NOTE: Fourth in a series, this latest post is better understood by reading the previous ones.
Back at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, one of our required classes was Contemporary Theology, and one day David Wells was going on at length about the embarrassing fundamentalists whose defense of the faith was so offputting. He illustrated the harm “fundies” had done by telling the story of Harvard prof Harvey Cox coming to faith at university through the ministry of Inter-Varsity. The moral of the story was that Cox had then gotten turned off by fundies and left the faith for liberalism.
Wells’s point was not the danger of the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, but the stupid fundies who discredited the Christian faith. What a different story could have been told if only smart, sophisticated, degreed Evangelicals had been able to come alongside Cox back in his spiritual infancy, demonstrating to him the other and more presentable and winsome way of what in its infancy was known as the “New Evangelicalism.” The opposite of fundies, New Evangelicals spoke with a soft voice and carried no stick. Evangelicals of the Gordon-Conwell sort worked to put men into our pulpits who had a postgraduate degree and had been formed in their vocabulary and rhetoric by men like…
Well, for instance, David Wells.
Cox hadn’t found any men to relate to because his infancy as a Christian was dominated by angry loudmouths fighting in defense of the Virgin Birth, Resurrection; and yes, the authority of Scripture.
My Dad had been one of those New Evangelicals back in Boston in the forties when he and my mother were the first (and only) Inter-Varsity staff for New England. They lived on Mass. Avenue in Cambridge and worshipped at Park Street Church where one of the guiding lights of this New Evangelicalism, Harold John Ockenga, was preaching.
Shortly after this lecture, Dad and I were on the phone, and I told him how Wells had spent the class session dissing fundamentalism, but he responded, “We were all fundamentalists, first.”
He wasn’t dissing fundamentalism, but honoring it. There was another path Cox didn’t take. He could have chosen to be taught and strengthened for the battle by fundamentalists as Dad—a leader of the New Evangelicalism—had been. These men went on to strengthen the faithful against the attacks of men the likes of Harvey Cox who repudiated the fundamentalists and moved on.
Dad was not embarrassed by his past. He honored it. Contrary to my lifelong observation concerning men with some terminal degree, Dad decided he wouldn’t get one, and believe me when I say it was a principled decision. Having retained his male principle, Dad didn’t look down on men like J. Gresham Machen who fought in defense of the Faith and souls clinging to it on their path to the resurrection and eternal life.
As Wells approached the end of his lecture, I raised my hand and said: “You know, I wonder if Professor Cox’s repudiation of Christian faith might actually be to fundamentalism’s credit? At least he saw and heard the truth—enough to despise it. Maybe children of Evangelicalism will never bother despising us.”
To Prof. Wells’s credit, he said I might have a point.
Growing up and living most of my life among academics, it was quite tempting to hear Wells’s warnings—which were constant at Gordon-Conwell, and not only from Wells—and take away the moral that demagogues, country bumkins, and southerners took the defense of the faith too seriously; that they drew and shed too much blood protecting the sheep who believed it. Don’t be like them, was Gordon-Conwell’s message. You’ll embarrass yourself. But more importantly, you’ll embarrass those of us who awarded you your degree.
Tragically, they had no idea how they’d gotten their positions and endowments and students and respect.
This younger generation of sophisticated, terminally degreed Evangelicals running Gordon-Conwell and professing there (as well as running most Evangelical seminaries, reformed or otherwise) had never had the privilege of suffering shame as they pursued their degrees and hood.
It was my dad and father-in-law; it was their earlier generation who had suffered in the battle for the authority and inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, the penal substitutionary Atonement, regeneration, and a host of other truths sheep cling to and know are inseparable from faith in the Lord Jesus and His Word.
Then there arrived a generation of princes who knew not fundamentalists; a generation who shamed them for being needlessly confrontational, and ignorant to boot.
Somehow though, they respected Dad. Shortly before my brothers and my matriculation there, Gordon-Conwell had brought Dad back to Boston to teach during their summer session, and they saw him as sorta hip. But they missed the fact that he had been a fundamentalist and wasn’t ashamed of it.
No, David Wells and Roger Nicole and Stephen Charles Mott and Royce Gruenler and David Scholer and Doug Stuart and Gordon Fee were most certainly not fundamentalists. They were Evangelicals who signed Gordon-Conwell’s doctrinal statement declaring the “inerrancy” of Scripture, but they denied the plain meaning of the text concerning manhood and womanhood. Gordon-Conwell was a union shop of feminist brothers 0nly (at the time), and while trashing fundies, they themselves caved on the greatest battle for God’s truth raging the second half of the twentieth century, which was God’s order of creation of Adam first, then Eve.
Asked the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1Timothy 2, “for Adam was created first, then Eve,” Fee was typical of the lot of them, responding (I was there), “Oh, Paul was just being rabbinical there.”
Two Tims attended Gordon-Conwell those years, one famous and the other not. The famous one came out of the gate and started a movement of anti-fundamentalism, as he was told to do by his Gordon-Conwell profs he so admired. He’d taken their lessons to heart, so he began to boil down the doctrines of Scripture under attack during his years of ministry until they were lighter than air; until they evaporated and disappeared. Sexuality. Hell. Creation…
His principle behind his unbearable lightness in preaching there in Manhattan was precisely the principle of his seminary professor who said, “Oh, Paul was just being rabbinical there.” He never preached on abortion, and was proud of it. He never preached on homosexuality, and said as much to the students at Covenant Theological Seminary. He never disciplined any souls of the congregation he shepherded. He put loads of women over men, teaching and exercising authority over them. He did every last thing his seminary profs had shown and told him, and to this day our nation and all of Europe are being served by his Redeemer acolytes.
They all like the cosmopolitan life. As they see themselves, they are sophisticated interpreters of culture. Their specialty is contextualization. Their church-planting mantra is “in the city, for the city,” and their Tim taught them to justify their mollycoddling of the wicked they live among by quoting Jeremiah who said this to the people of God under the Babylonian captivity:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Meanwhile, another unknown Tim from Gordon-Conwell decided he was not ashamed of the fundies. After all, his dad had been one of them, and he respected his dad.
When he was ordained by John Knox Presbytery of the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA), his executive presbyter tried to explain him to other presbyters, telling them this Tim was an “Evangelical,” but he demurred, explaining he would prefer they understand him to be a “fundamentalist.” Evangelicals were decadent. He believed in God’s Word and truth.
Two Gordon-Conwell Tims diverged in a yellow wood, and one took the road less traveled.
A century ago, long before Kellerites’ ministry mantra, “in the city, and for the city,” Jacques Ellul warned Christian scholars and pastors that Jeremiah had meant no such thing (as Kellerites today make of it):
To be present to the world does not at all imply doing the world’s bidding, walking in its ways or reinforcing it. A favorite citation on this topic is Jeremiah’s letter to the captives in Babylon (Jeremiah 29 [verse 7 “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.“]), but it is falsely applied. In the first place, no account is taken of the vast biblical thrust commanding us to flee the world, to reject it and even to condemn it. Then too, it is forgotten that if the captives were ordered to preserve the world, that was not for the benefit of the world, but because God wills the preservation of his people, whose material lot was bound up with that of Babylon. According to this passage, therefore, if one is to participate in the life of the world, that is in order to maintain the Church.
It all comes down to loving the church and guarding the sheep. By God’s grace, Dad and Jacques Ellul protected me from going the broad and crowded path.
Remember the Apostle Paul’s words?
Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2Corinthians 12:10)
(Fourth in a series.)
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