Historically, evangelicalism began as a renewal movement within the churches, not as a separate denomination--and that explains why at first it did not develop an independent intellectual tradition. It didn't need to. It could take for granted the inherited theological and ecclesiastical structures within the denominations where it arose. Like the priests before them, evangelicals focused on the personal appropriation of theological teachings like sin and atonement. Their goal was to cultivate a subjective experience of objective biblical truths. As a result, when evangelicalism became dominant within various groups--or when evangelical groups broke away from existing denominations altogether and became independent--they suffered from a certain theological weakness. Evangelical groups tended to downplay the role of theology in favor of practical application such as personal devotion, moral living, and social reform. (Total Truth, pg. 253)
Evangelicalism can trace its roots back to the days before the American Revolution and Ms. Pearcey does an excellent job of providing the historical context for the growth of the movement and the various factors (both positive and negative) that impacted rise of evangelicals in America. Perhaps what is most striking is that the same factors that have historically been negatives for the evangelical movement remain so today. Ms. Pearcey identifies four factors:
A focus on an intense emotional conversion experience. Typically presentations of the gospel will focus on sin and atonement and often use emotion to sway the person to accept faith in Christ. However, once the emotion subsides the person is left lacking for objective, intellectual reasons for committing to faith in Christ. It is the inability to intellectually defend their faith that leads many new converts to discouragement.
The cult of personality. Ms. Pearcey refers to this as the celebrity model of leadership which simply means that people are drawn more to the strong personalities of the evangelists and/or pastors than the person of Christ. Today we see the same phenomenon as Christians are caught up in the celebrity culture (albeit within Christian circles) as much as the culture at large is fascinated with celebrity. One only needs to look at how Christian books are marketed (with a wide array of ancillary materials produced along with the latest blockbuster such as the Left Behind Series, The Prayer of Jabez, or The Purpose Driven Life just to site a few examples) to see this at work. People tend to gravitate towards leaders who inspire them rather than those who teach them.
A deep suspicion of theological learning, especially as embodied in creeds and confessions. While the liberal teachings of some seminaries may make some evangelicals rightly skeptical of theological learning, the fact remains that such learning is a critical part of our intellectual growth as believers.
One only needs to examine the growth of the Emergent Church movement as well as the "seeker friendly" or "seeker sensitive" church to see the intentional moving away from creeds, confessions, and other traditional doctrines that have long been the foundation of the church. One observation that Ms. Pearcey makes is particularly fascinating in light of this movement:
It is a common assumption that, in order to survive, churches must accommodate to the age. But in fact, the opposite is true: In every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture. As a general principle, the higher a group's tension with mainstream society, the higher its growth rate. (Total Truth, pg. 261)
An increasingly individualistic view of the church. People become separated from the local congregation by failing to see the value that the community the church has for them. Much of this attitude is a reflection of the revivalists' messages that focused more on the individual and their needs rather than addressing the body of Christ in the local church.
So far, we have seen the importance of developing a sound, biblical worldview in order to be able to defend the Christian faith. We have seen how the rise of Darwinism has lead to a broad acceptance of a naturalistic worldview that has had wide ranging effects beyond the debate over whether creation or evolution is taught in public schools. And we have seen how evangelicals have historically lacked the intellectual tradition to be able to develop a sound, biblical worldview. So what do we do about it? How do we develop the biblical worldview we so desperately need? The answers lie in the final section of the book and we'll examine them in the next post in this series.
Previous posts in this series:
Blogging Total Truth
Total Truth - Part 1 - What's In a Worldview?
Total Truth - Part 2 - Starting at the Beginning