Cover Story

God and Man at Cambridge

Back to the scene of the crime: In Cambridge, where early American Puritanism once reigned, relativism now holds sway. But a broad coalition of Reformation-minded evangelicals has returned with a withering indictment of American evangelicalism gone awry. They hope their work at Cambridge will spur a movement back to historic creedal Christian faith and practice. But the struggle over whether to issue a stinging condemnation or a gentle critique reveals the Cambridge Declaration as very much a work in progress.

Issue: "The historic Christian faith," May 11, 1996

They are financially potent but sparsely populated. Whitewashed sepulchers have replaced Christian congregations in this historic Massachusetts city where once true worship swelled.

A simple stroll through Cambridge reveals a scene more European than American-one Swiss study said as much-its Gothic arches and colonial steeples pointing toward heaven while its jumbled ideas and broken lives point toward hell. Local architects recently gutted one church in old Boston, but saved its stone Gothic facade. A Congregational church on Massachusetts Ave. adds new meaning to "having a form of godliness" without real content or power.

The Cambridge church buildings "are monuments to times when Christianity was really flourishing," laments Terry Gyger, who moved to the Boston area two years ago to lead the planting of a new congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Mr. Gyger's energetic 150-member congregation meets in a 150-year-old church building just halfway between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The shell they bought was just one of dozens of church buildings that Mr. Gyger says have become "empty monuments now."

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Worries that much of American evangelicalism may be headed the same direction as old Cambridge have led in recent months to the formation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), a new organization with a distinctly Reformational if not explicitly Reformed theological flavor.

ACE leaders are frank to express their fear that American evangelicalism, like American liberalism before it, is headed toward a fate like that of the congregationalist church in Cambridge: a mere facade with no real guts.

Such concerns led 110 top Reformation-inclined leaders to gather a stone's throw from Harvard Square three weeks ago to see whether they themselves could agree on a diagnosis of the problems. The result-from a diverse group of Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptists, independents, and others-was a three-page "Cambridge Declaration" that warns, in part: "Therapeutic technique, marketing strategies, and the beat of the entertainment world often have far more to say about what the church wants, how it functions, and what it offers, than does the Word of God."

Evangelicalism today focuses more on self than on God, the declaration says, and it urges a return to "the historic Christian faith" expressed in the historic principles spelled out by Martin Luther and John Calvin: Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and God's Glory Alone.

"Today the light of the Reformation has been significantly dimmed," the declaration states, adding: "The word evangelical has become so inclusive as to have lost its meaning. We face the peril of losing the unity it has taken centuries to achieve."

So far, only 75 of the 110 ACE participants have signed the declaration. A few who didn't simply disagreed-some because of tone, others because of content. Of the rest, observers said, at least a dozen had left to catch planes home by the time of the closing signing ceremony. Some non-signers (and some signers) criticized a clumsy style of structuring the three-day event. Although nearly a dozen major addresses dominated the agenda, little time was allotted for group discussion and debate. Drafts of the final statement were distributed to participants just two hours before adjournment, hammered out for content and edited for style through the previous night by conference leaders on the basis of suggestions contributed in note form by any and all who attended.

If the process was something short of a resounding display of unity for less confessionally rooted evangelicals to follow, the final product was a plainly worded challenge.

The statement never goes as far as ACE's most youthful speaker, Michael Horton, would. Mr. Horton heads CURE (Christians United for Reformation) and his books (published by Moody Press) draw circles for the "true church" so small that even many ACE leaders would feel uncomfortable endorsing them. In his address, Mr. Horton said: "If we are really convinced of the justice in the Reformation's critique of medieval Rome, we can no longer fail to regard Arminianism within Protestant circles as any more acceptable. It is not only Rome, but the Wesleyan system, especially as it is mediated through Charles Finney, Pentecostalism, and the revivalist tradition, that must be rejected to the extent that each fails to sufficiently honor God's grace."

Mr. Horton was explaining that the battle against Arminianism, a system of doctrine that places human decision on a par with God's sovereignty, "may deprive us of peace and honor in our current positions."

He went on to say, "In our cafeteria approach to truth, Americans will happily embrace everything we say and then place a saucer of Toronto Blessing and a plate of political ideology on the tray as well, chased perhaps by a glass of self-esteem therapy. We must engage in antithesis. We must declare, with the Reformers and with the Athanasian Creed, not only, 'We believe ...,' but, 'Therefore, we condemn....' "


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