Time to end this catchphrase.
I’m not a verbal processor, not in the sense that I need to talk out loud to work out what I think. I am a verbal processor in the sense that I think in words, and that I tend to write a lot. Writing is the output of my brain and that’s why I keep this blog going (unlike the scattered remains of a thousand abandoned blog projects that I have also started).
Today while live-streaming a certain conference, one of the MCs brought up the “what is believed in one generation, is assumed in the next, is denied in the third” line. I have heard this several times, almost always in the context of evangelicals scaremongering and saying, “oh, boy, we better do more gospel ministry, because we are one generation from extinction”.
It really ticks me off, this saying, and I decided to do some investigation into where it comes from, and some reflection upon why it annoys me so much. I think I’ve found at least the origination of the phrase in the evangelical microcosm. It’s Don Carson:
“I have a colleague in the Missions Department at Trinity whose analysis of his own heritage is very helpful. Dr. Paul Hiebert labored for years in India before returning to the United States to teach. He springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the ‘entailments’ became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.”
D.A. Carson Basics for Believers, p26-27.
Firstly, note that it is an analysis of one particular historical incident: US Mennonites. Secondly, it is more complex than the usual version bandied about: it involves the Gospel and Gospel entailments, and a shift from centre to periphery, which is the point Carson is making when he uses this. Thirdly, Carson assumes the scheme may apply to contemporary evangelicalism.
There is a much broader question here: is this a useful and generally true historical paradigm? I don’t have the time here to investigate this, but I can only suggest that those who keep bandying it about are unfairly extrapolating from a specific set of circumstances to a general principle of movements. That is bad historiography, and bad sociology.
So my first set of dislikes for the proverb is that it has been taken from context, oversimplified, and turned into a general catch-phrase that is historically dubious.
My second set of dislikes is that I think the statement is theologically unbalanced and off-kilter. It’s used to express a kind of peculiarly evangelical fear: the gospel could be lost in one generation unless we are vigilant! The church is in danger of disappearing!
Are we so convinced that God’s purpose for building his kingdom has come down to us, right here, right now? Is that our doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence? Is that our reading of church history? That between 120 AD and 1500 AD about 8 people got saved in all? Have we no explanation for the fact that more Christians paid homage to the Patriarch in Ctesiphon than to Rome or Constantinople?
Let me be clear, I am definitely not saying that we should not strive, contend, fight with every ounce of vigour and fidelity to preserve, teach, proclaim and guard the deposit of faith entrusted to us. I am saying that a defensive, narcissistic, and fatalistic outlook is not the best way to motivate this.
The statement is very often taken fatalistically. Since “we” (whatever generation you are) are the faithful generation, “you” our successors must be that foolish, naïve, troublesome generation that is ‘assuming’ all we fought for, which means the generation after is full of heretics and liberals, and it’s your fault, because we believed and you assumed. This is not encouragement, it’s down-putting and generational bullying.
We can find better ways to encourage self-aware striving for the gospel than this.