President's Blog

The dangers of “progressive” Evangelicalism

I recently read an article by Tim Keller that I believe deserves wider reading. It is the first of four essays on the decline of the church in North America. The first two are complete and two more are coming in 2022.

You can read them at: 

Here is my synopsis of Keller’s first essay entitled “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church - Part One”. I hope it whets your appetite to read more:

  • The decline of mainline Protestantism throughout the 20th century occurs after 200 years of growth since the Colonial days. The Episcopal Church numbered 3.4 million in the 1960s and 1.6 million in 2019, while the Presbyterians (Keller’s Clan) were 4.25 million in 1965 and 1.25 million in 2020.

  • Dean Kelly’s critique (1970s) of the mainline church is their adoption of a therapeutic view of the human condition and political action with no “large-scale cosmic meaning” to help face life, death, and suffering–this automatically caused their decline.

  • J. Gresham Machen, in “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923), proposed that mainline Protestantism started shedding its historic Christian roots and beliefs to accommodate the acceptance of science as the authority, seeking to rescue Christian principles by making them “symbols” which de-supernaturalized Christianity and removed its distinctiveness. Mainline Christianity proposed “self-salvation”, or salvation by words, which only sublimates the gospel into a form of legalism. Machen believed this would be a “lethal blow” to the mission of the Christian Church.

  • George Marsden’s critique (in “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment”, 2014) of the optimism of the 1950s recognized the significant growth of the mainline church because of the common values, beliefs, and moral standards which everyone adhered to. But Marsden proposed it actually caused an inherent doubt with materialism, turning North Americans into conformists rather than self-determining, self-fulfilled, and asserting individual freedom. Individualism and autonomy becomes a law unto itself and is viewed as the only way to self-fulfillment.

  • David Riesman (“The Lonely Crowd”) called people to being more-asserting and self-determining, rather than letting their family or “sub-community” (i.e. church) dictate their values, beliefs, and purpose in life. However, Marsden asked, if we free ourselves from the restrictions of traditions or expectations, what do we replace them with?

  • Walter Lippman in his “Essays in Public Philosophy” (1955) questioned his fellow liberal colleagues who were trying to build a “public consensus” based on principles after destroying the very foundation these principles had been built on (Judeo-Christian ethic). The principles of North American values and beliefs were not established by science, but originally based on “transcendent moral standards and a universal order”. With no objective moral order there is no ground or foundation for a public social order: Lippman did not see the possibility of a “social common life” in society on this basis. Our values had been established by Christians who believed the Bible and Enlightenment thinkers who believed in “natural laws”: without this, one’s view of what is unjust can become another person’s belief that killing a race of people is just. Liberal society turned on Lippman as they viewed him as a defector from the liberal cause.

  • Reinhold Niebuhr turned on Lippman, too. This prominent mainline Protestant thinker of the 1950s proposed that miracles were not possible. He claimed our standard of truth was not revelation, but secular “practical” reason. Niebuhr believed the Bible didn’t determine what was night and wrong – the secular view determined what was right and wrong in the Bible. The irony is that Niebuhr sought this thinking as a means to preserve a public voice for Christianity in society. In his view, science dictated truth, not revelation (Bible), but this view made Christianity and the Bible optional and dispensable. You can find all this in society without the Church.

  • The end of cultural conformity – Martin Luther King’s approach to protest was based on an objective moral belief, however, future civil right leaders (e.g. for women’s and LGBTQ rights) use his methods but not his philosophical framework. Identity politics grounds justice claims not in objective moral order, but within an individualism that dismantled traditional values and caused warring factions to turn in on themselves.

  • Therefore the call for “progressive Evangelicalism” among growing number of Evangelicals is dangerous – progressive views destroyed mainline Protestantism in the 20th century and could harm Evangelicalism in the 21st century.

I know that was a long synopsis, but I hope it has whet your appetite to read more.

I have invited Sam Allberry to address some of this in our upcoming Fellowship National conference (FNC2022) on November 14-16, 2022 in Niagara Falls, ON. Hope you’re planning to attend.