In Presidential Address, Mohler Outlines Four Temptations Facing the Evangelical Theological Society
Four temptations frame the past, present, and future of the Evangelical Theological, Albert Mohler said Wednesday night in his presidential address at the 73rd annual meeting of ETS in Fort Worth, Texas.
Mohler, this year’s ETS president, cited fundamentalism, atheism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestant liberalism as temptations that have framed the organization’s challenge and forged its identity since its humble beginnings in 1949, when founders first met at a YMCA in downtown Cincinnati. All four temptations have existed since that initial organizational meeting, he said, but they have only grown more significant over the years.
Southern Seminary’s president cited fundamentalism as the first temptation.
While ETS is fundamentalist in the sense that evangelicals hold to fundamental Christian doctrines such as the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the person and work of Christ, and the Trinity, the organization rejected fundamentalism’s tendencies to withdraw from culture. Mohler said that ETS must also steer clear of the theological eccentricities that have sometimes characterized fundamentalists over the past few decades.
Nevertheless, Mohler said “honesty compels us to understand that there is a limit to how non-fundamentalist authentic evangelicalism can be.”
A second threat is atheism, Mohler said. The issue is not that evangelicals are tempted to become atheists, but rather that evangelicals fail to understand our agreement with the atheists of what is at stake. Mohler cited atheist Sam Harris’s point that it is all or nothing when it comes to the existence of God. Harris argues, “let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.”
“We agree with the atheists on one central, inescapable assumption and that is the truth that the existence of God or the non-existence of God is the most important question facing humanity,” Mohler said. “The one thing we recognize is that everything follows from that presupposition.
“That’s a point with which we agree with the sincere, honest atheist. I think when ETS was formed in 1949 they understood that evangelicalism is not a mediating position between belief and unbelief. It was an attempt to establish a theological society upon the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
While ETS members and evangelicals may not flirt with an outright rejection of God’s existence, they may be tempted to make room for some kind of middle ground on the question to court respect from secular universities.
“That temptation is not so much a temptation that we would become atheists, although as I tell students, to me, an evangelical theologian is to understand that one of us is right and one of us is wrong,” he said. “There is no credible position in between. Either God is or he isn’t.”
Roman Catholicism represents the third temptation. The roots of ETS as with all of evangelicalism are planted deeply in the Protestant Reformation. The issue for which evangelicals must always be ready to give an answer is their basis for truth, which is Scripture alone.
Catholicism was on the rise in America just after World War II when ETS began and gained some steam later in the 20th century, so this is no new threat, Mohler said. The temptation today may be to give ground on the gospel because Rome seems to have such a massive, ancient basis for spiritual, ecclesiastical, and theological authority.
“To be evangelical is to understand that one of the questions we’ll always have to answer is why we’re not Catholic,” Mohler said. “We know that we have to find authority somewhere. We understand that there is an inescapable demand that we answer the question as to authority.
“And we understand that the Catholics have a really big argument. And they’ve got a lot to show for it. They have a papacy, a magisterium, a Vatican, they have archbishops, they have cardinals, and centuries and centuries of continual argument—doctrinal trusteeship as they call it.”
The answer to the question “Why not Rome?” is abundantly evident, Mohler said.
“I believe to go to Rome is to abandon the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “I believe it is to join a false church based on false and idolatrous presuppositions. But I also understand it would be easier to sleep at night if we could trust in a magisterium with their stewardship for us. It would be easier to think about passing on the baton of your institution to someone else because, after all, there is a backstop.
“To be an evangelical is to recognize that we don’t have a backstop. We have no alternative. We’re left with the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God.”
The final temptation, Mohler said, is Protestant liberalism. This temptation arises when Christians believe they must try to salvage the Christian faith to make it palpable to the culture. Over the past few decades, Protestant liberalism has rejected virtually all the central doctrines of Christianity in attempt to make the faith more appealing to a secularized society.
“Our task is to make certain we turn the Evangelical Theological Society over to a new generation, even as it was turned over to us, intact in its mission, energetic in its convictions,” he said.
“Membership in ETS needs to mean something. The challenge we face in the coming days is a quantum increase over what we’re seeing. We’re going to find out in short order whether being a member of this society is enough to disqualify some people from teaching on some faculties or election to tenure.
“We’re also going to find out, with our doctrinal commitment, just how far you can get in the modern secular academy because there is no DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) statement that seems to include American evangelicals in diversity and inclusivity.”
Raising the issue of the ETS future, Mohler made a pointed argument: “Our Doctrinal Basis requires the affirmation of biblical inerrancy and the Trinity. We have made clear that inerrancy is defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The founders of the ETS were confident that our affirmation of the formal principle of the Reformation (sola Scriptura) would also imply affirmation of the body of doctrine.
Today’s challenges will require more doctrinal specificity, Mohler said.
“Just consider the challenges posed by the LGBTQ revolution,” he said. “Our task is to hand this society to the next generation in faithfulness, and that is no small task. It is our task.”