Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham

D.G. Hart Baker Academic, Grand Rapids October 1, 2005
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The major premise of this engaging book is that evangelicalism is in trouble. Hart joins Iain Murray, Mark Noll, and David Wells, who have sounded the ecclesiastical alarm on an often shallow American expression of Christianity. However, there is something unique in Hart’s approach. He suggests that Wells’s recover-a-robust theology, Noll’s intellectualism, and Murray’s hope for a genuine renewal will not work. In his view evangelicalism is bankrupt, and “as a form of identity (p. 11)” it should be abandoned (p. 16).

In the first section Hart surveys the history of American evangelicalism, in the second he gives a criticism of it, and in the conclusion he presents his solution for a healthy American Christianity. Hart sees American evangelicalism as a movement born in the 1940s and 1950s under the impetus of the National Association of Evangelicals, Carl F. H. Henry, Harold John Ockenga, Fuller Theological Seminary, Billy Graham, and Christianity Today. This was an attempt, Hart says, to rescue American Christianity from backward-focused fundamentalism by creating an aggressive alternative characterized by intellectual confrontation, consolidated outreach, and ecumenical unity within a limited list of theological affirmations as the organizational glue. Hart claims that the scholars who created the new movement stole a word from the past, emptied it of its richness, and retooled it as simply referring to those who embrace the gospel message (p. 25). The word “evangelical” ceased to be an adjective and became a proper noun, an “ism.” With “new evangelicalism,” the focus shifted from the church to an array of parachurch agencies (p. 30). Among historians, church history was replaced with religious history, and a revivalist form of Protestantism was replaced by a set of doctrines. The movement, though highly visible in the fifties and sixties, fractured in the seventies with the emergence of “more progressive” new evangelicals.

Hart, director of academic projects and faculty development at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Wilmington, Delaware, concludes that evangelicalism thrived in the parachurch agencies, not the churches, and with a few leaders who achieved celebrity status having understood how to gain crowds through new musical forms called worship styles. “Nondenominational fundamentalism concocted the recipe for evangelicalism: combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppery music professionally performed; and bake every generation” (p. 183). Because authority in the movement was largely in agencies, it lacked the ability to discipline itself. Further, its minimalist creed of biblical inerrancy was not sufficient to maintain unity, as seen at Fuller Seminary and in the emergence of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. While evangelicalism is a large and influential segment of American Christianity, Hart asserts that “it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction” (p. 176).

Hart’s solution is that evangelicalism should be abandoned if the church is to be renewed. As Carl Henry confessed, the movement he helped establish in the 1940s failed. It failed because it conceived that an enduring movement could be born of minimalist standards—the American values of individualism and entrepreneurialism, and spiced with folk heroes. The answer Hart proposes for renewal is a return to the importance of denominational structures and the authority of ecclesial tradition within them as well as Holy Scripture. Denominationalism, he says, would serve to structure success and create accountability.

Separating twentieth-century evangelicalism, a movement born in the forties, from nineteenth-century evangelicalism allows one to gain perspective on the contemporary scene with its self-imposed glitter—suggesting that all that sparkles is not precious. Many may well question whether Hart’s proposal is realistic. Yet his analysis of “new evangelicalism” is a message worth contemplating. If there is a flow in his analysis, it is that evangelicalism was never monolithic. And there is much in the movement that need not be cast aside in the hope of creating a more robust Christian community in America.

—John D. Hannah

October 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2006 vol. 163 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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