The resurgence of evangelicalism in American religious life can be gauged by various measures, one of which is the attention lavished on it by the secular media. In some ways, evangelicals came out of the prayer closet in 1976, dubbed by Newsweek on its cover, “The Year of the Evangelical.” That was the year a born-again Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter, was elected president. Three years after Roe v. Wade had made abortion on demand the most compelling moral issue of our times, 1976 was also the year a Southern Baptist of a different political bent, Charles Colson, Watergate villain turned prison reformer, published his own bestselling conversion story.
We might compare 1976 with 2005, when Time magazine featured on its February 7 cover “America’s twenty-five most influential evangelicals.” The Newsweek and Time cover stories are bookends to the evangelical story in America over the past generation. Time’s evangelicals constitute a sort of mosaic of today’s evangelical subculture. There are African Americans, Hispanics, women preachers, apocalyptic seers, lobbyists, missiologists, postmodernists, writers, radio preachers, megachurch pastors, a few scholars, and, mirabile dictu, two Catholics: the junior senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and the editor-in-chief of First Things , Father Richard John Neuhaus.
Between Newsweek in 1976 and Time in 2005, a remarkable thing happened to evangelicals: They emerged from their conventicles, storefronts, and crystal cathedrals to embrace—however tentatively, erratically, and sloppily—something their forebears would have considered anathema: an ecumenical quest for Christian unity that includes at its heart a serious and ongoing engagement between evangelicals and Catholics. The group that meets as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is an important piece of an overall shift that J.I. Packer, another of Time’s twenty-five, has called “irreversible and transformational.” Indeed, five of Time’s twenty-five are original signatories to the first “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statement in 1994 and at least another ten could be considered sympathetic fellow-travelers.
Evangelicalism, as I define it, is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy with deep roots in the early Church, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the great awakenings of the eighteenth century (and it includes puritanism, pietism, and pentecostalism, as well as fundamentalism). Throughout the history of evangelicalism, there has been a paradoxical tension between the Church as a sectarian enclave on the one hand, and the Church as the body and bride of the undivided Christ on the other”just as there has been a tension between being an alienated outsider and a quintessential American, and a tension between global mission and national revival on the one hand and a turned-in-on-itself piety and exclusivism on the other.
But perhaps all this is best understood through biography. Several years ago, three icons of the movement died within a few months of one another, each in his nineties. Carl McIntyre was a writer, radio preacher, and rabble-rouser, the bête noir of Presbyterian fundamentalism. Carl F. H. Henry was the first editor of Christianity Today , a formidable theologian, ethicist, and strategic thinker. W.A. Criswell was the champion of Southern Baptist conservatives and for nearly fifty years pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, which for many years was the largest single congregation in America and the biggest Baptist church in the world. The primary link among them, indeed the figure who looms over this entire theme, is Billy Graham: McIntyre’s inveterate enemy, Henry’s collaborator, and a member of the church where Criswell was pastor.
Willa Cather once wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” This was certainly true for those conservative Protestants who in 1920 took the name “fundamentalists,” declaring themselves ready to do “battle royal” within the major denominations for the cause of Christ. By the end of the 1920s, when Carl McIntyre left Oklahoma to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary, most of the battles for denominational control had already been lost. The Scopes Trial was a public-relations disaster of seismic proportions, and conservative Protestants seemed to be everywhere in retreat. The fundamentalists were still in their own country, but they were no longer at home. They had become ideologically displaced and culturally homeless.
McIntyre was made for such an environment and quickly enrolled as a foot soldier on the losing side of the Armageddon-like battle for control of Princeton Seminary. He was a protégé of J. Gresham Machen, a learned scholar of real ability who had studied in Germany and who commanded the respect of even H.L. Mencken who once dubbed him “Dr. Fundamentalis,” as opposed to William Jennings Bryan whom he called “a fundamentalist of the barnyard school.” McIntyre did not possess Machen’s intellectual depth, but he had a knack for gutter politics and was a valuable ally when Machen left Princeton to establish Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
When Machen was finally suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, ostensibly for violating his ordination vows, McIntyre sided with him again, but their alliance did not last long. In 1937, shortly before Machen’s death, McIntyre led a group of disaffected followers to form the Bible Presbyterian Church, while the Machenites regrouped as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There were two reasons for this schism. One was McIntyre’s insistence on total abstinence from alcohol, an issue the Machen group considered a matter of Christian liberty, while the Holiness and pietist traditions had long emphasized the importance of a Christian life separated from the world—no alcohol, tobacco, dancing, cards, or theater, along with no short skirts or bobbed hair for women. The other reason for schism was McIntyre’s insistence on dispensationalist premillennialism, a distinctive form of prophetic teaching widely but not universally held by conservative evangelicals.
This kind of apocalyptic eschatology reinforced a radical cultural dualism and provided a cosmic urgency for the true believers to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17). This apocalyptic eschatology is also the backdrop for McIntyre’s intense opposition both to Catholicism and the emerging ecumenical movement. When McIntyre discovered that the first general assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) was to be held in Amsterdam in 1948, he arranged to arrive a few weeks earlier to establish his own counter-movement, the International Council of Christian Churches. Although the Catholic Church had bluntly rebuffed an overture to participate in the WCC gathering, the very fact that they were invited, together with the presence of Orthodox participants, not to say Protestant modernists, was enough for McIntyre to see the emergence of the one-world church of the last days foretold in the Book of Revelation. The political counterpart to the World Council of Churches was the United Nations, which he saw as the Great Beast of Revelation 13. McIntyre’s superpatriotic political activism, which intensified in the 1950s and 1960s, must also be seen in the light of such an apocalyptic hermeneutic.
McIntyre’s rejection of the Church of Rome was thus much more severe than that of his mentor. Machen, of course, was a conservative of a distinctively Presbyterian stripe, and he knew well the depth of the historic divide between Catholicism and his own Protestant confessional tradition. And yet, in the context of resurgent unbelief and the evacuation of historic Christian truth claims among certain putative heirs of the Reformation, he was willing to say that the gulf between Rome and Geneva was negligible compared to the gaping chasm—he used the word abyss—separating classic Christians from those who eviscerated the historic Christian faith. In 1910 the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church had adopted the “Five Fundamentals” that were to become a rallying cry for conservative Protestants: the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of scripture, objective substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and authenticity of the biblical miracles. And these were not points of conflict with Catholicism.
McIntyre would veer still further away from Machen’s legacy. Machen had grown up in Baltimore, a city with Southern proclivities since before the Civil War, and he embraced the distinctively Southern Presbyterian doctrine of “the spirituality of the Church.” According to this view, the task of the Church was the care of souls and the maintenance of the true faith within the community of believers, not social and political engagement. When the Church becomes a political lobby, Machen warned, when it advocates political measures whether good or bad, it is turning aside from its proper mission. Machen’s concern was for the purity of the Church which, he believed, could only be maintained if the Church refrained from meddling in political affairs. Thus Machen, unlike most of his conservative peers, then and now, opposed Bible reading and prayer in the public schools as well as Christian political action on behalf of Prohibition. Machen’s worst fears came to fruition in his student McIntyre for whom the distinction between true Christianity and superpatriotic Americanism was very thin indeed.
While Carl McIntyre was loudly protesting outside the World Council of Churches meeting in Amsterdam in 1948, a young twenty-nine-year-old American observer was on the inside listening to theologians such as Karl Barth and Lesslie Newbigin. His name was Billy Graham, and he was there as a representative of Youth for Christ, a student evangelistic movement. Over the next decade, Graham would come more and more into the crosshairs of McIntyre, whose own church had split yet again, but whose voice was magnified through his publication, the Christian Beacon , and through his radio broadcast carried on hundreds of stations, the Twentieth Century Reformation Hour . A pioneer of talk radio, McIntyre and his faithful sidekick, “Amen Charlie,” became familiar voices to thousands of listeners across America as the “P.T. Barnum of American Fundamentalism”—blasting everything and everyone who wiggled even slightly to the left. Meanwhile, Billy Graham’s increasingly popular ministry had the backing of the National Association of Evangelicals, the brainchild of one of McIntyre’s former classmates, Boston pastor Harold John Ockenga, who had launched this new effort in 1942, the year Graham graduated from Wheaton College.
Ockenga was the mover behind “neo-evangelicalism,” a term he coined to describe a kind of progressive fundamentalism that would be “anchored to the Rock, but geared to the times” (to quote the motto of Youth for Christ). Ockenga and his collaborators were determined to maintain the distinctive doctrinal heritage of conservative Protestantism. But they would do so, they said, without fragmentation, segregation, separation, criticism, censoriousness, suspicion, solecism. The National Association of Evangelicals would thus be, they insisted, different from McIntyre’s American Council of Christian Churches. It would be “no dog-in-the-manger, reactionary, negative, or destructive type of organization,” but one determined “to shun all forms of bigotry, intolerance, misrepresentation, hate, jealousy, false judgment, and hypocrisy.” Billy Graham’s ministry was a part of this effort, which included the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947, the Evangelical Theological Society in 1949, and Christianity Today in 1956.
Carl McIntyre had never been a fan of Billy Graham, but other fundamentalists, such as Bob Jones and John R. Rice, had supported his early crusades. He seemed to preach the same gospel message they did and many thousands were being converted to Christ through his ministry. But Graham’s 1957 New York crusade, which lasted for eight weeks in Madison Square Garden, led to a permanent parting of the ways. The kind of ecumenical evangelism Graham was putting into practice was too much for McIntyre and the other fundamentalists. In the April 25, 1957 issue of the Christian Beacon , McIntyre published an article by Walter Patrick asking, “Why has all this come upon us?”
WHY does Dr. Graham always advise converts to “go to the church of your own choice,” instead of directing them to fundamental assemblies?
WHY is he allowing himself to be drawn into the modernistic ecumenical movement that is gaining such momentum each passing year?
WHY did he allow smoking at the banquet in New York City on September 17, 1956, with prayers being offered by modernists?
WHY did he (as did Cardinal Spellman) recommend a moving picture, “The Ten Commandments”? Does he endorse the theater for believers?
WHY doesn’t he wake up to the fact that fundamentalism can’t “play ball” with modernism anymore than the USA can with Communism?
WHY this statement, Dr. Graham: “The Catholic Church has been very friendly to me anywhere I have gone”? Tsk! Billy!
Graham tried to respond to the biting attack from his right, but he was no match for McIntyre—who may have been, as Leonard Sweet has described him, “a mental and spiritual oaf who presented himself as an absolute rectum of rectitude,” but was not one to lose a debating point easily. Why was Graham speaking in New York under the sponsorship of the theologically questionable Protestant Church Council? “Well,” Billy said, “the apostle Paul had been ‘sponsored’ by the Greek philosophers when he preached on Mars Hill.” “Yes,” came back the reply, “but he did not give the names of his converts to the priests of the pagan temples!” Speaking at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, Graham made his position clear. “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ if there are no strings attached to my message. I am sponsored by civic clubs, universities, ministerial associations, and councils of churches all over the world. I intend to continue.”
As he grew older, the logic of McIntyre’s separatism pushed him into a tinier and tinier corner of the evangelical world. His denomination split yet again and, near the end, the church he had pastored since 1933 in Collingswood, New Jersey, forced him out. In 2002 he died, as he had lived, as a “come-outer.” McIntyre never softened his stand against modernism, neo-evangelicalism, or Billy Graham, but his staunch opposition to Catholicism was qualified in one respect. Though he had once spoken of the “Roman terror” as a worse threat to American freedom than communism, in the 1950s he collaborated with Catholic senator Joseph McCarthy in his anti-Communist efforts. And, like many other Protestants including Ockenga, McIntyre warned against the dire consequences of electing a Catholic president in 1960. But, in a case of ideology trumping ecclesiology, he backed Barry Goldwater in 1964 despite the fact that his running mate, William Miller, belonged to the same church as John F. Kennedy.
When Ockenga and his friends set in motion what would become the post-war evangelical renaissance, they were concerned with far more than “reforming fundamentalism” (as George Marsden titled his history of Fuller Seminary). Reforming fundamentalism was a means to an end, and the end they had in mind was nothing less than the “rescue of western civilization by a . . . revival of evangelical Christianity.” H.L. Mencken had blasted fundamentalism as the religion of the “mean streets of America,” an obscurantist faith that flourished “everywhere where learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds to carry.” One had to admit that there was some truth in the indictment. Believing, as he put it, that “the Gospel deserved better,” Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry became the key theological spokesman for the new evangelical agenda.
The son of German immigrants, Henry was born in New York City in 1913. His father was Lutheran by tradition and his mother Catholic, but his upbringing was void of religious conviction. “We were Christmas and Easter Christians,” Henry recalled, “We had no family prayers, no grace at table, no Bible in our home.” Henry found work as a journalist, first as a reporter with the New York Times , then as editor of his own paper on Long Island. At age twenty, he became a born-again Christian through the personal witness of a visiting businessman. He never tired of talking about his conversion to Jesus Christ and this gave him a natural affinity with his Wheaton classmate, Billy Graham.
Henry’s 1947 Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was completed while he was finishing his doctoral studies at Boston University. It was a tract for the times and a trumpet call which set the direction of evangelical social and cultural engagement for the next half-century. Metaphysics and ethics go together, Henry insisted, and unless evangelicals attend to this fact, they run the risk of being reduced to “a tolerated cult status” and forfeiting “another world hearing for the Gospel.”
Uneasy Conscience was not an attempt to set forth a new revisionist paradigm for evangelical theology. It was an effort, as Henry would say later, “to restate where fundamentalism ought to be in the light of its own heritage.” Henry rejected liberal versions of the social gospel which tended to be all social and no gospel, but he appealed to an earlier evangelical consensus of cultural engagement that included the work of William Wilberforce in campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade in England, the revivalist impulses of Charles G. Finney against slavery in this country, as well as evangelical concerns for suffrage, temperance, child labor laws, fair wages for workers, and many other progressive issues to which many theologically conservative Christians were once committed—before what David Moberg has called “the great reversal,” an evangelical withdrawal from such concerns.
Besides criticizing dispensationalism for its culture-disabling mentality, Henry—always a strategic thinker—set forth a vision by which evangelicalism could reinvigorate itself and its engagement with American society. His five-point agenda for post-fundamentalist evangelicalism included: (1) clarification of the philosophical implications of biblical theism, (2) Christian engagement with the pressing social issues of the day as well as concern for individual salvation, (3) refusal to divide over secondary matters such as the details of biblical prophecy, (4) openness to the possibility of a biblically faithful ecumenicity, and (5) the development of a truly biblical theology that took into consideration the whole sweep of salvation history.
The fourth item, the quest for a biblically grounded ecumenism, was a theme to which he often returned as the founding editor of Christianity Today . Henry was clearly the best qualified evangelical thinker to serve as editor, though he was not the first choice for the job. Some felt that he was too heady and intellectualist. After the first edition of Christianity Today , Billy Graham wrote a six-page critique reporting an impression of Henry’s editorial as an example of “obscurity reaching for profundity.” As a matter of fact, Henry was reading more widely, and thinking more deeply, than practically anyone else in the evangelical orbit (his only rival may have been his Fuller colleague, Edward J. Carnell). In the process he was introducing a new generation of evangelicals to a world of thought”and to a way of thinking”not available on the ordinary circuit of Bible conferences, summer camp meetings and youth revivals.
Several of Henry’s early editorials in Christianity Today show an awareness of developments both in pre-Vatican II Catholicism and mainline Protestant ecumenism. On the Protestant side, he tried to stake out a via media between the compromised theology of Harry Emerson Fosdick and his successors on the one hand and the truncated ecclesiology and harsh temperament of sectarian fundamentalism on the other. If modernism stands discredited as a perversion of scriptural theology, fundamentalism is discredited as a perversion of the biblical spirit. The fundamentalist neglect of the doctrine of the church had left it vulnerable to a fissiparous tendency that made light of the grievous sin of schism. There are only two legitimate reasons for church division, Henry alleged, apostasy and discipline. To fragment over less serious issues, especially over the trivial concerns that lay behind so many evangelical church splits, was to besmirch the Body of Christ. This could be justified by appeal neither to the Fathers nor to the Reformers.
During these years, Henry began to speak of “the evangelical church,” in the singular, not referring to any particular denomination but to all conservative Protestants committed to the formal and material principles of the Reformation. In Henry’s mind, the evangelical church certainly included groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Reformed Church, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, and the various Pentecostal bodies, along with the churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, though he always realized that this was a fragile coalition.
Henry’s attitude toward Catholicism during this period was evolving and complex. In the July 22, 1957, issue of Christianity Today , Henry’s editorial was entitled “Billy Graham and the Pope’s Legions.” He recounts having coffee with “a learned Jesuit” at Harvard Square whom he quizzed about the future of the Catholic Church in America. He looked at me, Henry said, with flashing Irish eyes and thundered, “Today, tomorrow, or a century from now, it makes no difference. We are patient. We will subdue the earth to the greater glory of God.” Henry rejects this imperious attitude, but then responds with a little imperialism of his own. Referring to Life magazine, which ran stories about Billy Graham and the Knights of Columbus in the same issue, Henry contrasts these regimented “soldiers of the pope” with Life ‘s pictures of Graham’s crusade:
The reader sees a young man in a business suit. He is holding an open Bible. In passionate love he pleads with sinners to repent. The pictures are in black and white, not color. There are no uniforms, no banners, no legions. The Garden is filled with people from all walks of life, people whose hearts are hungry as their minds are curious. Before Billy Graham has finished, hundreds leave their seats to unite with the person Jesus Christ. Even priests of Rome find their way to the mourners’ bench. The suasions of Rome are no match for the Gospel . . . . The Pope must look to his legions because he can no longer look to the Gospel.
Two years later, Henry wrote a Christianity Today editorial entitled “Rome and the Revival of Theology.” He reports on the renewal of biblical scholarship within Catholicism and the emergence of a new attitude to past formulations such as those of the Council of Trent. Too much should not be expected too soon, he warned. Yet for the first time since the Reformation, he believed, “genuine intercommunication has become possible where previously there could be little more than ineffectual goodwill at best and narrow contentiousness as the more general rule.” On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII surprised the world when he announced the first ecumenical council to be called since 1870. Henry followed the events of the council with great interest. While never compromising his sturdy Protestant convictions, he called on evangelicals to reject the “ghetto mentality” that kept them away from the table of dialogue and he urged them to “reach out with heart and hand to our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ” within the church of Rome.
Two Henry editorials from the opening year of the council in 1962 reveal his hopeful but cautious attitude toward the changing situation. The pope, Henry notes, had appealed to the separated brethren to return homeward: “The way is open, this is our Father’s House, take or retake your place in it.” And in response, Henry quotes Luther, Calvin, and Peter Martyr to the effect that they had not departed from the Church at all but rather had returned to it in their recovery of the doctrine and ordinances of the apostles. Henry does not deny that contemporary Protestantism, including evangelicalism, stands in need of continual reforming and repentance, but he insists that any genuine rapprochement between Rome and the Reformation will be based squarely on the foundation of biblical faith.
In his Christianity Today editorial the following week, Henry picked up this same theme. “Evangelical failure to delineate Christian unity in a positive way should trouble our conscience and provoke evangelicals to exemplary leadership. If unity based on theological concession is undesirable, disunity alongside theological agreement is inexcusable . . . . It is time for evangelicals to find their ecumenical posture, and to set forth the doctrine of biblical unity which will preserve the vitality of the Gospel without compromising the witness of the Church.”
Carl Henry left the editorship at Christianity Today, somewhat involuntarily, in 1968 and turned his attention to other matters. His major project was his six-volume God, Revelation and Authority , a theological epistemology of epic proportions, but one that deals little with the Church. As Henry grew older, he grew less sanguine about evangelicalism and ecumenism. In a candid article published in Christian Century in 1980, Henry admitted his earlier and more optimistic vision of a grand evangelical alliance had come to nothing, and he placed much of the blame on Billy Graham, one of Henry’s few critical comments about his former classmate and collaborator. Henry’s dream for a great American evangelical university of national rank also failed to materialize. Even Christianity Today , Henry thought, had squandered an opportune moment by moving from Washington to the evangelical hinterland near Wheaton, by becoming a populist organ rather than challenging the cognitive frontiers of the era, and by becoming obsessed (for a while) with the intra-evangelical debate over biblical inerrancy.
Henry’s reaction to Evangelicals and Catholics Together was also mixed. Henry was a strong advocate of cobelligerency but he was hesitant to endorse a movement that moved beyond the ecumenism of the trenches to the recognition of a spiritual oneness based upon a common apostolic faith, even though such a development had been presaged by Henry himself in his earlier writings on Christian unity. He never joined the critics of Evangelicals and Catholics Together on the raucous right, but neither did he give unstinted support to this invitation.
More than most evangelical leaders, Henry was critical of dispensationalism with its culture-denying tendencies, but he never embraced the easy optimism of the postmillennial position. Though he came to believe that we were living in the “twilight of a great civilization” (as he titled of one of his last books), he continued to live by the hope that survives all diverted reformations and disappointed schemes for ecclesial renewal. Eric Miller has summed up Henry’s enduring legacy well: “By urging Christians to wage together what he once termed the ‘age-old battle against unbelief,’ he called us to a present and future catholicity premised on the sovereign rule of the Son of God: the beneficent King of a realm that will come, one day, to be unified on earth as it is in heaven. There are worse visions to champion.”
Although Henry had been baptized and held ordination with the Northern Baptists (the “American Baptists” after 1958), during the 1980s and 1990s he became more closely linked with the Southern Baptist Convention, lecturing in its seminaries, serving on various committees, and quietly supporting the conservative redirection of the denomination during those years. And this activity brought him into closer contact with a man named W.A. Criswell.
Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Wallie Amos Criswell was a Texas tornado of a preacher (and Billy Graham’s own pastor since 1953). Criswell sometimes referred to himself as “a holy roller with a Ph.D.,” and he mesmerized the throngs who came to hear him in Dallas preaching with the bombast of Billy Sunday and the urgency of Savanarola. Criswell is usually written off as a flamboyant fundamentalist with a theology slightly to the left of the Flat Earth Society. One of his books was called Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True. He campaigned long and loud against “evil-lution,” and he once publicly referred to his moderate opponents as “skunks.” Yet he could be narrowly exclusive and generously embracing at the same time”embodying the paradoxical tension that courses through evangelical Christianity.
When W.A. Criswell was born on the wind-swept plains of the Southwest in 1909, the Southern Baptist Convention was beginning to recover from Reconstruction. The definitive split between Northern and Southern Baptists had just occurred, and a new era of denominational consolidation was about to begin. In this period of expansion, Southern Baptists began to explore relations with other Christian groups. Such cooperation had arisen on the mission field as Baptists were challenged to work with other believers in the task of world evangelization. A key 1914 document declared, “This convention rejoices in the many evidences of increasing interests in the subject of Christian union among Christian people everywhere . . . . We firmly believe that a way may be found through the maze of divided Christendom out into the open spaces of Christian union only as the people of Christ follow the golden thread of an earnest desire to know and do his will. But, meantime, we may have the rare joy of fellowship and cooperation in many forms of endeavor wherein angels might well desire to have a part.”
This remarkably optimistic statement on Christian unity was offset by the other emphasis on denominational efficiency. Here “entangling alliances” with other bodies holding to different standards of doctrine and different views of church life and church order were dismissed in favor of “a complete autonomy at home and abroad.” Denominational efficiency became the name of the game in the decades following World War I as the Southern Baptist Convention adopted its first confession of faith and a unified program of finance called the “Cooperative Program.” This internal process”fueled by the leftward tilt of mainline ecumenism and the vigor of Baptist Landmarkism (the idea that Baptist congregations constitute the only true churches in the world and can trace their lineage through unbroken succession back to Christ himself)”reinforced the desire of Southern Baptists “to do our own work in our way,” as E.Y. Mullins, one of the more moderate Baptist leaders of this period, put it.
Not so moderate was the statement by the leader of the Arkansas Baptists, printed in the Southwestern Journal of Theology in 1919: “The colossal Union Movement is a colossal blunder, but it threatens us Baptists unmistakably. My word to all the Baptist preachers of the land would be: Smite, smite, hip and thigh, the ‘bastard’ Union Movement, dear preachers of God’s Book, by calling every Baptist soul under the reach of your prophetic voice to toe the denominational line, and then to show his faith by his fruits.”
Even with the wider evangelical community there were questions—beginning with the question of whether Southern Baptists actually are evangelicals. One of the most strident rejections of Southern Baptist evangelical identity came, oddly enough, in the 1976 “Year of the Evangelical” issue of Newsweek . Foy Valentine, then the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, declared: “We are not evangelicals. That’s a Yankee word. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. But we have our own traditions, our own hymns, and more students in our seminaries than they have in all of theirs put together.”
Ironically, perhaps, in the 2005 issue of Time, Valentine’s successor, Richard D. Land, one of Criswell’s protégés, was included among the twenty-five most influential evangelicals, as was another Southern Baptist, Rick Warren, whose call to pastoral ministry was confirmed in a personal encounter with Criswell. In fact, Criswell had been forging ties with evangelicals for many years, not just with Billy Graham and Carl Henry, but with Charles E. Fuller, and Richard Halverson (who invited Criswell to preach at his evangelical Presbyterian church), with Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, with the Moody Bible Institute, and with Nazarene leaders (who so impressed Criswell with their camp-meeting mourners’ bench that he came back to Dallas and installed kneelers in every pew”a genuine innovation for Southern Baptists).
Criswell’s involvement in wider evangelical causes made him open to the kind of tentative evangelical ecumenism that Carl F.H. Henry was advocating in the pages of Christianity Today. On two issues in particular”race and the pope”Criswell demonstrated a remarkable capacity to change. In the 1950s Criswell, like many tall-steeple pastors in the South, was a champion of racial segregation. He criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education , and in 1956, at the invitation of the governor, he addressed a joint session of South Carolina’s legislature to support the concept of separate but equal for churches as well as for the public schools of the land. When asked at the time to comment on Criswell’s apologia for segregation, Billy Graham replied that he had never agreed with his pastor on that subject. In the throes of the civil-rights movement, however, Criswell went through a period of soul searching and came to the conclusion that racial segregation could not be defended on biblical principles. In 1968 he recanted his earlier statements and preached a well-publicized sermon on “The Church of the Open Door”: “I have come to the profound conclusion,” he said, “that to separate the Body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation is unthinkable, unchristian, and unacceptable to God.”
Criswell’s early attitude to Catholicism reflected the consensus that had led the denomination’s foreign missions leaders to divide the world into “Papal Fields” and “Pagan Fields.” Criswell, along with many other evangelical leaders, opposed Kennedy in 1960. By 1971, however, he became the only Southern Baptist Convention president to meet with the pope. Criswell received a barrage of criticism for that meeting, and even more for his comments: “When the Pope offered his hand to me, did I compromise the faith when I offered my hand back again in love and friendship? . . . What is it being a Christian, to be a Baptist? Is it that I find myself in some corner, and there I fight and snarl and cut and, with all the language at my command in vitriolic and acrimonious speech, I denounce and condemn? Is that what it is to be a Baptist? Or is it somebody that has found the Lord as his Savior and in love and in prayer and in sympathy and in intercession seeks to hold up the cross of Christ and invite all men everywhere to find in him that life eternal that blesses us now and in the world that is to come?”
This meeting of the Baptist pastor and the pope signaled an important shift not only in Criswell’s own attitudes but also in the general relation between Southern Baptists and Catholics. In his earlier sermons on the Book of Revelation, Criswell had followed the traditional line in equating the Scarlet Woman of Revelation 17 with the Catholic Church. While he never retracted these views, Criswell’s rhetoric against Catholicism was greatly muted in his later years, as he came to see that there could be “anonymous Baptists,” so to speak, within the Church of Rome. The theological basis for this shift in Criswell’s preaching was the doctrine of the universal Church, that is, the Church understood as the spiritual union of all of the redeemed of all of the ages. This view, set forth by St. Augustine and revived by the Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century, can lead to a kind of ecclesial docetism, but it also has ecumenical possibilities. It enabled Criswell to break free from the narrow Landmarkist view of the Church defined exclusively as “a local body of baptized believers.”
Criswell’s ecumenical openness, however tentative, presaged and in some measure precipitated the major realignment that has brought Southern Baptists and Catholics together on a host of moral issues, the most important of which is the sanctity of human life. It is well to remember that in 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade , the Southern Baptist Convention called for the liberalizing and legalizing of abortion. And, as late as March 1980, when the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission met to discuss “Ethical Issues for the Eighties,” the keynote speaker was Sarah Weddington, who had successfully argued the case for Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court seven years before. In the twenty-five years since, Southern Baptists have belatedly joined with many other persons of faith, especially Catholics, to protest the pagan disregard for the sanctity of human life. Francis Schaeffer, a sometime student of McIntyre who developed a much more winsome apologetic for the Christian faith than his mentor, was a catalyst in bringing many evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, into the pro-life movement.
An indication of changing attitudes toward Catholics within America’s largest Protestant denomination occurred in 1994 when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution “On Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics.” Referring explicitly to the first Evangelicals and Catholics Together document, this resolution acknowledged that many Catholics and Southern Baptists had found “in recent years a common area of agreement in their concern for the sanctity of human life, their opposition to the spread of pornography in our society, their commitment to traditional family values, their concern for securing the rights of all individuals without respect to differences of religion, race, gender, and class, and many other areas of moral concern.” This resolution also acknowledged tenets of the historic Christian faith—an expanded list of fundamentals—that Southern Baptists confessed in common with Catholics, and it stated explicitly: “We recognize that born-again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ may be found in all Christian denominations,” including Catholicism.
If evangelicalism is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy, then the Baptist heritage is best interpreted as a renewal tradition within the renewal. But this mission cannot be fulfilled within the ramparts of a narrow Baptist exclusivism, the kind advocated by J.R. Graves, the father of Baptist Landmarkism in the nineteenth century, whose primary passion was to wage ceaseless war against error by papists or Protestants, as he put it. W.A. Criswell was no champion of ecumenism. But in his emphasis on the Church as the company of all of the redeemed of all of the ages, together with his willingness to embrace Catholic believers, including the Holy Father, as brothers and sisters in the Lord, he opened a window for Southern Baptist-Catholic engagement that will be hard to close.
At the same time, both evangelical and ecumenical are still suspect words for many within the wide spectrum of Southern Baptist life. The tension between denominational efficiency and Christian unity evident in the Statement of 1914 continues on both the right and the left. Some conservatives fear that any ecumenical dialogue necessarily involves contamination and compromise. In spirit, they are the descendants of Carl McIntyre rather than Carl Henry. Meanwhile, some of the Baptist moderates are even more fearful. While open to a one-way ecumenism to the left, they still fear those Yankee evangelicals and their spiritual carpetbagging on sacred Southern soil. The fears of such “backwater Baptists” are entirely misplaced. Baptists have two things going for them in the quest for Christian unity: their belief in the Bible, and their commitment to the world mission of the church.
Many factors have contributed to what one scholar has called “this curious ecumenical turn” within the recent history of Catholics and evangelicals, of which Evangelicals and Catholics Together is but one symptom. What accounts for this new situation? At one level, the answer is simple: “It’s the Zeitgeist , stupid!” Several years ago, I was sitting with Geoffrey Wainwright at a theological conference. After listening to a particularly bad presentation, he whispered to me, “Timothy, there are only two kinds of theologians in the world anymore: Those of us who believe in something, and the others, who don’t.” What Machen described in the 1920s as the abyss between belief and unbelief has become even more pronounced—a true bottomless pit—in the intervening decades, while the gulf separating the Church of Rome from the traditions of the Reformation, while still formidable, is less a barrier today than it was when Billy Graham preached for a Polish pope.
In part this is because of very significant changes that have taken place within the Catholic Church. This is also in part because evangelicals today are reading the early Church Fathers and the Reformers and appropriating aspects of the great tradition that would have been unthinkable even a generation or two ago. There are neglected impulses toward Christian unity latent within the conservative, and even fundamentalist, sector of American evangelicalism: a passionate concern for theological truth-telling, an unflinching allegiance to the holy scriptures, an evangelistic and missionary impulse to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all persons everywhere, an ecclesiological postulate of an invisible church known only to God. The evangelical tradition holds at its best the belief that faithful Christian witness involves caring deeply about one’s neighbor”and hence about truth, justice, and love extending beyond the bounds of the meeting house. So, too, the evangelical tradition holds a recognition of God’s sovereignty and providential ordering in the affairs of men and nations, which is an antidote to both despair and utopianism.
Will evangelicalism survive its success? This question is seriously debated by serious scholars and the answer has proved elusive. Some see evangelicalism as a fiction, a grand public-relations ploy held together by powerful personalities for several decades but that has now run out of steam. Others claim this is the “Evangelical Moment.” Still others call for revisioning, repositioning, and recentering evangelicalism.
But “center” is the wrong image, I think. Especially when center is defined as the middle point on a spectrum, denoting a middle ground between radicals and liberals on the left and reactionaries and conservatives on the right. I want to suggest another image: core , from the Latin word for heart. “Evangelical ecumenism” may be an oxymoron, and its theme song might be the country music classic by George Strait, “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together.” But I suggest that ecumenism is a central portion—a core concern—of the evangelical faith and the evangelical church. Such a vision is rooted in the holy scriptures, in the great tradition, in the deepest insights of the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century, in the renewal impulses of the Spirit-anointed awakenings, and, yes, even the sectarian roots of the movement shaped by the likes of Carl McIntyre, Carl F.H. Henry, and W.A. Criswell.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, an executive editor of Christianity Today, and a member of the editorial board of First Things . This address was presented in New York City
on October 17, 2005 as the Nineteenth Annual Erasmus Lecture.