1968: A Year in Crisis

John ArmstrongThe Church

This past Saturday morning a conversation was hosted by the history department of Wheaton College in conjunction with alumni weekend at Wheaton. This event, with the title: "1968, a Year in Crisis: Evangelical Churches Then and Now," featured three highly regarded scholars and authors: Hatch_2
Dr. Nathan Hatch, the president of Wake Forest University, Dr. Mark Noll, Noll_2
professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and Dr. John Piper, the highly esteemed author and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Each man spoke for about ten minutes, outlining their thoughts about the year 1968 and then about what has happened to evangelicals over the past forty years since that tumultuous time.

Interestingly all three of these highly gifted men graduated from Wheaton College in the spring of 1968. This was the same year in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, as well as Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In fact Kennedy’s death came during graduation week at Wheaton. Later that summer the infamous Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago with riots and violence filling the city, as they did following King’s death in April. It was a time of incredible social upheaval in the nation and it was also a time of change for evangelicals. The question posed to each man today was this: “What is the nature of the changes that have taken place and where are we now, forty years later?”

All three were eloquent, clear and quite helpful. The perspective of Noll and Hatch was measured and fairly dispassionate. The critique of Piper, predictably, was passionate and not quite as measured. The discussion between the three, as well as from the audience, was also quite good.

Professor Noll quoted Plato’s Republic saying, “When the mode of the music changes the foundations shift.” He argued that the shift in the music of the church was a kind of paradigm for many other shifts. He also noted that the greatest changes had come in the global south and particularly in China. Today there are more professors teaching Christianity in China than there are professors of religion in all the schools in the United States. And on a given Sunday it is likely that more Christians go to worship in churches in China than in the U. S. Forty years ago this could not have been conceived by any one discussing this subject at Wheaton College or anywhere else for that matter. Simply put, “The Christian West is no longer the center of what God is doing nor it is the center of worldwide evangelicalism.”

President Hatch, who previously served as the provost at Notre Dame, discussed how evangelicals have renewed the great tradition of the Church by a new ecumenical engagement. This emphasis excited me since I feel like I am involved, at least in a small way, in these developments. Hatch also showed how we have adapted to popular culture, in good ways and in some not so good ways. My sense is that none of the three speakers was enamored with this trend. The shape of evangelicalism, they argued, was less ecclessiocentric and more driven by the marketplace forty years later. The movement, Hatch said, was “large and powerful.” I question this conclusion very deeply the more I read and study the issue. (This framed a question I asked that I will try to talk about in another blog later on.)

Mention was made of the recently published “Evangelical Manifesto” but little was said about it pro or con. Hatch warned that we often approach issues with the method of : “Ready, fire, aim.”

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Dr. Piper said that he wanted to cite twelve positive developments within evangelicalism. He then proceeded to produce a marvelous list that was thought provoking and encouraging. But then he spent almost all of his time on twelve negatives. He stated that his read on the movement was shaped by two writers, whom he quoted liberally: David Wells and Os Guinness. Dr. Piper understands quite well that this thesis is widely challenged by the academy, even by men like Noll and Hatch, but this did not deter him from borrowing his fire for his analysis from them both. He fearlessly and boldly argued that the movement was like a tree with many branches but a rotten trunk. (One thinks of Iain H. Murray’s thesis here as well, one which I would guess Piper would also agree with, at least in most points.)

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As I listened to these three excellent men I concluded that having a historical background, which was the major of both Noll and Hatch at Wheaton, and also my major in the class of 1971, gives a different perspective than that of Piper, Wells and Guinness. Noll argued that these days were clearly, “The best of times and the worst of times.”

Piper was asked a question about “emergent” Christianity and proceeded to passionately attack it all as a denial of the core of Christian faith. He cited only two authors by name: Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, both  from Minneapolis. After a few minutes of criticism he then added that the movement was fairly broad and included many more voices. Anyone with the remotest sympathy for anything emergent would have been completely put off by the way he dismissed the whole thing with a few sentences about relativism and denial.

When asked by a person from the audience about the attraction of many young people to Catholicism and Orthodoxy Piper would not grant much here either. He argued that the only pope he needed was the Bible, calling it “a paper pope” as he lifted it in the air for demonstration. Sadly, his arguments were reminiscent of the older anti-Catholicism of the past and not those of the new ecumenism of the present. It was quite clear that he was not having any serious part of the need for meaningful dialog with faithful Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians.

Piper also was asked about the Southern Baptists and their recent history and expressed strong sympathy for the conservative movement in the SBC, calling those who led the SBC before 1990 “very liberal.” Noll and Hatch sat out most of this discussion but those who read their work can have a good idea about how they would have provided a more nuanced, and less dramatic dose of praise, for these Baptist movements.

My frustration with Piper is that he represents the “low” ecclesiology of evangelicalism and then argues that we should go back in our reading to old writers. But goes back only to the Puritans, never even suggesting that the Fathers, both East and West, were vastly more important for the health of the Church today. He also argued that knowing God, the Scriptures and the truth were central to everything. While I completely agree with his arguments here they were almost entirely rooted in a foundationalist epistemology and a heavily propositional approach. It seemed to me that John was arguing for a Bible that was quite clear to all who read it and that by reading it well we can all know the truth. I would argue that Noll was much closer to the Christian position when he said we know Jesus Christ as truth through the revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Pipe, however, is surely to be commended for his passion for mission and the gospel.

I asked him about the missional DNA of the Church being vital to its esse and he seemed to agree with me, offering the one reservation that “unreached peoples” must remain a priority and that we could lose this prioroity if we put too much stress on being the Church here at home. I found this point quite helpful and have to agree with him here completely.

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All in all this was a wonderful morning for listening and learning. All three men were appropriately appreciated by the 400 or 500 hundred people crowded into the Barrows Auditorium at the Billy Graham Center. The morning was anything but boring. It was a great day to spend a lovely spring morning at Wheaton.