Book Review—Promise Unfulfilled | An Analysis

Reviewed by Andrew David Naselli.

McCune, Rolland D. Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism. Greenville, S.C.: Ambassador International, 2004. Hardcover, xvii + 398 pp. $24.99.

Editor’s Note: This review was originally posted on Andy’s blog along with a rejoinder from Dr. Rolland McCune. Due to the length of this review, we have split it and published it here according to its two major headings—Part One: A Summary and Part Two: An Analysis. I would encourage you to follow the above link to read Dr. McCune’s response to this review.

Purchase: Ambassador-Emerald | CBD | Amazon

Special Features: Footnotes, Selected Annotated Bibliography, Scriptural Index, and Topical Index

ISBNs: 1932307311 / 9781932307313

LCCN: BR1642 U5 M33

DCN: 230.04624

Subject: Modern Evangelicalism

Promise Unfulfilled is the most penetrating book-length evaluation of the “new evangelicalism” (about 50 years after its genesis) by a self-identified fundamentalist. McCune (b. 1934) is former president and current professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary (Allen Park, MI). He testifies, “I first heard that there was such a movement called ‘new evangelicalism’ when I entered Grace Theological Seminary in the fall of 1957… . In 1967 I began teaching on the seminary level and annually lectured on the new evangelicalism. This book”—McCune’s first—“is a partial harvest of all my years of research, study, and teaching on the subject” (p. xv).

An Analysis

Strengths

During the summers of 2000 and 2001 (following my sophomore and junior years of college), I was privileged to take two seminary classes at DBTS from McCune. I stocked up on his lengthy course syllabi and devoured them (about 900 pages on systematic theology as well as lectures on hermeneutics, apologetics, and the like). I have listened to dozens of his audio lectures and sermons, read his journal articles, interacted with former students (including one of my former pastors) who esteem him as their mentor, and interacted directly with him a bit (e.g., I interviewed him for my dissertation on Keswick theology). His thinking is rigidly logical, his conclusions firm, his commitment to God and His word immovable, and his character unquestionably above reproach. Promise Unfulfilled, which I first read when it was published in 2004 and then a second time in October 2007, evidences McCune’s strengths:

  1. It is well-researched, which is not surprising since it is the result of nearly four decades of teaching and research on the subject. This level of research is evident simply by scanning the footnotes, bibliography, and index.
  2. It is unusually well-informed. McCune has intimate, firsthand knowledge of many of the people and events he discusses.
  3. It is logically and clearly organized (with some exceptions, e.g., the headings in chapter 2).
  4. It is genuinely earnest and courageous. McCune did not dispassionately write this book as a mundane, scholarly exercise to climb the academic ranks or secure tenure. He is committed to obeying God by guarding the gospel. He knew that it would not be a popular book, but rather than floating along with the current, McCune addressed a controversial issue head-on, including the application of a series of Scripture passages that many others are inclined to ignore or at least not to study in detail (e.g., Rom. 16:17–18; 2 John 9–11; 2 Thess. 3:6–15). It is disappointing that many are unaware of or perhaps have ignored his work. (To my knowledge, not a single review of Promise Unfulfilled has been published in a theological journal, and now most journals consider the book too old for a review.)
  5. It is convincing. McCune successfully proves his thesis with the vast majority of his supporting arguments. Spurgeon’s Downgrade Controversy is an exceptionally moving illustration supporting ecclesiastical separation (pp. 126–28), and numerous evangelical analyses of Evangelicalism (several of which McCune mentions in his annotated bibliography) corroborate McCune’s thesis.

 

Weaknesses

 

From my young, inexperienced, limited perspective, Promise Unfulfilled also has some weaknesses (besides more than a handful of typos and formatting issues). Since I do not want to give the impression that I have everything worked out infallibly, I submit these suggestions corrigibly and respectfully (though not timidly).

1. The book appears at times to shape Fundamentalism into what McCune thinks it ought to be rather than to state what it is or to present arguments with which most fundamentalists would agree.

  • (1) It does not critique Fundamentalism as intensely as it critiques Evangelicalism. One of the fundamental rules of book reviewing is to analyze a book on its own terms rather than to criticize the author for not writing a different book, so I simply mention that a similar critique of Fundamentalism could be embarrassing for fundamentalists.
  • (2) It argues for the superiority of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics, but many evangelicals are Van Tillian, and many fundamentalists are not Van Tillian.
  • (3) It rejects Evangelicalism’s social activism partly because it does not line up with McClain’s postponement theory of the kingdom, a subset of revised dispensationalism (pp. 36; 263–66), but some fundamentalists reject dispensationalism, and a much larger group rejects that particular variety of dispensationalism.

2. It lacks sufficient nuance, notably in the following five areas.

(1) Some of its arguments do not logically follow. For example, “Promise Keepers has many strata of belief and practice, one stratum of which is charismaticism, as seen in the charismatic conference speakers and their writings (such as Greg Laurie, Chuck Smith, and Jack Hayford), the conduct of the public gatherings (including the music and hand lifting/waving), and the composition of its governing board” (p. 108, emphasis added). Moving from such “conduct” to charismaticism is a non sequitur since many non-charismatics worship with similar music and “hand lifting/waving.” That seems to be an unguarded statement that would understandably frustrate non-charismatics who worship with that kind of music and “hand lifting/waving.”

(2) It employs a slippery-slope argument, namely, that Evangelicalism, because it rejects at least some categories of separation, inevitably leads to doctrinal aberrations such as non-inerrancy, neo-orthodoxy, or open theism (cf. the concluding evaluation in Part 9 quoted above). It does not logically follow, however, that all evangelicals tolerate such error or are moving on an unavoidable trajectory in that direction. For example, Ligonier Ministries has avoided this slippery slope. Further, there are many churches (some of which I have visited) that McCune would not consider to be fundamentalist but that do separate from heresy, unequal alliances, organized apostasy, and disobedient Christians.

(3) It includes “interdenominationalism” as an objection to ecumenical evangelism since it cannot agree on “what is truly essential and what is non-essential or peripheral” (pp. 74–75), but this objection lacks sufficient qualification. No doubt his description of interdenominationalism is often—perhaps usually—the case, but that is not necessarily so. McCune acknowledges that Fundamentalism itself is interdenominational (pp. 17, 20; cf. McCune’s “Doctrinal Non-Issues in Historic Fundamentalism,” DBSJ [1996]: 178–79). Furthermore, Evangelicalism includes many doctrinally sound groups that are interdenominational, six of which readily come to mind:

1. Ligonier Ministries led by R. C. Sproul;

2. Desiring God Ministries led by John Piper;

3. 9 Marks led by Mark Dever;

4. The Shepherds’ Fellowship led by John MacArthur;

5. Together for the Gospel led by Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, and C.J. Mahaney; and

6. The Gospel Coalition led by D. A. Carson and Tim Keller.

(4) Its criteria for applying “secondary” separation based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15 could be clearer. McCune explains that fundamentalists sometimes tolerate “those who fellowship with new evangelicals, or those who engage in entangling unbiblical alliances of various sorts, or whose standards of personal deportment and music are intolerable… . If, after the passing of reasonable time, and appropriate biblical confrontation, it is apparent that the organization is unable or unwilling to put its house in order, then the Bible-believing separatist has no choice but to withdraw” (p. 148). At what point do fellow believers qualify for separation with reference to their “personal deportment and music”? How does positive Scriptural teaching on unity fit into this paradigm?

(5) It lacks nuance when distinguishing fundamentalists from evangelicals. Sometimes McCune’s description of Fundamentalism is unrealistically narrow:

Broadly speaking, ecclesiastical separation is the refusal to collaborate with or the withdrawal of a working relationship from an ecclesiastical organization or religious leader that deviates from the standard of Scripture or that does not believe and obey the word of God in doctrine or practice. Separation is the refusal to join hands or make common cause with those who deny or disobey the Scriptures (p. 138, emphasis added; cf. 125, 148, 151).

Based on that definition, I would have to separate from everyone—including myself since I often “disobey the Scriptures”! McCune obviously means that only certain types of deviation from the Scriptures (i.e., flagrant, habitual unbelief or disobedience) merit separation, but his statements lack nuance and clarity.

At other times, he has an “us vs. them” mentality that seems to view all evangelicals as disobedient Christians from whom fundamentalists must equally separate. For example, while McCune greatly appreciates many aspects of their ministries, he lists the Southern Baptist Convention as an example of “organized apostasy” (p. 146) and John Piper and John MacArthur as “disobedient Christians” (pp. 151–53). Many who are intimately familiar with the SBC, Piper, and MacArthur (including some within Fundamentalism) would disagree with McCune’s assessment. Such people might counter that (1) efforts by men such as Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Tom Nettles in the SBC’s conservative resurgence are similar to what David Beale calls “nonconformist fundamentalism” [In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, S.C.: Unusual Publications, 1986), pp. 3–12] and that these men are worthy of support on several levels and (2) Piper and MacArthur are militantly orthodox but apply the same principles of separation differently.

The issue here seems to be nuance. People have a tendency to broad-brush groups of which they are not a part, often because they fail to see distinctions from a distance. Movements are complex, and pockets of people within a particular movement are often frustrated when others critique their movement without acknowledging its complexity or diversity. For example, many Mormons are understandably frustrated when the media lumps them together with fringe Mormons who are polygamists, and many fundamentalists are understandably frustrated when evangelicals lump them together with, say, the King James Only movement, anti-intellectualism, or legalism.

At least two groups are similarly broad-brushed in Promise Unfulfilled. (1) Many non-cessationists (e.g., D.A. Carson, John Piper, or Wayne Grudem) would be understandably frustrated with McCune for how he implicitly lumps them all together with charismatics whose “presence in the new evangelical ranks has contributed to the deterioration of evangelical theology as a whole and has fostered an experience-oriented Christianity” that gives “an enormous boost to the ecumenical movement” (pp. 108–9). (2) Many evangelicals would be understandably frustrated with McCune for how he lumps them all together as non-separatists. It seems that evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to caricature each other with the result that evangelicals have as much trouble fitting intellectually respectable fundamentalists like McCune and Kevin Bauder into their conceptual grid of fundamentalists as fundamentalists do fitting militantly orthodox men like Carson, Dever, MacArthur, Piper, and Grudem into their conceptual grid of evangelicals. [See, e.g., Bauder, “What’s That You Smell? A Fundamentalist Response to the Smell of Sawdust,” part 2 in Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail: Evangelical Ecumenism and the Quest for Christian Identity, ed. Timothy George (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004) and “A Fundamentalism Worth Saving”; and Grudem “Why, When, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries?” chap. 10 in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), pp. 339–70.] McCune seems to treat all non-fundamentalist Christians as “new evangelicals,” as though the current theological milieu is the same as it was in the 1950s. The fundamentalist-evangelical landscape, however, has changed considerably.

Conclusion

Despite the disproportionate space given to them, the alleged weaknesses are relatively peripheral to McCune’s thesis, which he argues convincingly. McCune is on the side of the angels. Evangelicalism has become increasingly diluted, and the result is that it has compromised what is most precious to Christians: the gospel. Promise Unfulfilled is a sober, eye-opening reminder that all believers are charged with the important and often difficult responsibility to guard the gospel.

naselli.jpgAndy Naselli is currently working on a Ph.D. in Theological Studies with a concentration in New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he serves as teaching assisting to Dr. Robert Yarbrough, research assistant to Dr. D. A. Carson, and part-time Greek faculty. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Bob Jones University (2006), an M.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University (2003), and a B.A. in Bible from Baptist College of Ministry (2002). He and his wife Jenni live on campus at Trinity in Deerfield, Illinois.

 

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