The Rise and Decline of Neo-Evangelicalism

Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism
By Rolland D. McCune
Ambassador International,  2004, 398 pp.

5 Stars

At the onset of the 20th-century, the old, mainline Protestant denominations were drifting into Bible-denying, theological liberalism. In reaction to the growing apostasy, Bible-believing theologians and pastors produced “The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth,” a series of ninety essays, published between 1910 and 1915, that affirmed the five fundamentals of the Christian faith that were being attacked by theological liberals and modernists, those being:

  • The inerrancy of the Bible.
  • The literal nature of the biblical accounts, especially regarding Jesus Christ’s miracles and the creation account in Genesis.
  • The virgin birth of Christ.
  • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ.
  • The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

Understood to be included along with the five fundamentals was the Biblical mandate of ecclesiastical separation from churches and denominations that denied the basics of the Christian faith. Theologically-orthodox Christians* rallied around “The Fundamentals” and the movement gained momentum and advanced the genuine Gospel message throughout the United States and the world.

However, in the late-1940s, some fundamentalist theologians and pastors began to bridle against the separation principle. Their thinking was that fundamentalism had become fanatically insular and partisan and that they needed to be more accommodating with the unbelieving world. The founders of this self-dubbed Neo (or New) Evangelicalism, Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga, enlisted evangelist, Billy Graham,** as the public face of the movement and also established Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California as its intellectual/academic base. Edward John Carnell oversaw the early years of Fuller. In contrast to fundamentalists, who had openly disparaged academia and intellectualism, the Neo-Evangelicals craved academic respectability.

Neo-Evangelicals and fundamentalists were initially uneasy allies, but Graham famously broke with fundamentalism completely when he cooperated with Bible-denying, liberal clergymen in the organization of his four-month-long, 1957 New York City crusade. Graham defended himself saying, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the gospel of Christ.” However, fraternity and dialogue with apostasy is a two-way street and Neo-Evangelicalism gradually strayed from foundational Biblical principles and found itself enmeshed in debates over Scriptural inerrancy and the other basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Former restraints were gone, leading to the following:

  • Billy Graham blazed ecumenical trails with Roman Catholicism. Ernest Pickering accurately wrote in 1994, “Much of the current theological confusion with regard to the Roman Catholic Church can be laid at the feet of one man; Billy Graham.”
  • Pentecostal/charismatic beliefs and practices rapidly spread throughout evangelicalism. Pentecostalism got its start in 1901 at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas.
  • The divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible have been increasingly contested. These days, Bible-believing students at apostate Fuller Theological Seminary must constantly parry attacks against their faith by the faculty.
  • Secular marketing methods have replaced traditional church.
  • Most evangelical Protestant churches have cut ties with the church history, avoiding any mention of the Reformation or the Five Solas.

Baptist fundamentalist scholar, Rolland McCune (1934-2019), does an excellent job of tracing the rise and decline of Neo-Evangelicalism. The first half of the book is devoted to the history of the movement, which I found most interesting. The second half focuses on the theological disintegration of Neo-Evangelicalism, which was challenging reading for this layperson, but not impossible. I’d been hoping to find an American counterpart to Iain Murray’s excellent “Evangelicalism Divided” (see my review here), and this book comes close.

*The Fundamentalist movement was comprised largely of Arminian-leaning conservative Baptists and Wesleyans. Mainline Presbyterianism had also begun drifting into liberalism in the 1910s and 1920s, just like the Arminian mainline denominations. In response, J. Gresham Machen and others founded the breakaway Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Firebrand pastor, Carl McIntire, was also a leader of the fundamentalist movement within Reformed churches. It’s interesting that both Baptist and Presbyterian fundamentalists revered the previous interdenominational leadership of D.L. Moody (1837-1899). As Neo-Evangelicalism has generally devolved into varying degrees of heterodoxy, the Baptist fundamentalism represented by McCune has declined steeply in numbers and influence.

**Billy Graham began his evangelistic career as a Baptist fundamentalist under the mentorship of John R. Rice and William Bell Riley.

Postscript: My wife and I attended an independent fundamental Baptist church from 1983 until 1991 after we were first saved. I enjoyed several aspects of the experience, but the pastor exemplified some of the stereotypical negative characteristics of IFB preachers including arrogance, pridefulness, leadership via coercion, majoring on the minors, conflating faith and nationalism, and an emphasis on guilt rather than on God’s grace. McCune understandably does not mention any of the problems within Baptist fundamentalism.

p.s. If you don’t think “evangelicalism” is in major trouble these days, just sit down on your couch and watch a day’s worth of TBN.

Chapters:

Part 1: Historical Antecedents

  • The Rise of Theological Liberalism
  • The Great Controversy

Part 2: The Formation of the New Evangelicalism

  • Four Crucial Issues
  • Other Contributions

Part 3: Ecumenism

  • Ecumenical Evangelism
  • Ecumenical Church Councils
  • Ecumenical Accolades and Ecumenical Journalism
  • The Charismatic Movement
  • Roman Catholicism

Part 4: Ecclesiastical Separation

  • The Rationale of Evangelical Non-Separatism
  • The Biblical Idea of Ecclesiastical Separation

Part 5: The Bible and Authority

  • Biblical Revelation
  • Biblical Inspiration and Inerrancy
  • Further Issues, Events, and Publications Related to Inerrancy
  • The Aftermath of “The Battle For the Bible”

Part 6: Apologetics

  • The Development of New Evangelical Apologetics
  • An Analysis of New Evangelical Apologetics

Part 7: Social Involvement

  • New Evangelical Social Activism
  • The Biblical Idea of Social Action

Part 8: Doctrinal Storms

  • The Status of the Unevangelized
  • The Destiny of the Finally Impenitent
  • The Open View of God

Part 9: Conclusion

  • Evaluation and Prospects
  • Addendum 1: Review: The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World
  • Addendum 2: Major Events in the New Evangelical Movement: 1942-2003

33 thoughts on “The Rise and Decline of Neo-Evangelicalism

    1. Thanks, Crissy! As I mentioned in the post, I had been hoping to find an American counterpart to Murray’s book and was really thrilled to stumble across “Promise Unfulfilled.” I gave it 4-stars because the theology discussion in the second half of the book gets a bit dry, but I’m going to change it to five-stars because overall the book is so important.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for this review; wow, quite a long book it seems and also jam packed with historical information and insights. I know so Little about the world of IFB. ALso neat to see part 6 of the book has two chapters on apologetics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was sooooo pleased with this book and its hard-hitting information. The theological discussions in the second half of the book were a bit difficult for me, but essential to McCune’s overall subject. I went back and changed my rating from 4-stars to 5.
      RE: apologetics
      Yes, this is the book I had referred to in one of our discussions three or even four weeks ago. McCune was a big fan of Van Til and goes into some detail of how Van Til tussled with some liberal evangelicals in regards to Biblical inerrancy and apologetics.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see from the article below written by Greg Bahnsen that Van Til wrote an unpublished syllabus titled “The New Evangelicals” that had the same train of thought as McCune’s book, i.e., critical of Henry, Ockenga, Carnell, and Billy Graham as accommodators and compromisers of the Gospel. Very regrettable that Van Til did not publish it.

        http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa196.htm

        Liked by 1 person

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