This series of events has puzzled some Reformed Christians. After all, it had seemed to many Reformed folk over the last 50 years that the evangelicals were our friends. We had an arrangement: the Calvinists wrote the books and the enthusiastic evangelicals did the legwork. In that period we had made common cause with the evangelicals on the doctrine of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. One had only to think of the founder of Christianity Today, Carl Henry, author of a massive series of works defending the Scriptures to see the strength of the movement.
Since the 1994 publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the evangelical body has been convulsed periodically over the doctrine of justification. The patient, to strain a metaphor, sustained a second attack in 1998 with publication of ECT II or The Gift of Salvation. Those were followed by an attempted remedy, the June, 1999 publication, in Christianity Today, of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.” Not to be upstaged, the mainline Lutherans also signed a pact with Roman Catholics in 2000 known as the “Joint Declaration.”
This series of events has puzzled some Reformed Christians. After all, it had seemed to many Reformed folk over the last 50 years that the evangelicals were our friends. We had an arrangement: the Calvinists wrote the books and the enthusiastic evangelicals did the legwork. In that period we had made common cause with the evangelicals on the doctrine of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. One had only to think of the founder of Christianity Today, Carl Henry, author of a massive series of works defending the Scriptures to see the strength of the movement. Yes, we said, we have our differences (e.g., on the church and sacraments) but these evangelicals, we said, are our friends.
There were warning signals however. Decades ago Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary had warned that the Reformed are not really “evangelicals” at all, and that despite the appearance of family relations, there were deep-seated differences. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.
In 1990 Robert Brow published his now infamous essay, in Christianity Today, “Evangelical Megashift” in which he proved Van Til right and signaled a sharp departure from what had long been regarded as evangelical theological norms. One of megashifts touched the doctrine of justification. We need, he said, to leave the cold courtroom metaphor for justification for a warm family analogy to describe our relations with God. We should not think of him as a judge, but as a Father. Sin is not a judicial problem, it is a family problem. God no more excludes people from his family on account of sin than a father throws out his children because they err.
It is not hard to see the fallacies of Brow’s reasoning and the danger of his assumptions. The same God who has judged our sins in the death of Christ has become, for the sake of his justice, our Father (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 26; Romans 8:15-17).
Brow was touting as new nothing more than an elixir made of evangelical pietism, old-fashioned liberal universalism with a dash of Roman Catholic moralism added for flavor. Condemned by many as a seducer, it turns out that Brow was a prophet of a new wave of baby-boomer evangelicals tired not only of their father’s Oldsmobile, but of the Reformation doctrine of justification.
Why were the evangelicals megashifting? As it turns out, according to some historians of American religion, the evangelicals have been since the 18th century, not transformers of culture, nor in antithesis to it, but the products of it. They live in symbiosis with it. As the culture slid into the televised abyss of narcissism, they had to adapt or die. If the culture absolutely rejects a transcendent God or objective reality, the evangelicals had to reject the old Reformed religion in favor of a more marketable commodity. Hence the rise of ECT (1994). Threatened by apparent social decay which could not be halted by Promise Keepers rallies or revivals promised by Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelicals turned and lifted their eyes to the hills whence comes their help. In this case, they turned not to the sovereign God of the Scriptures but to Rome, the single largest institutional religious presence in American culture. If the evangelicals could sign a detente with Rome, then perhaps they could not only continue to surf the American cultural wave and perhaps even turn the tide. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a relatively recent convert from mainline Lutheranism to Rome was happy to oblige them.