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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Is Evangelicalism Just a Cult?

Readers may wonder why I am inclined to republish writings of the past. The intent is to look back and see the position from where evangelicalism has shifted. The way to see if a stick is straight is to hold it against a stick proven in the past to be straight.

There are many dangers for Christendom and the penalties for straying are severe.

In this spirit I provide an article written by Paul Helm in the January 1968 edition of the Banner of Truth Journal.


What is a cult ? Most of us have a rough idea; a tightly-knit, rather rootless religious group claiming to have 'the truth', but in fact catering for the religious needs of a particular group - the mystical, the heavily eschatological, those who crave certainty above truth, those distrustful of 'modern thought' - the misfits of our society.

We do not include ourselves - the evangelicals - in our list of cults. Why not? There is not a shadow of a doubt that in the minds of many we are lumped together with the Witnesses, the Mormons and the rest. To them we are 'religious', having a language, friends, activities and values of our own; yet often aggressively confident that we have the truth; another, rather faded, 'special offer' in the religious bargain-basement.

Why are people wrong to think this way about the evangehcal faith? Why must they be wrong ? The crucial difference, the one we have for too long forgotten [to our peril] is that a true evangelicalism is only meaningful set in the midst of human life, with its endeavours and initiatives, its suffering and its folly, and its sin. The evangelical faith is credible when set in the context of creation, of life, and of human history. By 'credible' here is not meant 'is more easily accepted' but that the unique claims made by the biblical gospel will only be seen for what they are when set in such a context. The gospel gets its edge when this background is understood, and the 'christian life' becomes meaningful when Christians see that it consists in thinking-out and living-out the implications of such a gospel; implications that are understood not only in general spiritual terms but in the concrete demands of human life-work, the family, leisure, politics, the arts.

The cults do not think like this at all. They are self-contained sub-cultures catering for specific needs. They do not have any doctrine of creation, or of human life; or if they have they only pay lip-service to it; and they do not in general expect to have any non-religious consequences flowing from their beliefs. They are 'separatistic' in the worst sense of that word; not concerned only with their doctrinal purity but with cutting themselves off as much as possible from everyday life. It is in this crucial respect that the evangelical faith differs in character from the cults.


This is likely to provoke two comments. First, that contemporary evangelicalism is not recognisably like this; it is individualistic, lives on religious sensations, has little interest in doctrine or in human life. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that many evangelicals are embarrassed by the very existence of the world. The answer to this is that to our shame all this [and a lot more like it] is true, but that evangelicals who behave in this way do not do justice to the logic of their faith. They are living below par; for a faith that has a doctrine of creation and of human nature will have implications for the quality of human life. If these implications are not seen, and no concern is expressed about them, this does not mean that the implications do not exist.

The second comment is likely to be this. You say that the faith has implications for the whole of life and that the gospel is best understood when this point is firmly grasped. But what are these implications ? What follows for us in 1968 ? This is a good question, and I do not want to dodge it. But the answer is painful. For a hundred years or so in this country few have paid the slightest attention to studying these questions. In a cultural situation that has changed out of all recognition the evangelical world-view of a century ago [with all its faults] has become fragmented. There are many causes of this - the inroads made into biblical authority by higher criticism, into the doctrine of creation by Darwin, into the biblical view of God and the world by philosophical idealism, and so on. The result is that while life has gone on around us the thinking of Christian people has stopped. Evangelicals - due no doubt to a praiseworthy concern to defend the essence of the gospel message - have in the meantime become culturally contracted. So the painful answer is that, having stopped thinking, we have little to say about the implications of the faith for today's or tomorrow's world. We are to think, and we are to expect answers to our probings, for we are God's creatures and this is God's world. But evangelicals have long since stopped thinking, and have paid
the price; we cannot appraise or influence affairs as we should, we cannot counsel our young people or channel their energies constructively. We have stagnated, and many of us have become proud of it.


In this difficult situation the Reformed faith has a unique contribution to make to a return to a living evangelicalism. Let me try and make good this claim by relating certain features of the Reformed faith - in a very sketchy way - to the needs of our situation outlined above.

British evangelicalism, as we have seen, values the quick return, the tangible, the personal, the sensational. The Reformed faith, following Scripture, places emphasis not on these things but on the divine decree and control and purpose. Fundamental to Scripture and to Reformed thinking is the fact that God has a plan. How does this help ? By giving to the people of God a calmness of spirit and serenity of mind; by enabling them to take a long-term view and encouraging them to put their minds to work in the fulfilling of God's purposes for His creation.

Consider, secondly, the link between creation and redemption. Redemption, the Reformers constantly show us, can only be understood if we grasp that it is man made in God's image [but fallen] who is redeemed and restored into fellowship with his Maker by the gospel. Redemption is not to be seen primarily as an experience [though it involves experiences] but a gracious restoration. This means that human life for the Christian is not a search for an endless succession of religious feelings, but the life of a restored human being.

Third, there is the Reformed teaching about the world. For the Reformers 'the world' was not taboo, a place to be shunned, but a battle field. It is God's created order, and it is the Christian's place under God to seek the full restoration of God's image in man by living creatively according to the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Christian man will strive for the replenishment and exercise of his gifts,becoming again, as the newly-created Adam was, a divine workman.


It is in these ways, and others not indicated, that the Reformers show us that the biblical faith cannot be divorced from thought or from life, but has implications for both which it is the Christian's divinely appointed task to work out. There is no recipe here for quick and easy solutions to life's many problems but a mandate for creative [or re-creative] Christian thinking.

Is evangelicalism a cult? Not when it is seen to be true to itself and to the logic of its belief. Unhappily this is not the case at present; evangelicals have become side-tracked. We must take up again the foundational principles of our faith and trace out then: implications for our lives. It is in this way that under God we fulfil our callings as Christian men and women and display the gospel in its many-sidedness

Few would call the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, an evangelical and he certainly demonstrated he wasn't by his performance in debate with Atheist, Richard Dawkins, on ABC Television's Q & A program last Monday night. The Archbishop has a pitiful doctrine on Creation - assigning Adam and Eve to mythology - and the rest of his doctrine, consequently, slides into nothingness.

Sydney Episcopalians should note the course they are directing hearers and readers to as they present a flaky doctrine of Creation today.

Sam Drucker

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