Conservative Evangelicalism

Roger Olson (an Arminian Pietist who classifies himself as a “postconservative evangelical”) has two interesting articles on the recent phenomena known as “conservative evangelicalism”–

(HT to Michael Riley for pointing me to Olson’s blog.)

In the first article, after listing four aspects of conservative evangelicalism (which Olson calls “neo-fundamentalism”), he concludes with this assessment:

What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism.  People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”  People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”  THIS is why I call myself a postconservative evangelical.  It has NOTHING to do with being liberal; it has everything to do with not wanting to be confused with these people creating and populating this third way via media.  I simply refuse to give up the label “evangelical,” but because of the growing influence of this third way I have to use some adjective to distinguish my own way of being evangelical from that.

Interesting to note those whom he says populates neo-fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism–

  • “People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation”
  • “People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism”

In another post Olson concludes that

Perhaps the time has come for moderate and progressive evangelicals to say “Farewell neo-fundamentalists.”  There’s no point in prolonging the long kiss goodbye.  We are two movements now–fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists, on the one hand, and moderate to progressive evangelicals on the other hand.  This painful parting of the ways happened between the movement fundamentalists and the new evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s.  It is happening again (among people who call themselves “evangelicals”) and the time has come to acknowledge it as, for all practical purposes, done.  It’s just a matter now of dividing the property.

Recently, many who would identify themselves as fundamentalists are beginning to have limited fellowship with “conservative evangelicals.” Olson has an interesting assessment as to the difference between a fundamentalist and a neo-fundamentalist/conservative evangelical that should affect such working-fellowship–

The distinction still has to do with separationism and especially secondary separation.  Even the most conservative, neo-fundamentalist evangelicals rarely practice secondary separation.

Olson says that while conservative evangelicals are like fundamentalists in that they practice some level of separation, they are not fundamentalists because they will not separate from disobedient brethren (what he and many others call “secondary separation”).

Neo-fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals are, in Olson’s assessment, neither classic new evangelicals nor classic fundamentalists. They are a “third way.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons some fundamentalists are moving in that direction–it rejects many of the problems of new evangelicalism and doesn’t make an issue of separation from disobedient brethren.

On a different but somewhat related note, I found it interesting that Olson refuses to give up his evangelical label and movement identification (which some fundamentalists seem intent on doing). In fact, in the comments section Olson is asked,

How do we delineate between Classic Neo-Evangelicalism, to coin a term, and New Fundamentalism amidst a society that sees “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” as a tautology? Making matter even more complicated, young (true) evangelicals seem content on abandoning the term.

Olson’s response:

Well, it’s probably impossible to educate secular people about these differences. But I gave several distinguishing characteristics that most knowledgeable evangelicals can understand and recognize.


During the last year or so there has been a concerted effort by several men advocating the premise that while there are fundamentalists there is no longer a movement of fundamentalism.

One of the reasons put forward in support of this premise is the “fractured state” of said fundamentalism.

We are then encouraged to consider the necessity of “making fresh applications” of our understanding of separation to the current milieu. Examples of such “fresh applications” involve limited endeavors with “conservative evangelicals.”

It’s interesting, then, to listen to one such conservative evangelical, John Piper, talk about “all kinds of movements” many of which “don’t know the other exists” yet all fall under the umbrella of the “Gospel-Centered Movement.”

Note that Piper calls this a “movement” both at the beginning (0:36ff) and end (3:37) of this video. Despite the fact that such individuals don’t know each other and are across a variety of theological and ecclesiological grids, they are yet constituted a movement.

This, however, is not the point of this video clip. Piper’s point is that there is a disconnect that exists in many who rejoice in the majesty of God as they study Scripture and worship but not in various aspects of their personal lives (he hits things like movies and immodest clothing–hey, wait a minute–I thought only “fundies” hit on those things?).

This disconnect occurs because of a failure in the doctrine and application of God’s holiness, i.e. separation. Separation is inherent in the doctrine of God, but its necessary practical ramifications (some of which are correctly noted by Piper) are either ignored or dismissed by such “Gospel-centered” adherents and followers. This is probably one of the primary concerns I’ve had when hearing the “gospel-centered” mantra for the last couple of years.

This failure in the area of separation (both personal and ecclesiastical aspects) is one of the main problems that I have with my separatist brethren entering into endeavors with such men.

Back to my initial point–while I do agree in principle that we should be concerned with Scripture and not movements per se, I do not agree that one can act as if no movements exist. It almost seems as if by getting the “movement” idea out of the way, that opens up and/or justifies the “fresh applications” approach.

"Word of the Day"

I subscribe to Daily Writing Tips’ “Word of the Day.” Today’s post was “fundamentalism.” I naturally read it, and it was pretty good:

Fundamentalism (fŭn’də-mĕn’tl-ĭz’əm) in a religious sense is an effort to return to “fundamentals,” or founding principles. It was first applied in the early 20th century to an American militant conservative Protestant movement that rejected the new science of textual criticism, insisting instead upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. The term is now used to describe anti-modernist elements in any religion.

Not even a mention of any “lunatic fringe” aspects.

McClain and New Evangelicalism

Previously, I wondered what response McClain had toward new evangelicalism during its rise in the 1940s and 1950s. Recently, while filing a pile of papers, I came across some notes from a chapel at DBTS by Dr. McCune. He and Dr. Priest were doing a series on “Fundamentalist Personalities,” and the individual under consideration for Nov 7, 1996 was Alva J. McClain. McCune closed his remarks with the following:

“Dr. McClain wrote an analytical response to the now-famous landmark article in Christian Life (March 1956), ‘Is Evangelical Theology Changing.’ Concerning ‘dialogue’ or conversing with liberals he said, ‘I understand the desirability of an acquaintance with the program and ideas of our opponents, but we must never for one instant forget that they are deadly enemies with whom there can be neither truce nor compromise’ (italics added). He concluded his analysis with this paragraph:

Finally, the editors of Christian Life express deep concern over the divisions which have blunted the effectiveness of fundamentalism. With them, I sincerely share this concern. But a reading of their expressed views will only deepen the conviction of many that they are abetting a trend which may not only lead to another division, but one which will be the deepest and most disastrous of all (“Is Theology Changing in the Conservative Camp?” The Brethren Missionary Herald [Feb 23, 1957]).

It is instructive to note where McClain, a “first generation fundamentalist,” would put the blame for division in the fundamentalism of their day–squarely at the feet of the founders of new evangelicalism.

Israel, the Church, and Separation

Does the Lord’s patience with apostate Israel, Babylon, Nineveh, etc., give evidence that faithful believers should stay in “troubled”  denominations? Many professing believers point out that Jesus still frequented the temple despite its being controlled by those who eventually killed him. In other words, shouldn’t someone stay in a bad church until he is kicked out?

These are typical arguments set forth by evangelicals for staying in fellowships, denominations, or even local churches that have left the faith or are in compromising positions.

It’s always been amazing to me that clear prescriptive biblical statements, such as 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, are somehow trumped by a skewed interpretation or application of narrative passages of Scripture. My point: clear teaching is set aside in favor of questionable experience; in these cases, one’s interpretation of the experiences of Israel and Jesus are set forth as providing clear teaching for current situations.

Israel and the church are two different entities, with different “memberships” (if you will) and purposes. Concerning their “memberships,” Israel consisted of believers and unbelievers; in fact, the vast majority of Israelites were undoubtedly unbelievers. The church on the other hand consists of believers. Concerning their purposes, Israel was a theocracy with no division between the formal expression of their religion and the state. The church is exclusively spiritual in nature and purposes—the Great Commission.

In view of this, the attempted comparison between Israel and the church is one of apples and oranges—it doesn’t hold. In fact, no prophet or Israelite ever sounded the call to get out of Israel because of sin or compromise. They were to repent. When they didn’t, God removed “Israel” from the land because of their sin! While God did show patience with Babylon and Nineveh, eventually they were destroyed (cf. Isa 46-47; Nahum 1-3).

The only legitimate parallel we should find regarding “ecclesiastical” separation from the OT is that between Israel and the nations. From its inception, Israel was to be separate from the surrounding nations on every level (cf. Lev 11:44-47; 20:23-26). Those Israelites who disobeyed the OT separation regulations faced serious “excommunication”: death! Additionally, we can gain an illustration of “separation from disobedient brethren” from Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22; 2 Chron 18-19). Jehoshaphat should never have allied himself with his Jewish brother Ahab, which the text clearly states.

Thus, the OT provides no real grounds for the “stay in” approach due to the difference in character between Israel and the church. Furthermore, Israel consistently was called to be separate from the nations, and compromise with such was always condemned.

The appeal to Jesus in the temple is also an apples and oranges comparison. Jesus as an Israelite naturally and rightly worshiped where Jews worshiped, and that was the temple. Jesus did not have the right to set up a rival place of worship—to have done so would have been unlawful and would have brought terrible consequences!

Furthermore, those who use Jesus’ presence in the temple as justification for remaining in “troubled” denominations more often than not are selective in their alleged “imitation” of Jesus’ example. Where are the imitations of Jesus’ fiery denunciations of religious leaders (e.g. Matt 23:13-33)? Where’s the whip in the temple courts?

From a Christian standpoint, we have to consider the milieu or religious environment of our day. In NT times there weren’t any “troubled” denominations. For that matter there weren’t any denominations! There were, however, false religions (called idolatry) and false teachers under the guise of Christianity, and the command for believers was clear (2 Cor 6:14ff). There were also genuine believers who lived in blatant disobedience to apostolic teaching, and the command for believers with regard to such disobedient believer was clear as well (2 Thess 3:6, 14).

In the case of fellowships or denominations, consideration must be given to the overall direction and tone of the organization. The same could be said of a single local church. If it’s clear one way or the other, that should settle the case. The difficulty comes when there are allegiances and fond memories; personal experiences are powerful motivations to disregard the clear path that should be taken.