Union U conf: Wheaton president on the future of American evangelicalism

Communications Staff — October 7, 2009

Wheaton President Duane Litfin. Photo by John Gill
Wheaton President Duane Litfin. Photo by John Gill

Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, said the movement of evangelicalism today is broad, sprawling and difficult to define, and though he continues to identify himself with the term he encourages conservative theologians to hold to loosely.

In the 1970s, the evangelical movement was more narrow and easier to define, but that has changed dramatically over the last 35 years, Litfin said. Many truths that were once assumed to be true are now debated, he said.

“The tendency to sprawl that seems now to me to be inevitable, has continued until today and I think it will continue to do so (spread) in the future,” said Litfin, who has served as president of Wheaton for 17 years. “One reason for this sprawl is the issues we are dealing with today are more complex. If you go back and read the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy it almost sounds quaint in the assumptions being made there about the nature of truth and the nature of error.”

Litfin said denominationalism has declined over the past few decades, largely because of generational change.

“One of the books I read this summer is called ‘The Net Gen,'” he said. “It is focusing in particular on that generation that has always known the Internet. The book makes the point that even things like the physical wiring of the brain was developing as they are immersed in this digital world. We know that there are some real changes generationally and we can see the retreat from hierarchy and organizational loyalties.”

Litfin made three observations “as an outsider” looking in at the Southern Baptist Convention regarding its future. First, he said Baptist polity is well positioned for the decline of denominationalism. Because Baptist ecclesiology prizes local church autonomy, the churches of the SBC are in a good position to maintain the strengths of their cooperation and leave behind areas of weakness.

Second, Litfin said shifts in denominationalism should force the SBC to become less insular. While the SBC has long been able to be insular, possessing its own colleges and universities, source of curriculum, retirement and investment agency and seminaries, shifts in denominationalism may require that the SBC work more with those outside the convention.

“I would encourage you to partner with whomever you can where you can without compromising the truth,” Litfin said. “You can learn from others by hanging out with them and equally you can have a good influence by becoming a part of a broader conversation. Sitting in a catbird seat at Wheaton, I would say we need you. The broader evangelical world needs the voice of those in the SBC.”

Third, Litfin said the SBC should not depend on evangelicalism as a movement. While he has not written off evangelicalism, Litfin recognizes that the movement may not be a viable option for conservative theologians in future years. Litfin exhorted Southern Baptists and all evangelicals to remain Word-centered.

“As an evangelical, I want to keep us anchored in the truth,” he said. “Terms come and go and movements come and go. Stay Word-centered, Christ-centered, Gospel-centered. This is what will keep you useful to the Lord.”

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