Winter 1989

Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4

Dr. James D. Hunter is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He received his B.A. degree at Gordon College and an M.A. and Ph.D. at Rutgers University. His recent book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, won the 1988 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The author of numerous books and articles, Dr. Hunter is also a noted sociological researcher and consultant. In the following interview, he discusses the future of evangelicalism.

Q. You have stated that evangelicalism has been in a cognitive bargaining process with modern society. What do you mean by this?

A. Religious tradition has basically three options when confronting modernity. One is simply to withdraw and not interact with the modern world. Another option is accommodation. The third option is resistance –to interact with modernity, but to resist it. Evangelicalism in the twentieth century has been defined mostly by a posture of resistance, when in fact it has been a combination, a process of bargaining — some accommodation, some resistance.

The early part of the twentieth century was primarily one of resistance — resisting higher criticism, evolution. But evangelicals wanted to be a part of the modern world, and since the post World War II period we have seen increasing accommodation, less resistance, and less awareness of a loss of tradition. The evangelical community has proceeded blithely along, generally unaware of the kinds of social and cultural pressures that will undermine its integrity. It has also been unaware that it has slowly been adopting and accommodating more and more of what previous generations of conservative Christians would have considered unacceptable.

Q. In what areas is contemporary society influencing evangelical thought and life?

A. I see an enormous influence in family life, theology, politics, work, the view of self, and morality. To be perfectly blunt, sin is being redefined within the evangelical tradition. What was sinful a generation ago is no longer sinful today. When confronted with this reality, evangelicals will more or less trivialize their heritage by saying, “Those behaviors were not really sinful, but a mere religious and social quirkiness of our forebears.” But if we found ourselves back in the time of our religious forebears, we would see how central certain “quirky” moral codes were to orthodox Christian life then.

Thus, it is an enormous presumption to say that our ancestors were wrong and we are right, that we are more enlightened than they. The reality is that we are always affected by the kind of society in which we live. Contemporary society is more permissive than that of the past, and the evangelical community is being affected by that permissiveness.

I am not saying that previous generations were wrong or right, or that we are wrong or right. I am saying that there is less and less continuity with the past.

One example of accommodation is found in attitudes toward the self. The traditional Protestant view of the self held it to be something to be denied and kept under control because the flesh was at war with the spirit. There are good biblical reasons for this, after all. Today, any form of self-denial has been largely abandoned in favor of self-help books and therapeutic introspection. How can you deny the self when the self is constantly being examined, probed, and “understood?”

As for theology, the dominant trend since the Enlightenment has been an effort to give a bigger role to the human factor in our understanding of religious experience, of Scripture, and of Christ Himself. The liberal tradition has desacrilized Scripture and Christ to a large extent and made the human element preeminent. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have resisted this temptation — at least until mid-century.

Increasingly, however, there is now a trend to accommodate this Enlightenment temptation within evangelicalism and evangelical theology. Inerrancy of Scripture was the main motivation for fundamentalists at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Yet, today within evangelical seminaries there is an enormous amount of evidence that both faculty and students are rethinking inerrancy.

Another very startling development is the changing view of salvation. There was a tremendous urgency in times past to evangelize those around the world who had never heard the gospel of Christ. Recognizing the dangers of the mission field did not dissuade men and women from pursuing the missionary call because so many people had not had the opportunity to hear of Christ. It was worth the risk and danger.

However, in the surveys I conducted, it became very clear that this sense of urgency is no longer held by the majority of evangelicals, due largely to the fact that the theology of salvation has changed. There is a very strongly held view among seminarians, college students, and the larger evangelical culture that, since God is a fair God, those who have not heard the gospel in this life may have a second chance in the next life. The notion that God is a just God and would not needlessly condemn people to an eternity in hell is widespread. What about people like Schweitzer and Ghandi, the really good people of this world who are not professing Christians but who exemplify all the virtues and the fruits of the Christian life? There is the tendency to say that these people will be given a second chance.

Q. How may we avoid compromising traditional evangelical beliefs?

A. American evangelical Christians need first to understand their “social location.” They should realize that they have become not only a cognitive minority but also a social behavioral minority. Culturally speaking, they are strangers in an increasingly strange land. They should recognize that their beliefs (such as the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of salvation) and moral commitments ( such as the fight against abortion and homosexuality) will be increasingly unpopular.

Coming to terms with these things should be liberating to the Christian. It should compel Christians to depend more upon the Spirit to transform hearts and less upon the most up-to-date and “relevant” programs for addressing the needs of an increasingly pagan world. In a way it places on them only the burden of preaching the gospel in its most simple, undiluted form.

By abandoning the effort to be part of the cultural mainstream, I don’t mean to say that evangelicals should not try to have an influence on the mainstream. I think Christians need to become intellectually, culturally, and politically engaged at the highest and most serious levels. But it needs to be from a moral and theological position that has come to terms with its own minority status. And from that, the evangelical community can become a community of proclamation that does not worry about whether it’s popular, or intellectually fashionable, or accepted. It simply trusts God to use the words.

This does not mean that evangelical Christians should become insensitive, coarse, uncouth, or openly uncivil, but simply a community that preaches the gospel in truth and as forcefully and boldly as possible, without trying to water it down.

Q. Are seminaries and colleges doing enough to instruct students in the theological traditions to help them stand firm against the pressures of today’s culture?

A. I am not in a position to judge the quality of education in seminaries and colleges. I can say this, however. The intended consequences of higher education are to train future leaders of the Christian community and to preserve the traditions of the Christian faith for the next generation. The reality is that Christian colleges and seminaries very often, unwittingly and unintentionally, do just the opposite.

It is a well-known fact that higher education secularizes. People who go to college end up leaving college less religious and less committed than they were before. What I asked in my research was, “Is the same true for Christian education?” The answer is yes. By the time an eighteen-year-old graduates from college four years later, his faith has changed in every area — family, morals, theology, work, and on down the line. Higher education has pushed the student away from the traditions of the past. There seems to be something intrinsic to higher education that works against orthodoxy.

I surveyed some of the faculties of Christian colleges on their views of Scripture, of Christ, of life after death, of morality. Most of the faculty had abandoned tradition even more thoroughly than the seminarians and college students.

Q. How might evangelical institutions interact with contemporary intellectual ideas while still instilling in their students a Christian world and life view?

A. The trick, in my opinion, is to combine a thorough education in classical Christian orthodoxy with a sophisticated understanding of the contemporary world. We have done pretty well with the former but poorly with the latter. But there are good reasons to pursue the latter.

In Romans 12 we are told not to “be conformed to the patterns of the world,” but what are the social, intellectual, and cultural patterns of the world to which we are not to be conformed? This question is a very difficult one to answer at the end of the second millennium. The purpose of ”Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation• was to begin to articulate some answers.

>Q. What do you see in the future for evangelicals in this country?

A. I would say that evangelicals will increasingly find themselves in an unfriendly environment. Evangelical Christians who maintain integrity with their faith and with the traditions of the past are going to find themselves out of sorts. If the analysis holds true and things continue as they have been, the next generation of evangelical leadership is going to resemble less and less the current generation and certainly the generations past.

The intention of my book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, is to assist the evangelical leadership in taking an honest look at themselves and the world around them so that they can contemplate their future with integrity.