DECONSTRUCTING EVANGELICALISM—CONSERVATIVE PROTESTANTISM IN THE AGE OF BILLY GRAHAM

Written by D. G. Hart Reviewed By Kenneth Brownell

Over the years I have read many articles and been party to many discussions on the nature of evangelicalism. According to Daryl Hart all that was a waste of time because there isn’t such a thing as evangelicalism, at least as is commonly understood by those who call themselves evangelicals. The evangelical colossus of the late 20th century that emerged from the fragmented and defensive fundamentalism of the early 20th century is not all that it is made out to be by its proponents. Writing as an unreconstructed Old School conservative confessional Presbyterian. Hart subjects evangelicalism to sharp historical and, to a lesser extent, theological scrutiny and finds it wanting. His basic thesis is that what is known as evangelicalism in North America and perhaps the rest of the world is the result of an attempt after the Second World War of moderate fundamentalists such as Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, Edward Carnell and Billy Graham to fashion a conservative Protestant movement that would challenge the liberals who had come to dominate the mainstream denominations. As a nomenclature they took the term that had hitherto simply been synonymous with orthodox Protestantism. The problem was that in the process they also adopted a minimalist approach to doctrine and marginalized the church. Instead of the integrated doctrinal formularies of the historic Protestant creeds were put the atomized doctrinal statements of faith to which people agreed in order to support the plethora of parachurch organizations that came to replace the church. But in spite of its success all is not well in evangelicalism as numerable books testify.

In the first part of the book Hart takes aim at evangelical historians and social scientists whom he says have constructed an evangelical identity for their own purposes. While they have some valuable things to say, their subject doesn’t really exist. In the second part of the book Hart analyzes the weaknesses of the evangelical movement. In the chapter entitled ‘One Holy, Catholic Movement’ he exposes the inadequacy of evangelical ecclesiology. Using the seminal ministry of Billy Graham as a prism he shows how evangelicalism is basically not a church-centred movement, but rather one centred on personalities and the organizations they have built around themselves. Rather cheekily he defines evangelicalism as whether one likes Billy Graham. There follow two chapters: one on how inerrancy has become the unifying doctrine of the movement and the other on contemporary church music and its roots in fundamentalism. In the end Hart advocates that conservative protestants admit the evangelical project has been a failure and that they rediscover their far deeper and richer theological and ecclesiastical traditions.

Is Hart right? Fundamentally I think that he is, even if he overstates his case. His argument needs to be adapted to the British context where evangelicalism has had more doctrinal backbone and where ecclesiology has played a larger role. Indeed it was the latter that divided the two leading figures of post-war evangelicalism—D. M. Lloyd-Jones and John Stott—who ironically also did the most in giving movement theological backbone. But with those caveats the tresis of the book should be pondered by evangelicals who are facing momentous issues today.


Kenneth Brownell

East London Tabernacle Baptist Church, London