Final Thoughts -- By: Jonathan Armstrong

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 12:4 (Fall 2003)
Article: Final Thoughts
Author: Jonathan Armstrong

Final Thoughts

John H. Armstrong

Professor George Marsden is one of the ore respected historians of modern American evangelicalism. In defining this movement he has written: “The term evangelicalism usually refers to a largely Protestant movement that emphasizes (1) the Bible as authoritative and reliable; (2) eternal salvation as possible only by regeneration (being ‘born again’), involving personal trust in Christ and in his atoning work; and (3) a spiritually transformed life marked by moral conduct, personal devotion such as Bible reading and prayer, and zeal for evangelism and missions” (“Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1987, Mircea Eliade, general editor). Lutherans have historically used the word to describe the Protestant Reformation; thus you see the word “evangelical” in the name of many Lutheran bodies and congregations. And certain European neo-orthodox theologians used the word more generally to refer to “gospel-believer” in a broader sense.

Regardless of how you define the term, most that use it know what they mean by the word. The problem arises, however, when we use the term and those who hear us understand something far different. Fundamentalism, suggests Marsden, is a “subspecies of evangelicalism” that originated in the 1920s in America and refers to those evangelicals who combated “modernist” theology and other secularizing trends. Says Marsden again, “Organized militancy is the feature that most clearly distinguishes fundamentalists from other evangelicals.”

So, are the Southern Baptist conservatives who organized a massive political effort to oust “moderates” from power in the SBC agencies fundamentalists, as has been often charged?

The answer depends entirely upon how you apply the term militancy to the SBC struggle over the last two decades. It also depends on how you define the actual “issues” that made up the content of this battle. Is “inerrancy” (as one example) the position of fundamentalism and not evangelicalism? The answer will depend upon who is defining the terms. Most evangelicals are inerrantists, but most evangelicals do not go so far as to argue that people who do not use the word “inerrancy” are non-evangelicals. (This battle was fought in the 1970s and has died down lately.) Note that in Marsden’s definition evangelicals believe “the Bible [is] authoritative and reliable.” Many who are not inerrantists do believe the Bible is both reliable and authoritative. Personally, I believe Marsden is correct in his definition but in the end the word is a label. Labels are useful but they also are used to divide and oppose. Th...

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