Phil Johnson on “Is The Reformation Over?”

Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy GrahamUpdate: Those of you who keep mentioning that this post is disjointed need to remember that it is simply some interaction with the main points of Phil Johnson’s talk. There’s no attempt for this to stand alone; it’s not meant to be polished or comprehensive.

Tim Challies is “liveblogging” the Grace Community Church Shepherd’s Conference. One of his posts is a summary of Phil Johnson’s session on “Is The Reformation Over?” While I have no intention of resurrecting blogwars of the past, I am going to interact with this post. Please realize that I am interacting with Challies’ summaries, and not Phil’s actual words. (Challies is doing an obviously great job.)

I am interested in this topic for several reasons. I have written on this subject in an early IM essay called “Throw Luther From The Train: Will We Save The Reformation?” Many of my IM essays deal with many of the same concerns that Johnson voices, particularly with Charismatic excesses and an abandonment of the heritage of the Reformation by evangelicals. Many of my essays on worship and the condition of contemporary evangelicalism are from a position similar to Johnson’s. I have been deeply influenced by many of those who influence him.

At the same time, my position on Roman Catholicism, my appreciation of N.T. Wright and my openness to some aspects of the emerging church have marked me out as part of the “problem” within evangelicalism as critics like Johnson see it. MacArthur-influenced Reformed Baptist fundamentalists on the web have weighed my blogging and found me wanting, to say the least.

Of more interest to me is the question of the current trajectory of evangelicalism. As the banner of this site now proclaims, I believe we are in a post-evangelical landscape. I would differ with many of my Reformed friends at this point. I believe the “new reformation” is going to be a matter of how much the reformation affects a “post-evangelical” Christianity. The horse has left the barn as far as evangelicals are concerned. There is no saving what was once evangelicalism. It has become something else, or more correctly, it has fractured into a post-evangelicalism characterized by no coherent characteristics.

Because this post-evangelicalism has not yet take a clear shape, those, like Johnson, who are part of a large and thriving segment of conservative evangelicals will see the situation more in terms of how evangelicalism compares to their own community. Those of us who are in a post-evangelical wilderness may see evangelicalism differently. I do not claim that my perspectives are universal or obvious. In fact, one reason I value the perspective of a larger number of voices within evangelicalism is because there is no dominant perspective that I believe is reliably reporting what is happening.

Johnson via Challies gives his summary of the current situation.

Evangelicalism used to be defined by a clear, specific theological stance. It used to mean that a person had a faith built on two pillars: the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The Five Solas were a guide to the major doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Two of them in particular stand out as the key issues over which the bulk of the debate took place: sola scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, and sola fide, the material principle of the Reformation. Note that these are the distinctive doctrines of Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals, until recently, affirmed these doctrines. Only in recent years has the expression Evangelical been broadened to include people who deny these pillars.

In contrast, D.G. Hart has suggested there never was anything that coherently could be called evangelicalism and that what we see falling apart in front of us never had the characteristics we frequently assign to it as a movement. It was, from its inception in the imagination of well meaning fundamentalists wanting to move into broader cultural influence and respectability, an array of shallow and largely unaccountable movements that had more in common subjectively than objectively. It had little substance to define it or hold it together.

Robert Yarborough, reviewing D.G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism, says:

It is just such questions that Hart takes up in the second half of the book, “The Unmasking of Evangelicalism.” He argues that evangelicalism is rich in external homogeneity (“cameras, bright lights, and microphones” p. 125) but thin in classic church character as seen in doctrinal identity, governance, and rooted liturgical practices. Too much evangelical scholarship has been too narrowly centered under the dictum “no creed but the Bible’s inerrancy” (ch. 5). A final “stick of dynamite in the deconstruction of evangelicalism” (p. 174) has been the rise of worship styles unabashedly imitative of popular entertainment forms. It is particularly here that Hart sees evangelical expression as marking a serious break with both the form and substance of Christian worship across millennia and cultures.

…Hart knows whereof he speaks, however rightly he interprets the data. His argument that “evangelicalism is not a tradition” (p. 186), because “Christian traditions, unlike evangelicalism, rely on structures of succession and accountability that run counter to popular sovereignty” (p. 187), is compelling. My experience in the evangelical subculture since the 1970s confirms his point. My sense thirty years ago was that “evangelical” stood for vibrant theological truth, the veracity of the gospel, and the Scriptures boldly lived out, in contrast to liberal compromise of the Christian faith, on the one hand, and conservative stifling of the faith, on the other, through sterile tradition that did not change lives. Today I see that, for many, “evangelical” is about emotional expression in highly stylized fashions and enclaves that lags just a few years behind popular media and entertainment forms but tries ever harder to catch up. Truth is not the issue; fervent self-expression with a thin Jesus overlay is.

I believe that what Johnson sees is accurate, but I believe he is assigning too much to evangelicals. Were Evangelicals ever as rooted in the Reformation as they claimed to be? Not in the modern, “evangelical” era. From the outset, “Billy Graham” evangelicalism was ecumenical, not fundamentalistic, and it was there, in the seeds of an ecumenical pragmatism, that the seeds were planted of where we are today.

D.G. Hart is on target when he reminds us that evangelicals have fallen to where they are largely because they have no structures, no accountability and no depth….all things that my Reformed Baptists friends tend to have and value highly in their own communities. One might even ask if the critics of evangelicalism these days ARE evangelicals themselves?

Challies summarizes Johnson again:

All of this has changed in recent years. An Evangelical is no longer a person defined by theology but by experience or church membership. “Evangelical” has been stripped of doctrinal content. Mainstream Evangelicals have been assaulted by movements that seem to be motivated by removing the doctrinal distinctives: The lack of theology in the Church Growth Movement, the anti-intellectualism of the Charismatic movement; the neo-ecumenism in Promise Keepers and other movements, the new understanding of justification in the New Perspective on Paul, the denial of propositional truth in the Emerging Church, and so on. These have all worked to the detriment of Evangelicalism. So now, Evangelicalism which was once a movement defined by doctrine, understands doctrine to be divisive and of secondary importance. The obvious casualty in all of this is the gospel. Catholics and Protestants have long agreed that the heart of the debate is the gospel, but now people would have us believe otherwise.

Was evangelicalism ever as doctrinal as Spurgeon or the Puritans? Was it ever not ecumenical? Was there ever a time it wasn’t fighting its own anti-intellectualism?

Johnson’s assignment of the “New Perspective on Paul” a place in the demise of evangelicalism is predictable, but highly unlikely. The NPP doesn’t come from evangelicalism, and few evangelicals have any idea what the NPP is about. This is a highly scholarly discussion, and the manifestations of it at the local level- i.e. the Auburn Avenue Movement- are isloated. Is there a significant person in the top 50 evangelicals in America who has really been influenced by the NPP?

The Charismatic movement has the most credibility as a source of a dissolving evangelicalism, because it has been the most pragmatic, least doctrinal, most culturally adaptive and least intellectual component of evangelicalism. This is a movement with virtually no accountability or institutions, no meaningful confessions and little interest in relating to the Reformation. I agree with Johnson that much of the demise of what was good in evangelicalism can be laid at this door. Especially to be credited are the leaders of evangelicalism who watched while Charismatics took the major places in media, music, publishing, broadcasting and the shaping of the spirituality of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are now thoroughly Charismatic-ized, even if they reject Charismatic doctrine. The Charismatic “style” of Christianity has triumphed in an evangelicalism that never tried to defend itself.

(The Fundamentalist rejection of the Charismatic movement is, again, a position that makes sense within some corners of conservative evangelicalism, and little sense elsewhere.)

The Emerging Church is all about the denial of “propositional truth,” according to Johnson. Again, this is typical of the larger conservative criticism of the emerging church. The warnings of men like D.A. Carson are needed and well placed, but the equating of “emerging” with “no doctrine” is a rush to judgement. The emerging/missionally shaped church has some components that are the worst of evangelicalism’s demise, but it also has seeds within it that need to be watered. Dan Kimball’s idea of a “Vintage” Christianity ought to make anyone who cares about history, scripture, theology and integrity at least take notice. If the critics continue to whip a straw man resembling the worst of Brian Mclaren as all there is to emerging, those critics are going to miss much they will later wish they had encouraged.

The best hope of a post-evangelical reformation of a Biblically healthy Christianity in the west rests with the Reformation churches AND with the emerging, missional churches that are seeking to break the mold of a vacuous evangelicalism. It is the emerging churches that hold the promise for moving past so much that is wrong, and reclaiming much that is right. Hold on before the whole movement is flushed down the drain as “anti-truth.”

Johnson’s primary complaint- that evangelicals are falling into the arms of Roman Catholicism- makes much sense if Hart’s critique is true. Where will post-evangelicals find an alternative to the post-evangelical wilderness? Will it be in churches who insist that young earth creationism and entertainment oriented worship go right along with sola scriptura and sola fide? Will it be with churches who have no appreciation for the “great tradition,” but continue feeding us mega-churches and mega-church pastors as our models? Will it be with a movement with an embarrassment of shallowness in intellectual and cultural life?

The appeal of Rome is seldom its “gospel.” The appeal is on many levels where evangelicalism- especially conservative and fundamental varieties- is failing.

In all honesty, is the problem ECT, Timothy George and Chuck Colson? How many Peter Kreefts and Scott Hahns jumped ship over ecumenical evangelicalism? Hardly. It is traditional Catholicism that is making converts, and it is making them from largely conservative evangelicals who are looking for something in conservative, fundamentalist post-evangelicalism that isn’t there.

John Paul II and Benedict the XVI are seen as spiritual leaders of substance, in contrast to what evangelicalism these days calls a leader— anyone with two books and a church over 1500 members. If the discussion were about doctrine, I think Johnson’s team would have no fears of large scale Catholic influence in evangelicalism. But with the current post-evangelical breakdown, not only in doctrine but in every other department, Rome looks like it has its act together. Reformed apologists who want to stay focused on what Trent said about justification don’t get it. The appeal of Rome is its claim to be THE CHURCH in every aspect. And the more you contrast evangelicalism with Catholicism outside of reformation doctrines and historical abuses- intellectually, culturally, academically, politically, and on and on- the more evangelicalism suffers.

I hope this is a fair response, and I welcome any corrections to what was said in the session.

12 thoughts on “Phil Johnson on “Is The Reformation Over?”

  1. With all the justifiable criticism of “evangelicalism” one has to wonder if “evangelicalism” can still be trusted as even marginally christian (if it ever was more than this -with its roots in the ecumenical/charismatic – NAE/Graham/christianity today crowd with all that was wrong with them -the veritable house on sand?); once biblical separation was jetisoned as a distinctive and numbers replaced true discipleship and entertainment replaced conviction and feelings/experience replaced obedience to truth and the word of God (doctrine); one can see the slippery slope downward from fundementalism to evangelicalism to relativism;

    can anyone remember when fundementalism wasnt a derogatory term? I can… I was saved in a fundemental Baptist church (and I thank God for the hell fire preaching and the push to know the Word of God and to live an obedient, separated life in faith); but it was too confining and restrictive for the world; so fundementalism became wrongly synonymous with a ridiculous fanaticism;

    In my mind evangelicalism is dead (and reeking) and the only hope is to embrace our past and the “fundemental” truths of the reformation and to renounce the appellation “evangelicalical” and of what it now consists and attack as heretical the false doctrines perpetrated on the lost who hold to a false security in a false god
    (as the fundementalists rightly did at the outset and as Macarthur et al are presently engaged); a return to the “narrow way” is the only hope of ours and all generations; (Matt. 7 seems so relevant to this discussion);

    Lastly, the flight of “evangelicals to the RCC should speak loudly to us as to the state of “evangelicalism”

    btw MS – Horton’s book “In the face of God” was VERY good and very relevant to the present discussion;

    John Laird


  2. “Update: Those of you who keep mentioning that this post is disjointed need to remember that it is simply some interaction with the main points of Phil Johnson’s talk. There’s no attempt for this to stand alone; it’s not meant to be polished or comprehensive.”

    It’s probably Tim Challies’ fault. The actual seminar was well-organized and cogent. But Challies must’ve been answering e-mail and writing book reviews and doing other stuff while he was taking notes. Everybody knows how he is. So the lion’s share of blame belongs to him for anything that seems disjointed and rambling.


  3. Michael, thou dost protest too much. But I have no wish to argue the above points. You know that Catholic apologetics addresses all of your points most persuasively. I repeat, it’s only a matter of time until you’re received into the Church. In the meantime, please read The Ratzinger Report, Salt of the Earth, and God and the World, all interviews with that man of Mozartean genius, Joseph Ratzinger.


  4. anonchap: Keep Reading.

    “1. The Catholic Church has badly mangled the Gospel. Mangled it to the point that to become Catholic would be to forsake the Biblical Gospel, and I have read Galatians 1. I believe the church is in serious error on justification and all the doctrines that precede and flow from it. In two thousand years, Rome has gotten better in talking about the Gospel, but hasn’t come one step from where Luther stepped back and called the church apostate on the Gospel. Yes, often Rome holds forth one of the jewels of the Gospel in its liturgy or tradition or in the voice of one its eloquent saints. But Rome has never come beyond Trent, and this is an uncrossable boundary.

    For example, Peter Kreeft now laughs at the reformation doctrine of imputed righteousness, and offers instead Rome’s doctrine of actual infused righteousness through the sacraments. As much as I admire in Catholicism, I cannot believe its Gospel of salvation is the Biblical Gospel. Luther was right in recovering the Biblical Gospel, and Rome is wrong in holding to the sacramental system that, in the end, must rely on the church to fill in what scripture does not say.

    2. The church has abused its role as the keeper of tradition. Like the Pharisees of the first century, Rome has taken the traditions of the church and constructed an edifice that goes far beyond scripture. In many Romish doctrines, the role of tradition has eclipsed scripture, putting mother church in the place of Holy Scripture. Rome may be right in much it says about tradition, but it is very wrong in how it has handled tradition.

    I can accept the church’s role in the creation of scripture. I cannot accept its role in continuing to go miles beyond scripture to teach what scripture does not teach. Rome seems to think that error, once taught by Rome, is no longer error. I cannot agree.

    3. In particular, the recently propagated doctrines associated with Mary are impossible to accept. The Church’s defense of Marian theology is embarrassing. We can join our Catholic friends in honoring the mother of Jesus, but the inflated role of Mary in Catholicism demands an acceptance of the church’s continuing pronouncements about Mary that challenge the Mormons for inventiveness and creativity.

    4. The role of the Pope in Catholicism cannot be defended from scripture. It is a historical development that the church has chosen to impose upon scripture, and to divide Christians by their allegiance to the bishop of Rome as the “Vicar” of Christ.

    It appears to me that the entire Gospel of John was written to fend off the kind of veneration of Peter that the papacy is premised upon. Infallibility cannot be given to both the successors of Peter and to scripture and still be credible. Luther, again, was right. Popes have erred. Councils have erred. Scripture must be the final authority.

    5. Transubstantiation. At no point am I more puzzled than when my friends write me notes in rapturous adoration of the Mass. For at no point in worship with my Catholic friends am I more saddened and offended than when the entire book of Hebrews is shredded in the words of the mass. Roman Catholic theology of the mass is a medieval leftover from a time when the church controlled the eternal salvation of its members by access to the wafer. It is borderline blasphemous to use the kind of language used in the mass about the once-for-all incarnation and the once-for-all sacrifice. I reveal myself as a Zwinglian, no doubt, but I am not debating physics. I am asking, can the book of Hebrews be true, and Christ be on the altars of Catholicism?

    I have a lot of minor quibbles. Purgatory. The Apocrypha. Celibacy. But they are no worse than similar evangelical errors. But the five issues I have listed are insurmountable. They prove, at least to me, that the credibility of Rome has diminished throughout history, as the RCC has continued to defend and define itself in ways that cannot be reconciled with scripture, and in ways that serve the self interest of the church more than the glory of Christ..

    At the end of the day, I am an evangelical, reformational protestant. Tired, angry, kicking at the nonsense, but still reforming. I own the reformation for its recovery of Christ in the Gospel. It takes me to the place where I can, on the days when I am able to worship and exalt in the great, classical Christian traditions we Protestants share, imagine that we really are one church in Christ. A church divided, and hopefully a church debating. But still a church where I must choose, as Luther did, to remain with scripture and those Reformation doctrines, and with the great “Solas” that define my faith.

    I’ll tell all the RCC apologists who attempt to bribe me into the RCC that you’re a prophet.

    What about this essay made you write that comment?


  5. Michael, I’ve been reading your posts – and reading between the lines – for some time now. Conclusion: You’re going to become a Catholic. It’s only a matter of time.


  6. Micahel,

    I enjoyed reading the articles you linked in this post, although the post itself was a bit meandering. I find myself agreeing with you on a lot of points. I wonder though if the reformation, necessary as it was, did not carry some of the seeds of its own demise. In completely rejecting the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church (whether this started with the reformers or later I am not sure. Do you know?) implied by its stance that history and tradition are extraneous, they can be ignored. Now we are complaining that the reformers are being ignored. Its just the next step.

    Also many Protestant churches bought into their own version of Descartes scientific rationalism rejecting the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The end result of Descarte’s philosophy is materialistic naturalism. He himself did not carry it so far, but the seeds were there. The Catholic tradition has a place and an explanation for spiritual experience, spiritual reality and this spiritual experience is firmly under the authority of the Church and her doctrine. Because the Protestant church in the 19th century rejected experience for reason, those who had spiritual experiences had little place to go so they threw off the yoke of the traditional churches and started their own, accoutnalbe only to their own authority. The answer to the charismatic church is not to criticize but to reassert the proper place and purpose for spiritual experience within churches that are also strong on doctrine.

    I myself have run the gamut. I became a Christian in a Chrarismatic church, currently attend a Baptist church. In an effort to integrate my reason and my desire for God, my docrine and my experiences of God, I have found myself turning to Catholic writers. This is not because the Protestants I have read are not aware of the Spirit but there is no coherent doctrine of the working of the Spirit.


  7. “Borderline Slander?” Well, the bar is set pretty low, if that’s the case. There’s not a single statement in this paragraph that couldn’t be found in a hundred scholarly monographs describing Pentecostalism.

    >The Charismatic movement has the most credibility as a source of a dissolving evangelicalism, because it has been the most pragmatic, least doctrinal, most culturally adaptive and least intellectual component of evangelicalism. This is a movement with virtually no accountability or institutions, no meaningful confessions and little interest in relating to the Reformation.

    I’d welcome specific refutations regarding the Charismatic MOVEMENT. Not exeptions that you know. I work with dozens of charismatics and many are exceptions to various statements.

    Legwork? I have been in and around the charismatic/Pentecostal movement for 34 years. If I’m wrong, it’s not because I am making sweeping generalizations. Where I live 80% of the churches are charismatic. I deal with hundreds of Charismatic pastors, parents and students. I doubt if there are 2 that know what the Reformation was.

    Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes. What more do I need to say? I applaud Jack Hayford. But this movement is Oral Roberts and Rod Parsley, Ken Hagin, Ken Copeland, Joyce Meyers, etc.

    I hate to say this, but Charismatic/Pentecostals increasingly remind me of Mormons. Because of their large numbers, presence and influence in evangelicalism, they want to define the mainstream. Then T.D. Jakes denies the Nicene Creed, Rod Parsley sells snake oil and Joel Osteen repackages the Word-Faith heresy, and we’re all supposed to adjust.

    I may disagree with Phil on whether there is much of anything to call a “once orthodox” evangelicalism, but I don’t disagree with him on the current effects of the mainstream Charismatic movement. I’ve tauted and praised C.J. Mahaney on this blog in hopes that someone would notice just how different SGM is from the rest of the Charismatic world. Why is Mahaney hanging out with Presbyterians rather than fellowship with the mainstream Charismatics on TBN?


  8. Michael,

    I usually find your essays thoughtful, provocative or both. But this is one of the sloppiest I’ve seen. You’ve bitten off much more than you can chew in a blog post. Some of your generalizations are so shaky as to be virtually useless, if not borderline slander (e.g., charismatics with “virtually no accountability” and “little interest in relating to the Reformation”?)

    You need to do a little more legwork, be a little more thorough in your research and more careful in the conclusions you draw. I like reading your work, and will continue to do so, but you’ve missed badly on this one.


  9. Michael,

    What bothers me about some sectors of Evangelicalism is this “all or nothing” or “either/or” treatment of everything that is analyzed. There’s no ability to discern black or white among the gray. EVERYTHING the Emergents are saying is wrong because some of the things they are saying are wrong. EVERYTHING the charismatics say is wrong because some charismatics are heretical headcases. You can’t be a real Christian and do ____________ because ____________ is not something our sector of Evangelicalism condones or practices.

    The irony of this is that many of the favorite sons quoted by people who like to make these bald comments are folks who practiced the very things that are being derided:

    * Only the old hymns are the right kind of worship (even if some of our favorites are by that Arminian Charles Wesley.)

    * Charismatics are heretics, but we’re willing to give a pass to Sovereign Grace Churches, A.W. Tozer, and the first President of Moody Bible College, R.A. Torrey.

    *Emerging churches are wrong, even if they’re out feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoners while we sit around and argue doctrine all day.

    The Godblogosphere has become very tiring lately, especially when people can’t see the natural outcomes of their own blindspots.



  10. I never even knew what this discussion was all about until I moved and began looking for a new PCA church. What a struggle it’s been! I keep trying to talk myself into joining the big one with more than 1000 members, but as much as I hate to admit, I’m afraid that this church leans more to the mega-church model than a PCA church should. The “sanctuary” looks more like a hotel conference room and not suprisingly the dress code is very informal. No cross is present anywhere – just a big rainbow-type banner hanging on the back wall. And while they do their best to stick to acoustic hymns as opposed to contemporary praise & worship music, there is no choir and never any anthems sung. Most suprising is that I would guess a good majority of the members have little understanding of the basics of reformational theology. I see a good many of them carrying Ryrie and Life Application Study Bibles and the church library is littered with books from Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado. I’m sure most would say they go to this church because of the excellent preaching and that is certainly true. But if this is any indication of what can happen to a denomination regarded to be orthodox, it is time to worry. Our of frustration and curiousity, I did attend a Mass at an orthodox Catholic Church, and while I don’t expect I’ll be crossing the Tiber anytime soon, I do believe this particular Catholic Church worships God with more reverance and awe than the PCA church I’ve been attending.


  11. Love the D.G. Hart stuff. I haven’t read anything of his, but he’s coming here to Rochester in May.

    Right on the mark, and a fair and clear-minded response, in my opinion.


  12. Michael writes, of Charismatic churches: This is a movement with virtually no accountability or institutions […]

    They tried. It was called the Shepherding Movement. I’d wager I don’t need to remind anyone how that worked out. We’re talking about a movement in which the desire for spiritual experience has usurped both doctrine and common sense, and this leads — I assert inevitably — to the elevation of those people who can deliver the experience the most. Dominated by “anointings,” the people kick accountability, stability, and doctrine to the curb.


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