“Evangelical” Once Meant Freedom

September 6, 2018

Faith & Action, Uncategorized


Obtained from http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2014/01/theology-and-biblical-studies-whats.html

“What do I do when the near-angelic choir that wooed me to Christ morphs into an attack-dog platoon?” 

I’m wrestling with that question in a book I’m writing, tentatively entitled The Intimidator’s Club.  It ponders American evangelical Christianity’s descent from graciousness into an alpha-dominated sparing pit, with time-honored creeds dumped in favor of partisan orthodoxy. I’m giving sneak previews with a few sample chapters. The synopsis is here; an autobiographical sample is here.

The sample below describes what happened after I abandoned my carrier in journalism and unpacked my bags at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay. Suffice it to say that “evangelical” meant something far different in 1985 then than it does now.


Some intentionally mispronounce seminary as “cemetery” because God supposedly shrivels into yellowed lecture notes and theological tomes. I relished it. I could actually talk God-talk without meeting a journalist’s sneer.


Gordon-Conwell is one of several seminaries spawned by the evangelical resurgence, which began in the early 1940’s and was led by Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry and (most famously) Billy Graham, among several others. Each was reared in fundamentalism, which initially heaved intellectual heft in its summons back to basic doctrines, but quickly slid into a separatist, legalistic, anti-intellectual cacophony – especially after the infamous “monkey trial” of 1925: Darwinist Clarence Darrow humiliated creationist William Jennings Bryan on a witness stand in Tennessee. The word “no” dangled in the sky: No movies; no drinking; no smoking (not a bad no, really); no card-playing; no mixing with those apostate, Modernist-Liberal mainliners adoring Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. Most were Dispensationalists and mandated literalistic readings of almost all biblical texts, whatever their literary form. The seven days of Genesis One were 24-hour periods; the Earth was about 5,000 years old; the thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:1-6 is exactly one thousand years – never mind the obvious symbolism of numbers in the Apocalypse.

Ockenga began calling himself a “neo-evangelical” or “new evangelical” to distinguish himself from the fundamentalists (the “neo” was soon dropped). Henry, who emerged as evangelicalism’s informal academic dean, challenged back-to-the-Bible believers to abandon their cultural fortresses in his 1947 landmark book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Graham ruffled feathers when he reached out to leaders in mainline and Catholic churches. Ockenga served as the founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 and, in 1947, the troika joined radio evangelist Charles Fuller and founded Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The school remains post-conservative evangelicalism’s intellectual Mecca. Again, Ockenga served as the seminary’s first president and manned its board even after it veered away from biblical inerrancy (more on this later; Fuller now describes the Bible as “infallible,” a slightly looser word). So did Graham.

But Ockenga also fixed his eyes on the East Coast and establishing a Fuller-like institution there. He helped merge Gordon Divinity School and Conwell School of Theology in 1969 and took its helm in 1970. The seminary clung to inerrancy while employing more sophisticated exegesis than fundamentalists (inerrancy is often mistaken for wooden literalism, which is not necessarily the case). He led Boston’s prestigious Park Street Church in his spare time.

Graham, of course, traveled the world and led mammoth revival meetings, founded a relief organization, and spurred the publication of Christianity Today, over which Henry presided as its first editor.  Meanwhile, Neo-evangelicalism’s influence spread to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. Weslyan-flavored Asbury in Kentucky also played a key role, and The Evangelical Theological Society was established in 1949 in an effort to deepen sound scholarship. The organization’s publication, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, JETS, does not fly at supersonic speed and is no thrill ride – but it’s learned.

The term, “evangelical,” opened new vistas and panoramas for me. I could study the Bible from different angles without falling off orthodoxy’s edge – and I needn’t be anti-Catholic, anti-science, anti-women, anti-democrat, and anti-education. My professors relished the life of the mind (many did their graduate studies at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton).  They took a dim view of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and dismissed the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition as passing fads.

Would that they had been right.

Most were Reformed, or Calvinist. Calvinists are often caricatured as stern grouches relishing a God with a grudge: The Lord predestined most to eternal Hell while rescuing a few lucky souls for Heaven. As usual, the caricatures are misleading. Some of my favorite professors – Garth Rosell, the now-late Nigel Kerr, David Wells, Greg Beale, and Richard Lints  – gladly embraced the Reformed label. And they laughed up a storm. They were the veritable emblems of the “Christian gentleman” (there weren’t many women on the faculty then; there are more now).

I never came around to Calvinism. I substantially agreed with Dutch theologian Jacob Arminias (1560-1609), who probed the Bible and found more latitude for choice. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, popularized the Arminian view in 18th-century Britain.

But I’m thankful for these Calvinists. They rid me of flaky fundamentalism. The now-late Old Testament Professor Meredith Kline, for example, showed how Genesis 1 could be read as a prose poem, with its days interpreted symbolically. Others showed how the biblical genealogies are intentionally incomplete, which meant they couldn’t be used to determine the Earth’s age. And they opened my eyes to an entirely different approach to eschatology (the study of the end times) courtesy the writings of the late George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982). Ladd and others explored a slew of biblical texts and found that the blessings of the eschatological age began in the ministry of Jesus; they will become complete at the second coming, or the consummation of His kingdom. We live between the already and not yet. Believers are meant to be tokens of the end times, a people of the future dwelling in the present. We’re the future’s harbingers, a people of “realized eschatology,” to use a phrase coined by British scholar C.H. Dodd (1883-1973). Miracles, such as healings, point to a future of absolute health and blessing. Tokens of love underscore a future of absolute love. Holy lives point to a future of total holiness.[i]

The future is now. Eschatology invades through us, which gives the term deeper relevance than playing guessing games on the Rapture’s date – and, incidentally, there’s no “there” there on the so-called Rapture. All the biblical proof texts supporting it can easily refer to the Second Coming itself. Perhaps that’s why no Christian thinker mentioned the event before the rise of Dispensationism. It’s not in the Bible. We’re trying to locate an empty spot on the calendar in our Rapture predictions, so let’s leave the Left Behind series behind.

My professors also showed me the biblical tension involving women in ministry. True, some passages seemingly prohibit it; but there’s also Deborah, a judge over all Israel about 1100 years before Christ, and Huldah the prophetess (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chronicles 34:22-28) and Phoebe in Romans 16:1 and Junias in verse seven of that same chapter. Most of my teachers supported ordaining women. I gladly followed them.

I was fascinated by the history of revivals, first with the 18th-century Great Awakening, led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the American colonies and Methodist founder John Wesley in Britain. Converts wept and swooned and displayed other signs and manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s power. Church attendance plummeted in the later 18th century but sky-rocketed after an enormous camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. Again, there were those manifestations: Swooning and weeping – even barking and roaring. Some historians dubbed the 19th century “The Methodist Century,” which gave the era an Arminian hue. The emerging leaders spearheaded abolitionism and moved into slums. The late Timothy Smith pointed out that political reform, not conservatism, was all the rage – at least in the north.[ii]

Calvinism, of course, did not die. Some followers joined the Wesleyan fun and mingled with Methodists while remaining Reformed; a more cerebral branch lauded the scholasticism of Geneva theologian Francis Turretin (1623-1687) and found a home at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Old Princeton theologians – successively Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), AA Hodge (1823-1886), and Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) – lobbed critical shells into the revivalist camp. They frowned on altar calls, the manifestations, and all the exhilaration. To their credit, they were intellectually rigorous and personally charitable, especially the elder Hodge, but they demanded stifling tidiness.

Maybe it’s because I’m a mess, but I’m one with those 19th-century evangelicals and their transformation-minded 20th-century heirs, especially Ronald Sider, author Rich Christians in a Hungry World and former head of Evangelicals for Social Action. And I loved those fervent Pentecostals, who inherited the mantle of Wesleyan enthusiasm and whom Warfield condemned (he preached cessationism). I even prayed in tongues at seminary, although I could never bring myself to agree with Pentecostalism’s two-tiered theology (tongues marked off those who were “baptized in the Holy Spirit” from other deprived souls).

Thanks for the brain power, Old Princetonians, but do yourselves and everyone else a favor: loosen up; chill out; join the party. And Warfield: Could you walk beside the Pentecostals instead of disparaging them?

Sadly, the union of high spirituality and societal reform dissolved in the later 19th and early twentieth centuries. Advocates of the Social Gospel, like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), embraced Liberal Christianity – which, in its more radical forms, jettisoned cardinal doctrines like the resurrection. Huge sections of the Bible littered the cutting-room floor. Evangelicalism devolved into anti-cultural and anti-intellectual fundamentalism, with Modernist leaders like Fosdick predicting its demise.

Fosdick did not foresee the influence of Henry, Ockenga, and Graham.

The threesome and their cohorts were not flawless. First, Henry and Ockenga extolled the Old Princetonians even while they shook hands with Pentecostals and admired Wesley (his portrait hung on Ockenga’s office wall). Pentecostal and Wesleyan churches joined the Reformed faithful in the National Association of Evangelicals, which would have prompted Warfield’s glare. But the Hodges and Warfield emerged as the new ideal. Old Princeton no longer rimmed a Wesleyan-Arminian universe, and some of its descendants in the new evangelical academic elite would eventually impose an arbitrary, neo-fundamentalist dogma smothering legitimate creativity. An unspoken covenant brooded over the scene: Everyone’s a guest in Hodges’ manse.

Second, historian George Marsden observes that most leading new evangelicals supported Republican Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, the guru of the GOP right in the 1940’s and 1950’s[iii] (it should be said: Billy Graham was a registered Democrat and pushed for civil rights and social action).[iv] They did not baptize the Republican Party in Jesus’ name, but perhaps their political unanimity rendered them near-sighted to the 1980 emergency, when Jerry Falwell and others pasted an overtly partisan label on theologically traditional Protestantism. The Evangelical Left, which had developed later and swum in its own stream, filed deep grievances, but most evangelical establishment leaders responded with a frown instead of a protest. They failed to see the invasion of a gurgling political idol.

Very unwittingly, the genteel new evangelicals left the door open for subsequent intimidators.

I would see that later. For now, I was lapping it all up and tagging myself with the evangelical label. It was a liberating insignia, a stamp that freed me to breathe in the whole Gospel.

I also met my future wife at seminary (the former Andrea LaCelle) and, in a strange twist, I contracted tongue cancer just before our wedding. I submitted to twice-a-day radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital. I stood before the altar in the winger of 1987, pledged the until-death-do-us-part oath, and wondered if I’d render my beloved a widow in a year. I didn’t know the cancer wouldn’t recur for another 27 years.


[i] Ladd wrote his analysis in the scholarly The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), and the more approachable The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959).

[ii] See Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Concern (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2004).

[iii] George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 62.

[iv] Eliza Griswold, “Billy Graham’s Striking Gospel of Social Action,” The New Yorker, February 22, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/billy-grahams-striking-gospel-of-social-action; retrieved, 9/5/18.


About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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