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"Honey, We Shrunk the Gospel"

In historic Protestant understanding, the world, which was seen to be created as "very good" by God, is still beautiful even after the Fall. Even in its bondage to decay, pollution, and depravity, the world continues to be the object of God's love, concern, providence, and even redemption.

  • Colonel V. Doner,
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(Excerpts from a chapter in progress from Doner's upcoming book, The Late Great Evangelical Church)

The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. (Ps. 103:19) ... thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.(Ps. 145:13)
... that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself... (2 Cor. 5:19)

Since many cults boldly proclaim their "belief in the Bible" (the more heretical the doctrine, the more vehement it seems is their proclamation of fealty) from the Gnostics to the Arians, from the Moonies to the Mormons, the fundamental question is, "What is the Biblical message?" This question is the essence of the "Great Divide" that now threatens the future of Evangelicalism as a cohesive, and orthodox, movement. Is the Gospel of Christ essentially an individualized (privatized) invitation to focus inward and concentrate on ascending a spiritual ladder to "Christian perfection" as measured by "spiritual feelings" (subjective emotionalism) and the containment (or concealment) of visible moral vices? Is the Biblical message limited to "focusing on the family"? Or is the Gospel good news for all God's creation, calling men to assess their holiness by their obedience to God's Great Commission (Mt. 28:20; 1 Jn. 2:4), their commitment to love others through caring service (Lk. 10:25-37; Mt. 22:36-40; 1 Jn. 4:20-21); stewarding all of God's good creation (Mt. 5:13-16, 23: 23; Job 29; Gen. 1:28, 9: 1-3; Ps. 8:6-8; Is. 1:17; Mic. 6:8) otherwise utilizing our resources to expand his Kingdom (Mt. 25:14-30, 28:18-20; Jn. 13:35, 15:8 and 16) and bringing all things in obedience to Christ, since all belong to him? Do we still stand with the Reformers' Protestant orthodoxy?

In historic Protestant understanding, the world, which was seen to be created as "very good" by God, is still beautiful even after the Fall. Even in its bondage to decay, pollution, and depravity, the world continues to be the object of God's love, concern, providence, and even redemption.

Or have we accepted the Gnostic, Neo-Platonic "world-denying" dualist version proffered by revivalistic dispensationalism and rapture-obsessed TV evangelists (and authors)—that the physical world and all it contains is evil and therefore must be abandoned to its inevitable destruction (misreading the vital Biblical distinction that it is the world system, i.e., humanism, that is ungodly and must be overcome)?

The answer that each of us gives to this crucial question will dictate our level of commitment to transforming our world. With this in mind we will now begin to understand why it's virtually impossible to mobilize more than a fraction of the Evangelical church for service or stewardship. The modern evangelical majority report has clearly embraced a Gospel of abandonment, as opposed to historic Protestant doctrine that teaches Christ came to save his glorious creation, the world (Jn 1:12, 3:16, 4:14; 1 Jn. 2:2). The word "world" is translated from the Greek kosmos, meaning not just individuals, but all of God's creation, which will be reconciled to him (2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:20; Rev. 11:15). As Andrew Walker says, "Christ was for them (the Reformers) a cosmic redeemer, the one through whom all things are returned to the Father."

Conversely, today the average Christian's understanding of God's redemptive plan demonstrates a tragically reductionist understanding of Christ's death and resurrection in terms of both his present Lordship (Ps. 113:19, 145:13; Mt. 28:18) and the purpose for which he was crucified, the redemption of the world, not just a few individuals (Col. 1:19; Jn. 3:16). As Henry Van Til notes:

To confess Christ as Savior from sin, but to deny his relevance and power in the realm of culture, is a denial of his Kingship over the believer and the whole world.

Modern evangelicalism, dominated by dispensationalism's rejection of Christ's present sovereignty, has essentially invalidated Christ's world-changing and "other-directed Gospel" of redeeming the nations. If the word of God is to teach fallen man about his true nature, relationship and duty to God; if "the promise of the Gospel" is to restore all those whom God wills to their role as a "kingdom of priests," obediently fulfilling the Bible's mandate to transform culture as they are transformed ("Christ saves creation initially by restoring the cultural agent [man as a new creation in Christ] to a new obedience," Van Til notes that to affirm anything less is to replace Christ's world-redeeming message with "another Gospel," an anti-Christ, Gnostic Gospel.

Consequently, what we are left with is an emasculated church, a spiritually impotent shell (whitewashed tomb) limited primarily to "personal holiness." As historian Richard Tarnas poignantly summarizes, the perfidious result is our "shrinking" God's world-redeeming imperative:

It thus might appear to be the great paradox of Christianity's history that a message whose original substance — the proclamation of the divine rebirth of the cosmos, the turning point of the aeons through the human incarnation of the Logos — had unprecedentedly elevated the significance of human life, human history, and human freedom eventually served to enforce a somewhat antithetical conception.

How the Gospel Got Neutered
Historian Ronald Knox correctly dates the beginning of Evangelical reductionism close to the Pietism of Wesley's Methodists who gradually displaced Whitefield's and Edwards' Calvinism in America by the end of the eighteenth century: "Their message was simple insofar as they left nine tenths of Christian doctrine out of consideration, and concentrated on the remaining tenth — soteriology" (i.e., how to "get saved and go to heaven").

The story of how the Gospel was reduced to its current unrecognizable state is of course much more complex than any snapshots of Evangelical history might suggest. While this topic is worthy of an entire volume, we can briefly identify some of the more prominent factors that contributed to the dilution of a full-orbed Christian worldview, over the last two centuries.

The campaign to spiritualize Christ's redeeming message (i.e., that his redemption is limited only to the "spiritual" realm) began as early as the second century with dualistic Gnosticism combining with Neo-Platonism. This spawned a multitude of Christian mystical schools which eventually pollinated various strains of Pietism, the direct antecedent of modern Evangelicalism. Once again, Tarnas provides us with a sobering insight on the nefarious forces that first set us on the reductionist road:

The early Judeo Christian belief in redemption of the whole man and the natural world shifted in emphasis, especially under the influence of the Neo-Platonic Christian theologians, to belief in a purely spiritual redemption permeating European pietism which eschewed the Reformation's emphasis on reforming culture to perfecting one's own spiritual status."

The centerpiece of this Gnostic strategy — indeed, the metaphysical underpinnings for its dualism — was its unrelenting antipathy toward the Old Testament, in particular, God's law. To a lesser degree this antinomian spirit was eventually picked up by the "radical wing" of the Reformation, the Anabaptists, and was passed on to their Pietist heirs. Much like many of today's Evangelicals, they eschewed the Old Testament for the New, even while Calvin and the Reformers insisted on the continuity of both Testaments and invested a good deal of time teaching their congregations how to apply the Old Testament to daily life.

A latter-day consequence of this Biblical dualism is that many Evangelicals influenced by the "restoration" or "primitivist" movement ("restoring" the church to its early first-century purity) curiously expend little or no effort studying the Old Testament — which, of course, was the only "Scripture" the early church possessed! When Paul said that all Scripture is for our edification, he was obviously talking about the Old Testament, and not his or his contemporaries' letters. These were not even confirmed as part of the canon of Scripture until the church councils of the late fourth century. This fact is lost on most evangelicals, who seem to think that church history began with the founding of their local church (or, if they're really thoughtful, their denomination), and treat the Bible as if it had magically materialized in one neat package, complete with Scofield's notes, and contemporaneous with the twelve apostles.

Ten Commandments or a Few Pleasant Suggestions?
Modern Evangelicalism's ambivalence (if not outright hostility) toward the bulk of God's word was exponentially increased by its adoption of John Nelson Darby's unique method of interpreting Scripture. Darby set about dividing the Bible into seven "dispensations," only one of which he considered for "these last days." Darby, a British citizen, developed his theories in the mid-nineteenth century after being exposed to a 1830 "end-time vision" from a twenty-one year old Scottish girl by the name of Margaret McDonald. A Christian for less than a year when she apparently gave utterance to her paradigm-shattering prophecy, she already was well known for her exercise of certain "charismatic gifts." Young Margaret's "vision" birthed such terms as the "rapture" and, more specifically, a "pre-tribulation rapture." In this scenario both the world and the majority of the "institutional church" go to hell, but a small remnant of True Believers are "raptured out" before things get too messy. The eschatological implications of this twenty-one year old's ecstatic utterances were fleshed out by Edwin Irving, editor of a British "end times" journal The Morning Watch, and later refined by Mr. Darby. In addition to a newly discovered "rapture" (not to be confused with Christ's victorious Second Coming), Darby's novel dispensational scheme taught, amongst other heresies, that the entire Old Testament and much of the New — including the entirety of Christ's teachings on justice, mercy, stewardship and service (as recorded in the Gospels) were written only to the Jews — and thus could be safely glossed over by modern Christians!

Many other dispensationalist teachers went even further, declaring all the Gospels as well as a portion of Acts to be off limits as normative for today's Christians. One of the primary influences on today's Evangelical theology, Lewis Sperry Chafer (the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, the bulwark of American dispensationalism), believed that only the books of John, Acts, and Paul's epistles were specifically addressed to Christians! It is Chafer, mentor to the bulk of fundamentalist pastors for several generations, who unapologetically eviscerated the Bible as an integrated vehicle to expand God's Kingdom, and who single-handedly reduced God's Ten Commandments to the "Ten Suggestions" with his heretical assertion (by Lewis Sperry Chafer) that "these actual written commandments, either of Moses or the kingdom, are not the rule of the believer's life under grace, anymore than these systems are the basis for his salvation." In other words, Christians need not concern themselves with obeying or applying the Ten Commandments or the commands of Christ (i.e., kingdom Law).

This shocking, Gnostic-like assault on the whole Gospel of Christ underscores one of the most notable ironies of church history: Our fundamentalist forefathers fought vigorously for the inerrancy of the Bible, then, under the spell of Darby, Scofield and Chafer, went on to invalidate at least two thirds (depending on which dispensationalist you talk with) of the Bible's sixty-six books — serving the same ends as their sworn enemies, the liberal proponents of "higher criticism" who were systematically weakening the Bible's authority. Now that we've established that it's really the Word of God, we can with impunity decide what is relevant and what is not — this seemed to be the unspoken principle. Indeed, not much has changed in our own day, as a 1990s Gallup poll commissioned by Christianity Today discovered that more Evangelicals believed in the inerrancy of the Bible than actually read their Bibles!

Returning to our historical perspective, while European Protestantism was being subverted by Neo-Platonic pietism, the Puritans were diligently applying a full-orbed Christian worldview to all of life, determined to transform their new wilderness homeland into a new Zion. The triumph of undiluted Christianity reached its zenith with Jonathan Edwards, one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening (which began in the 1720s) and who was universally recognized as the greatest theologian produced in the Western Hemisphere. Yet within the space of two generations, Edward's own minister-grandson, Timothy Dwight, a leader of the Second Great Awakening (circa 1775-1825), would deny some of the foundational tenets his grandfather espoused. Within a few decades the fruit of the "Second Awakening" radically shifted the face of American Christendom. Author Ann Douglass notes:

The difference between the Protestants of 1800 and their descendants of 1875 and after are greater than their similarities. The everyday Protestant of 1800 subscribed to a rather complicated and rigidly defined body of dogma (i.e., Calvinist theology) and by 1875 American Protestants were much more likely to define their faith in terms of family, morals, civic responsibility, and above all, in terms of the social functions of church going.... [C]hurches over the same period shifted their emphasis from a primary concern with the doctrinal beliefs of their members to a preoccupation with numbers."

John Seel, writing in The Evangelical Forfeit, pinpoints the half century spanning from 1800-1850 as the critical juncture when Evangelicals chose to concentrate on "numbers" versus the truth. Seel quotes an observer who lived through and appreciated the magnitude of paradigm shift that was taking place: ". . . no other four decades, or forty decades either, in the history of Christian thought had seen so many and such momentous changes in fundamental religious attitudes."

Phillip Lee concurs that within this relatively short time frame historic Protestantism was abandoned:

Something drastic, however, happened to Calvinism in North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century it became apparent that a form of Christianity quite different from any known on the Continent or in the British Isles had not only asserted itself but had become the typical religion of North America.

Douglass and Seel provide us with a theological "smoking gun," the vital piece of evidence that will explain a primary motive for watering down the Biblical message. It's all in the "numbers." It appears that the dynamics underlying our current church growth movement did not, after all, originate with Robert Schuller's drive-in-movie-theater church in my home town of Garden Grove, California. Pandering to the lowest common denominator of the religious marketplace, striving to make God acceptable to sinners rather than vice-versa, is not a uniquely modern tactic, although as theologian David Wells observes, its results remain consistent over time: "Evangelicalism has increasingly found that the cost of modern relevance has been its own theological evisceration."

Why Protestantism Declined
To understand why the seemingly vital and orthodox church of the early to mid-1800s (and its descendants down through our current era) felt the need to dilute historic Christian doctrine in order to attract (or keep) members, we need to consider the incredibly complex interplay of a number of very profound factors. Most fundamental are the usually unremarked differences between the "First Awakening," which preceded the War of Independence by several generations, and the "Second Awakening," which began in the context of a chaotic revolutionary period (c. 1775) in which traditional authority structures, political and ecclesiastical, were overthrown. The "Second Awakening" continued for half a century, long enough to allow Charles Finney to complete the overthrow of Puritan-Calvinist dogma and adapt the radical, man-centered approach of the Second Awakening into a movement that would span the entirety of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, when we look for clues as to what transpired between 1800 and 1875, the "Second Awakening" and Finney's Revivalism are prime suspects.

The difference between the pre- and post-Revolutionary spiritual awakenings that swept the American nation are as stark as night and day. The former, led by such men like Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, was centered on a Sovereign God and the Holy Spirit, who called forth repentance and a new life. The latter, led by men like Edwards' grandson, who formulated a "practical Calvinism," was amenable to the man-centered and subjectivist Zeitgeist that the revolution and Neo-Pietism had co-authored. As Evangelical historian George Marsden notes: "[The Second Awakening] introduced into an essentially Calvinist context a new style of emotional intensity . . . inspired by German and Methodist Pietism." In [subsequent chapters], beginning with the Revolutionary context which birthed the Second Awakening, we will briefly review a few of the most critical elements which have conspired to short-change the historic mission of Christ's church.