For many years, Matt Recker has been a church planter and pastor in New York City. He has started churches in Brooklyn and Queens, and he presently pastors the Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. He has written and taught on urban ministry, becoming recognized among fundamentalists as something of an authority in these areas.
Recently, Pastor Recker has also been writing against what he calls the New Calvinism, by which he means mainly The Gospel Coalition (he also mentions Together for the Gospel and a few other groups and individuals, but only occasionally). His thesis is that the New Calvinism is recapitulating the New Evangelicalism of the 1940s and 1950s, though he sometimes looks for parallels in evangelical trends as late as the 1980s.
What is Pastor Recker calling the New Evangelicalism? He finds its chief characteristics primarily in an article, “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” published in Christian Life in 1956. That article listed eight evangelical theological trends of that era, and Pastor Recker thinks that he can discover parallels for each trend in The Gospel Coalition.
This methodology presents an immediate problem. The Christian Life article did not intend to define the New Evangelicalism, but simply to describe certain new directions within evangelical theology. It cited a number of evangelical theologians, some of whom were neoevangelical, but some of whom were sharply critical of the New Evangelicalism. Consequently, the trends are of different kinds. Some were genuinely characteristic of neoevangelicalism, while others were characteristic of evangelicals as a whole. In other words, parallels between The Gospel Coalition and the trends in Christian Life do not necessarily constitute evidence of some nascent neoevangelicalism in TGC. Everything depends upon the nature of the parallels.
In some areas, the parallels are quite marked. For example, as Pastor Recker points out, one is the reluctance to denounce so-called “progressive creationism” or even theistic evolution. This characteristic really did become a significant distinction between fundamentalists and some neoevangelicals of the 1950s and 1960s. By his participation with BioLogos, TGC leader Tim Keller takes a position that identifies him more with the New Evangelicalism than the fundamentalism or even moderate evangelicalism of that era.
Pastor Recker also points to the continuationism of some TGC figures. The rejection of all forms of Pentecostal and charismatic theology has been a defining feature of most fundamentalists, while neoevangelicals were generally tolerant of continuationists. To be sure, the continuationism of TGC leaders like John Piper and D. A. Carson is light years away from First and Second Wave charismaticism, and even from more extreme expressions of the Third Wave. Nevertheless, these milder versions of continuationism still present significant implications for the doctrine of revelation, and that is no incidental matter.
The Christian Life article also cited a shift away from extreme dispensationalism as a mark of changing evangelical theology, and Pastor Recker points to the non-dispensationalism of many TGC leaders. Still, one might wonder whether dispensationalism was ever a majority theology within fundamentalism. Key leaders such as T. T. Shields, John R. Rice, J. Gresham Machen, Allan MacRae, and J. Oliver Buswell explicitly rejected dispensationalist thought, especially in its Scofieldian and Chaferian permutations. Some contemporary fundamentalists still do—for example, Free Presbyterian minister Reginald Kimbro has written a whole book to refute dispensationalism.
Still, dispensationalism has been waning in popularity ever since the 1950s. Scofieldian dispensationalism has almost no defenders today. Traditional dispensationalism as modeled by McClain, Walvoord, Ryrie, and Pentecost is taught in only a handful of institutions. Most surviving dispensationalists follow some version of the progressive dispensationalism developed by Carl Hoch, Robert Saucy, Darrell Bock, and Craig Blaising. If movement away from extreme dispensationalism and toward more mediating views is a mark of neoevangelicalism, then Bob Jones University (which has few or no traditional dispensationalists and certainly no Scofieldians) has to be the most neoevangelical institution within fundamentalism—a preposterous conclusion.
To be fair, The Gospel Coalition does include some dispensationalists on its council. Erwin Lutzer is a good example. Others might include Danny Akin, Crawford Loritts, or Jeff Louie. Nevertheless, the public pronouncements of TGC offer a pretty steady drumbeat of inaugurated eschatology, posttribulationism, preterism, and amillennialism—all of which are quite incompatible with traditional dispensationalism, even though they are not wholly compatible with each other. No one could mistake TGC for an organization that is friendly toward dispensationalism, but that does not put it any closer to neoevangelicalism.
Furthermore, Pastor Recker is sharply critical of the New Calvinist emphasis on scholarship, which he conflates with publishing popular best sellers. He believes that this emphasis is parallel to a trend spotted by the Christian Life article in 1956, “an increased emphasis upon scholarship.” Interestingly enough, however, the Christian Life article quoted Cornelius Van Til as evidence for this trend, and Van Til was one of the most outspoken critics of the New Evangelicalism.
People value scholarship for different reasons. On the one hand, Van Til wanted scholars who could think clearly enough to understand their opponents and to “fathom the significance of the Christian life” for their fields. On the other hand, the neoevangelicals wanted to be recognized as scholars. They wanted respect and standing within the scholarly community. So an emphasis upon scholarship might stem from two very different motivations: a desire to be responsible or a yearning to gain respect.
The Gospel Coalition certainly includes individuals who are recognizable scholars: John Piper, D. A. Carson, Dan Doriani, Mark Dever, and others. Several of these have made public statements eschewing and rebuking the pursuit of scholarly respectability, which they see as empty and self-serving. Clearly they want to be responsible in what they say. They want to understand their opponents and to represent them fairly. They want to have the research to back up their conclusions. Any fair judgment, however, puts them in an entirely different category from, say, George Eldon Ladd, whose failure to attain scholarly recognition plunged him into an abyss of depression and drunkenness. In short, Pastor Recker’s criticism of The Gospel Coalition is less than fair at this point.
All human organizations have faults and are liable to criticism. The Gospel Coalition is no exception. Those criticisms, however, must be thoughtful and fair, not based upon guilt-by-association or misunderstanding. Parts of Pastor Recker’s evaluation are spot on. For other evaluations, he relies upon a flawed appropriation of a 1956 article from Christian Life magazine. In yet other places he bases his evaluation upon a misunderstanding of his opponents’ position. This misunderstanding is most apparent in Pastor Recker’s remaining criticisms, particularly his criticism that The Gospel Coalition has taken a soft position on the inerrancy of Scripture. That criticism also deserves a response.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
from Choruses from ‘The Rock’
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD, help us.