Book Review

Founders Journal · Fall 2000 · pp. 7-10

Book Review

Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000. X, 342 pp. $21.99

Reviewed by Roger Nicole

Surely Rev. Iain Murray does not need an introduction to the readers of the Founders Journal, for they presumably know him as the author of The Forgotten Spurgeon, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, as well as biographies of Jonathan Edwards, Arthur W. Pink, John Murray and Martin Lloyd-Jones (2 volumes). In the present work Rev. Murray has undertaken to describe and document some serious weakening in the evangelical front in the British Isles and in the United States of America during the period of 1950 to 2000.

Rev. Murray views Billy Graham and Harold J. Ockenga as having been at the root of this weakening in America, while J. I. Packer and John R. W. Stott as well as Billy Graham have had a comparable influence in England. Billy Graham is named because of his broad policy of permitting a wide range of personalities of very diverse convictions, including some Roman Catholics and some liberal Protestants, to support his evangelical crusades and to appear with him on the platform. This, Rev. Murray avers, has blurred the line of distinction between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. Furthermore the evangelistic approach dubbed “invitation” system, has encouraged a certain superficiality in the call of the gospel, neglecting the importance of repentance and leading many who were not truly regenerate to view themselves as “saved” because they had “come forward” in a crusade.

Harold John Ockenga is blamed for a shift in the character of Fuller Theological Seminary, an institution founded on strictly evangelical premises and supported by funds of evangelical origin. In the desire to prepare ministers that would be acceptable in the “mainline denomination”, Rev. Murray contends, undue emphasis was placed on academic accreditation and professional earned doctorates rather than spiritual qualifications and experience in ministry. Thus the desire for “intellectual respectability” led many who had started as clear-cut evangelicals to make concessions to Biblical criticism and thus to permit the erosion of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Ockenga’s failure to operate as resident president is blamed for the beginning of this shift under the presidency of E. J. Carrell, which accelerated under President David A. Hubbard with the departure of several of the staunchest conservative members of the Faculty.

On the English scene, J. I. Packer and John R. W. Stott are singled out because of their unwillingness to accept Martin Lloyd-Jones challenge in 1966 that evangelicals should give up the Anglican Church to its own doldrums and concentrate on an effort by all evangelicals to unite in a common fellowship and action. This was understood as an appeal to leave the Church of England which Packer and Stott refused to do. The result, Rev. Murray holds, was a splintering of the evangelical force and, as a result of the marginalizing of Packer and Stott’s leadership, a precipitous decline of the clear-cut evangelical movement within Anglicanism.

The gradual estrangement of many in the Church of England who had been considered as evangelicals is then carefully documented by Rev. Murray. This includes the complete alienation of Dr. James Barr and the damaging shift away from verbal inspiration of Dr. J. D. G. Dunn. Some leaders who had formerly been strongly associated with the evangelical movement came to endorse the view that “baptism is the visible sign of a Christian” and we must practice unity with all the baptized. (p. 99). This evidenced a drift toward Anglo-Catholicism and even toward Roman Catholicism to the great detriment of the recognition of the Reformation as a return to New Testament Christianity singularly blessed by God Himself.

This last weakness, Rev. Murray avers, has a parallel in the American movement call ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) which aroused fiery opposition on the part of some evangelical leaders, while others, no less evangelical, addressed the matter by correcting some flaws in the original document, which the original evangelicals signers acknowledged, without, however, renouncing the principle of evangelical co-belligerency with the Roman Catholic Church against the grievous deterioration or even abandonment of Judeo-Christian morality in the United States.

As one who has been during the whole period wholeheartedly committed to the evangelical cause, inclusive of the inerrancy of Scripture and the centrality of the substitutionary penal nature of the death of Christ, I must confess that the reading of this book was a very melancholy task, particularly in areas in which the book points to real weakenings that I am constrained to acknowledge.

There are certain demurrals that I am eager to present, lest the book be considered to document a massive defection of evangelicalism.

  1. The situation in 1950 was not ideal. Some of the defects mentioned for the period 1950-2000 were already in evidence in 1950, in 1930, in the 1920’s, in 1900, in 1880, in 1850, throughout the 18th century, at several points in the 1600’s as well as during the life-time of our great Reformers. Knowledge of church history will readily prove that no period was free of defection. The constant need to reorganize monastic orders, where separation from the world should have promoted lasting faith and purity, certainly manifests that constant vigilance is imperative. The sin-stained human heart is naturally Pelagian, and thus there is a natural slippage toward a man-centered direction that must be continually resisted. 1950-2000 is no exception.
  2. The people on whom Rev. Murray centers the blame happen to have been, and to be still, if now alive, firm believers in the evangelical faith: Billy Graham, Harold J. Ockenga, J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott were through this period and are wholly committed to the infallible authority of scripture and to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Certainly not one of them has given an example of deviation from the faith they held in 1950.

    Of course, people of sound faith may at times favor policies that turn out to be damaging in the event. Perhaps if Billy Graham had adopted another approach to co-operation with non-evangelical churches some loosening of the faith might have been avoided. Perhaps if Dr. Ockenga had moved to Pasadena in 1947, or at least in 1955, he could have prevented a change in the statement of faith of Fuller Seminary, a loss of some of the staunchly conservative faculty members, and a certain slippage in its evangelical stance. Perhaps J. I. Packer and John Stott might have maintained a strong leadership among Anglican evangelicals that would have warded off the defection documented by Rev. Murray. To say this is to posit that their churchmanship may not have been totally impeccable, but it should not ever degenerate into thinking that their faith was in any way deficient. Rev. Murray would be the first to acknowledge this, but his blame may tend to mislead at this point. Let him whose churchmanship is always beyond criticism cast the first stone.

    Perhaps if Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones had been careful in 1966 to prepare some of his collaborators like Packer and Stott so as to make sure that they understood his outlook and were ready to support him, instead of springing his challenge when they were wholly unaware of his plan, the Anglican group might not have foundered as it did.

  3. While my acquaintance with the British Isles is not such as to permit me to challenge Rev. Murray’s portrayal, I believe that I have a sufficient contact with the situation in the United States to warrant my suggestion that the picture he presents here is not complete. In Christianity Today for 9/16/96 I wrote an article entitled “What Evangelicalism Has Accomplished” (pp 31-34) in reaction to the rather pessimistic assessment of David Wells and Marc Noll. Here is some of the data adduced.

    Seminaries. Although some conservative seminaries have toned down their original evangelical stance, yet at this turn of the century out of 125 accredited Protestant seminaries, 55 are clearly evangelical. Furthermore in some seminaries that had embraced the Biblical critical position some thoroughly evangelical professors have been added to the faculty. Even Harvard Divinity School has now a chair of evangelical theology!

    Students. Almost half of those studying theology at the seminary level are enrolled in these 55 seminaries. Moreover many are studying in evangelical seminaries not yet in the accredited list and many evangelical students are found in denominational seminaries that are not evangelical, but are not losing their faith on this account. Since the pastoral ministry does not greatly attract more liberal students, it would appear that there would be soon a strong preponderance of evangelical pastors serving in the pulpit.

    Seminary professors in evangelical schools have received fuller academic training than was the case in 1950, many of them holding doctorates from high-rated schools. More adequate salaries and a lesser load of class work combined with judicious sabbatical programs have enabled them to pursue their studies and to publish.

    The Evangelical Theological Society inaugurated in 1949 and requiring a Master’s degree or its equivalent for full membership, had 112 charter members by mid-1950. At this point it numbers more than 3,132 members, all of whom have declared and sign each year the following statement of faith: The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, hence inerrant in the autographs.

    Libraries. In 1950 the theological libraries of evangelical institutions were often very inadequate. By 2000 this defect has been very remarkably overcome.

    Publications. In 1950 many were chiding evangelicals for being satisfied with reprints of older works. In the latter half of the century, however, a great production has taken place in the Biblical department (Introduction, Dictionaries, Commentaries, Biblical Theology, Archaeology); Historical department (Denominational Studies, Biographies, Monographs); Theological department (Systematics, Ethics, Apologetics), and Practical department (Homiletics, Evangelism, Counseling, Sermons, Edification). Evangelical publishing houses have prospered and produce every year impressive catalogs. The NIV prepared entirely by evangelicals is now the best-seller of the world!

    Periodicals. More than 30 quarterlies are now issued under evangelical auspices.

    Evangelism and Mission have continued to flourish among evangelicals, while these activities have tended to wane when an unsound pluralism prevailed in many churches.

    Social Consciousness, that was sometimes flagging in 1950, has been revitalized in many evangelical churches and para church movements.

All of these things and still others lead me to think that God has placed us evangelicals in a time of unparalleled opportunity that we should be eager to seize for the blessing of His people and for His glory. Rev. Murray’s book should alert us to the dangers that are ever threatening. One of these is surely the temptation to dilute the truth in order to accommodate the greatest number possible. But another danger is to permit “Evangelicalism” to be divided and thus to blunt the force of our united witness. It is my prayer that we may by God’s grace avoid both of these.

See also A Response to Dr. Nicole by Iain Murray