Saturday, September 10, 2011

Unity and Purity 3: Forces Against Reunion

As we move from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries of Protestant efforts for renewal and reunion, the 19th and 20th centuries bring some challenging new forces. Whereas through the 16th-18th centuries, the various Protestant groups grappled with what it meant to be the Church pure in doctrine and also united as far as possible, the 19th-20th centuries brought "secular humanist" influences that came from the Enlightenment emphases of high rationalism, higher critical scholarship and "modern science as priest."

Evangelicals began to see themselves as primarily "the Church" being attacked, so while many Evangelical groups continued to seek renewal and revival within their own movements, they tended to be more separatist from other Protestant groups. For example, "Among them were the Campbellites who... sought the renewal of the local congregation but renounced both the strategy of transformationism and the goal of transdenominational union" (Dynamics, p. 300). Also, "Darbyite (Plymouth Brethren) emissaries visited America in the mid-nineteenth century, preaching a new premillennial eschatology and the necessity of secession from the apostate institutional church" (Dynamics, p. 300):

Facing an increasing secularization of the church’s mind in the early twentieth century; however, American Evangelicals began more and more to be susceptible to the second Darbyite principle (to separate from the institutional church), since both the church and the surrounding culture seemed to be moving toward apostasy with increasing speed. As in the days of Baxter and Mather, Evangelicals sought to define a minimal core of doctrine around which Christians in all camps could rally. But many Fundamentalists, having affirmed this unity, proceeded to secede from all denominations into independent congregations, seeking perfect freedom to follow the Bible and their consciences. Others followed the approach of confessional orthodoxy, seceding into “continuing churches” of one sort or another.

By the midtwentieth century many American evangelicals felt that the cause of interdenominational experiential orthodoxy was languishing under the conditions of isolation and disarray produced by this turn of events, and these began to move back to the original ideal of unitive evangelicalism forming such institutions as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Theological Society. The Evangelical coalition thus formed brought together two important yet distinct groups: (1) Neo-Evangelical forces like the Billy Graham Association and Fuller Seminary, which preserved the old intent to transform the major denominations, and (2) other Evangelicals more concerned to preserve confessional integrity and yet recognizing the Reformation imperative to acknowledge transconfessional unity with other orthodox Christians.

Increasingly, however, the core of concerns uniting this coalition reflected a limited and more narrowly defined version of the live, experiential orthodoxy of the era of Zinzendorf and Whitefield. These concerns were principally a high view of scriptural authority and evangelism with the goal of regenerate churches. By the mid-1970s both of these components were demonstrating increasing vigor, but were manifesting some strain over their differing ecclesiastical strategies, diverging terminology and scriptural authority, and the political polarization between conservative elders and the radicalized generation emerging from the 1960s.  Dynamics, pp. 300-01

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