians I know—many of whom are conservative or moderate and deeply love the Church and care about its future—agree: The brand of evangelicalism that exists in many conservative evangelical churches has about 30 years of life left. Its national influence has been waning for decades."


Three observations. First, if you don't get a strong sense of déjà vu reading this then you have not read much in the history of western Christianity over the last couple of centuries. Those who consider themselves not to be "out of date" have been proclaiming the near demise of conservative Christianity for centuries, while what we actually watch die are the mainline ("up to date") churches and various theological fads that come and go so fast it makes your head spin. Second, note the nature of the appeal: "most Biblical scholars and Theologians I know. . . agree." In other words, all the really smart people agree. I can't read Kugler's motives, and this may not be intentional, but this is effectively an appeal to the reader's pride and vanity, and it is a patronizing one at that. Third, the final sentence points to "national influence" as a factor. Kugler needs to be more specific about what he means. The faithfulness of the Church is not measured by its political influence if that is what he means.


Kugler then makes three points:


"Training is important. You should not sit under a pastor who has no serious biblical or theological training (and there are, of course, many different kinds of training)."


The Reformed tradition wouldn't disagree in principle, although I suspect, Kugler might not mean the same thing I mean regarding the meaning of the word "serious." Kugler continues:


"MacArthur, Sproul, Piper, etc., are not reliable Bible scholars or Theologians. There’s a reason why they’re almost universally regarded in academia as unreliable biblical or theological guides. It’s not because “academia is liberal”. It’s because most of the experts recognize that folks like this—however much good they have done for the kingdom of God—don’t demonstrate the necessary competencies to handle complex historical, biblical, and theological issues with skill and nuance. There’s a reason why many have flocked to Wright, McKnight, Bird, etc. It’s not just because they’ve found in these scholars a tasteful balance and nuance. It’s because they recognize a requisite competency."


I don't know what kind of training MacArthur has, but John Piper received a D.Theol. in New Testament from the University of Munich. Has Kugler read Piper's dissertation? To argue that he doesn't have the necessary competency is simply condescending arrogance. It's basically assuming that anyone who didn't complete their Ph.D. studies in the last five years is not to be trusted. Dr. Sproul studied under one of the twentieth century's most influential Reformed theologians, G.C. Berkouwer. Yes, this was in the middle of the twentieth century, but as with Piper, this doesn't automatically render someone incompetent and unreliable. Dr. Sproul chose to focus his ministry on the education of the laity. Dr. Piper was called to be a pastor. Their focus was not on churning out journal articles. Scholars who devote themselves to academics and writing journal articles are needed in the church, but those who devote themselves almost exclusively to such things should not be condescending toward those who are on the actual frontlines of ministry in the church. That's simply intellectual pride and arrogance, and Paul condemned it (1 Corinthians 12:21–26).


Kugler continues:


"Rediscover the great ecumenical creeds of the church as the markers of genuine Christianity. Stop making your church’s doctrine number 89 a “gospel issue”."


Those in the Reformed tradition never forgot them. I too urge evangelicals to study them.


After a few more exhortations, Kugler concludes with the following words:


"And, if you want to retain the specifically Reformed influence, I would say this:

More (e.g.) Vanhoozer, Moo, and Schreiner, and less MacArthur, Sproul, and Piper, etc.

But, better yet, more Wright, more McKnight (and now Barringer!), more Richter, more McCaulley, more Bates, more Edwards (Dennis, not Jonathan), more Warren (Tish, not Rick), and more Bird, just to name a few."


C.S. Lewis had a term for this basic mindset. He called it "chronological snobbery." Forget the old. The newer is always better. Theology, however, is not like medical science. No one wants to undergo surgery by someone who was trained in 13th century medicine, but theology is not the same kind of thing. In theology, there is a reason why certain theologians are still read and studied centuries after their deaths. If the Lord tarries, Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin and Edwards, will still be relevant 500 years from now. They stand the test of time.


Can the same be said of the authors Kugler mentions? Will Christians still be reading and reflecting on Richter, McCaulley, Bates, Warren, and Bird five hundred years from now or even fifty years from now? Go back fifty years, and look at who every young scholar was raving about at the time. Most of those names are completely forgotten, and their books are on library shelves where they haven't been touched in decades. Some of these authors' works might withstand the test of time, but only time itself will tell, and that's one reason why the study of the works that have already proven themselves is so important. We live in a faddish, consumer culture always ready to move to the next new thing. And what's in today is out tomorrow. In the midst of this constantly changing culture, biblical truth and good theology are an unchanging anchor.


Christian pastors and teachers should read the newer scholars, but to make this an either/or choice is not helpful. Those who neglect the older works find themselves constantly chasing after the ever-changing theological fads in a never-ending effort to stay "relevant." It's a recipe for being blown around by every wind of doctrine.


Kugler's plea for evangelicals echoes pleas made since the Enlightenment. Get with it. The past is the past. We need to be modern. And on and on.


I have my own plea and warning for evangelicalis. Beware of pleas and warnings that appeal to your pride and vanity.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay