A Response to Dr. Nicole

Founders Journal · Fall 2000 · pp. 11-12, 20

A Response to Dr. Nicole

Iain H. Murray

[The following is taken from a letter written by Rev. Iain Murray to Dr. Roger Nicole in response to the latter’s review of the former’s book, Evangelicalism Divided, which also appears in this issue of the Founders Journal. It is printed here with permission.]

Dear Dr Nicole,

I appreciate your kindness in letting me see your projected review of Evangelicalism Divided and the time and thought which you have given to this. I agree with your reason for the summary you gave towards the end on evangelical growth. If people thought my book was intended to be a history of evangelicalism as a whole in the last fifty years it would leave them with a wrong negative impression. Another positive fact that could be mentioned is the enormous sale of sound evangelical books in the US, Jim Packer’s Knowing God, for instance, selling upwards of quarter of a million copies. I also agree entirely with your point 1 on page 2. All generations are flawed and fallible, ‘In many things we offend all’. There is much for which we can be thankful in the change since 1950.

I see the main point of my book differently from yourself. I think that someone simply reading your review could think, “Oh, this is just the old fundamentalist attack on people, and the same old targets.” I tried, you may think unsuccessfully, to be assessing policies, not people and I took care, in places, to speak for the people whose thinking at other points I criticise (e.g. I disagree with Archbishop Fisher on the results of Harringay, p.56). Over against critics of Ockenga and Carnell, I documented that their evangelical convictions did not change (in passing, I don’t recall I offering any opinion on how Ockenga’s non-residence affected things at Fuller). My main point is the historic evangelical understanding of what it means to be a Christian and how that was challenged (chapter 1) by the liberal contention that it is not essential to believe any set of doctrines to be a Christian. Granting the excesses of fundamentalism, on that issue they were clear. The new evangelicalism (for want of a better term, I don’t use it in the book as a smear label) came to believe that the older lines of division were too narrowly drawn and that, with more ‘openness’ and a better spirit, Christians in the major denominations could be helped and the whole position strengthened. This thinking happened to coincide with the ecumenical movement and thus to an atmosphere which evangelicals believed to be conducive to a wider unity while they could still maintain the biblical essentials. But ecumenism, as liberalism, for the most part assumed a different definition of a Christian from that of evangelicals, and the issue of division, as I have tried to relate it, became whether or not evangelical convictions are necessary to be a Christian. On that issue Graham, Stott and Packer have quite clearly taken a position which none of them took in 1950 and which would have been opposed generally throughout evangelicalism at that date. I think the documentation on that point is unanswerable (see, for instance, pp.73-4,119). My use of Fuller Seminary is to show that in trying to advance evangelical belief they quickly ran into tension with non-evangelicals and that there was no way to gain wider acceptance without a toning down of distinctives (pp.188-9), the very problem Ockenga and Carnell discussed. On a much larger scale Graham encountered the same problem and the solution to which he moved was to accept that his earlier idea of Christian was much too narrow. Now he professes to have no problem with either Robert Schuller or the Church of Rome.

It was this tension that Dr Lloyd-Jones was addressing, not issues of churchmanship. He argued that evangelicals could only be a part of ecumenism if they accepted the ecumenical axiom that “we are all Christians” and that by so doing, sooner or later, the importance of what is distinctive and essential to evangelical belief would be seriously weakened and undermined. I believe he was right. It is not the jettisoning of evangelical belief by the leaders which I claim has happened (readers of your review could think I do) but their changed stance on how that belief relates to forms of religious thought which are inimical to it. In the end do the differences really matter? They clearly don’t matter much if men can deny the resurrection of Christ and still be Christians (p.119 again). (You would notice I said nothing on Dr Stott’s views on eternal punishment; I was trying to keep to the big issue which is at the center of the division).

My point in chapter 6, which I think is very relevant, is that the kind of evangelism so blessed of God in history, depends on the conviction that men must believe the truth or perish. Lloyd-Jones’ great point was that the primary issue is, What is a Christian? and that the ecumenical involvement would necessarily involve a playing down of that issue (Similarly, the quest for intellectual respectability involved a playing down of the antithesis between the regenerate and unregenerate mind).

Following are a few points of detail, on which I simply give my opinion.

  • Stott’s leadership was not marginalized, not in the 1970s surely. Packer’s position was different.
  • Regarding “baptism the visible sign”, you quote from p.99 but on p. 101 I show this was the position now formally adopted by the Anglican evangelical leadership.
  • Schaeffer and others have long allowed social and moral action with Roman Catholics; what was new in ECT was the commitment with respect to evangelism.
  • Concerning your speculation that Lloyd-Jones did not speak with Packer and Stott enough about his thinking which he made public at the 1966 meeting, I think here you are wrong. ML-J had plenty of contact with Packer and Stott before the critical meeting of 1966, including discussion on the subject in question.

May I add a final thought. We have to contend for the faith but we would both agree that something more than right beliefs are needed. The power of godliness is not widely in evidence in many churches today – prayer meetings and powerful evangelistic preaching are not common. Certain correct tenets of belief can appear to exist in people who see no conflict in accepting views seriously at variance with those beliefs (I mentioned Inter-Varsity men on this side of the Atlantic and on your side you have such people as Clark Pinnock in the Evangelical Theological Society). Among “our ranks” pragmatism is probably more widespread than wrong beliefs. Your final warning on “the greatest number” is surely right but that kind of thinking would appear to have eaten into evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. “Is it successful?” becomes a primary question. If the main case of my book is true, the prevalence of expediency is not unconnected with the policy of going for influence at the expense of a clear-cut biblical stand.

Thank you again for this discussion.