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The Invisible Impulse

One of the impulses among the earliest New Evangelicalism was to make a name for themselves. E. J. Carnell was probably the most explicit:

Carnell, a dour and troubled scholar, in 1952 complained to Carl Henry of the “lukewarm reception” given his largely unbought, unread, unreviewed, unnoticed A Philosophy of the Christian Religion. Carnell aspired to straddle camps: “After pouring the fruit of my philosophic labors into it, it has received little or no acclaim.” He complained, “There is a parochialism in evangelicalism from which I must withdraw.” He wanted “to command the attention of [Paul] Tillich and [John] Bennett”; then he could be “in a better place to be of service to the evangelicals. We need prestige desperately.”

Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 447.

Carl Henry could have done Carnell a tremendous favor by rebuking him for his pride and ambition; but he largely sympathized with him, though perhaps not as stridently. Even in its founding, New Evangelicalism was somewhat of a haven for the ambitious and the opportunistic: men (relatively speaking) of principle willingly labored right alongside hucksters for market share in this new frontier of ministry and scholarship, where those who were tired of their obscurity could “dialogue” with liberalism in an attempt to win them over. The bridge was built, but who crossed over it?

Heirs of the New Evangelicals have inherited this fiercely practical impulse as a sure sign of their genetic lineage. “We need prestige desperately” has reverberated through their bloodlines for decades, and the results of this impulse have been fairly consistent. Where the Bible is intrinsically offensive to contemporary sensibilities, it receives attention–not always careful attention–in the official organs of evangelicalism. Sadly, almost never does the Bible escape from these “discussions” without being denied, softened, or relegated at some point or another.

One particular albatross is reading Genesis 1-11 as a true and literal, if terse, account of the highlights of God’s working in the world up to the time of Abraham. It is not the fast track to prestige to admit that you take Moses at his word in a world where Darwin is god and his prophets are tenured. No, one has to make a choice at this point: Shall I trust Scripture and 1800 years worth of exegetical near-consensus; or shall I trust Piltdown Man? Put another way; is it possible or impossible that scientists could be wrong about these things, and even willingly so? [hint: Romans chapter one] Or, are Augustine, Basil the Great, Luther, Calvin, the Westminster divines, and others wrong about this?

And where does Jesus tell us not to believe Moses, or not to take him literally?

More pointedly, here is the choice, if you can step outside the moment:

Shall I continue in obscurity, embracing the “marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” passages of the same Bible, or shall I try to backfill a mediating position with some spongy exegesis that would never have occurred to anyone who was not exposed to Darwinist pressures?

That still, small voice might not be who you think it is.

About Christopher Ames

Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Bicycle owner and operator. I used to play in a Campus Crusade band.