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When one reads evangelical literature, one is struck by the concern for relevance and a need for prestige. For example, I was reading an important monograph on problems the Old Testament presented for a traditionally high view of inspiration. One of his important underlying arguments for the adoption of his proposals was the way conservative evangelicals appeared to the larger academy when they defended the Scriptures the manner in which they do. This kind of apologetic is like a ‘genre-marker’ signaling to you that you are reading a book written by an evangelical.

But we should not be surprised when evangelicals attempt to be relevant. After all, it is one of the pillars of the movement. This pillar is now canonized in the widely marketed and anticipated ESV Study Bible, which defines “Fundamentalism (19th-20th Centuries)” [!] thus: ‘Fundamentalism came to be characterized more by retreat and separation from the culture than by an effort to engage and transform that broader culture.’ (2620) Compare that to the definition of “Evangelicalism (20th Century)”: ‘Ockenga and Henry were typical of a group of young evangelicals in the 1940s who were fully in agreement with fundamentalist commitments to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and its attending orthodox beliefs, yet were deeply disturbed by the fundamentalist retreat from culture.’ (2621)*

This ‘retreat from culture’ is exactly what I am after; this is a ‘desire for relevance.’ And the desire for relevance is well documented far beyond the back pages of the ESVSB. Consider these histories of the evangelical movement:

From George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism (Eerdmans, 1987)

“Despite Fuller’s proclivities toward classical theology, another side of the [Fuller Theological] seminary’s impulse was to be thoroughly up-to-date, ‘a Cal Tech of the evangelical world,’ as Charles Fuller often put it. Both [E. J.] Carnell and [Carl F. H.] Henry were constantly concerned with keeping up with the latest intellectual fashion, a trait that was expressed in Henry’s continuing interests in publicity techniques and in Carnell’s publication of Television: Servant or Master? intended for a secular audience.” (144-45)

From Gary Dorrein, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (WJK, 1998),

“The evangelical movement was growing and gaining respectability on many fronts: Fully Seminary was flourishing, Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns drew huge crowds, Christianity Today was a major success, and new evangelical institutions were being created. But no one was providing the kind of high-powered, attention-getting intellectual work that [E. J.] Carnell believed was crucial to evangelical success. The knowledge that he could not provide it cut him deeply. Over the years, he had often expressed to Henry and others his sense of calling to make a major contribution to modern evangelical theology. Evangelicalism needed prestige desperately, he had said.” (100).

Not that fundamentalists are guiltless on this point. Arguably, we taught it to them, but for some reason were not as “gifted” at “relevantizing” the faith as our cousins. Joel Carpenter, for instance, nicely chronicles the fundamentalist heritage in Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1997):

“What an irony, then, that fundamentalism, which advertised itself as ‘old-time religion,’ should lead the way in engaging this new social context. And yet it did. By the 1940’s a rising generation of fundamentalist leaders had gravitated toward radio broadcasting and the new, electronically inspired entertainment style and promotional techniques, which they adapted to their own uses.” (236).

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*This small ‘article’ does concede that Evangelicalism experienced a gradual movement away from a high view of Scripture.

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