The Emerging Church

The Emerging Church

Protestantism has evolved through the centuries and is still undergoing further change

Fernando Canale

The history of genetic mutations from which American Evangelicalism springs is complex. It could be said that the Protestant experiment began in Europe with the masterminds of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, and the Radical Reformers, such as Karlstadt, Müntzer, Grebel, Manta, Hubmaier, Hut, Sattler, and Simons. Luther generated a revolutionary idea; Calvin developed the idea into a system; and the Radical Reformers anticipated the complexity and fragmentation of Protestantism and the roles that Scripture and laity would play in the evolution of the movement.

Eventually, state churches emerged from the reform movement in the 1560s and 1570s. Confessionalization is the interlocking of “religious beliefs and practices with the objectives of the state.”1 In the process of organization, Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) communities “defined themselves by explicit and extensive doctrinal formulations.”2 Thus, doctrinal and organizational lines were drawn.

In England, Anglicanism in the 1520s and 1530s, and Puritanism in 1558 advanced different visions of the Protestant Reformation. Anglicanism, while remaining closer to tradition, attempted to purify the organizational and moral excesses of Roman Catholicism, drawing from both Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas. Following Scripture more closely, Puritanism attempted a more deep and extensive reformation of Christianity following the Calvinistic model from Geneva.

After the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), an exhausted Europe needed a break from religious debate and reformation. As a secular culture of tolerant rationalism emerged with modernity, religious commitment and church attendance greatly diminished. In this new cultural climate, Protestant renewal and adaptation brought about Pietism in 1675. Nikolaus Ludwig Graf Zinzendorf’s pietistic ideas influenced John Wesley’s emphasis on the role of experience in the Christian life.


American Protestantism

All these ideas and religious practices crossed the Atlantic and populated the fertile soil of early American settlement, creating, in turn, new developments centering on epoch-changing events, such as the first (1720-1750) and second (1800-1850) Great Awakenings. With the passing of time, the complexity and options of religious practices increased. Centrifugal forces overpowered centripetal ones. To overcome the disadvantages of theological and ecclesiological fragmentation, American Protestant denominations began to cooperate on specific projects, such as missionary outreach and the translation of Scriptures. American Evangelicalism is a coalition of Protestant denominations that attempt to overcome their fragmentation by working together on theological and practical tasks.

As part of Protestantism, American Evangelicalism is a varied, multifaceted, and complex phenomenon that defies neat descriptions and definitions. Moreover, the term Evangelicalism may describe historical, doctrinal, and pastoral referents. Historically, it may refer to the sector of American Protestantism influenced by the two Great Awakenings and the Baptist and Methodist denominations strengthened by them. Doctrinally, it may refer to a theological summary of beliefs shared by various denominations. Pastorally, it may refer to a coalition of denominations working for a common cause. In this article, Evangelicalism is intended to describe the center of American Protestantism during the 20th and 21st centuries.


Modern Protestant Theology

After the Thirty Years’ War, emerging philosophical trends began to recast the intellectual landscape of European civilization. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Descartes (1596-1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704), among others, spearheaded a relentless attack on the foundations of classical philosophy and science, opening the way for the emergence of the Modern Age. In various ways, the new age would shake Christianity. One of these ways was the rise of the historical-critical method, based on the claim that Scripture is not an inspired book. This was advanced by philosophers like Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and John Locke.3

More than a century later, Protestant theologian Friedrich Daniel Ernest Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the father of modern Protestant theology, thought that the solution to the epistemological problem presented by modernity was to accept its premises and readjust theological construction to the new situation. Drawing from his Pietistic tradition, Schleiermacher argued that God reveals Himself through feeling rather than reason. On this basis, Schleiermacher went on to articulate a system of the Christian faith that became a solid alternative to the reigning Calvinistic system. Although both systems were Christian, they advanced widely different interpretations of doctrines, life, and ecclesiastical practices. Soon modern scientific ideas went on to challenge biblical cosmology by means of the evolutionary theory.



Not surprisingly, leaders of American Protestantism reacted differently to the new scientific ideas and the modernistic approach to theology championed by Schleiermacher. Since the new ideas appealed to intellectuals, they reacted to them first. For various reasons, some found the changes in the foundations of Christianity advanced by modernity convincing; others did not. Progressively, some theology professors and seminaries adjusted to the new ideas; others became critical of them.

During the 19th century, theologians from the Old Princeton Theological Seminary understood that the acceptance of modern epistemology and cosmology was incompatible with traditional biblical Protestantism. Acceptance of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, Schleiermacher’s theological system, and evolutionary theory represented a challenge to the foundations of biblical Protestantism. As the heir to prestigious Old Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) and Charles Hodge (1797-1878), Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886), and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) used their Calvinistic heritage to defend and reaffirm the classical understanding of Reformed Protestantism against the challenges of modern science and theology. Kevin J. Vanhoozer reminds us that “Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield laid the groundwork for conservative evangelical theology.”4

At the turn of the 20th century, two very different events were brewing in American Protestantism. On the intellectual front, German biblical criticism, inspired by modern philosophical ideas, was eroding the authority of Scripture at the seminaries. On the practical life experience front, Pentecostalism came into existence. The former led to the rise of the Fundamentalist movement that defended the authority of the historical meaning of Scripture.5 The latter led to the rise of the Charismatic movement that produced a revival in church attendance across denominational lines.

In time, modern ideas and the modern reinterpretations of Christian theology reached popular culture and challenged ministerial practice. This gave rise to what we know now as “Fundamentalism.”

As with the words Protestantism and Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism also has a broad range of meanings and different referents. For instance, it can refer to any anti-intellectual, absolutist, and authoritarian position of any kind. It can also refer to religion in general, and to a particular period in the history of American Evangelicalism. In this article, the word Fundamentalism refers to the mutation of American Protestantism that evolved during the first half of the 20th century.

Some trace the origins of the “fundamentalist” version of American Evangelicalism to the “Niagara Creed” in 1878. A common enemy, modern culture and modern theologies, united a diverse theological spectrum that included millenarians and advocates of Old Princeton theology. Among the 14 affirmations included in the Niagara Creed, five became influential talking points against modernity: biblical inerrancy, the deity and virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, and the Second Coming. This action revealed a common modus operandi. Instead of arguing against modernity or showing the shortcomings of modern theology from solid biblical thinking, fundamentalists contended that the Bible, Christian doctrine, and Christian experience did not need to be redefined in light of the scientific, philosophical, and literary assumptions of modern culture. Ironically, according to some, Fundamentalism eventually led to a new version of American Evangelicalism.

Two events became emblematic of the fundamentalist movement, the publication of The Fundamentals6 between 1910 and 1915, and the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. The former, a theological initiative, “defended conservative evangelical Christianity,”7 and the latter, a cultural event, produced anti-Darwinian legislation in Tennessee. Because of the theological controversy, several Protestant denominations split up into fundamentalist and modernist wings. Because the media in the Scopes Monkey Trial “labeled theological conservatives as reactionary and anti-intellectual,”8 evangelicals sought to distance themselves from the “Fundamentalism” label.

In short, Fundamentalism came into existence as a response to the challenges modernity leveled against Christianity in general and conservative Protestantism in particular. There was no new light from Scripture, spiritual revival, or systematical understanding behind it. By its origin and nature, Fundamentalism was an apologetical movement.



Several factors led to dissatisfaction with evangelical Fundamentalism, among them for instance, the fact that much of it was “populist, ignorant, and hostile to intellectual theology,”9 and brought in isolationism and withdrawal from the mainstream culture of America. By the mid-1940s, “a number of influential thinkers emerged within fundamentalist ranks that sought a corrective to what they perceived as an increasing social and intellectual narrowness in the movement.”10 Out of this restlessness emerged the neo-evangelical movement under the initial leadership of E. J. Carnell, Harold Ockenga, and Carl F. H. Henry.

These men sought to reform Fundamentalism in the areas of scholarship, apologetics, and its social dimension. Yet, the new evangelicals continued to fight against the neo-orthodox view of Scripture and the modernist theological system of Schleiermacher. Neo-evangelicals also distanced themselves from Fundamentalism by their social outreach and ecumenical engagement. While Fuller Theological Seminary embraced the reform and became the leading institution of neo-evangelicalism,Christianity Today came to be its unofficial voice.

The neo-evangelical movement’s deep historical roots go back to the middle of the 19th century. On the heels of the second Great Awakening in America, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were debating their ideas and Charles Darwin was developing his evolutionary theory, Protestant evangelicals in Europe felt a growing desire to demonstrate spiritual unity. In 1846, this sentiment led 800 leaders from 52 Christian bodies in eight nations to convene in London and organize the World Evangelical Alliance. The aim of this organization with a strong pietistic orientation was primarily ecumenical, based on a non-authoritative and incomplete statement of beliefs.

More than a century later at the Woudschoten Convention in Holland, an international group of evangelical leaders organized the World Evangelical Fellowship (1951) as an intra-evangelical ecumenical alternative to the World Council of Churches (1948). John Stott, renowned Anglican minister, helped in redacting the clearly ecumenical aims of the World Evangelical Fellowship: the furtherance, defense, and confirmation of the gospel; and fellowship in the gospel. Its doctrinal basis followed the same lines earlier adopted by the World Evangelical Alliance. Not surprisingly, there was little difference between neo-evangelicals and fundamentalists in the area of theology. Theological debate on traditionally unresolved issues continued.

However, the conviction that Protestants should relate to scientific teachings challenging evangelical doctrines and practices not by ignoring them but by engaging them intellectually was growing among evangelical intellectuals. Eventually, it became the watershed distinguishing neo-evangelicals from fundamentalists. Progressively embracing their evangelical doctrinal, theological, and ecumenical traditions, neo-evangelicals engaged modernity in areas such as social responsibility, ecclesiology, science, Scripture, and theology.

In society, neo-evangelicals engaged culture by pursuing the social application of the gospel. In ecclesiology, they faced modernity from within their seminaries, churches, and mission organizations. In science, they moved from recent creationism to embrace the deep time of evolutionary history. In Scripture, they moved from full to limited inerrancy and use of the historical critical method. Arguably, with the passing of time, more evangelicals sided with Bernard Ramm’s (1916-1992) than with Carl Henry’s (1913-2003) vision of Evangelicalism. These were the hot issues at the time.

Not all neo-evangelicals, however, were happy with these new trends. In theological circles, controversy over biblical inerrancy arose and continues in the 21st century. This controversy takes place within evangelical institutions and seminaries. Norman Geisler, for instance, thinks that the new evangelical accommodation to the historical critical method’s demands is a “deviation from the longstanding evangelical teaching on Scripture.”11

In the midst of theological controversy, Protestant historical orthodoxy continued unchanged. Overall, in the practice of ministry there was little change. Early enthusiasm stirred by Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s diminished with the passing of time and the secularization of American society. Fundamentalism survived in the ethos of evangelical ministry, with some describing this phenomenon as “neo-fundamentalism.” Thus, while evangelical theologians faced challenges springing from modern science, evangelical ministers faced challenges springing from modern culture. Apparently, evangelical theology and ministerial practice faced the same enemy, modernity, without much interdisciplinary cooperation.

By the middle of the 20th century, deep philosophical and cultural changes emerged in Western culture triggered by World War I and World War II. Just as the Thirty Years’ War in Europe had diminished the authority of Christian faith as a trusted guide for civilization and ushered in the modern age of reason, the two world wars produced a loss of trust in reason and human institutions, paving the way for the postmodern age of individual and communitarian freedom. Existentialism in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, and, the hippie movement in America in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized individual freedom and became forerunners of postmodernity. Evangelical ministers now faced the impact of modern secular culture with its materialism, individualism, and subjectivism in their own churches. As always, the new ideas reached the younger generations first and transformed them more quickly.

By the same time, Protestantism was experiencing epochal changes as well. After the second world war, Pentecostalism had “overtaken most of the mainline denominations that dominated the American religious landscape from 1800-1950.”12 The charismatic renewal of Evangelicalism “has led to new informal worship styles, an explosion in ‘worship songs,’ a new concern for the dynamics of worship, and an increasing dislike of the traditionalism of formal liturgical worship.”13 Yet the distinctiveness of the charismatic renewal pertained not to the styles, but to the nature of worship that calls for them. Worship, according to Charismatism, is the “immediate encounter with God through the Holy Spirit and the ensuing transformation of the individuals.”14

External miraculous manifestations in worship proved an irresistible attraction for many, including the unlearned, materialistic, secularized, and rationalistically minded. Direct access to God, unmediated by priest, pastor, church, doctrine, or creed, was available just by attending church. This phenomenon implied the need for a lot of rethinking in Christian theology and practices.

In time, neo-evangelical pastors discovered that while biblical preaching and orthodox doctrine did not increase church attendance, charismatic worship did. This discovery paved the way for a pragmatic use of worship styles to reach secular-minded people, which was spearheaded by Bill Hybels of Willow Creek.

As the end of the 20th century drew near, in the midst of these vertiginous changes culture was eclipsing Scripture in Evangelicalism; the changes were almost unnoticed, yet not quite. In 1984, Francis Schaeffer mused, “There is a growing acceptance of the neo-orthodox existential methodology. There is a growing infiltration of humanistic ideas into both theology and practice. There is a growing acceptance of pluralism and accommodation. . . . Here again we see the great evangelical disaster.”15

While Schaeffer decried the surrender of evangelical leaders in their battle against modernity, modernity was evolving into Postmodernism, perhaps the greatest philosophical and cultural mutation since Plato. In 1988, Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Küng announced to fellow theologians that the advent of a new age in Western civilization was underway. “After the paradigm changes of the Reformation in the sixteenth century and of modernity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, we experience, as I believe, at the end of the twentieth century, a new paradigm change to a ‘New Age’ that we tentatively call ‘postmodern.’”16 Everything was about to change.



From the brief and partial description of some points in the long, complex, and variegated history of Protestantism, the following points may help to better understand present developments early in the 21st century.

● Protestantism emerged from Scripture as a reform of the Roman Catholic Church and a serious challenge to culture. For a variety of reasons, the reformation of the Roman Catholic Church evolved from outside its walls.

● The Reformation achieved during the 16th century was incomplete and continued during the 17th century, notably with Puritan theologians.

● The Reformation was fragmentary because of its incapability to develop a coherent theological system based on the sola scriptura principle.

● Luther and Calvin developed a system of Protestant theology using Roman Catholic philosophical foundations. This system provides the center for evangelical unity in denominational diversity even in postmodern times.   

● Arguably, the development of the Protestant Reformation slowed down when modern philosophy and science challenged the former’s biblical foundation.

● The fact that Protestantism faced the challenges of modernity by way of apologetics slowed down its development and distracted it from its evangelical mission. Moreover, apologetics did not solve the intellectual problems that still confronted successive generations of evangelical intellectuals.

● In the absence of intellectual answers to modern scientific and philosophical challenges to Scripture, Bible believing neo-evangelical leaders have progressively accommodated Bible interpretations and teachings to the dictates of science and popular culture in the areas of theology, doctrine, ministry, and worship. In short, neo-evangelicals faced secularization by adopting a modernistic neo-orthodox view of Scripture and secularizing worship music and liturgy.

● Springing from the Protestant heritage, the charismatic renewal competes with Scripture and seems to divert Protestantism away from Scripture.

● Postmodern culture and philosophy add new challenges to Protestantism.

● After two centuries of gradual emergence from Scripture, Protestantism confronted challenges from science and culture during the last three centuries. Seemingly, the focus of the Protestant Reformation is switching progressively from Scripture to culture. Is the Protestant Reformation emerging from Scripture coming to an end?


Part 2 of “The Emerging Church” will appear in a future issue of Perspective Digest.


Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 101.


2. Ibid., p. 103.


3. “A detached reading of the Bible as a book like any other book, which paid due attention to the original language and historical circumstances, would produce a tolerant and peaceful agreement about the essentials of a moral and spiritual religion” (J. C. O’Neill, “Biblical Criticism,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed. [New York: Doubleday: 1992], p. 727).


4. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” in Andreas J. Köstenberger, ed., Whatever Happened to Truth? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 100.


5. R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon, et al., ed. The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, 4 vols. (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009).


6. See ibid.


7. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2002), p. 127.


8. W. H. Fuller, “From the Evangelical Alliance to the World Evangelical Fellowship: 150 Years of Unity With a Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 20, p. 160.


9. James Barr, “Fundamentalism,” in Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds.,The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Eerdmans, 2001), p. 364.


10. Tom J. Nettles, “Fundamentalism,” in Warren S. Benson, Michael J. Anthony, Daryl Eldridge, and Julie Gorman, eds., Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), p. 306.


11. Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), vol. 1, p. 388.


12. McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, op cit., p. 418.


13. Ibid., p. 420.


14. Ibid., p. 424.


15. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (Greenville, S.C.: Crossway Books, 1985), vol. 5, p. 4.


16. Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, Peter Heinegg, trans. (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. xiv.