Evangelicalism Divided

By Iain H. Murray
Edinburgh : Banner of Truth (2000). x + 342 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
12.1 (Spring 2001) : 116-119

Iain Murray, author of a number of perceptive historical theological books, has provided an invaluable study of the changes and concessions in evangelicalism in the last fifty years. Murray writes from the perspective of one who has first-hand knowledge of the developments in English evangelicalism. His insights into American evangelicalism and the rise of new evangelicalism are also keen.

In Murray’s view, the main problem in evangelicalism is that many of its leaders have decided that the ultimate issue in Christianity is no longer what a Christian is. For example, they have abandoned the policy of the Reformers who left Rome because “the true way of salvation was not taught there” (238). Instead, many twentieth-century evangelicals in both England and the United States have accepted the idea that unity is the most important matter. Thus evangelicals have been joining together in Christian ministry with non-Christians. Such a philosophy has devastated the doctrinal condition of evangelicalism, Murray believes. To be specific, “the new ‘openness’ taken up by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and by Anglican evangelicals at Keele, could not long co-exist with an insistence on evangelical distinctives. So evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic lost its strong centre” (252).

Murray argues that Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) developed the philosophy that many twentieth-century evangelicals adopted. Schleiermacher, sometimes known as the father of liberal theology, asserted that “religion is primarily not a matter of doctrine but rather of feeling, intuition and experience” (5). This thesis was subsequently affirmed by many evangelicals who, though generally maintaining orthodoxy themselves, looked on theology as a second-order issue. In their view, as long as a person said he was Christian, he was to be treated as a Christian, regardless of his doctrinal position.

In practice, the thesis was popularized by the oft-repeated claim of Billy Graham: “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love.” Graham was eventually to claim that “everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ” (quoted by Murray, 73). So, with doctrine a second-order issue, working with theological liberals became less and less of a problem for some evangelicals. And theological liberals were happy to reap some of the benefits of the Graham revivals. In the words of one liberal in the middle fifties, “Graham is helping to fill our churches. We can teach people theology when we have got someone to teach” (quoted, 58).

In England, the “evangelical dyke” was broken at a meeting of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele in 1967. After the opening address was given by the liberal Archbishop Michael Ramsey, the Congress “went on to set out a good statement of evangelical doctrine but coupled with it was a confirmation of the ground rule for all ecumenical dialogue, namely, that so long as anyone confessed Jesus Christ as ‘God and Saviour’ there must be an acceptance of their Christian standing” (43). Not every evangelical accepted the new ecumenical policy. Murray, who assisted Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, points out that Lloyd-Jones, along with Francis Schaffer and many American fundamentalists, warned Graham and other new evangelicals of the consequences of treating theological liberals as genuine Christians. Throughout the book, Lloyd-Jones appears as an insightful defender of the truth.

According to Murray, the compromises of evangelicalism are observable in several significant ways. One is the “transference of leadership from preachers and pastors to evangelical intellectuals teaching in the academic world” (173). This quest for intellectual respectability “was led by Fuller Theological Seminary” in the United States, and also was apparent with the inroads of British evangelicals into senior positions in the British universities. It is a matter of history that evangelicals such as F. F. Bruce, James Barr, James D. G. Dunn, Ian Howard Marshal, and others have had important roles in academia. But Murray demonstrates that the rise to academic power often came at a price of doctrinal slippage, especially in the doctrine of the Scriptures. In Murray’s words, “evangelicals who step into situations where it is professionally unacceptable to teach the infallibility of Scripture come under immense pressure to show that the difference between them and their nonevangelical colleagues is not as great nor as serious as the Bible says it is.” In such cases, “we should not be surprised if a less ‘rigid’ view of Scripture soon comes to be espoused” (210).

The compromises of evangelicalism are also observable in the events surrounding Evangelicals and Catholics Together. For Murray, ECT may be the ultimate evidence that many evangelical leaders have minimized the question of what a Christian is. Of course, other evangelicals such as John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and D. James Kennedy absolutely rejected this minimization of the salvation question. Thus Murray believes that by 1995 it was clear that “there was now a fundamental difference among evangelicals” (224). Evangelicalism was clearly divided.

The benefits and strengths of this book are numerous. Most in the United States do not have a precise understanding of the developments in British evangelicalism in the last fifty years. This book helps to evaluate the positions taken by such well-known evangelicals as J. I. Packer, John Stott, F. F. Bruce, James Dunn, Alister McGrath, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Moreover, Murray has researched American new evangelicalism well, and presents interesting anecdotes from unpublished sources perhaps unknown to most (e.g., 189).

Another strength o f this book is the author’s ability to identify compromises in evangelicalism in a gracious manner. Murray is never shrill. Also, for those who enjoy reading church history, a strength of this book is the many references and quotations from men of God from the past. Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, J. C. Ryle, and others make their appearance at key points in Murray’s analysis. Also helpful are the summaries of lessons learned, in point-by-point fashion, at the end of several chapters. Even the inside cover of the book has a helpful time-line of major events in the story of evangelicalism in the last fifty years.

The analytical sections of the book are full of quotable warnings. For example: “The approval of doctrinal ‘diversity’ has become the hallmark of onetime evangelicals who have risen to high positions in the Church and left definite convictions behind them” (142). “The academic approach to Scripture treats the divine element—for all practical purposes—as non-existent” (185). “[C]urrent apologists for what professes to be evangelicalism have simply taken over arguments from men who were formerly regarded as opponents” (197). “[I]f Christian belief in Scripture is reduced to conjectures and uncertainties, then a broad toleration of almost all opinions is allowable” (203). “The very thought of asking about heresy has itself become the new heresy” (quoting Thomas C. Oden, 203). “To suppose that because of their culture and their learning the universities are somehow neutral when it comes to the Bible is to deny that this whole fallen world is in a state of hostility to God” (211). “To take everything at face value is often treated as the true Christian attitude”(263).

The weaknesses of the book are few. As to the structure of the book, it would have been helpful to the reader had the author inserted divisions and subdivisions in his chapters. In content, the fascinating events leading to the split of Billy Graham from such American revivalists as John R. Rice, Bob Jones, and Monroe Parker are omitted. Of course, Murray had to decide what to include and what to exclude in a book covering fifty years of history.

Finally, I’m not sure that Murray gives American fundamentalists their due. Murray is respectful of fundamentalists and aware that “fundamentalism often suffered from hostile misrepresentation” (298). On the other hand, he seems to share J. G. Machen’s criticisms of fundamentalism, and also adds a few of his own (17, 298). Though Murray’s passing criticisms of fundamentalism are no doubt true of some fundamentalists, many fundamentalists do not fit the standard caricature.

In one case, Murray seems to defend Harold J. Ockenga against an analysis by an American fundamentalist. Murray quotes fundamentalist Ernest Pickering’s 1959 article “The Present State of the New Evangelicalism,” in which Pickering criticizes the philosophy of Ockenga and other new evangelicals for their commitment to ecumenical activity in the denominations. Murray responds, “Critiques of this kind and tone were probably too strident and unfair to have much effect” (31), and goes on to quote some of Ockenga’s more conservative statements. But, though Ockenga’s views may look conservative compared to twenty-first century new evangelicals, he was a major player in setting the direction of new evangelicalism. Would it not have been Pickering who would have most heartily agreed with Murray’s statement later in the book: “The Christian faith is rather at its strongest when its antagonism to unbelief is most definite, when its spirit is other-worldly, and when its whole trust is not ‘in the wisdom of men but in the power of God’ (1 Cor 2:5)” (212).

But perhaps this is quibbling. Evangelicalism Divided is a great book, and all who are concerned about the dilemma of evangelicalism—indeed the future of Christianity—will benefit greatly by familiarizing themselves with the information contained in it. I enthusiastically recommend it.