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Is Evangelical Universalism an Oxymoron? Part 01

This is the first part of series which evaluates the compatibility between evangelicalism and universalism.

WARNING: This paper was written as a part of the requirements for a Master’s of Theology. It contains terms that are more difficult than what usually appear on this blog.

A tense relationship between the understanding of hell as eternal and the doctrine of universal salvation has existed in Christianity since at least the Church Father Origin. As such, when mega-church celebrity pastor Rob Bell released his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, suggesting that teaching heterodoxy (if not outright heresy) was an acceptable option for his readership, it understandably unleashed a controversy. What marks this current furore is the promulgation and attempt at popularisation of universalism within an apparently evangelical[1] sphere that has traditionally excluded such doctrines.[2] Is it both possible and permissible for an evangelical to hold and teach this controversial eschatological and soteriological position of universalism?

The difficulty of assessing this question is exacerbated by the fact that I am not working from an unbiased position, but consciously from within an evangelical framework. As Hilborn and Horrocks note, assessments on whether universalists can be evangelical are prone to circular reasoning.[3] This paper, therefore, will not be focusing on the question of the truth or falsehood of the doctrine of universalism, but instead exploring the relationship between this doctrine and evangelicalism, and attempting an evaluation of the viability of combining both together. The questions that will be asked are the following. To what extent is evangelicalism congruent with universalism? Do either have implications that exclude the other? Are there implications of either which are mutually reinforcing? Is it reasonable to be an evangelical and hold to universalism? In short, is ‘evangelical universalism’, as we shall discuss later, an oxymoron?

Evangelicalism

Before addressing those questions it is necessary to assess what is meant when the term ‘evangelical’ is used.[4] In this section I will look at a brief history of the movement and how the term has been used in the past and how it understood toady. This will be to ensure the definition we shall use to assess the compatibility of evangelicalism and universalism is recognisable to as broad a range of people as possible, without losing an historical continuity. I will then propose a positive and prescriptive definition.

Historical overview

Evangelicalism is a transdenominational and transnational movement conceived by a longing for ‘a true religion of the heart’ latent in the seventeenth century, which broadened and deepened in the eighteenth century,[5] and was properly birthed in the Protestant revivals of the 1730’s and 40’s. John Wesley (1703-91), George Whitefield (1714-70), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) were among many other revivalists who were the first of what today historians call ‘Evangelicals.’ Still, the usage of the term extends right back to the beginnings of the religious ‘protest’ in Europe of the sixteenth century.

Derived from the Greek word evangelion, from eu- ‘good’ and angelion ‘message’, essentially to be ‘evangelical’ is to preach the gospel (good news). The term was first published in English in 1531 by William Tyndale (c. 1492-1536) saying, ‘He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.’[6] Sir Tomas Moore wrote one year later, ‘Tyndale [and] his evangelical brother Barns’[7] and was the first to draw a theological distinctive with the term. For the Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), ‘evangelicals’ were those who were the bearers of the ‘good news.’ He employed the term to distinguish between Protestant and Catholic, specifically referring to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.[8]

Usage of the term ‘evangelicalism’ came into its own with the social reform of the nineteenth century. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is the prime example of an evangelical, campaigning tirelessly for issues such as child labor, education, orphans and widows, the improvement of conditions for factory workers, prisoners, the sick, and most notably the abolition of the slave trade. He was at one point linked with sixty-nine separate groups dedicated to social improvement. According to his biographer he performed the wedding ceremony between faith and culture.[9]

Applying the gospel’s ideas to culture, derisively called ‘do-goodism’,[10] became vogue during the Victorian Era. William Booth (1824-1912) and his wife Catherine (1829-90), founders of the Salvation Army in 1865, were ‘evangelicals’ and displayed an active concern towards ‘undesirables’ such as alcoholics, prostitutes and morphine addicts. Unlike the Puritans who worked for church-state purification, evangelicals were independent-minded and content with church and state separation.[11]

Still a precise definition demarcating who is and is not an evangelical was not accepted in general currency. Lord Shaftsbury (1801-85) once said ‘I know what constituted an Evangelical in former times. . . I have no clear notion what constitutes one now.’[12] As we shall see further, this mimics the situation today. George Barna has said, ‘almost nobody—including the people you might classify as evangelicals on the basis of their beliefs and practices—knows what the term ‘evangelical’ means.’[13]

Cultural changes in the latter half of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century posed a great challenge to Evangelicalism. While the impact of the church was on the increase due to its involvement in the world missions and social causes, its influence in the political arena was waning because of the secularisation of the state.[14] Christianity was ousted from the academy when the universities were secularised, meaning it could no longer claim to be the cultural centre of society. Seeking to redress the ignominy of being on the periphery, as well reacting against the perceived ills that had bought this sea change about,[15] there arose a cultic flavor of orthodoxy.[16] This reaction was muted in Protestant Europe and Britain, but vociferous in America,[17] and came to be called Fundamentalism.[18] Described by commentators as having a tendency towards obscurantism, isolationism, biblical literalism and obsessed with strict border control of prescribed beliefs, it was, during this time, often mistaken for or conflated with evangelicalism.[19]

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., says that post World War II evangelicalism is, ‘[s]tanding apart from fundamentalism in spirit and apart from liberal theology in substance’.[20] This marks a decisively different perspective to the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, Foy Valentine who when asked in 1976 if Baptists were evangelicals said, Southern Baptists are not evangelicals. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. But we have our own traditions, our own hymns, and more students in our seminaries than they have in all theirs put together. We don’t share politics or their fussy fundamentalism and we don’t want to get involved in their theological witch-hunts.[21]

Many observers were surprised at this unequivocal statement, including many Southern Baptists who found the term ‘evangelical’ useful for self-identification. Valentine’s description makes it clear he was equating ‘evangelical’ with ‘fundamentalist.’ Still, the distinction between the two is not so easily grasped. What differentiates fundamentalism with evangelicalism today is not necessarily its doctrine, but an attitude by which it approaches culture and the counter-perspectives inside and outside the broader stream of Christianity with its doctrine. As such, it is better to think of Fundamentalists as a subset of the evangelical community rather than a separate entity.

Liberal theology, on the other hand, as Mohler notes ‘is substantively different to evangelicalism.’ It imbibes the spirit of the Enlightenment that tends to towards viewing miracles as impossible – or at least unbelievable. Accordingly, as traditional Christian orthodoxy was syncretised with modernism, there was an increasing willingness to interpret Scripture without preconceived notions of inspiration, inerrancy and the correctness of church dogma.[22] The influence of liberal theology on evangelicalism is handed down chiefly through the work and influence of Karl Barth (1866-1968) and his Dialectical school of theology.[23] Richard Cizik, formerly of the National Association of Evangelicals, notes the view of Scripture for an evangelical in contradistinction to the mainline Protestant view. He states,It is viewed as the objective authoritative word of God, as opposed to the mainline Protestant view called neo-orthodoxy which holds . . . that the Bible becomes the word of God in a kind of existential encounter with it.[24]

Liberal theology also displays a willingness to reinterpret the life and ministry of Jesus, including his miracles, bodily resurrection from the dead and personal return. There is also a tendency to deny that Christ is the only way of salvation, and that the Christian religion has an exclusive claim to religious truth.[25]

Although evangelicalism had lost its place of leadership in the cultural centres of society during the nineteenth century, it did not become totally devoid of influence. In the early twentieth century evangelicalism made significant advances that have shaped the evangelicalism of today. The birth and rapid growth of Pentecostalism is significant, as well as the increase of Bible schools offering higher education, led by the Moody Bible Institute, the increase of Evangelical publishing houses such as Baker, Eerdmans and Zondervan, the tidal wave of Christian radio, and in the 1940’s the growing influence of inter-denominational liberal arts schools such as Wheaton, Westmont and Gordon.

From 1949 through to the 1980’s the ministry of Billy Graham (1918-) shaped the face of American evangelicalism. His emphasis on a personal religion and ecumenism led to a conscious movement away from theology as definitive for evangelicalism. The dense network of evangelical institutions surrounding Graham gave the impression of a more monolithic, unified and culture-shaping movement. Though this impression was a mirage, he was integral in shaping a new, more positive evangelicalism after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.[26]

Around Graham there arose a vocal and articulate generation mostly content with the ‘fundamentals’ of conservative evangelical doctrine, but with a positive spirituality and intellectual incisiveness which had not typically been the hallmark of militant fundamentalists. This ‘neo-evangelicalism’, as it was popularly called during the 1950’s and 60’s, led to the reinvigoration and creation of many institutions. Theological seminaries such as Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity, periodicals including Christianity Today, and many new mission agencies were the fruits this resurgence. Influential figures in America included Harold John Ockenga (1905-85), E. J. Carnell (1919-67), and Carl Henry (1913-2003). British scholars such as F. F. Bruce (1910-90), John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) and James I. Packer (1926-) stand out as significant through British’s InterVarsity Press.[27] C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) Mere Christianity, along with Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) and G. K. Chesterton’s (1874-1936) writings made a profound impact on evangelicals beyond their homeland.

Though this gives an impression of cohesion, evangelicalism was, and would remain, profoundly pluralistic. Other groups, such as the mostly African-American Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ, were not connected to the Billy Graham network and unable to feel at home in the mostly white North American context that seemed to define the movement, yet were evangelical in conviction, practice, heritage and disposition.[28] Noll notes further changes in society that has served to broaden the diversity in the Evangelical fold. These include the increasing influence of university-based intellectuals as arbiters of truth for the general culture, the growing awareness of the world’s famines, wars, and other conflicts by heightened media coverage, the attention given to the status of women, multiculturalism, postmodernism, and the general secularisation of public life. Perceived moral decline has served to politicise evangelicals, especially with reference to abortion on demand and school prayer. Changes in the religious domain include the phenomenal growth of the Charismatic movement and non-denominational Protestant churches, as well as the decreasing influence of the mainline Protestant churches and theological liberalism.[29]

The problem these changes create when attempting to formulate a prescriptive definition of ‘evangelicalism’ today is evident: different approaches and alternative solutions have generated greater evangelical diversity than ever before. To answer this paper’s main question however, we require a working definition of what evangelicalism is. We also desire this definition have an historical continuity with how the term has been used in the past, and be immediately recognisable for the broadest range of people as possible. Our brief historical survey of the landscape of evangelicalism has better equipped us for the former desire, but not the latter. To help us formulate a definition that is broadly recognisable we shall now turn to popular evangelical institutions and evaluate their different attempts at definition.

Footnotes:

  1. What this term denotes will be discussed in a later section of this paper.
  2. Proponents of universalism who are also self-identified evangelicals are not without precedent. However, the proportionately few evangelicals who have been universalists have been thought of as idiosyncratic and unorthodox.
  3. ‘[F]or most evangelicals, and for many non-evangelicals besides, the very concept itself is an oxymoron. However conservative a person’s background and theological formation has been, the historical evangelical norm is that once that person embraces universalism, he or she de facto forfeits any authentic claim to the description “evangelical”.’ David Hilborn and Don Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (ed. R. A. Parry and C. H. Partridge; Cumbria: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 238.
  4. David A Bebbington notes the use of the word evangelical (lower-case) can legitimately be used to refer to those who are ‘of the gospel’, whereas when capitalized, Evangelicalism refers to the specific movement which began in the 1730s. In this paper the use of the term shall be in the latter capitalized sense, even though it shall not be capitalized. See David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 1.
  5. Ted Campbell, The Religion of the Heart: European Religious Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).
  6. Phil Johnson, “The History of Evangelicalism (Part 1),” Pulpit Magazine (16 March, 2009): 24. [Italics mine]
  7. Ibid. [Italics mine].
  8. John H. Gerstner, “The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith” in The Evangelicals (ed. D. P. Wells and J. D. Woodbridge; Nashville: Abingdon Press 1975), 21–36. ‘Despite the dominant usage of euangellismos in the New Testament, its derivative, evangelical, was not widely or controversially employed until the Reformation period. Then it came into prominence with Martin Luther precisely because he reasserted Paul’s teaching on the euangellismos as the indispensable message of salvation. Its light, he argued, was hidden under a bushel of ecclesiastical authority, tradition, and liturgy. The essence of the saving message for Luther was justification by faith alone, the article by which not only the church stands or falls but each individual as well. Erasmus, Thomas More, and Johannes Eck denigrated those who accepted this view and referred to them as “evangelicals.”’
  9. Eric Metaxes, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), xvi.
  10. Ibid., xvii
  11. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 13.
  12. [Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, K. G. (Michigan: Cassell, 1887) cited in Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 1.
  13. George Barna, The Barna Report 1992-93 (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1992), 81.
  14. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century (Nashville: Abington, 1987), 386.
  15. Including the modernizing tendencies since the Enlightenment, perceived moral decline and the challenges of Darwinian evolution and German Biblical criticism that helped make theological liberalism attractive and popular.
  16. E. J. Carnell called this ‘orthodoxy gone Cultic.’ Quoted in David Wells, “On Being Evangelical: Some Theological Differences and Similarities” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700-1990 (ed. Mark A. Noll et al.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 404.
  17. Ibid.
  18. So called because of the five ‘fundamentals’ proclaimed at a conference in Niagara Falls in 1895. Those fundamentals were scriptural inerrancy, the virgin birth if Jesus, his subtitutionary death, his physical resurrection, and his future return. See Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century, 384-5.
  19. D. W. Cloud, What is the Emerging Church? (Way of Life Literature, 2009); See also various interviews “Evangelicals v. Fundamentalists,” n.p. [Cited 25 July 2011]. Online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/evangelicals/vs.html
  20. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical: What’s in a Name?” The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel (ed. John H. Armstrong; Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) 31.
  21. Kenneth L. Woodward et al., “Born Again!” Newsweek (25 October 1976): 76; quoted in Robert H. Krapohl and Charles H. Lippy, eds., The Evangelicals: A Historical, Thematic, and Biographical Guide (Wesport: Greenwood Press, 1999), 3.
  22. H. Gruber, “Liberalism,” TCE 9:418-32. See also Gary J. Dorrien (ed.), The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900 (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
  23. Hilborn and Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 231-32; See also Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 58.
  24. Richard Cizik, “Evangelicals v. Mainline Protestants,” n.p. [cited 25 May 2011]. Online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/evangelicals/evmain.html#ixzz1Qhyi8dX6
  25. H. Gruber, “Liberalism,” TCE 9:418-32.
  26. A specific instance in this controversy was the 1925 Scopes trial and the subsequent ignominy it caused. Mark A. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2001), 18.
  27. Derek Tidball, Who Are the Evangelicals? Tracing the Roots of Today’s Movements (London: Marshal Pickering, 1994).
  28. Other examples include evangelicals in the majority world such as in South America, Asia and Africa. Other groups only peripherally connected to Billy Graham were those associated with the healing revivals of William Branham and Oral Roberts, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, many Lutherans, other Holiness churches, the Christian Missionary Alliance, Baptist Bible Fellowship. See Mark A. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2001), 21-22.
  29. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 22-24.
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