Promise Not Quite Fulfilled: A Brief Review Article

Recently I was in the bookstore of a small but outstanding Christian college in Florida when I came across the book Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism by Dr Rolland McCune, longtime Professor of Systematic Theology at Detroit Baptist Seminary. The title caught my eye right away, so I bought it and read it as soon as I could. It does not take an advanced student in American evangelical history to know that modern evangelicalism is awry in most respects, so I was keenly interested to see what McCune makes of it all.

Let me start off this review by registering how much I appreciate the author’s attempt to both inform believers of the state of evangelicalism and to remind them about how the movement got in the tar it is in. Any author who helps us not to repeat our mistakes by telling us the sober truth about ourselves is to be warmly thanked and appreciated.

Among the book’s many good points is the very well done coverage of Carl Henry’s role in the founding and maintenance of the “New Evangelicalism” as it used to be called (ch. 3). Henry was a wise choice as he both approved of the initial formulation of the distinctives of the new movement, but also was at times critical of its waywardness in later life. This chapter, entitled “Four Major Issues” is the high point of the book. Other parts of Promise Unfulfilled that are eminently worth a close reading are Parts Three (Ecumenism) and Five (The Bible and Authority) where the author makes his points cogently and, to my mind, persuasively. In the category of “Helpful but not stellar” are Parts Six through Nine (dealing with Apologetics, Social Involvement, Doctrinal Storms, and the Conclusion). These seemed a little disjointed (Apologetics) and, not untypically for Fundamentalist literature, better at knocking down questionable approaches than rebuilding something in their place.

Quite a lot of the book has seen life previously as articles in Detroit Seminary’s Journal. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does begin to explain why one senses some dislocation between the various parts of the book. Again, most of the historical sections are reworkings (improved to be sure) of works like Pickering’s The Tragedy of Compromise (which, in passing, was twenty years out of date the day it appeared). These facts notwithstanding, McCune is right to keep the salient facts before the eyes of the Christian public, and he sometimes does this very effectively. To give one example, I was particularly impressed with the way the author referenced Harold Lindsell’s jeremiads against the footloose evangelicals of his day.

Having said all this about the merits of the work, I turn to some of the areas where it falls down. The opening chapter, “The Rise of Theological Liberalism” is the poorest in the book. Along with some debatable assertions (e.g. Aquinas was “the fountainhead of intellectually autonomous, humanist philosophy” (4)), and excessive oversimplifications (e.g. “Kant’s “wall” is philosophically akin to Lessing’s “ditch” between faith and history and Hume’s “gap” between faith and knowledge” (6 n.13)), and the apparent acceptance of Schaeffer’s erroneous opinion of Hegel’s dialecticism finally rejecting linear reasoning for synthetic formulations (4), the most glaring fact about this chapter is McCune’s reliance upon the very people whom he criticizes in his book! The names of Nash, Marsden, Brown, McGrath, Demarest, Davis, and Schaeffer (who is identified as neo-evangelical later on) are appealed to for the substantiation of the writer’s data and critique. And while a writer may legitimately quote an author with which he disagrees, it should be recognized that no fundamentalist is called upon in this chapter – an indication at least that the charge of anti-intellectualism against American fundamentalism does contain enough adhesive power to call any critic of neo-evangelicalism to a little self-examination once in a while.

One encounters the same lack of intellectual precision in other places, a few examples of which are:

1. On page 126 radical groups like the Montanists (whose leader thought he was the Holy Spirit), and Albigenses (who often denied the Trinity and other ‘fundamentals’), are approved of for their stand on “Ecclesiastical Separation.” But so what? They were heretics! The Anabaptists are also brought in as historical witnesses to this distinctive. All well and good if one points to Grebel, Hubmaier or Sattler or Menno, but not a few of the Anabaptists were heretics who flouted essential orthodox doctrines and practices (let the interested reader peruse the first part of Thomas Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology for historical proof of this assertion).

2. Throughout the book J. Gresham Machen is presented as a fundamentalist. But it is well known that Machen himself did not wish to be identified with fundamentalism per se. Besides which, he was a theistic evolutionist, a position which some of us would say is antithetical to any meaningful definition of fundamentalism (see D.G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in America).

3. While Machen is incorporated within the ranks of fundamentalists, Francis Schaeffer, whose views were closer to fundamentalism than those of Machen, is labelled a new-evangelical (359)! This raises the question of what exactly is it that makes one a fundamentalist? After all, fundamentalists can deny the literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1 (Scofield, Bob Jones, Jr). They can be obscenely pragmatic in their “revivals” and preaching contests and publicity ads. They can be outwardly separated in church and secretly carnal at home. So surely some clear delineation needs to be set down somewhere which addresses these kinds of issues.

4. Although the author makes it clear that he advocates the apologetic of Cornelius Van Til, he wrongly suggests that Van Til’s approach starts with what he calls the “foundational axiom” of the self-attestation of God in Scripture (199), when, in fact, that is much closer to the method of Gordon H. Clark. I think this is more due to a ‘slip-of-the-pen’ than anything else, but it should be noted that the transcendental method of Van Til does not choose an “axiom” to start with, but, rather, it states that unless a revelational theory of knowledge is adopted it is impossible to make sense of anything, axioms included.

5. On page 198 McCune points to what he believes is “the new evangelical view” of apologetics. He then supplies the names of Carnell, Ramm, Henry, Pinnock, [Gordon] Lewis and [Gordon] Clark. The trouble with this is that the apologetics of evidentialists Ramm and Pinnock differ from those of the others. Moreover, Carnell (and his disciple Lewis) parted company with Clark on some important issues (e.g. the latter’s rejection of all empirical proof). Also Carl Henry’s apologetics did include a strain of transcendental criticism while reducing the element of verificationalism seen in Carnell’s works. Thus, the discussion does not help the reader out much (it is apparent to this reviewer that the author relies heavily upon Gordon Lewis’s book Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims in this chapter, but I found no acknowledgment of the fact). I do not think he has successfully pinpointed an approach to apologetics which characterizes new evangelicalism.

In conclusion then I think Promise Unfulfilled is a mixed bag. It contains important chapters on the history of evangelical declension in the 20th Century, but it disappoints in some crucial areas of analysis. It also fails to provide a way out of the muddle in which both evangelicalism and fundamentalism finds itself in at the present time.

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4 comments

  1. Dr. Henebury,

    I thought that my comments upon your review would automatically “trackback”, but since it does not seem to have done so, do want to let you know that I made some comments regarding this review over on my blog – http://athinkingmansthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/12/some-thoughts-on-scholarship-and.html (I don’t want to appear to be directing some type of “stealth attack.” )

    I am not necessarily disagreeing with your review, as I have not read the entire book in question, I just had some concerns about some statements in your fifth paragraph.

    I am not telling you this so that you feel a need to respond (you are, of course, welcome to respond if you so desire), but because if someone was critiquing something I said, I would appreciate knowing about it.

    In Christ,

    Frank Sansone

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