The Divide in Today’s Evangelicalism

I don’t know if many of you are aware of the divide that is taking place more and more within evangelicalism, or at least American evangelicalism or the wider evangelical church of the west. The polarization between two main groups of people. This has been going on for the better part of a couple of decades, but it has especially gathered some speed over the past few years.

What is this divide?

On one side, you have those of classical evangelicalism, or more definitively, neo-reformed evangelicalism. This group is represented by such people as John Piper, The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Al Mohler and possibly a few others.

On the opposite side, you have those who are becoming less tied to the traditional forms of evangelicalism, and specifically challenging the views of those of the neo-reformed perspective. Within this group, you will find a variety of names at the forefront, like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Peter Enns, BioLogos and a few others.

The divide stands over issues such as these:

  • What is the gospel?
  • What is justification?
  • What is hell?
  • Is theistic evolution a viable Christian (or evangelical) option?

There might be other issues to consider, but those are very central in the divide.

The neo-reformed folk argue something like this for the 4-bullet points above: a) the gospel is about God’s saving and forgiving of sinners through Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, b) justification is another aspect of salvation in which God’s righteousness is imputed (given) to unworthy sinners, c) hell is eternal conscious punishment-torment, and d) theistic evolution is a very dangerous approach to origins, as it can lead to the denial of very central Christian doctrines.

The ‘new perspective’ folk contend these positions: a) the gospel is about the coming of the kingdom rule of God in Jesus, as the fulfilment of Israel’s story, b) justification is not so much about God’s saving of sinners, but rather God’s declaration upon those who are already his covenant people, with the righteousness of God being more about God’s own faithfulness to his covenant purposes rather than something ‘imputed’ to believers, c) God’s judgment upon sinners is that of actual, physical death, with the judgment fires of hell being about the consuming of non-believers, and d) theistic evolution is a very plausible, if not true, belief for Christians as to understanding our origins.

Some distinctions worth noting, right?

I find myself falling in line with the latter group, though I must admit I was very much in line with the former group only a few years ago. And I do also note that I learned quite a bit from more neo-reformed folks like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and those at the Gospel Coalition. I cut my theological teeth on the reformed stalwarts of our present day. And this became even more of a reality as I studied at one of the leading reformed-Presbyterian seminaries in America – Covenant Theological Seminary.

But as I became aware of other varying theological perspectives outside of the conservative, reformed (and American) point of reference, I was intrigued, drawn in to learn from others. I must admit, I longed for something fresh. And this is what I found as friends introduced me to N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, J.R. Daniel Kirk, BioLogos and a few others.

This divide is practically expressed on quite a regular basis, like in such a recent review by the Gospel Coalition of N.T. Wright’s newest book, How God Became King. I read the review and am very much perplexed at how such could have been written. I’m thinking they didn’t read the same book as I (or, what really probably happened is that they headed into the book already knowing they couldn’t agree with but 10% of anything said). Or I, myself, pick up Wright’s newest work and frequently come across critical statements about neo-reformed evangelicalism and American politics. I, though being American myself, tend to also be critical of such perspectives. But I’m learning, at least slowly, to grow in grace and listen to and be gracious towards views not my own, though I might not still come to the same conclusions.

Being critical and challenging is not about bashing, nor adding in a little jab of snide remarks here or there. At times, it might be about strong rebuke and vigorous challenges (maybe like InternetMonk’s robust challenge to the bashing of ‘effeminate worship’). But I am wondering if, even longing for, this divide to lessen, to narrow, rather than keep heading towards an unimaginably wide chasm.

And that’s my whole point in this article. It’s not so much about arguing which view is better. Rather it is to both call out the divide that is taking place and share my desire to seem kind of closing of the gap through some efforts in reconciliation. Is there a way to better listen to one another, learn from one another, hold back snarky and overly-critical comments, for movement towards some kind expression of Christlike unity?

You know, when I read Wright’s book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, and then read Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (this book actually came first, challenging Wright’s previous works on Paul and justification), I really think there was a lot of common ground from which to work. But as Krish Kandiah, British church leader and blogger, notes: ‘these men do tend to talk past each other when they engage’.

And this is true of many of those on opposite sides of this ever-increasing chasm.

I am not so much asking for people to change their theological perspectives. Well, I think it a worthy project to evaluate our theology and be open to the need for changes in our paradigms, as I’ve seen this become a reality in my own life the past few years. But I am asking for better talk across the table. I even imagine a day, in the not too distant future, where John Piper, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Al Mohler and a few other neo-reformed folk will sit down with Tom Wright, Scot McKnight, Peter Enns, JR Daniel Kirk and a few others to have 2 or 3 days of deep dialogue and discussion of how the two groups can better understand one another and even how we might move forward together.

I know. Sounds a bit adventurous, maybe a bit too big. But I think it can be done. And I put forward my ‘vote’ to see it happen, all that the divide closes and we move more towards the kind of unity expressed in passages like Eph 4:11-16.

Is it possible?

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21 thoughts on “The Divide in Today’s Evangelicalism

  1. Really great post. The line in evangelicalism is becoming less blurred. I definitely fall into the first camp (Neo-Reformed), but I appreciate much of the thought from the rising camp (Wright and others). However, I’m fairly new at analyzing their thought, so I don’t have too much ground to stand on. I would definitely love to see the two camps get together to find areas of agreement and areas of disagreement.

    Thanks again for posting.

  2. Sadly, the latter group needs badly a better couple than Wright and Enns, etc. Perhaps the Neo-Barth people, with T.F. Torrance, note the rather new group seeking to gather flight, i.e. Evangelical Calvinism, using Torrance and newer the Scots theology, Mackinnon, etc.? I would myself fall into the more classic Reformed group with Richard Muller, but we also should listen to the new Barth/Torrance people. In my opinion, they are much more orthodox than Wright/Enns, etc.

    • So, what this second (artificially constructed and designated) group really needs is to be more like the first (artificially constructed and designated) group so that we can get closer to the ideal of a single, monolithic theology. After we get all these wayward brothers and sisters to give up Wright and Enns for Barth and Torrance, what next? To whose understanding of the things of God shall we all conform in the end? Since orthodoxy is a matter of your opinion, should it be you?

      • It’s not an either or thing mate, though I don’t agree fully with Wright or Enn’s, I would not see them as outside of basic orthodoxy, I am myself FV (Federal Vision) friendly as an Anglican Reformed. Btw, you might want to check out the historical and creedal aspect of the Reformed Anglicanism (The Anglican Articles 1615, noting Archbishop Ussher). And I am also in agreement with the EO on Christology and the Trinity of God, but not their positions of course with Imputation and Adoption, etc.
        Btw, Barth and Torrance may have been wrong on certain forensic doctrines, but they were hardly “wayward” brethren! EVERY theolog should read Barth sometime, certainly, whether one agrees with Barth or not! And if you have not read TFT’s book: The Trinitarian Faith, etc., you simply should. Indeed a must read for all theolog’s, and pastor-teachers!

  3. Is it possible? No. Some issues that divide the two sides are thought by some to be of primary importance (e.g., historical fall, eternal hell, etc.). Therefore, disagreement must–for the good of the church–result in excommunication.

    • Indeed the more conservative Neo-Reformed need someone to step to the lead, and besides Piper…perhaps young Taylor, or DeYoung? John Piper is really no “theologian”, but a certain pastor-teacher. And the grand elder RC Sproul does not appear to have the fire for this position now days? Though I love the man certainly! Personally, I have always loved Mark Seifrid’s book: Christ, our Righteousness, etc. (IVP, 2000) I am not sure the book has been read enough, and now perhaps needs some update, or further depth?

      • It is here btw, that I would recommend the books of the European Reformed Heiko Oberman! (His book: Martin Luther: Man Bwteen God and the Devil, is an historical classic read!) Though he is before the Lord now (2001), his books are very much worthy reading! See his last, put together after his death, ‘The Two Reformations, The Journey From The Last Days To The New World’,(Yale, 2003). The last chapter, Calvin;s Legacy, etc. is simply grand!

        If the modern Reformation and Reformed are going to continue and make a difference, they must re-discover their own historical roots, both biblical and theological, and challenge the culture of postmodernity! WE need our World-View, which is always Judeo-Christian!

      • 1) I’m not “suggesting” anything; I’m simply describing a divide in what people consider to be debatable issues within the church.
        2) “New Perspective” is not generally considered to be a first order issue by anybody significant on the two sides, so no, I wouldn’t suggest excommunicating Wright (and nor has anyone else).
        3) Issues like hell and an historical fall (which theistic evolution sometimes implies) are the issues which are at issue here; if, say, Enns denies an historical fall, and if JRD Kirk suggests hell doesn’t exist eternally, then that would be a deal breaker.
        What I’m trying to get at here is that the parameters of the debate are not agreed upon, so it’s difficult if not impossibility to have a productive discussion.
        whjat

  4. This is “the” line of division? Methinks you have oversimplified evangelicalism’s complex theological and sociocultural geography more than a little, if you see it boiling down to two camps.

  5. Foo Bar –

    From my reading and viewing of things in the past few years, at least from an American/western evangelicalism perspective, I do believe this is a major division taking place. Not the only division. But a major division.

    • But what of all the evangelicals who see themselves in neither of these camps? I suggest it might be better to say that this is a live theological debate, rather than that it is a division of people into camps.

      • My desire is not to group you within a particular group. I recognise people exist outside these perspectives, as well as varying nuances within them. But even if people exist outside these two perspectives, we still have two major camps being created, hence, division.

    • Scott: I see this as an “American” issue within the Reformed myself, though as I have said, NT Wright has now pressed his way into the American theological scene to degree. But he is actually rather neo-liberal on many issues, see the rather British idea of the New Evangelicalism, which Wright states he ascribes to, in basic.

  6. Really liked this post, Scott. I am very much on a journey similar to the one you said you have been going through. I grew up in the first camp, and I’m just discovering the 2nd over the past year or so. I also don’t think it’s either or. I honestly can say that on some of these issues – the true nature of hell, the use or not of evolution in the process of creation, the nature or even existence of an eternal soul, I simply don’t know yet what “the truth” is. But, what I’m discovering is that I’m OK with not “knowing” it all yet. I still have much to learn, and I think life is a learning process. I haven’t thrown away my “old” beliefs, nor do I embrace everything on the other side. I see problems with it. Really, I see problems on both sides. Both sides SEEM to take a position, and then find the scriptures that support that position, rather than just read the Bible and form a belief from it’s entirety without any preconceived ideas.. Admittedly, that’s nearly impossible to do as nobody lives in a vacuum. Again, I see this journey as a work in progress that may well never be complete. Well, at least not till I get the “full story” from the man Himself. 🙂

  7. I’m British, not American, and I’m solidly in the second camp. Openness to their interpretations has strengthened my faith no end, especially in Scripture as God’s living Word.
    I was raised in the Brethren and their dispensational views, then as a student moved to the classical Reformed persuasion, but with deep misgivings about both. The likes of Wright and Enns certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do believe they are pointing the faithful in the right direction.
    The likes of me, however, need to be wise and loving in how we share these views, remembering that people don’t change overnight, and that our own pilgrimage has been one of many years.

    • @David: I am a Irish Brit myself, and my greatgram was among ‘the Brethren’ (first the “Kelly” Brethren, then the “Open”). And I am a “Darby”, but no relation to JND. They have a profound history, and I love their hymnology!
      I am also Reformed in theology, but am Historic Pre-Mill,post-trib. (I lived and taught in Israel in the late 9o’s. I love Israel and the Jewish people, and I am pro-Israel and a “Biblical” Zionist. 🙂 Indeed the Christian life, as Christian theology is a pilgrimage, a constant learning curve! But we Gentile Christians only “share” in the Biblical Salvation History, and the Covenant/covenants of Israel, (Rom. 15: 8-9, etc.)

  8. My tuppence worth is…… of course the’ two camps’ is simplistic,it does give us a discussion starter place. I ‘lean’ to the wright a bit on some issues but also to the other side on others. I DON’T think hell is a first order issue, it wasn’t in the creeds and isn’t in the proclamation of the Gospel in Acts. (never appears). The nearest we have to some kind of exemplar for our current world and speaking to it is Paul in Athens, do note that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ doesn’t appear either but the resurrection does! Note also how unlike the standard Evangelical presentation of the gospel it is!!

    My two keypoints would be
    1. Gather at the centre not at street corners and God forbid at outlying settlements. If we make specific ‘day’ concepts of genesis, views of the atonement, eschatology (inc hell and personal eschatology) even charismata the definition of our ‘centre’ then we need glasses.
    2. Nicene orthodoxy is a good place to centre ourselves, meaning getting our Christology right and our understanding and proclamation of resurrection .

    The Evangelical world is diverse to an extreme and is subject to infiltration because many believers (us ‘teachers’ are responsible for what they learn and are subject to double judgment remember) seem to think that ‘hebrew roots’ and israel, word of faith and gifts, reformed theology atonement views or whatever are all to be defended as THE faith. The fact is while we don’;t focus , we have Oneness groupings and individuals that ‘look like’ pentecostals ‘moving in’ infiltrating institutions and gaining acceptance, other anti trinitarian groups are also ‘moving in’ as well. (see my bloghttp://jtsblogspot.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/fatal-infiltration.html)

    We can be reformed ,’openess’, conditionalist, trad, charismatic, young earth /old earth or whatever but if we define ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘raised from the dead’ we can all defend the centre. As well as enjoying the other discussions!!

    Let’d do that, it sounds good!

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