A BRISK TOUR OF THE
On June 28, 1914, the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo was assassinated. This event, though seemingly rather insignificant at the international level, actually led to the declaration of World War I, a month later. The world was thus rudely brought into a new era. Since then, because of the global impact of the war, events in the world tended to have greater international significance and ramifications than before. This was in no small ways fuelled by the Communications Explosion, beginning with the invention of the telephone in 1876 and later the inventions of the aeroplane in 1903 and the television in 1925. The world went through an upheaval during those days, but more catalysts for change were to come with the Second World War in 1939 to 1945, as well as the invention of the electronic computer in 1945 and the Internet around 1983.
In those turbulent and exciting days of global developments, the visible Church also underwent many significant changes. Tracking these changes, however, is not as straightforward as the days before the 1900s when the changes may be tracked somewhat chronologically along selected lines of development.
Nevertheless, these changes have such a great impact on the Reformed Faith and Tradition that the respected church historian Dr. John Gerstner once surmised that less than one percent of professing Christians (evangelicals) in the world remain truly Calvinistic. We are convinced that this is not because of inherent weakness in Calvinism and Reformed doctrine, but because a large part of the apparent growth of the Church, especially around the turn of the century and beyond, has been in sectors of the professing church, which promote false gospels of emotionalism and easy-believism. We are convinced also that, in general, the world has not been Christianised, but the Church has, to a large extent, been worldlified. Nevertheless, we have no doubt that the Church of Christ marches on and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it (Mt 16:18).
In this final of our four-part series, we would like to take a brief look at what has happened in the Church scene over the last 100 years or so. But because the development in the Church during this period has a more universal rather than local ramification, it is necessary for us to abandon our chronological tourist approach, and take a quick “slide-show” of some of the movements that have arisen. In this way, we hope to gain some knowledge and perhaps insights on what has happened and is happening to Christianity as we head into the 21st century.
This is further aggravated by the increasingly syncretistic character of the assemblies. Such unbiblical alliance as seen in the WCC is in no uncertain terms condemned throughout the Scriptures. Sadly, a great number of ‘Protestant’ denominations, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed (Continental), Baptist and Anglican (Episcopal), have been engulfed in it, whereas even the Roman Catholic Church has voiced some dissent concerning their syncretism.
After the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church underwent nearly two decades of Counter Reformation through the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. Since then the Roman Catholic Church pursued a steady course without many significant development for nearly 400 years. Roman Catholic dogmas were hardened, and Protestants were generally called heretics. The gulf between Protestantism and Catholicism was further widened when in Vatican I (1869–1870), it was declared that the pope, when speaking ex-cathedra, was infallible without needing the backing of a council. In 1950 this prerogative was exercised by Pope Pius XII when, without the backing of any council, he defined and enforced the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Virgin Mary into heaven. This decree not only signalled that church councils were now unnecessary but also widened the gap between Roman Catholicism and the other churches greatly.
A surprising turn of event came, however, when the successor of Pius XII, Pope John XXII, called for another council, the Vatican II (1962–1965). In this Council, which was presided by the successor of John XXII, Pope John XIII, Roman Catholicism would outwardly face a major transformation. Some of the major features of this Council include (1) a declaration that both the clergy and laity constitute the church, unlike in the past when only the clergy were considered to be the people of God; (2) every Roman Catholic was now encouraged to read the Bible; (3) parish worship was to be in the vernacular languages; (4) for the first time in 400 years, Protestants, Anglicans and Greek Orthodox’s were called “separated brethren,” and the return of these renegade brethren to Rome was no longer deemed to be the solution to the schism that exists in the church. Rather the Council sought to promote unification without dictating how it should be done.
That this Council had tremendous impact in Christendom is obvious. For the first time since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church is appearing conciliatory to woo Protestants back to the fold. Also, the attitude of the average Protestant towards Roman Catholics changed drastically as a result, so much so that the majority part of the “Protestantism” now consider Rome to be a true church of Christ and are seeking ecumenism with them.
The 1994 statement, issued jointly by Roman Catholic theologians and so-called evangelical theologians, entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT I), is one of the products of this questionable dalliance. When the document was criticised by the more conservative and astute Reformed ministers as compromising the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, a second document entitledThe Gift of Salvation (also known as ECT II) was issued in November 1997. This document goes so far as to say:
We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift…. In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.… By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the gospel… what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
This statement is not surprising for those who are familiar with Roman Catholic Theology, especially when we know that in Roman theology, the terms “justification” and “grace” (or “gift”) have somewhat different meanings from what the Reformers understood them to mean. But such language of diplomacy has caused many to forget that the Council of Trent anathemised the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide and insisted that grace is administered with the liturgical actions of the priest when administering the sacraments (ex opere operato).
The fact is that the Roman Catholic Church has not really changed at all. Not a jot of the unbiblical doctrines has been changed, and neither can they change because of the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Roman Catholic Church continues to hold to another gospel. All that was changed was her approach at ecumenism, from a more direct approach to one that is much more subtle and difficult to counteract.
The twentieth century Pentecostal Movement began in October 1900, when Charles Fox Parham, commonly regarded as the founder of the Pentecostal Movement, started Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. He taught and practised divine healing, second blessing of sanctification and a third blessing of baptism of the Holy Spirit with tongues-speaking as the evidence. This was to lead to the “Azuza Street Revival” in April, 1906, under William J. Seymour, a student of Parham. This ‘revival’ was characterised by strange phenomena, including shouting, weeping, dancing, trances and ecstatic tongue-speaking. It also featured contributions of seances and trances from the mediums of occult societies in the worship service.
Since then Pentecostal churches began to spring up all over America, and later Europe, South America, and the rest of the world. In 1914, the Assemblies of God denomination was formed.
After World War II, Pentecostalism gained general acceptance through the emergence of healing evangelists, such as Oral Roberts and Jack Coe, with the help the television. This, together with the work of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI), was to lead to a new era where Pentecostalism is introduced to the main-line denominations, including Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and even Roman Catholic in 1967. The term “Charismatism” is generally used to denote this new phase of Pentecostalism.
Within a decade, however, a new phase in the development of Charismaticism, known as “The Third Wave,” or the Signs and Wonders Movement, hit the churches with heretical leaders, such as John Wimber, Rodney Howard Browne, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, John Arnott, advocating delirious laughter and animal call and behaviour as being manifestations of the Holy Spirit work.
The influence of Pentecostalism is far reaching and is felt in many areas, including worship, evangelism and ecumenism. However, it is my firm conviction that Pentecostalism or Charismatism has been destructive, rather than constructive, to biblical Christianity. The characteristic shallow, sense-oriented Christianity that is so prevalent in many churches today can be directly attributed to Pentecostalism. The refusal to take the Bible as the complete revelation of God has resulted in a deplorable theological confusion and corruption, including nefarious dabbling with occultic and New Age ideas. Indeed, Pentecostalism is a major cause of apostasy in the Christian Church in the twentieth century.
Liberalism or Modernism originated in Germany in the nineteenth century as the result of the convergence of several theological and philosophical theories, such as Higher Criticism, Darwinism and the philosophies of Kant and Hegel. Liberalism denies most of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, such as the deity of Christ, the divine Trinity, the fall of man, the wrath of God, the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scripture and, in fact, anything else that may be deemed supernatural or miraculous. Though Christian in name, it is according to John Gresham Machen, “not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions” (Christianity & Liberalism[Eerdmans, reprinted 1992], 7).
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was such a diversity of theological thoughts with liberal inclinations that it is difficult to summarise them briefly. Its impact, however, can be seen in the fact that by the First World War, it controlled numerous major seminaries, colleges and pulpits (see Earle E. Cairns,Christianity Through the Centuries, 2nd ed. [Zondervan, 1981], 443). Nevertheless, because of the horrors of the war and the effects of the Great Depression of 1929, Liberalism, which offered no hope, lost its appeal and was largely replaced by Neo-Orthodoxy which was introduced by Karl Barth through the publication of his commentary on Romans in 1919 and 1922.
By 1945, the influence of Barthian theology began to wane, and gave way to the more subjective and existential teachings of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. The confusing development that followed is best summarised by Cairns, who explains that the influence of Bultmann and Tillich gave way to
… radical humanistic, relativistic, and secular theologies, such as the death-of-God theology, the secular theology of [Harvey] Cox and [Henry Wheeler] Robinson, Marxist-tinged theologies of hope by [Jurgen L.] Moltmann and radical liberation, and black and feminist theologies (ibid.; words in brackets mine).
Cairns’ summary brings us up to the 1970’s. Although the Gallup Survey of 1976 indicates that most who called themselves Christians (in the United States) have abandoned Liberalism and its derivatives, its baneful influence can nevertheless be still felt in the vast majority of seminaries and churches around the world, including those that are professedly Presbyterian and Reformed. John Gerstner, studying the effects of Liberalism, remarks that by educated guesses, as much as “90 percent of all professing Christendom does not profess Christianity. Or rather,… does not understand the Christianity it professes” (Handout Theology, 35). I am convinced by experience that the figure may be even higher.
Just before the First World War, in reaction to the rising influence of Liberalism and related ideas such as German Higher Criticism and Darwinism, a movement began to emerge from orthodox Protestantism in the United States. By 1920, this movement was known as “fundamentalism” (see George M. Marsden,Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, [Eerdmans, 1991], 1), though the connotative meaning of the term has gone through several changes.
In 1909, two Christian laymen were moved to set aside a large sum of money to publish and distribute a series of twelve volumes known as The Fundamentals. These volumes set forth the Christian Faith by listing and critiquing a wide range of subjects, which are contrary to Christianity, such as Romanism, socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, and the like, but above all liberal theology. Contributors to the series include B.B. Warfield, James Orr, R.A. Torrey, C.I. Scofield and other evangelical scholars.
In 1910, following three heresy trials related to ministers who taught liberal ideas, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of United States affirmed five “essential and necessary” doctrines which were regarded as being attacked in the church. These had to be subscribed by all ministers under its jurisdiction: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture; (2) the virgin birth of Christ; (3) His vicarious atonement; (4) His bodily resurrection; and (5) the historicity of miracles as recorded in the Scripture.
Although the statement was reaffirmed in 1916 and 1923, there was a gradual swing towards Liberalism. John Gresham Machen, who published the celebratedChristianity & Liberalism in 1923, fought hard against the tide of Liberalism, which was then creeping into his denomination, but he was eventually defrocked in 1936 when the modernists gained the upper hand. Machen, with the help of others, was able to establish the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Mission (1933), Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and The Presbyterian Church of America (1936, later renamed Orthodox Presbyterian Church), before he died in 1937. These stood as the fundamental witnesses against the apostasy in the church, together with the numerous other seminaries and denominations (including the Bible Presbyterian Church) that sprung from them.
On a parallel track, the Premillennial Baptists and independents founded the World Christian Fundamental Association in 1919, in the tradition of the Bible Prophecy Conference, which had begun in 1878. Later the Baptists established The National Federation of the Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists (1921), the Fundamentalist Fellowship (1921), and the Baptist Bible Union (1923). These not only focused on the seminaries, the mission boards, and the ordination of clergy, but also opposed the teaching of Darwinism in the public schools.
In those early days, Fundamentalism referred to those who held to the fundamentals of the faith as adopted by the Presbyterian Church. Fundamentalists were also militantly opposed to theological liberalism. By the early 1940, however, fundamentalists began to divide into two camps. The first adopted the principles of ecclesiastical separation and would have no fellowship with any group, which was not fundamental or was sympathetic to those who were not fundamental. This found expression in the American Council of Christian Churches (1941) and later, the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), which was inaugurated in Amsterdam by Carl MacIntire in opposition to the World Council of Churches, in 1948. The second group, on the other hand, did not wish to practise ecclesiastical separation, and began to call themselves “evangelicals,” and later “neo-evangelicals” in distinction with Fundamentalism.
Unfortunately, those who remained to be called Fundamentalists were largely Dispensational in their inclinations, or are at least Premillennial in their eschatology, so that in theological circles, the term “fundamentalist” began to be used also synonymously with those of such persuasion. Moreover, as Anthony Thiselton notes, “In later years the term ‘fundamentalism’ came to denote an unduly defensive and obscurantist attitude which was anti-scholarly, anti-intellectual and anti-cultural” (“An Age of Anxiety,” in Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity [Eerdmans, 1977], 596).
With such negative connotations of the term, it is no wonder that most Reformed and Presbyterian churches, though remaining soundly orthodox and faithful to the Word of God and their historical Confessions, have disassociated themselves from the label today.
Sadly also, while Fundamentalism in the original sense has a good cause, its impact in the American church scene, as well as elsewhere in the world where there are fundamental witnesses, is often characterised by numerous painful schisms over personality clashes and relatively minor issues, as well as lingering animosity between communions that resulted from the splits. This, together with the shallow evangelicalism and antinomianism resulting from Dispensational influences, has made fundamentalism a distasteful term for many.
While Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism were synonymous before the 1940’s, a sharp distinction began to emerge over the practice of biblical separation as well as other essential doctrines. Evangelicals, who do not consider themselves as fundamentalists, argued that separation from others of differing opinions is isolationism. They also argue that biblical criticism can be used profitably.
In 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary was established with these ideals. A year later, Harold J. Ockenga, the first president of the Seminary, coined the term “Neo-Evangelical” to describe those of the same persuasion as Fuller Seminary. Neo-Evangelicals believe in dialoguing with Liberal and New-Orthodox ecumenical groups. They generally submit to limited inerrancy, theistic evolution, and a local flood theory, among other things. As a body, Neo-Evangelicalism is represented by the National Association of Evangelicals.
Neo-Evangelicals, as well as those who preferred to be called simply “evangelicals,” were also very evangelistically and ecumenically minded. The movement expresses itself in the numerous ecumenical, non-denominational organisations, which have sprung up. For example, in 1928, the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship was formed in England; and Campus Crusade was organised by Bill Bright in 1951. The Billy Graham Crusades (1949 onwards) were also organised in these lines. Graham’s evangelistic campaigns have attracted many. For example, in the 1957 Crusade in New York, nearly two million attended; while the 1973 Crusade in Seoul, Korea, brought three million. The Billy Graham organisation has further contributed to ecumenical efforts in calling for the World Congress on Evangelism (Berlin, 1966) and the International Congress on World Evangelisation (Lausanne, 1974).
The impact of Neo-Evangelicalism on the churches in American and the world is no doubt very significant. However, the theological compromises and the refusal to obey biblical mandates on ecclesiastical separation has often led to tragic consequences and doctrinal drifts from the basic tenets of Christianity, including the denial of eternal hell, the denial of the judgement, and the denial that the basic mandate for the church is that of biblical worship and evangelism, preferring rather to see social activism as more important.
From this brief survey of the movements in the visible Church, it can be seen how far various sectors of the Church has deviated from the biblical Christianity that was rediscovered during the Reformation of 1517. The efforts of Rome and the Ecumenical Movement not only attempt to nullify the effects of the Reformation, but could potentially bring about a totally different kind of disaster to the churches that are involved in it, namely, religious syncretism. Pentecostalism has lowered the credibility threshold of many modern Christians, in what seem to be Satan’s preparation for a great last day delusion. Neo-Evangelicalism appeared promising, but is in fact a ship slowly sinking without its occupants realising it. Fundamentalism, which offers the most hope for churches, which claim no creed but the Bible, is tainted with Arminianism and Dispensationalism, leading to easy-believism, and is often wrecked with biblically unjustifiable schisms.
I am no prophet, but from what little I know of the history of the Church since the Reformation, I am persuaded that the only viable expression of Protestant Christianity, which is not based on unbiblical traditions and does not compromise biblical theology, is one that is warmly confessional. Although in our last article, we saw that there were numerous splits in the Presbyterian churches in Scotland and America, we should also realise that these splits were generally between congregations that were united under the presbyterial form of government rather than between members in the same congregation, as often happened in many fundamental non-confessional churches. Moreover, many of these splits occurred either because of departures from the Confession, or untenable additions to the original Confession.
May the Lord preserve His Church as long as Christ, the Head of the Church, tarries. May He use us fruitfully in our generation and in the generations to come. Amen.