Theology Thursday - Is Evangelical Theology Changing? (Part 2)

This article was published in the March 1956 issue of “Christian Life” magazine. It was seen by fundamentalists as a direct repudiation of the movement. One fundamentalist scholar wrote that the contributors were “crystallizing new evangelical discontent with fundamentalism.”1Still another observed that fundamentalists “viewed the leadership of new evangelicalism as a group of compromisers who were abandoning the fundamentals of the faith in order to be accepted by the larger theological world.”2 

This is Part 2 of the article.

A More Tolerant Attitude Toward Varying Views on Eschatology

Used to be that most fundamentalists were pre-millennial and pre-tribulation. That is, they believed that Christ was coming again to begin a thousand-year reign of peace. Furthermore, that the church would be “raptured” – (taken up to Heaven) – before the “tribulation” (seven years of trouble) the Book of Revelation says will come before Christ’s return.

But for the last ten years debate has been raging on these subjects. Some evangelicals have taken an “amillennial” position (no actual thousand-year period). Some are saying that the Bible doesn’t teach that the church will escape the tribulation.

One theologian expressed to Christian Life fear that conservative Christianity might be seriously split between “those who wish to identify their views with strict orthodoxy and those who wish to keep eschatology as a matter of open and free discussion.”

But among theologians, at least, the “free and open” spirit is winning out.

Last year’s debate on the tribulation between Harold John Ockenga of Boston’s Park Street Church and John Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary in the pages of Christian Life is an example. It caused a flurry of comment pro and con. Yet generally it was accepted as a legitimate discussion for an evangelical magazine.

Paul Wooley of Westminster Theological Seminary gives the viewpoint which seems to be growing: “The average evangelical Christian realizes that the exegesis (explanation) of the Scriptures on this point is not so simple that he can be cocksure about every detail. The result is that there is a more healthy open-mindedness about the details of the eschatological scheme.”

Certainly everybody isn’t going to agree. The significance of the whole thing, however, is that evangelicals can agree to disagree.

Vernon Grounds sums up: “The outcome of the controversy will be exceedingly wholesome. I am confident. We will emerge with a more balanced eschatological interest, emphasizing the larger issues of human destiny which have often been obscured by incidentals.”

A Shift Away From So-Called Extreme Dispensationalism

Theologians are probably closer to agreeing on the fact that dispensationalism is facing a real test today than on any other statement.

Warren Young’s comment, “The trend today is away from dispensationalism – away from the Scofield Notes – to a more historical approach,” is echoed by many evangelical theologians.

Wilbur Smith stated, “Regarding evangelical views on eschatology, I am sure that there is a growing repudiation of extreme dispensational views. In fact, many who are absolutely conservative in their eschatological beliefs rarely use the word dispensation now.”

In Assemblies of God schools, it is reported, “dispensational truth,” is being submerged “to a less conspicuous place in the curriculum.” And fewer and fewer Assemblies of God ministers are using dispensational charts.

An Increased Emphasis on Scholarship

Says Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary: “To present the full implications of the Gospel requires a body of men who are trained in the sciences and in philosophy and who fathom the significance of the Christian religion for these fields.”

Carl F.H. Henry of Fuller Theological Seminary feels keenly the need for evangelical schools to “organize their scholarship forces into creative centers of research and writing. We need a great center of conservative theological thought.”

It’s clear that evangelicals do not glory in ignorance. The evangelical scholar does not stab a finger at the Bible and say, “This is it, take it or go to hell.” As Warren C. Young of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary puts it: “The evangelical believes that his position can be supported and justified by a scholarly consideration of the case. He is the apologist for conservative Christianity.”

Thought there is as yet no “great center of theological thought,” evangelical schools have been steadily upping their standards. Today the evangelical can get a well-rounded education at a good number of schools firmly committed to the teaching of God’s Word.

A More Definite Recognition of Social Responsibility

Evangelicals believe that only by calling individual men to the reality of sin in their lives will the ills of society be cured. Nevertheless – unlike fundamentalism – evangelicalism realizes the church has a prophetic mission to society. There are times when the church must thunder, “Thus saith the Lord!”

To quote Grounds again: “We must admit that a compelling ethic in terms of biblical categories has yet to be worked out. We must … make evangelicalism more relevant to the political and sociological realities of our time.”

Terrelle B. Crum of Providence-Barrington Bible College stresses that “unless conservative Christian theologians take more time to point out the relevance of Christ and the Bible to important (social) issues conservatism will be neglected by the rising generation.”

To be continued …


1 Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2004), 338. 

2 Larry Oats, The Church of the Fundamentalists (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 2016), 107. 

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There are 14 Comments

Jim's picture

"And fewer and fewer Assemblies of God ministers are using dispensational charts."

I am a dispensationalist in a dispensational church (not AOG) and I can't think of the last time I've seen a dispensational chart.

Anyone else the same?

TylerR's picture


Larkin's charts were masterpieces. The man could draw - no doubt about it! But, alas - I have never been in a church with a dispensational chart.

The article mentioned this:

Last year’s debate on the tribulation between Harold John Ockenga of Boston’s Park Street Church and John Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary in the pages of Christian Life is an example.

That would have been 1955. That is an article that would be fun to read!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Really liked the points on social responsibility and scholarship--these have a LOT to do with another thread where it's lamented that fundamentalists really don't do secular campus ministry well, and really have a LOT to do with whether we simply become knee jerk reactionaries, or whether we have something to say in our "body politic".  And count me at least as an aspiring "convergent" in these areas as well.  

Regarding dispensational charts, I've been a member of a church with them.....suffice it to say that there is at least one church which, when I was a member, did not make dispensational charts seem like a boon to spirituality.  Lots of other things involved in that, though.  Was not all the fault of the charts by a long shot.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture



  • I think Christians ought to fairly examine opposing views and make their own decisions. This should include meeting with their Pastor(s) to cordially discuss the issue. This might even lead to a good Wednesday evening Bible Study topic - who knows! To borrow a line from a good movie, pre-millennial eschatology is (in my opinion) the best bad option we have . . .

Extreme Dispensationalism:

  • It depends on what you're talking about! In this context, it was classical dispensationalism. Again, I have no problem with somebody honestly searching the Scriptures and making their own decisions.  


  • As long as people get advanced theological education in order to better serve the local church, and then I see nothing wrong with this. However, that isn't the goal for some people - they're always chasing the chimera of academic respectability.

Social Responsibility:

  • I think this is Carl Henry talking. It depends. How's that for ambiguity?



Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Once again I am left with the impression that in order to be a "true" fundamentalist one must be pre-tribulational, pre-millenial, and dispensational.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture


It is interesting that, even in 1956, these benchmarks were seen as pillars of fundamentalism - so much so that the editors who wrote this old article felt they had to comment on them. I don't think this was the view in the 1910's. Maybe I'm wrong.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Rolland McCune's picture


The title of my tome actually ended with the word Evangelicalism in footnote 1 above.  No Freudian slip was intended, I trust.

Back in the 60s and later, Dr. Collins Glen, Grace Baptist Church, Muncie, IN, made a simplified series of dispensational charts that he used for Bible studies to great effect as a tool for evangelism, church planting and general instruction in an approach to understanding the Bible.

I myself made a one-page prophetic Bible chart that covered the Church age to the eternal state that I used in Sunday school and seminary classes, Bible studies and the like, although the thrust was usually not evangelism as such. 

Rolland McCune

TylerR's picture


Dr. McCune:

Yikes. I was tired when I did that one, obviously! I'm very sorry . . . I fixed it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture


I get the feeling that, by using the term "extreme dispensationalism," the authors were referring to "passionate dispensationalists" who actually believe the system is biblical. It seems as if they would have preferred more uncertainty.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Rolland McCune's picture


Sorry to be so late in responding to this particular thread. Retirement has its distractions that are not in the playbook.

Your reply to Ron was correct, IMO. Without sounding pompous, I tried to address this and similar issues in the late 90s entitled "Doctrinal Non-issues in Historic Fundamentalism" (DBSJ, Fall 1996, reprinted in Biblical and Theological Issues, Wm. W. Combs, ed. [Winona Lake, IN, BMH Books, 2010]). The "non-issues" covered were Bible Versions, et al, Calvinism and Arminianism, Denominational Distinctives and Polity, Premillennialism and Dispensationalism, The Moral Efficacy of the Physical Blood of Christ, and Lordship Salvation.

RE dispensational premillennialism, it was the dominant view, inherited largely, I suppose, from the Bible Conference movement which made a major contribution to the history of fundamentalism. Some notable exceptions were T. T. Shields, J. Gresham Machen (who much preferred not to be called a fundamentalist, but didn't throw mud at the term or movement. D. G. Hart wrote that Machen "When forced to choose between fundamentalism and modernism, he admitted he was a fundamentalist 'of the most pronounced type'." Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America [Baker, 1994, p.63.]). Also the  Free Presbyterians, led by Ian Paisley, had/have both premils and amills.

Also a somewhat parallel article of mine, found in DBSJ, Spring, 1996, and also in Biblical ...Issues: "The Self-Identity of Fundamentalism," was made before some of the current discussion and rubrics came out on the subject.  My views are parallel to the Moritz-Sidwell continuum, which has an honorable history.

Rolland McCune

Ron Bean's picture

As I've reread "The Fundamentals" I've yet to find any mention of Dispensationalism or Pre-Tribulationism. There is an excellent article on Pre-millenialism in Volume IV (Chapter XXII). In addressing the imminence 0f Christ's return the author does not equate the term with "immediate" but stresses uncertainty of time but the possibility of nearness.

It seems to me that the historical evangelical/fundamentalist position is one of historic pre-milennialism without references to a pre-tribulational rapture or dispensationalism. I would again assert that one may hold to an essentially literal interpretation of Scripture and pre-millenialism and be rightfully labeled a fundamentalist without being dispensational.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Rolland McCune's picture


 I find little in principle to disagree with your last paragraph, but some historical perspective might help. Not finding dispensationalism in The Fundamentals is no surprise; it was still in most of its somewhat immature developmental stage doctrinally at that time."Dispensationalism" reached evangelical-wide status largely in the 1960s with Charles Ryrie's Dispensationalism Today in 1965. There was earlier revisionary thinking on the structural apparatus of dispensationalism in the syllabuses of, e.g. Charles Fred Lincoln and Clarence Mason, and in classrooms at Moody B I, Philadelphia Bible College, BIOLA, Dallas and Grace Seminaries, and many more. Some of this is reflected in The New Scofield Reference Bible of 1967.

True, premillennialism has not always been dispensational. Covenant Reformed thought had a premil stratum (e.g., Paul Wooly, I think, at Westminster was premil). And "historic" premillennialism, of course, was not pretribulational even though it was quite popular among evangelical type Bible commentaries in the 19th Century. The near demise of date-setting historicism in prophecy occurred in the later 18th Century and early 19th Century when prophetic studies broke into three camps: hold-over historicism, futurist posttrib premillsm  (present claimants to the title "historic" premillsm) , and futurist pretrib premillsm that developed dispensationally by John Nelson Darby, et  al., in the early 19th Century.

I think it was generally held during the beginnings of fundamentalism (ca. last 1/3 or 1/4 of the 19th Century) and the Bible Conference era that "imminency" was virtually a synonym with premillennialism, if not some form of pretribsm, even though it was actually a tenet of the maturing dispensational premillsm.

(Historic premillsm, i.e., posttrib premillsm, does not and cannot hold to an imminent rapture of the church. J. Barton Payne [The Imminent Appearing of Christ] tried to cobble a posttrib imminent rapture, but convinced practically no one. Historic premillsm overtook the New Evangelical movement principally due to the strong influence of Fuller Seminary and George Eldon Ladd. IMO it is the overall dominant view among evangelicals today. Knowledgeable historic premills have long since quit talking about imminency.)

Imminency is the private property of pretribsm, but it seems not to have been that clear in early fundamentalism. My point is that the widespread belief in an imminent rapture in the developing fundamentalism was what was being developed also in theological dispensationalism. The two developments coincided historically in the early 20th Century and many may have thought that dispensational premillsm was an integral tenet of fundamentalism when it was probably not.

While dispensational premillsm came to dominate generally the prophetic thought of fundamentalism I see no reason to exclude someone from our ranks on the sole basis of this matter.


Rolland McCune

Ron Bean's picture

Thank you for the response and explanation.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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