Chapter One

Why the New Neutralism?

In 1958 when my father finished his eight page tract on new evangelicalism, he gave it the title, The New Neutralism. His thesis was that new evangelicalism was a movement which determined to take its stand halfway between fundamentalism on the right and modernism on the left. From its beginning new evangelicalism took a position on the top wire of the fence between belief and unbelief, in the no man’s land between irreconcilable armies, and on the white line in the middle of the road. Neutrality has always been a precarious position, and precarious becomes “impossible” when the truth is involved. The title of my book indicates that it is a sequel and that I share my father’s analysis of the position.

One cold April night in 1946, I was a new ensign with shiny braid standing my first watch on the quarter deck of the U.S.S. Denver. We were at anchor in the bay off Newport, Rhode Island. During that watch we sent a picket boat ashore with a number of visiting officers and men. A navy yeoman paused at the foot of our ship’s ladder with one foot on the ladder and one on the picket boat. At that moment the choppy waters lifted the small boat in the air, and the sailor found himself in the icy water between the two craft. Thanks to the quick action of a couple of old salts, the young man was fished from his icy bath and was soon warming up in a hot shower. I recount the incident to illustrate the difficulty of standing with one foot planted on each side of an irreconcilable issue.

It is amazing that the founders of new evangelicalism did not seem to recognize the impossibility of reconciling fundamentalism and modernism. It is especially amazing when the modernists saw that impossibility very clearly The classic editorial on the subject appeared in the Christian Century for January 2, 1924. This magazine has been the official mouthpiece of modernism since the early days of the struggle. The editorial read as follows:

Christianity according to Fundamentalism is one religion. Christianity according to Modernism is another religion. Which is the true religion is the question that is to be settled in all probability by our generation for future generations. There is a clash here as profound and as grim as between Christianity and Confucianism. Amiable words cannot hide these differences. ‘Blest Be the Tie’ may be sung till doom’s day, but it cannot bind these worlds together. The God of the fundamentalist is one God; the God of the modernist is another The Bible of Fundamentalism is one Bible; the Bible of Modernism is another The church, the kingdom, the consummation of all things, these are one thing to fundamentalists and another thing to modernists. Which god is the Christian God, which Christ is the Christian Christ, which Bible is the Christian Bible, which church, which kingdom, which salvation, which consummation are the Christian church, the Christian kingdom, the Christian salvation, the Christian consummation? The future will tell.

In Luke 16:8 our Lord commended an unjust man by saying, “…for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” The Christian Century has always spoken for “the children of this world,” and the above quotation is a fitting illustration of Jesus’ statement. New evangelicalism has never seemed to see the battle as one between truth and error, darkness and light. Instead, it has seen both sides as erring brethren. To the new evangelical, the fundamentalist errs by lacking love, scholarship and a social program. The modernist errs by lacking Biblical faith. The two lacks are made to sound quite equal. As a fundamentalist I do not accept the new evangelical’s charge. I would observe that to lack Biblical faith is far more serious than to lack love, scholarship and a social program.

Ideally, neutrality should have no bias toward either side. If we are to judge the new evangelicalism by its statements about the two sides between which it claims to be neutral, we soon see that it was never as neutral as it claimed to be. Its descriptions of fundamentalism have always been more harsh than its descriptions of modernism. New evangelical pioneers such as Harold John Ockenga and Carl E H. Henry declared that fundamentalism lacked a social consciousness and was bankrupt. They accused fundamentalists of a harsh temperament, a spirit of lovelessness and strife. Less cultured new evangelicals designated fundamentalists as “fundys,” “ignorant,” “apostles of hate” and “funny-mentalists.” In dining hall discussions at Wheaton College in 1947 and 1948, I heard the whole list. On the other hand, the modernists were always referred to with hope as honest scholars, repentant liberals, compassionate social activists and great preachers. Edward Carnell, after jousting with Karl Barth, the father of neo orthodoxy, termed him “an inconsistent evangelical…” The same charity the new evangelicals claimed was lacking in the fundamentalist attitude toward liberals has always been lacking in the new evangelical attitude toward fundamentalists. New evangelicalism makes great claims for its charity and fairness, but it has never operated with the table completely level. I like the definition I heard which defined a new evangelical as a fellow who hates those who don’t love.

Let me sum up these comments about the difficulty of neutralism by quoting a paragraph from page 2 of The New Neutralism:

New Evangelicalism, beyond question, is seeking middle ground with respect to the theological controversies of our day. Such neutrality represents a position difficult to maintain in any age, but in a day like ours when the battle is so clearly pitched between Christ and Anti-Christ, it is an impossible position. In the realm of things moral and spiritual one must be either right or wrong. Such tags as ‘extreme rightists’ and `fanatical fundamentalists’ cause one to raise the question as to just how far ‘left’ and how far ‘middle’ our quasi-liberals are willing to go in order to make rapprochement with avowed liberals. Is it possible to be ‘too right’ in the momentous battles of our time? After all, the showdown at the close of the age will come in realms of black and white, not in the fog of a confused gray. In the great fight of faith there is no middle ground on which the neutralist can complacently stand for long, and pronounce his anathemas or his benedictions, as the case maybe, upon both sides. He is bound to wind up ere long in one camp or the other, and in a day when God is judging compromise in no uncertain terms, he is most likely to wind up in the wrong camp. There can be no middle ground for Bible believing Christians. One of the Scottish evangelists of a former day used to say: ‘Joshua had much trouble with the Amorites and the Hittites outside Israel, but he had far more trouble with the Betweenites inside Israel.’ Such words are both well spoken and true, and applicable to our day, also. These are testing times when the dividing line between truth and error becomes ever more distinct. Try as it may, the New Neutralism cannot erase it.

As I survey the neutralist position of new evangelicalism, I find it untenable from a Biblical point of view. However, though it may be Biblically untenable, it cannot be said that it is unsuccessful. New evangelicalism has a vise-like grip on most of the Christian colleges and theological schools of our day. It has accomplished an almost complete takeover of the Bible institutes and colleges which sprang up after the fundamentalist-liberal battle in the early part of this century. It has reshaped the missions founded by the pioneers who opened India and China and Africa. The “faith missions,” whose speakers thrilled my heart as a young man, are now in the camp of new evangelicalism. Mass evangelism is the exclusive province of new evangelicalism. New evangelicals such as Billy Graham and Luis Palau are the household names of evangelism. Publishers whose materials once helped establish fundamental churches now train a generation of new evangelicals. New evangelicalism owns the music publishers. The churches which once thrilled to the wholesome songs of great Christians now are satisfied with the trash of contemporary Christian music drawn from the rhythm of the same world the Lord commanded us not to love. The new neutralism is not logical; it is not Scriptural; but it is overwhelmingly popular.