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A Review of C. Vaughn Doner’s book “The Late Great Evangelical Church”

I have in hand C. Vaughn Doner’s book “The Late Great Evangelical Church: How an Age-Old Heresy is Killing the Modern-Day Church and How it Can still be Saved.” It is set to be released soon, but you can pre-order it through their website and it is listed on Amazon.com: The Late Great Evangelical Church

Doner aims to diagnose the ailments of the Evangelical church and comes to the conclusion that Gnosticism is the chief culprit. Gnosticism was repudiated by the early church but Doner argues that it was actually re-introduced by many church fathers via Plato and Philo and others. Gnosticism continued to arise under different guises and often succeeded because of its ability to adapt and employ arguments based on the Christian Scriptures, thus making the Christian Church itself the primary source for new Gnostics.

Tracing this pattern, Doner finds that it leads to a pack of Catholic mystics who in turn influence and infect early founders of the Evangelical church such as John Wesley before given real life under Charles Finney and D.L. Moody, and then generating real power when armed with the Dispensationalist teachings promulgated by Scofield’s Reference Bible which came out in 1909. Making the matters worse, the Evangelical churches abandoned the heritage handed down by the Apostles through the church fathers and set aside the principles of Calvin and Luther which aimed to reform the catholic (universal) church and do so while recognizing the weight of the historic orthodox Church.

The result, Doner argues, is an America filled with Christians who do not act like Christians, at least and especially outside the homes and the local church building. After all, Gnosticism holds a dualistic view of the world where matter is evil and our quest is to set aside such inferior entrapments and pursue true reality, the spiritual. Why try to engage society when you think it is all crude and inferior, anyway? Doner argues that this attitude also led to an emphasis on nothing more than individual salvation as being the goal of church activity. The net result is Christians who don”t know anything about their historic roots (orthodox or heretical) who focus only on their own personal piety (thou shalt not drink, smoke, or dance) who in the American tradition are contemptuous about ecclesiastical authorities such as the clergy or scholars and who do very little to affect society, to “disciple all nations.”

That is the basic argument. Doner’s book is well-researched and there are plenty of references. Doner makes it clear that he himself shared this background and was actually a leader of the Evangelical church operating on the same principles he is now rejecting. Before I go on to add some of my own reactions to his book, let me state in no uncertain terms that this is a book that should be read by millions. If you are a Fundamentalist Dispensationalist you will not like this book, but you should read it. Those from traditions that remain more in line with Calvin and Luther will find it intriguing to say the least. I would say that even Roman Catholics would be helped.

This review goes on for a ways. Read on.

I grew up educated in the schools of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and after college taught in those schools. Reading this book was a bit like watching another family fighting with each other. The Lutherans (like Catholics) are not Dispensationalists. They also do not get into the whole Rapture scene, holding a view that would be called amillennial. Again, like the Catholics, they are sacramentalists. In other words, I read this book from a position of observer. However, as a Christian apologist, I often have to endure the consequences of these Evangelical themes because many atheists are former Evangelicals. Thus, when I attempt to argue for the historic orthodox Christian church, these non-Christians will possess a view of Christianity that is actually derived from the 18th or 19th centuries. That makes my job harder.

I don’t think the Dispensationalists are going to be too happy with Doner on a number of levels. I wonder, though, if Doner is really prepared to go all the way in his analysis. For example, he repudiates one of the pillars of American pietism, the rejection of alcohol consumption, but is generally silent as to whether or not he would accept some of the positions of the Historic church on the sacraments. For example, does he agree with the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans on baptism, and consequently, infant baptism? Does he remain of the view that baptism is a personal, individualistic proclamation of one’s decision for Christ? It would seem like he shouldn’t. The same question could be asked about the Lord’s Supper. However, Doner is (perhaps wisely) silent on these issues.

But I’m not sure that I can completely accept his analysis that it is Gnosticism that is to blame for everything that Doner has pinned on it. I don’t at all disagree that Gnosticism forms a significant component. But is it really the chief culprit? I don’t think so. In the later chapters when Doner begins to expound on ‘American Religion’ and the rank individualism of American culture and the integration of that individualism into the worldview of the Evangelicals, it feels a bit like he’s wandered off his premise because I’m not so sure individualism itself is Gnostic in nature.

And while consumerism and individualism are indeed pernicious elements within the Christian churches, it is unclear as to whether or not in Done’s conception they have any kind of proper place. In particular, I think of some of the individualism. Those fleeing religious persecution in Europe had good reasons, in my view, for being distrustful of the ecclesiastical powers. If a problem in the Evangelical church is that every person gets to be their own Bible interpreter even if they are grossly incompetent and giving due respect to scholars and religious leaders and institutions is a portion of the solution, how does Doner handle the fact that in the Roman Catholic church such a deference existed for hundreds of years, leading to such nightmarish results like the Crusades and the Inquisition?

In other words, there are historically some good reasons for being distrustful of ecclesiastical structures and powers that have nothing to do with Gnosticism. How and where would Doner draw the line, here? This is again something that Doner is silent on. This may be simply because he’s trying to raise awareness, but I think that this issue needs to be addressed.

In a similar vein, it would seem as though Doner himself lays out some foundation for being critical of these authorities, both past and present. He argues that the Evangelical church treats with contempt the idea that one would actually need to study the Scriptures and make use of scholars and the church fathers and church authorities, but he attacks all of these as often being, in lesser and greater measures, influenced by Gnosticism! If I was an Evangelical listening to Doner I would wonder how I can simultaneously defer to authorities when authorities like Finney, Moody, and Billy Graham are being given the blame for perpetuating Gnostic attitudes.

On a deeper level (because I agree with Doner in many respects), he manages even to go after church fathers like Clement, Origen, and Augustine. But if you’re supposed to give some attention and respect to the church fathers how can you go after them at the same time? Isn’t it possible, for example, that Augustine’s respect for Plato is actually perfectly acceptable and within Christian orthodoxy, and not Gnostic? How can you find out? You can’t trust the church fathers completely and you can’t rely on your own individualistic interpreting, so where does that put you?

Now, I should say that I have not pursued this angle with nearly as much research as Doner has. He gives enough resources that the inquirer could dig into this himself, but that itself raises the problem of giving some proper due to the individual’s ability to do their own investigation. My point here is not to discount the fact, or possibility, that Gnosticism infected even stalwart ancient fathers, but rather to raise the issue that Doner doesn’t provide us with any kind of baseline analysis by which we might be able to independently discern heresy in the church fathers if at the same time we are appealing to such men to establish a view of orthodoxy.

I concede that I am an outsider looking in and also that I have not performed the study that Doner has here. However, there are other areas of analysis that I don’t agree with. In particular, how he traces alleged influences. I trust that when he asserts that Wesley read certain ‘mystical’ works that this is the case, but I wonder if this is good methodology if applied in all scenarios.

By way of example, Doner is silent on a famed Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. But he is not silent on Chuck Colson, who Doner insists has come more and more to see things the way that Doner does (see page 209). But Colson cites C.S. Lewis as instrumental in bringing about his conversion to Christianity. Lewis is from the Anglican church, which (excepting that whole King Henry the 8th incident) has proper deference to authority and certainly accepts the creeds and the Church fathers. Ah, but Lewis cites George MacDonald as an enormous influence on him, saying that MacDonald baptized his imagination. On the back of one of MacDonald’s books we read:

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded George MacDonald as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.

But George MacDonald was influenced by those like William Blake, who in turn was influenced by… William Law. William Law is singled out over and over in Doner’s book as being engrossed in Gnosticism and perpetuating it. And, as I can also cite C.S. Lewis as a ‘master’ that means that I also have the disease of Gnosticism rolling about in me, somewhere!  Or so this methodology would imply.

There are some Christians that would in fact make this case, and perhaps Doner would, which is why I have received this review copy. 🙂 Many Evangelicals would classify Lewis as actually being a pagan, and cite MacDonald and his influences, right on down to William Law (and beyond), as evidence. But the people making this argument are often the anti-intellectuals that Doner is singling out for chastisement. So, I’m not sure what one is to do here.

My suggestion would be that not all Platonism is Gnosticism and there may have been perfectly good reasons for why the Church fathers incorporated some Platonic elements into their thinking about doctrine. This would require further study on my part to demonstrate, but I suggest that such analysis would have to be forthcoming by Doner, as well, since he aims to return the church fathers to a place of esteem in the Evangelical church as well as the creeds that these men produced for us.

My final concern has to do with Doner’s insistence that we are not paying enough attention to society. I am an amillennialist, and Doner concedes that while this isn’t as optimistic of a position as his own (pg 106); amillinnealism is in fact the historic position. Anyway, he doesn’t have as much of a problem with amillennialism as he does pre-millennialism.

The argument seems to be that the call to engage society means really subduing the earth and its nations to a Christian worldview. Now, I definitely believe we should engage society. But I do not believe that we should make the world ‘Christian.’ That sounds too much like Islam or the Roman Catholic perception of several centuries ago. I don’t quite know what Doner is getting at, here. Knowing a little bit of Brian McLaren, whom Doner cites frequently and favorably, and as I am not convinced that McLaren really appreciates genuine orthodoxy, I wonder if another extreme- the Social Gospel- is being entertained.

We have all seen what happened when Christianity was in charge of actual governance under the Popes. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Just how far should the engagement with society go? If we successfully get rid of abortion, alcohol, and pornography and rid the world of poverty, will we have really achieved a Christian world? I don’t think so, and I have trouble believing that this is what Doner is advocating. And in his defense, he chastises those who reject all use of alcohol (as he should. I agree that is a perfect illustration of modern Gnosticism). But it is all very unclear just where he would draw the lines, if he would draw them at all.

Doner appears to take as his mandate on this issue Matthew 28:18 which calls for the discipling of all nations. He calls for the ‘redemption of the whole world.’ Such a policy is out of bounds to someone with Gnostic feelings since the world is a sinful thing that will pass away. Doner also uses the word ‘creation’ in place of the word ‘world’ which makes me think he is advocating for the subjection of the whole universe to the Christian battle standard. One distinction here is that Gnostics didn’t merely think the world was sinful, but that the material was an illusion altogether. You can think that the world is fallen into corruption while accepting its reality and original goodness without being Gnostic, and similarly you can point out that the Scriptures make it clear that this present order really is going to pass away.

Quoting from 2 Peter 3 will be helpful here:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (vs. 10)

In the face of such a passage we might expect Doner to reply that we are still called to ‘redeem the world.’ But what does Peter say? He continues:

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him.

If one did not know that this was Peter writing, under Doner’s analysis one might think you were reading a Gnostic, pietistic account. For myself, I am not prepared to accept that Peter suffered from this heresy. Yet, there is no hint in this passage that we ought to have a goal of redeeming the world. Not merely does there seem to be a place for the view that one should focus on personal holiness in the face of the coming destruction, a passage like this one lays it out explicitly.

It seems to me that this whole issue is one of fundamental importance within the American Christian church. It is a matter that requires attention. Desperately. I don’t agree at all with the attitude that fully dismisses involvement in our political system, but nor do I believe that our call includes subjugating everything to the Christian worldview. A nation or world or universe that has and enforces Christian moral standards 100% still would not mean that the people within those contexts are Christian.

I would maintain that our best bet is to try to convince more people to be Christians and in this way ‘secular’ governance is affected and hopefully conforms in the best ways to Christianity. Doner rejects this as simply not working but he is rejecting it as not working among those who are fundamentally ignorant about their Bible and how to read it and whose primary assurance of being Christian is the fact that they participated in an altar call. I agree with him that the approach won’t work when you’ve got uninformed and misinformed ‘Christians’ running about. But what if they know their stuff? What if you have Christians who have really begun to ‘transform their minds’ as described in Romans 12? I think that changes matters altogether.

Despite these challenges, I still commend Doner’s book to anyone and everyone. I think he raises valid points as to whether or not Dispensationalism is supported in the Scriptures and agree with him on certain effects of that view. I don’t accept his analysis that Gnosticism is truly the root cause for all of this. I agree with him that a return to the creeds and a historic understanding of the Christian faith and training the intellect is called for. I wonder how such a view can be reconciled with continual favorable quotations of Brian McLaren who seems to be quite prepared to take a different tact. I agree that Christians need to be more active in society but don’t agree that to think or do otherwise is to engage in the worst forms of Pietism.

Personally, I believe the Church could be doing tons more internally and if it did so the ‘secular’ manifestation would be significant, even if we stopped all ‘secular’ activities altogether. In other words, I do not believe that our internal focus has been tried and found wanting, but that it hasn’t really been properly tried.

Yes, I disagree with him on a number of levels, but agree with him on many important points. At the very least, the Christian church needs to have a conversation on these issues, and Doner adds substantially to that conversation.


1 comment

1 ping

    • Anu Samuel on June 18, 2009 at 9:29 am

    plez suppoters our ministory.we wand to need a church building.
    God bless you

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