Presidential Address to the Evangelical Theological Society
November 17, 2021
Fort Worth, Texas
The Evangelical Theological Society is a remarkable organization. It includes quite a number of members who are front ranked scholars in their own disciplines, with publishing records to match a smaller, but not insignificant number of entrepreneurs. They know not only how to envisage the future, but how to shape it with suitable organizations and structures. Some are gifted and known for their ability to handle electronic media. Others, a smaller number than some might think, are like the sons of Issachar, shrewd readers of the culture, and a still smaller number of these have a prophetic voice in the 21st century.
Some are capable of raising serious sums of money and building influential institutions while handling millions and tens of millions of dollars. Others are genial fathers and mothers in God, mentors of a younger generation by what they say and how they live. Some are experienced pastors. Some have the vantage of having suffered without slinking down into bitterness or self-pity. A handful are gifted apologists capable of entering into penetrating debates with opponents, afraid of no one, but able to speak the truth in love without condescension and abuse. And some are attractive because they're wonderful late-night storytellers.
The number of E.T.S members who exhibit all these gifts and graces, however, is vanishingly small, but there's one remarkable exception. Namely, this year's E.T.S. President, Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. Educated at Samford University and at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he became the President of the latter in his early 30s and was instrumental in restoring the seminary to its flagship status in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Somehow, he finds time for his voluminous writing, for his daily podcast, The Briefing, which comments on cultural matters and current events from an evangelical confessional standpoint, and then he offers in Thinking in Public telling discussions with leaders and scholars of the day and honest and candid debate. I do not know anyone, I say this in all seriousness, I do not know anyone who knows more about more things than Al Mohler. He is a late-night raconteur par excellence (storyteller), some of us can testify who have to get up early the next morning.
He is direct, candid, transparent, a gentile, an Israelite in whom there is no guile. Who better than to address this company on its chosen topic, The Confessions of an Evangelical Theologian. Please welcome Albert Mohler.
Thank you so much. What an incredible privilege to be together, and aren't we glad we are together? We never knew how much we missed this until it was denied us. And as much as I'm thankful for the ability we had to meet digitally, there is no satisfaction like being able to meet together. So, thank you to all who have helped to make this possible. Remarkable leadership, administrative skill, and incredible dedication to this society has made possible the fact that we are here tonight. It's testimony to the tenacity of the Evangelical Theological Society.
I can't begin, but with the word of thankfulness, those very kind words by Professor Don Carson. I hope everyone understands the sense in which I say this, I recognize that, at a certain stage in life, fewer and fewer of my teachers are still alive. That only makes the sense of indebtedness grow all the stronger and the affection grow even deeper. And I look to those with whom I share dinner tonight and to others, and just say, thank you for all you've meant to me and to so many others in this room, and what a privilege it is to be here together with that sense of indebtedness.
I looked through my library the other day. I was looking for a book by Don Carson. Good luck with that. Not because they are so few, but because they are so many. You look around this room and I recognize how many of you have channeled your scholarship, not only into my library, but into my life, and into my mind.
And the older I get, the more I recognize that I live constantly with ghosts, some of whom I came to know first at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. And every one of them still lives in some very real sense, not only by the power of the Gospel of the Lord, Jesus Christ, but by the gift of remembrance and imagination in a life of an organization such as this society. So, I'm honored with you to be here tonight. I'm thankful with you to be back at this again, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what the Lord will do through this society in years ahead.
We are honored to take our place in line. We are honored and thankful to be back together in person. And I am very honored to be able to deliver this presidential address. I, in order to think through this responsibility, went back and found as many of these addresses as was possible to find. And that would include the address given by our very first President before he was President, going back to the convening meeting that took place in 1949.
These presidential addresses have basically taken two different forms and every address seems to be one of these two forms. One, an address that basically is emblematic of the society, its purposes, and the other an address to the society and its purposes. I guess, in all fairness, I should tell you, this is one of the latter. One of the things you find out when you're the President of the society is that this title is due long before you think reasonable or sane.
So, I just came up with the title, The Temptations of an Evangelical Theologian, figured it might be tantalizing, even if not interesting. But actually, it was something very much on my heart and mind. And so, a part of what I'm going to be sharing with you tonight is confessional and a part of it is, I mean to be inspirational. Some of it's reflective. We've come a long way from 1949 in the YMCA in downtown Cincinnati. And yes, it did meet at the YMCA. It conjures a lot of pictures in mind. Look at the names of those who were there in 1949. That may have been the only time they were ever found within the YMCA.
The invitation had been given largely by a steering committee that began at Gordon, the Gordon Divinity School. It expanded to an invitational committee of 25 names. According to Carl F. H. Henry, the meeting was called by evangelical professors who were joined in the call by many others. It was described as "A convocation of evangelical scholars that would encourage conservative theological literature." Now, looking at all the years hence, it is clear that it has accomplished that purpose.
I looked through some of the records of the totals of evangelical publishing going back into the 1940s or the 1950s. When it came to scholarship, the bottom line is there was not much. And now there's a very great deal. Just measured in quantity, the aspirations of this society had been fulfilled, I think, far beyond the imagination of those who gathered together in 1949 in a YMCA.
Just a year after the event, Dr. Henry, then of course on the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary, looked back. This is what he said, "When the summons went out in December 1949, calling together evangelical faculty members in the American schools for a discussion of the predicament of modern theology and the possible organization of what has since been denominated as the Evangelical Theological Society, there was a gratifying response. Men gathered in Cincinnati from the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards and their stature and numbers spoke well for the future of evangelical theology in the nation. Historic Christian theism had not been reduced in our times to the possession only of unlettered disciples."
Now, number one, you know that was Dr. Carl F. H. Henry. I did not have to tell you that. The prose betrays that that was Dr. Henry. But I hope you feel the compliment there, told that this society indicates that theism has not been reduced to a possession only of unlettered disciples.
The requirements of membership in this society require that one be at least minimally and recognizably lettered. Dr. Henry went on, he said this, "But the Cincinnati Convention made clear a basic evangelical failure, the concentration on evangelism and missions in terms of the redemptive uniqueness of Christianity, which had become the exclusive task of the evangelical enterprise in view of the prodigality of liberalism…" yes, it's Dr. Henry. It continues, "…had been permitted to obscure the responsibility of evangelicals for a competent literature reflective of the biblical outlook."
"The collapse of the liberal perspective, therefore, made it possible for sub-evangelical movements to seize an opportunity created by the absence of sufficient and adequate evangelical works." Now, we don't know everything that took place in that organizational meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and the YMCA in Cincinnati in 1949. We do know, however, that Dr. Henry gave the banquet address. We know that it was Clarence Bouma who gave the major address of the next day.
He opened his address with these words, "We have met here in our capacity as evangelical theological teachers, as orthodox scholars. We are interested in promoting theological scholarship upon the presuppositions of a genuine evangelical Christianity. The need for and value of biblical and theological discussion societies for the promotion and development of theological scholarship is, I presume, generally granted." It might have been quite a presumption, but it could have been presumed on the part of those who gathered together for that meeting.
He called for a society that would be Evangelical and Orthodox capital E, capital O. Those who gathered together at that organizational meeting, who didn't actually know exactly what they were organizing, nonetheless reflected on the existence of other scholarly societies, and what they saw was the absence of a society that was authentically evangelical. And that is to say that, from the very beginning, this society was qualified as being not about evangelicals, but a society of evangelicals.
There was reference made to the Society for Biblical Literature in reference to the American Theological Society. The professor went on and said this, "The deepest and ultimate reason for this need, as I see it, is found in the radical divergence between the basis presuppositions and consequent methodology of a sound evangelical theology, on the one hand, and that of the prevailing types of theology, which may, with a general term, be designated as modernist on the other. The antithesis between these two viewpoints is so basic and far reaching that the need for scholarly theological societies on a genuine evangelical basis is beyond dispute."
Notice the reference there to that basic divergence, that antagonism, that basic antagonism as he said here, the antithesis between the modernist and the evangelical understanding, not only of theology, but of the theological task. He also said this, "The divergence between historic Christian theology and the currently prevalent modernist theology of, whatever shape or hue, is so great that the organization of separate scholarly societies for evangelical theologians is desirable."
Again, this was to be a society of evangelical theologians, not simply a society about American evangelicalism or evangelical theology. The proof of this was made very evident as the society adopted a doctrinal basis. Immediately that set it apart from the Society for Biblical Literature. Immediately, that set it apart from other academic societies. This was something new in the sense of being an Evangelical Theological Society that was defined theologically doctrinally. That original statement, as you know, “The Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety is the word of God written and therefore, inherent in the autographs.”
That was 1949. It gives us pause to think back to 1949. Harry Truman was President of the United States. World War II was less than five years in the past. The National Association of Evangelicals had been established only in 1942. Fuller Theological Seminary, just to remind us, came into existence in 1947. The intellectual climate was situated in a sense of resurgent Christianity and resurgent theism in the United States.
The understanding of the United States is the rising and risen world power in contrast to the exhausted societies of Europe. Americans thought that was clear by the end of World War II, and many others in the world believed in agreement that that was clear. You had a sense that some kind of basic theism was so baked into the American cake that you could describe this country, as Will Herberg did, as Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and that was pretty much extensive in terms of the list.
The understanding, at a high watermark, is civil religion in the United Sates of a basic shared theism that was essential to American culture, and set America apart indeed, even as in the emblematic symbol of the new world over against the ruins of the old. In so many ways, you can look to the founding era of the Evangelical Theological Society, go back to 1949 and the years subsequent. In many ways, it was a high watermark of what we would define as civil religion, perhaps even cultural Christianity, cultural Protestantism in the United States.
The Pledge of Allegiance was formally called the Pledge of Allegiance in 1945. Less than a decade later, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, largely as a way of saying, this is not the Soviet Union. This is in one sense, oddly enough, a confessional nation. The intellectual climate was set by the perceived and actual victory of democracies over dictatorships, but it was also shaped by the increasingly dangerous Cold War between the West, with the United States in the lead, and the USSR, emblematic of world communism.
Churchill, who gave his famous iron curtain speech on March the fifth of 1946. So, in other words, just a matter of very recent memory as the Evangelical Theological Society was born. He spoke of the iron curtain had arisen from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic. The stage was set for what was already declared to be the American century, an age of science and technology, of the inexorable spread of democracy, even as there were insecurities about how exactly the great battle between communism and Western liberalism and democracy might turn out.
I think we could refer to that period as peak Protestantism in the United States. Protestantism and Protestant churches were very much in the driver's seat of the culture. Just look at the denominational composition of the United States Congress, both the House and the Senate. Look at the Supreme Court, going back to that period when the Evangelical Theological Society was born. There was a smattering of those who would not be described as mainline Protestants, but nonetheless Christians, but they were basically undefined and rare on the ground, more found in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. Certainly, more than would be represented in the numbers of the United States Supreme Court.
Think of the cover stories of Time Magazine. I collect these. Reinhold Niebuhr, March 8, 1948; Paul Tillich, March 16, 1959; Karl Barth, April the 20th, 1962. Then of course, the famous cover of Time Magazine asking the question, Is God Dead? April the eighth, 1966. Just think of those names, Niebuhr, Tillich, Barth. You're not surprised that there was not a prominent American evangelical on the cover of Time Magazine.
There was someone who was a great interest to American evangelicals that came in 1947 with C.S. Lewis on September the 7th of 1947. It's also interesting that as you look at that cover story in Time Magazine, which was occasion by The Screwtape Letters, by the way, the observation is made that Lewis is far more published and far more read and far more admired in the United States than he was by that time in Britain.
1949 seems to be to us a very long time ago. We see that mainline dominance was clear that evangelicals were a beleaguered minority who weren't even recognized as being important enough to mention in many lists of American religious groups. We come to understand that those who gathered in that meeting, not only the 25 who extended the invitation, but so many others who came, and by the way, we don't know how many they were, but nonetheless, they were meeting in a YMCA in downtown Cincinnati, and I dare say, they probably did not have the energy or imagination to dream what it would mean to look out at this banquet, emblematic of many more who were actually here for the 2021 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Going back to that issue of mainline dominance, remember that this was the period in which Dwight David Eisenhower, as President of the United States, dedicated what was known as The Interchurch Center. He did so on October the 12th, setting the cornerstone of 1959. And you may recall that he made the stunning theological suggestion that every great nation had to have a unifying religion and he said he didn't care what it was. He was standing in the right place to make that declaration.
The defining issue—when the Southern Baptist Convention met during that year was America's role and the Southern Baptist Convention’s role in a brave new world. In 1949, against all this background, and look at seminary enrollments, by the way, the mainline, not only dominated in terms of the wealth and the endowments and the social status when it came to theological education, the total enrollment in schools that we would recognize as being anything like member schools of say the ATS, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, that total evangelical enrollment was incredibly small.
Now, I say this not out of braggadocio. I say this out of a sense of humbling warning. Things don't always remain as they are. The reality is that the enrollments in those mainline Protestant seminaries had been in decline to the point in which, if you look at the relative enrollments between evangelical schools and mainline Protestant schools, let's just say there has been a reversal of the pattern. And then if you qualify those enrollments further to those who are training for ministry in a local church, the numbers become even more dramatically in contrast.
Fast forward, from 1949 to 2021, what Clarence Bouma called the antithesis, what James Orr called the deep and radical antagonism between the Christian worldview and the secular worldview. All this has become more evident since 1949. The lines are even more clear. You come to 2021, we’re in the period, an undeniable age of radical secularization. It didn't turn out like the original profits of secularization theory had suggested, it didn't turn out that the secular future in the west was one that was completely empty of spirituality or any kind of spiritual reference. No, spirituality's rampant. It's theism that is in retreat.
In my writing, I've come to define, as an argument, secularization, not as the absence of religious reference or any kind of spirituality, or even organized religion, but rather the loss or the decline of the binding authority of theism. Peter Berger lived long enough to have originated much of the secularization theory we know, and then to have modified it twice. Towards the end of his very long life, and remember, he would, this will inspire all of us, he was making scholarly contributions in his 10th decade of life. Add that up.
But Peter Berger came to the point at which he said that what he had thought with others originally was going to be a society largely devoid of any kind of spiritual reference. Instead, he said, the reality is the existence of a radical pluralization, that doesn't so much eradicate spirituality, is evacuate it of any serious cognitive content. Charles Taylor, in his defining work, a secular age, speaks about secularization as he defines it as essentially the hallmark of the modern age. He asked this question, and this is a haunting question for us.
"Why was it" he says, "virtually impossible not to believe in God, in say 1500, in Western society, while in 2000," that's the year of his contrast, "many of us find that not only easy, but even inescapable?" The intellectual furniture has changed so utterly, the context has changed so demonstrably, that the conditions of argument, the conditions of cognitive activity have changed.
You'll recall that Charles Taylor speaks of three different sets of conditions of belief. He traces them throughout the history of the west. The first condition, impossible not to believe. The second condition makes it possible not to believe. And the third condition, which he dated into the late 20th century and into the 21st, impossible to believe. He's looking at the elites, he's looking at the engines of cultural production, he is looking at the primary worldview that gets reflected in the institutions of society, what makes for tenure at the universities, what makes for success in American cultural activity. His inescapable conclusion is that for most of those who make up the cultural authorities in our country, truth be told, they find belief, as we think of belief and define belief, as we believe scriptural Christianity defines belief, as just basically impossible.
In the conditions of what I think we rightly call late modernity, thinking of Peter Brown, the great historian of, what he named, and we now speak about, as late antiquity, even as late antiquity relates to the high watermark of the Roman Empire. So, late modernity or the late modern age corresponds to the high watermark, you might say, of a modern or modernist society. Charles Taylor said that, here's something we need to keep in mind, even when we say, I believe, in the year he gives us his hallmark, 2000, as compared to 1500, we don't mean what someone meant in using the same words in the year 1500.
Like Berger who spoke of pluralization, the fact that the most remarkable change in the intellectual climate is the presence of so many alternative belief systems and competing world views, and for the lack of a better way of putting it, just religions, Charles Taylor said the big issue is that believing anything in the 21st century is a matter of choice and self-expression in a way that was not even conceivable in the beginnings of the 16th century.
Even when we talk about how religious American people are, even when sociologists speak about American exceptionalism when it comes to the pattern of secularization, and Americans and American Christians, and American Christian leaders often say, well, just look at American exceptionalism and how different we are than say what's gone on in Europe, or even closer to us in the English-speaking world, what's gone on in the United Kingdom. Along would come Peter Berger and Charles Taylor's admonition, don't take it at face value.
How much of this is simply a consumerist psychotherapeutic commodity? How much of this is simply a matter of self-affirmation and how much of this is simply understood as a matter of self-expression defined by the self itself? We've gone from Time Magazine asking in the '60s, Is God Dead?, to a shrug. I just want to suggest to you that our apologetic task is not easier when our competing worldview is represented not so much by Berger and Russell as Larry David. Those of who you don't know who Larry David is, don't look in an encyclopedia of theological biography.
The response of so many in this depleted age is a shrug, not even an argument. Terry Eagleton said this, "Societies become secular, not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer particularly agitated by it." Elsewhere, he said that, “Religion and Christianity, in particular in Western societies, now become a personal pastime like breeding gerbils, or collecting porcelain.” Two new sections of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Eagleton went on to say, "Modern societies are faithless by their very nature. It's the convictions or lack of them embodied in their everyday practices that matter, not what archbishops or militant secular scientists may argue." Some of the most interesting evidence for this now comes to us from Ireland. If you haven't seen the book by Crawford Gribben entitled The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland, you should, and you will.
He points to the fact that if you just look at the rates of church going in a society, it's almost impossible to top Ireland in the 1970s, well over 90% of weekly church attendance. It is now 18%, by the most generous estimates, and plunging. In Ireland, Ireland, they're having to import Catholic priests from Poland and Africa. In Ireland, where people used to get off the sidewalk when a Catholic priest walked by, now the secularization of the age, and of course, moral outrage at moral crises within the Irish church, they've led to the fact that increasing numbers of priests now wear secular clothing because they feel that it is unsafe to dress as a priest in Ireland.
Now, I think I can look around the room and say for just about everyone in this room, let's just to leave out the very younger in this room, but just about everyone in this room has lived long enough to live through a period in which Ireland was a society that was considered invincibly Catholic, overwhelmingly theistic. Now in a society that is trended towards being counted amongst the most secular of all global societies.
By the way, Crawford Gribben makes this point. He says, "If current trends continue, some of the traditional moral claims of Christianity will cease to be socially acceptable. And in the absence of robust free speech legislation, the public statement of those claims may no longer be permitted." Well, is the issue really modernity itself? Let me ask the question, was the scale of that challenge evident in 1949? In 1949, it's amazing to look at the evangelical ambition, and of course, in subsequent decades, that evangelical ambition took even more concrete and more expansive forms.
Shortly thereafter, you would have suggestions of the establishment of a great evangelical university, and the debate was whether it should be in New York City or in Washington DC. And of course, you look at that project and you look at how it failed to come into being, at least in part because of the money. By the time that suggestion was made towards the middle of the 20th century, the amount of capital it would've taken to establish a research university is almost beyond the imagination, not to mention the capacity of American evangelicals all put together.
But the reality is there was a sense that an evangelical moment was coming and that it was a great age in which evangelicals were coming into adulthood and the society was moving our way. Again, the context was ominous in so many ways. Walter Lippmann had already described the acids of modernity. Karl Marx had already, a century earlier, made the pledge that all that is solid melts into air. Charles Taylor makes that very interesting assessment that it was different to believe, or to say I believe in 1500 than in the year 2000.
Let me just ask the question as the Evangelical Theological Society meets in 2021, is there a significant difference in what it meant for us to say we believe in 1949 as compared to 2021? We've lived through this massive period of intellectual change. Some of us chronologically have actually lived through this massive period of ideological and cultural change. You don't have to go back to 1949. I was born in 1959. Don't do the math. The Evangelical Theological Society, it just dawned on me a few days ago was only 10 years old when I was born, and that does not make the society look young to me. It makes me look old.
You recognize, as you look at the younger scholars here, as they see this society, I wonder if many of them could recognize how humble the beginnings of this society really were, and in one sense, how unlikely any favor or success like we see, just even in the numbers of enrollment now would've been to those who gathered together at that time. Among the massive changes that have taken place over these decades is a law loss of cognitive certainty, even a loss of enough cognitive confidence for many people to say, "I believe anything."
The society of course, requires us to believe something. It requires us to believe and requires us to attest to the belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. And now, of course, we are required to confirm publicly, and annually, our belief in the Trinity. Since then, we've defined what it means to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture in the adoption as a bylaw of the Chicago statement. We're in an interesting place in 2021.
Those who gathered together in that YMCA in 1949 were aware that they were living through a hinge point in history. They spoke of it in just those terms. And of course, they had lots of reasons to think of that. Just think of the cataclysms of two world wars and the survival through a great depression. And you think about the dawning decade of the 1950s. And we can look back, we can look back and see that they didn't have a clue to just how big the changes were coming. They didn't even see the fins on the backs of the automobiles yet.
The future, it seemed, was coming into full view in the 1950s—the space age, the technological age, the scientific age, the age in which at least some evangelicals thought that the obvious answer to the evangelical future was the establishment of a great evangelical university. That didn't happen. But the significant thing that we reflect upon tonight is that the Evangelical Theological Society did happen. I want to tell you tonight, I'm very glad that it happened.
I want to speak about those temptations. Now, it could be, it could be that we should speak, or that I should speak, tonight of issues of virtue, moral temptations, because we think about the temptations of pride, envy, lust, partiality, greed. Well, let's just say that if you think about these, there are certain academic sins and there's certainly some theological sins, and it just might be that a theological society is a way, as Luther would say, of pooling all those cesspools together. We hope that it's better as well.
But even though we're susceptible to all those temptations and they may be on full display anywhere you look, the temptations I want to speak about very quickly are fundamentalism, atheism, Roman Catholicism, and theological liberalism. Why do I speak of them as temptations? Well, it’s because one of the most difficult issues for the Evangelical Theological Society has been defining what it means to be an evangelical.
And it began by saying, well, we know what we're not. We're not fundamentalists and we're not modernists. We're not fundamentalists and we're not theological liberalists. But looking at this, we recognize that this evangelical movement was actually a product of American English-speaking fundamentalism. Now, it's hard to define the term. However, I define it, someone will come up to me afterwards with an argument. I understand that. But let's just say that whatever fundamentalism is or was, it began as an intentional effort to try to perpetuate Christian orthodoxy with an understanding of the importance of issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the historicity of miracles, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the return of the Lord, Jesus Christ in glory, an emphasis upon the declarative supernatural in an increasingly anti-supernatural age.
Now, it came with other things such as second degree separationism. The evangelical leaders who gathered in 1949 wanted to say, we are not fundamentalists. By the way, the world did not let them get away with it for long. Regardless of what they called themselves, mainline Protestantism referred to the entire enterprise as fundamentalists. If one held to the fundamentals of the faith and was willing to say that someone is not a Christian based upon doctrinal requirements, then we were all lumped together as fundamentalists.
Fundamentalism was described as being reactive. And by the way, it was of course, reactive. This is the conservative predicament. Ask Edmund Burke. The conservative is the one who is animated by the concern that something precious is being lost. And in that sense, it's always in some real understanding, a reaction. American fundamentalism represented, even in the fact that there were those who, for the sake of Christian orthodoxy, gave up just about everything they had, and you can consider something as brave as J. Gresham Machen and colleagues leaving Princeton to go to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. They really did let good and kindred go.
We can look back at it. The interesting thing is that, even by 1949, when the E.T.S. met together, there was the evangelical assumption that fundamentalism had failed. The quintessential quote comes from Harold John Ockenga. He didn't mince words. He said this, "For decades, fundamentalism has proved itself impotent. To change the theological trend in the ecclesiastical scene, its lack of influence has relegated it to the peripheral and subsidiary movements of Protestantism. Whenever fundamentalism and modernism came to a test in a theological struggle, fundamentalism lost every major battle."
So those who gathered in 1949 said, "Well, we know we're not. We're not fundamentalists." And by that, they seemed to mean, and some of them said this quite openly, that meant that they were rejecting doctrinal reductionism, they were rejecting theological eccentricities, they were rejecting a failure to engage the larger world of thought. And they also defined it, sometimes in language and sometimes sideways as a matter of mood.
The evangelical ambitions, clear at the time, was to put fundamentalism in the past and to build a great evangelical empire. But so far as the Protestant establishment was concerned, an evangelical was simply a fundamentalist who could smile. If you retained an emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture, propositional truth, verbal inspiration, this as far as the mainline Protestants were concerned, you’re a fundamentalist.
The defining theological issue of 1949, the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society meant that as much as, and we can understand the mood, we can understand the rejection of the failure of engagement, we can understand the ambition to engage rather than to withdraw. We can understand all of that, but still, the situation has not remarkably changed. Even as fundamentalism has largely fallen out of America's cultural vocabulary, people like Walter Lippman, well, they don't even exist, but if they do exist, they don't use the word fundamentalists. The word evangelical now just slides in as a substitute. We know what they mean.
What do I mean when I speak of fundamentalism as a temptation. I don't mean that there's the constant temptation of the Evangelical Theological Society of an embrace of fundamentalism as a movement. There are those among us who would openly and unashamedly identify with that movement. My point is there's only so non-fundamentalist that an evangelical can be in the sense of the larger world. The evangelical ambition, especially the search for intellectual respect from the larger secular culture, we can understand that.
And I can just say, because time is very fleeting, I think any honest assessment is that, that ambition amounted to a very mixed picture. There are areas such as philosophy and biblical studies in which there's a begrudging respect, but the day has never come. I dare say, when the Harvard Divinity School has met in order seriously to consider a systematic theology, or another theological work written by a member of the Evangelical Theological Society is a mainstay text in systematic theology in that institution.
Well, the second temptation, atheism. Atheism, we recognize, is a indeed, modern option. Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the new atheists, said it takes Darwin to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In other words, it was really hard to be an atheist when you had no explanation for the world other than God did it. If you lived in a world in which there was no available cosmology that was essentially a refutation of Genesis, then you were in a real predicament.
It's one of the reasons why someone like Richard Dawkins considers Darwin such a hero, made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. There were others, of course, in the New Atheism, as they were called—Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, Christopher Hitchens, now late. I find the most interesting among them to be Sam Harris. He wrote, interestingly, an open letter to American Christians. If you didn't see it, you should.
The one thing I want to point out is that we agree with the atheist on one central inescapable assumption, and that is the existence or non-existence of God is the most important question facing humanity, past, present and future, permanent intellectual condition. The one thing we recognize is that everything follows from that presupposition, either of the existence of God or the non-existence of God.
Thinking about the formation of the Evangelical Theological Society, one of the things to recognize is that when you talk to someone like Sam Harris, Sam Harris will say, "Here's the thing, I agree with evangelicals about the nature of liberal theology." He actually has written, as you know, a good deal towards liberal Protestantism, and you could just say liberal theology, saying, “You guys are the enablers of fundamentalism. You put a sort of quasi respectable cultural face on reprehensible doctrines.”
Sam Harris wrote this letter to American Christians. He said this, "You believe that the Bible's the Word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions, not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true." He goes on to say, "Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points in which you and I agree."
"We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible's either the Word of God or it isn't. Either Jesus offers humanity, the one true path to salvation, or He does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken and profoundly so. If Christianity is correct and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of Hell. Worse still, I persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish an eternal fire." He even cites Matthew 25:41. He's read the Bible.
"If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct," he writes, "I have misused my life in the worst inconceivable way. I admit this without a single caveat. The fact that my continuous and public rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are." He finished, by the way, that letter and I have to leave most of it unread by simply saying this, "If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for non-believers like myself. You understand this, at least half the American population understands this. So, let us be honest with ourselves. In the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument and the other side is really going to lose."
Well, again, yes, that's a point in which we agree with the sincere, honest atheist about the importance of the issue. That is to say that I think when the Evangelical Theological Society was formed in 1949, you look at the papers, you look at the addresses, they understood that evangelicalism was not a mediating position between belief and unbelief. It was an attempt to establish a theological society upon the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And there was a clear understanding that if, to use the language of Mother Russia, if the near enemy was theological liberalism, or modernism, the ultimate far enemy was modern secularism.
Well, that temptation is not so much a temptation that we would become atheists. Although, as I tell students, to be an evangelical theologian is to understand that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. But increasingly throughout my life, I've come to understand that there is no credible position in between. Either God is or He isn't.
The third temptation is Roman Catholicism. It reminds us that the roots of our movement are in the Reformation. We look back to the 16th century and we recognize in retrospect how actually unimaginable it was, given the union of throne and altar, of nature and grace, the claims of the Catholic Church, which were just almost impossible to confront, the threat that a divide in the church would lead to the tearing apart of Christian civilization.
We understand, however, that to be evangelical is to understand one of the questions we always have to answer is why we're not Catholic. And we need to face that question honestly as well. This cannot be a full address on that, but we need to recognize that what Edward Farley at Vanderbilt would describe as the fall of the house of authority means that we know we have to find authority somewhere. We understand that there is an inescapable demand that we answer the question as to authority.
And we understand that the Catholics have a ready-made argument and they've got a lot to show for it. They got a Papacy, a Magisterium, they got a Vatican, they have Rome, they have archbishops, they have cardinals, they have centuries and centuries of continual argument, doctrinal trusteeship as they claim. I think it's important that we recognize, going back to 1949, that, that was a context in which, even as mainline Protestantism appeared to be ascendant, perhaps a more remarkable part of the story is the fact that it appeared to be the opening of a Catholic moment.
There were so many conversions at that time from leading cultural figures, from talking about a stale and decrepit Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. This was the era of Neo-scholasticism in European theology, came to influence the United States as well. There were these two great waves that Catholic renaissance in the last half of the 20th century meant that there were many who thought, well, the alternative is either theological ambiguity or Rome. And of course, much of the same was the story of John Henry Newman in the 19th century.
There were others who made their way swimming the Tiber, as it was said. This was the age, of course, that included the rise of Catholics to prominence in the culture in the United States. Figures such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and more than that, towering theological figures and persons of influence such as the future Cardinal Avery Dulles and others whose father of course, had been Secretary of State of the United States and who, by the way, whose father had been the attorney for Harry Emerson Fosdick in the Presbyterian trial. Things do come around.
Well, that first great period in which there was a Catholic temptation meant that there were many who went that way. There was a second great period of this temptation, and this came in the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st, and it came with the Pope such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It came as there were many who understood that a good deal of popular American Christianity, a good deal of popular evangelicalism was simply, to use an expression made by others, nonsense on stilts.
It was emotionalism without argument. It was experientialism without any cognitive commitment. It was a house that claimed authority, but seemed to be leaking through every window and every door. And so, there was a natural desire to try to find somewhere where there could be a doctrinal security, a theological house of authority. The Vatican certainly claims to be that. And the Magisterium knows how to act as if it were so. Now, I will say that if you waited long enough to get from John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Francis, you'll notice the argument has waned. They don't make popes anymore the way they made John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
I can still remember as a theological student, and I was so drawn to answer this question that I went and did a considerable amount of my doctoral study in Roman Catholic institution, two doctoral seminars. And by the way, I ended up reading this German Cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger. The amazing thing was, at the same time, I was under the mentorship of, amongst others, Carl Henry. And the amazing thing is that the indictment of modernity by Ratzinger and the indictment of modernity by Carl Henry are amazingly similar.
But then again, Rome has the Pope. Of course, it's based on the entire ministry and the sacramental theology. You come to understand that there's a lot more baked into that cake than just a matter of theological authority, but we do understand the attraction. We understand why that evangelicals, from the very inception of the Evangelical Theological Society, have had to answer the question, why not Rome? Now, let me be clear, I think the answer is abundantly evident. I believe that to go to Rome is to abandon the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is to join a false church based upon false and idolatrous presuppositions.
But I also understand that it would be easier to sleep at night if we could trust that a Magisterium would bear the stewardship for us. It would be a bit easier to think about passing on the baton in your institution to someone else, because after all, there is a backstop. To be an evangelical is to recognize we don't have much of a backstop. To read the Roman Catholic apologetics against evangelicalism, we come to understand, it can at times be as thin as they say it is. But brothers and sisters I’ll simply say, "We have no alternative." We're left with the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God, written. I want to make clear we do this over against what we know to be a contrary temptation.
Protestant liberalism, this was of course in the foreground that Evangelical Theological Society was clear to say, we're neither fundamentalists nor liberal, or modernists, but at the same time, the E.T.S. sought to affirm all the major doctrines of Christianity.
One of the first questions raised was of course, the question of the doctrinal basis. Here's what's really interesting, and this was reflected upon repeatedly throughout the history of the society. The inerrancy of scripture, as Gordon Clark would say, affirming the formal principle of the Reformation implied also affirming the material principle of the Reformation. This is an ongoing issue for this society, and always will be, better than the pressures of late modernity. The pressures, they're only going to increase. The questions will proliferate.
This isn't 1949. How to be faithful at this period, it's going to test us all. The temptation of theological liberalism is not just substantial. It's also attitudinal. The longer I live, the longer I teach, the more I'm convinced that everything in terms of Protestant liberalism is simply derivative of [inaudible 00:55:13] mockers, lectures to the culture, despisers of religion. If you buy into the fact that that’s the task, in any period, you're going to end up in the same place. You're going to have to try to create some form of plausible rescuable, salvageable Christianity. Excuse me, speaking of salvaging.
But that’s the evangelical temptation we have to recognize. Our job is not to salvage the Christian faith. It's not to find whatever remnant of truth that we can retain. It’s to understand that our responsibility is to hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, all of it, and all of it is under attack.
John Shelby Spong died just a few weeks ago. Did you see that? I had some of the most interesting media engagements of my life debating John Shelby Spong. And we ended up in person one time. A delightful person in the sense that I discovered, he is just as unbelieving in person as he is on the screen. Also, the most condescending human being I've ever met. But nonetheless, he held pity for me, poor evangelical that I am. But at one point, I said that I actually have some pity for John Shelby Spong, and obviously there's eschatological reference to that. I mean just in terms of the immediate, and that's because he wrote all these books and every one of them would deny a doctrine, but then he ran out of doctrines to deny. So, he wrote two books about denying all doctrines, and that's the predicament of modern theological liberalism. There's no place to stop.
The founders of the Evangelical Theological Society recognized that in 1949. I hope we recognize that in 2021. We're here against the full onslaught, thus far, of the torrent of modernity and the intellectual toxins of the age. And there’s a sense in which it's daunting, there's another sense in which it is exhilarating.
The older I live, the more I recognize that the chief responsibility of any generation, and this is biblically defined, is to pass on the faith, intact, to the generation coming. And that means the theological task. That's what should encourage us. God has obviously given the Evangelical Theological Society a future. Just look out at the young people in these halls. Our task is to make certain that we turn the Evangelical Theological Society over to a new generation, even as it was turned over to us, intact in its mission, energetic in its conviction. Gordon Fee made the ... Excuse me, never confuse the two, Gordon Clark. Gordon Clark had a way of putting this. He said, "The Evangelical Theological Society has to learn the principle taught by Luther—let goods and kindred go, some memberships also."
Membership in the Evangelical Theological Society has to mean something. The challenge we face in the coming age is going to be a quantum increase over what we see. Now, we're about to find out whether in short order being a member of this society is enough to disqualify people from teaching on some faculties, or certainly from election to tenure. We're about to find out with our doctrinal commitments, just how far you can get in the modern secular academy, because there is no D.E.I. statement that seeks to include American evangelicals and the diversity and the inclusivity.
We're about to find out in this big sort, Bill Bishop coined that phrase, is a great shaking that's going to take place. We're about to find out where the evangelical institutions are. We're about to find out where the evangelical theologians and writers and publishers and where the Evangelical Theological Society is. These temptations, the temptation of theological liberalism, the temptation is, to all the currents of thought against which, and in the light of which, in the context of the age in 1949, the E.T.S. was established, not one of them has gone away, and the demands of the stewardship just grow greater.
I am, to speak honestly, exhilarated by this challenge and I am just more grateful than I can express for the fact that there were those who cared enough to establish the Evangelical Theological Society when it wasn't popular, and it wasn't rich. We're not rich now, but we can at least pay the bills. And I can just guess that the banquet served in the downtown Cincinnati YMCA in 1949 was not so grand as this, nor the accommodations. We are indeed living in houses we did not build, drinking from wells we did not dig, enjoying the fruit of vineyards we did not plant. The older I grow, the more I'm convinced that the great responsibility in stewardship is to pass this off intact, in truth.
There have been discussions about the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society. I am not a prophet. I just want to say things will have to change with the challenges that come, and that's not because I have any proposal to make tonight along those lines because I make no similar proposal. I will simply say that in an age in which you have a revolution that is being institutionalized and, in many ways, mandated by government, in which someone can show up declaring oneself to be of a gender other than biological sex, there's nothing in the membership criteria of the Evangelical Society to prevent someone who affirms inerrancy in the Trinity from being a member of this society.
I'm not proposing anything tonight, except the fact that inevitably, these challenges are going to have to be met. That's just emblematic of what's coming. My great hope and prayer is that the Evangelical Theological Society is up to this as is sufficiently evangelical. And I think, at least, a part of that is to remember that we were established in a time when it was understood that it was necessary to have a society not only about orthodox evangelical theology, but of orthodox theological scholars who are willing to say, "This is who we are."
My hope and prayer is that the Lord would grant favor to the Evangelical Theological Society. I want to speak a word in gratitude, in conclusion, first of all, individually. This society has contributed so much to me, so much to my thought and so much to my life. And not just through its meetings, but through those who have been leaders, thinkers, participants in these meetings. I'm thankful for the theological productivity and substantial contribution that has come out of this society. In my own personal life, it has made an incalculable contribution, I pray that will continue.
I want to speak gratefully as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and to speak on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, you have no idea how this society channeled health into a denomination in a time when it desperately needed it. I dare not come before this society nor deliver a presidential address without saying thank you to the Evangelical Theological Society for channeling so much strength into the Southern Baptist Convention, so much strength into the faculty of the institution I'm so privileged to lead.
I'm proud for this faculty to be actively energetically engaged in the Evangelical Theological Society. I look out in this room, and I see so many to whom I owe a debt I can not only never repay, I can never articulate. So long as the Lord tarries, so long as we have the opportunity, may the Evangelical Theological Society be genuinely evangelical, genuinely theological, and genuinely a society. May we be found faithful. May we be found faithful when the Lord returns, even if, when He returns, He finds us fruitfully and faithfully, we hope, in an energetic discussion. We interrupted that discussion to come to dinner. In the hours that remain, we will remain to it. So, let's get to it for the glory of God. Thank you all. God bless you all.