Evangelicalism Divided: A Review

Iain Murray chronicles events from 1950 to the present related to the split within the English-speaking evangelical camp over how to respond to those lacking evident evangelical faith or belief desiring to be considered by the evangelicals as legitimate members of the visible church. To put it more simply: can we consider as a Christian someone who denies the deity of Christ? What if they deny justification by faith alone? What if they believe the Roman bishop (pope) is supreme? By what criteria do we consider one a Christian and give membership to the visible Church of Jesus Christ?

Murray examines such figures as Billy Graham, JI Packer, and D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, as well as movements like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), noting the compromises or stands against compromise of each. Liberal and Roman Catholic churches sought to participate in Billy Graham's crusades so as to direct the flood of converts their way. The crusade people unwittingly went along. Ecumenical movements in Anglicanism in England convinced Packer that one could cooperate with liberals or Anglo-Catholics in the visible church without compromising the truth. Lloyd-Jones saw such cooperation leading to compromise. A similar dynamic pertains to ECT in the last couple decades.

So much for summary. Now analysis. Murray adeptly touches upon the dangers of cooperation with the less-than-orthodox in the church. Politically, you can't say the whole truth when you're trying to get along with them, if the project is to last and be effective. If you are both in the church, and committed to that unity first, and if one believes in the virgin birth, and the other does not, then you'll just have to agree to disagree on that, and not make a pronouncement as a church. To do the latter would effectively make one party a second-class citizen and not promote unity. Murray chronicles well the silencing or changing of the evangelical voice as it sought influence via cooperation with various groups.

I have one quibble with Murray. He occasionally argues that a strong view of what baptism does is a culprit leading to liberalism. If baptism is all that defines one as a Christian, the argument goes, then we have no rationale to keep out liberal but nominal Anglicans, etc. But this doesn't follow. After baptism, we have discipline to remove from the church those who do not live up to or continue in what they profess. I actually believe that baptism DOES define one as a Christian, nominally, but in a positive and important way. Baptism marks you with Christ's name and automatically includes you as a member of the visible church, by virtue of a profession of faith if you're an adult, or because your parents are believers if you're an infant (Gen 17:12; Acts 2:39). But if they later deny the faith, this doesn't make baptism the problem. The problem is that no one has the guts to remove them from the church.

The only open question from the book is, when does it become necessary to leave a theologically sliding denomination? Sometimes when Murray writes he gives the impression that one must do so, and that not doing is a test of true faith. Other times he is more generous, saying that one cannot impute motives or judge the heart regarding those who are compromising. They usually do so unwittingly at first. At what point do we say they have slidden so far that they are not in the faith, even if they claim they still are?

It seems evangelicals have often become more afraid of appearing dogmatic than of leaving the truth. We have reacted against the former and fallen into the latter. Murray quotes Richard Baxter in this regard: "Many an error is taken up by going too far from other men's faults" (pg 299). This is an important principle and application to bear in mind these days.

Another strength is his insistence on a basic opposition between Christian and non-Christian. Keeping the difference clearly in view is important to evangelicalism. Blurring the line means you're losing track of the basic message (evangel, Gospel) the believing of which defines one as a Christian.

A weakness is the pessimistic and downright dismal tone toward the end: "In the words of Horatious Bonar, 'Fellowship between faith and unbelief must, sooner or later, be fatal to the former.' The reason is not that error is more powerful than truth: it is rather that, without the Holy Spirit, spiritual weakness is a certainty" (pg 305). While I understand the distinction he makes, I disagree that the Spirit cannot be present where there is temporary mingling of belief with unbelief. Murray and Bonar may be referring to institutional and permanent fellowship - the context is not clear. If that is the case, I agree with them. But I believe there must be individual relationships with unbelievers if evangelism is to take place. This quote can far too easily be taken as an excuse to hole up in our Christian ghettos and never engage the world of unbelief. The Spirit works as we set our lamp on the lampstand for all to see. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Do not despair or be overwhelmed by the onslaught of liberalism.

For though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book several years back. I remember that I enjoyed it (if one can say that about a book that shows the progressive compromise of evangelicalism), and at times I had to put it down because I was so moved by the events recounted (generally not in a good way). I cannot remember the things you mentioned in your critique, but they could be there. I believe when Murray speaks of not having fellowship between faith and unbelief, he is speaking at an institutional level. At least, nothing I have heard or read from him makes me think otherwise.

    I think the example of this is seen clearly in the denomination I am currently part of and which you previously were part of, the RCA. It has decided to fellowship at a denominational level with those who do not share the same faith. This has resulted in continuing decline theologically, even though at the local level there are strong conservative congregations.