This week, I am summarizing and commenting on the arguments presented in an important new book: Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Editors Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have asked four Christian leaders for their views on the spectrum of evangelical identity.

Yesterday, we looked at Kevin Bauder’s essay (Fundamentalist). Today, we’re taking a look at Al Mohler’s view (Confessional Evangelical).

What Is an Evangelical? The Confessional Evangelical View

Representing the confessional evangelical position is Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. Mohler begins in a manner similar to Bauder, pointing to the gospel as the center of evangelical identity. He writes:

An evangelical is recognized by a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, by a deep commitment to biblical truth, by a sense of urgency to see lost persons hear the gospel, and by a commitment to personal holiness and the local church. (69)

Mohler recognizes the difficulty of coming to an established view of evangelical identity due to the ongoing nature of the conversation. He admits that “evangelical definition is dependent on a continual conversation and debate among evangelicals, association with evangelical institutions or churches, and identification with core evangelical beliefs” (74). And yet he also believes that “the integrity of evangelicalism requires a normative definition of evangelical identity.”

In developing a “normative definition,” Mohler points toward “Christian believers who seek a conscious convictional continuity with the theological formulas of the Protestant Reformation” (74-75), hence the introduction of the “confessional” aspect of his definition. He writes:

Evangelicalism is a movement of confessional believers who are determined by God’s grace to conserve this faith in the face of its reduction or corruption, even as they gladly take this gospel to the ends of the earth in order to see the nations exult in the name of Jesus Christ. (75)

How does this play out in practice? Mohler believes that evangelical identity is established by directing “constant attention to both the center and the boundary.” The way this takes place is through recognizing that doctrines can be distinguished and categorized in terms of their closeness to the gospel. Mohler’s “theological triage” divides issues into different levels:

  1. First-level theological issues are most central and essential to the Christian faith. (78)
  2. What distinguishes first-level and second-level doctrines is that evangelicals may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement creates significant boundaries between believers. (79)
  3. Third-order issues are doctrines over which evangelicals may disagree and yet remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. (80)

After recounting his spiritual pilgrimage in Southern Baptist life, Mohler directs his attention to several contested areas of evangelical identity. He begins with the “trustworthiness and truthfulness of Scripture” and then outlines recent challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy. It appears that Mohler goes beyond his mentor, Carl F. H. Henry, in regarding inerrancy to be a first-order issue:

In Henry’s formation, inerrancy should be considered a measure of evangelical consistency rather than evangelical authenticity. But the trajectory of the debate quickly revealed that abandoning inerrancy and a verbal model of the Bible’s inspiration required adoption of some other model that could not undergird evangelical authenticity. Affirming the total truthfulness, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible is a first-order theological issue. (91)

Mohler also affirms the exclusivity of the gospel and the “integrity of theism” (against open theism) as first-order issues. In writing about justification, Mohler sides with the early Reformers:

Justification by faith alone is an evangelical essential… If evangelical means anything, it means a bold assertion that sinners are justified only on the basis of what the Reformers called an alien righteousness – the righteousness of Christ imputed to all who believe in him. (93)

After having paid attention to the center of evangelicalism and the boundaries, Mohler concludes:

The center of evangelical faith is devotion to Christ and joyful confidence in the gospel. These are and must be the animating energies and passions of evangelicals as individual believers and churches, as well as the evangelical movement as a whole. But evangelicalism is coherent as a movement only if it is also known for what it is not. Attention to the boundaries is as requisite as devotion to the center. (95)

Responses to Al Mohler

Kevin Bauder points out the many similarities between the fundamentalist and confessional evangelical perspectives. But he is concerned about the message communicated by evangelical leaders who maintain alliances with those who are indifferent to the importance of doctrine and theology:

Fundamentalists reject indifferentism and refuse to recognize indifferentists as insightful Christian leaders. While not indifferentists themselves, confessional evangelicals have certainly been slower to distance themselves from indifferentism or to warn against it publicly. (102)

John Stackhouse points out that Mohler’s view is more “conservative” than “confessional,” as it is not tied in its entirety to any one theological tradition. He worries about the emphasis on sharp definition at the edges of evangelical identity and how “theological triage” is decided:

Without a clear presentation of what is primary, secondary, and tertiary in the Christian faith and how we can arrive properly at such distinctions, believers are rather at the mercy of this or that evangelical “magisterium” to say what’s what. (107)

Roger Olson complains that historically speaking, “many of the things Mohler wants to pack into the essentials category have been considered nonessentials by evangelicals of the past” (111). He makes a distinction between affinity and uniformity:

Affinity is different from uniformity; it simply designates common interests and goals. Marsden and other historians of evangelicalism are right; it has always been very diverse, and people like Mohler simply need to become more comfortable with that diversity and the ambiguity resulting from it. (115)

My Comments

The confessional evangelical position resonates with me because of its emphasis on the church. Mohler sees evangelicalism as a cross-denominational movement built around common doctrines, practices, and themes. And yet Mohler recognizes that even as evangelicalism is important, the church is more so. At the end of the day, issues related to boundaries must be established and enforced primarily within local congregations, not para-church organizations or broad cross-denominational movements.

I also agree that we need to be specific when considering the doctrines that define “evangelicalism.” Mohler is right to point out that simply stating key Christian themes does not help us narrow down “evangelical” identity as opposed to Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Protestant Liberalism, etc.

But I wonder if Mohler’s specificity runs into problems when viewed through the lens of evangelical history. For example, if we adopt Al Mohler’s confessional evangelical position strictly (which requires a belief in double imputation), John Wesley would not qualify. Historically speaking, it’s difficult to make sense of evangelicalism apart from Wesley and his influence. To adopt a level of specificity that excludes Wesley seems a little like climbing up into a tree and sawing off the branches we’ve used to get where we are.

This leads me back to Mohler’s expressed desire for a normative definition of evangelical identity. Unpacking what we mean by “normative” can be instructive here.

For example, can C. S. Lewis be considered an evangelical? Perhaps, but an unusual one. That is, Lewis was not an evangelical in the normative sense. He affirmed an inclusivist position regarding salvation and was fuzzy on the specifics of the atonement. And yet few would contest the vibrancy of his faith and the deep evangelical commitment to the gospel that underscored most of his writing.

In the case of Lewis, Carl Henry’s distinction between evangelical authenticity and consistency is more helpful than Mohler’s proposal. Henry’s distinction gives us the ability to express a “normative” definition of evangelical identity (which is something Mohler believes is necessary too) while maintaining that evangelicals who depart in various ways from that definition can still be considered “evangelical,” albeit in an unusual and inconsistent sense.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at “generic evangelicalism” as defined by John Stackhouse.

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11 thoughts on “What Is an Evangelical? 2: The Confessional Evangelical View”

  1. Ted Bigelow says:

    Thanks Trevin.

    I find it helpful to think through 2 things:

    1) Evangelicalism is best understood as a para-church movement. All the authors work for, and promote, institutions outside the local church.

    2) Evangelicalism is anti-church, even Mohler’s confessional brand. Why? Because delineating who is in or out based on either a doctrinal confession, or authenticity, derails the very role of the church in doing precisely that! And that role, granted to the church in Scripture, is actually tangible. You can hold it, touch it, examine it. Evangelicalism is ether, vaporous, and impossible to define – as the book shows (I read it too).

    Thanks bro.

  2. Nate says:

    Trevin thanks for the review. I haven’t read the book and hope I can get away with simply reading this synopsis.

    Ted, I disagree on the idea that evangelicalism is anti-church. I think instead it tries to define the true church, the church invisible. By affirming central and boundary sets it sets core beliefs that define one as Christian and then picks up aspects of the faith that demonstrate submission to God and His Word over humanistic reductions and distortions of the Gospel.
    At least that’s my take, ergo the problem and the need for the book.
    From my understanding I think Mohler’s attempt falls short, along the lines of Trevin’s assessment that Wesley and others who are clearly evangelical on the core issues would be left out due to the emphasis on reformed theology in Mohler’s position.

  3. Daniel F. Wells says:

    Great post, Trevin (as always). I think your assessment of Mohler is right and that Carl Henry may be a better model to think through these issues.

    However, a recent book by J.I. Packer and Thomas Oden ‘One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus’ shows that various confessions and evangelical statements form the background for normative evangelicalism.

    Now, strictly, these are para-church confessions, though these confessions are drawn up by shepherds of Christ’s church reaching across denominational lines. I have no problem using the word ‘confession’ in this sense since I don’t see any sort of ‘anti-church’ sentiment in it. (Contrary to Mr. Bigelow’s claim)

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    @Nate

    Thanks for the reply, and disagreement.

    You are applying intelligence to a non-thing, “I think instead it (evangelicalism) tries to define the true church.”

    Evangelicalism is not a able to define anything; it is an “ism.”

    God defines the true church in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15-16, Eph. 4:5, for example). Why then do we need and “ism” to do what God has already done? Our need is not for more and better demographic, sociological, and trend analysis of men, but clearer study of infallible revelation.

    May I ask you to replace your faith in a man-made construct of evangelicalism and transfer it to Scripture alone, as your Lord would also say (Mat. 4:4). Be a good Berean, brother :).

    You are right, I believe, to see that Mohler’s discussion falls short. But so does Trevin’s when he adds Henry’s “authenticity” criteria. Who is to say what’s authentic? (hint – the right answer, again, is God in Scripture).

  5. Ted Bigelow says:

    @ Daniel Wells

    Thank you for referencing my post: “I don’t see any sort of ‘anti-church’ sentiment in it. (Contrary to Mr. Bigelow’s claim).”

    But I assure you, friend, that I meant no anti-church sentiment whatsoever. I meant doctrinal opposition.

    The connecting points among evangelicals are a claim to a born again experience and sound-bite doctrinal assertions that refuse to discuss the nature of the local church, which is rather important to God. After all, He went to a great deal of condescension to tell us His truth. It doesn’t honor Him to squeeze out the parts we find uncomfortable.

    Please note that all the authors of the book, and the editor, make their living from the para-church, not the local church. They have a vested interest in evangelicalism, and Scripture, the revelation of God by which we are to pattern all our thinking after in matters of faith and practice, has no such a thing as evangelicalism in it.

    Since God does not teach evangelicalism, God’s children can only be tossed to and fro by claiming it is real. It evidences autonomy from God’s revelation. It isn’t real. It’s vapor. For the redeemed, the church is real.

  6. Trevin Wax says:

    Ted,

    I agree that the church is tangible and real, while evangelicalism is an idea/impulse expressed in parachurch organizations. But if evangelicalism is also a movement, we would be unwise to not consider this movement’s effect on local churches.

    In other words, evangelicalism matters because it influences/affects the church, and (I agree with you) the church is what matters and what is eternal.

    I have little patience for discussions of evangelical identity that are not rooted in a love for the church.

  7. Ted Bigelow says:

    Trevin,

    But if no one can articulate what evangelicalism is much less agree on it, how can we consider its effect on local churches?

    The answers to date rest to man’s wisdom, sadly. We are left to accept current “social science” to evaluate evangelicalism (Barna, Gallup, et. al.) because nobody in Protestantism has the recognized authority to say “who is in” and “who is out” because God doesn’t tell us who is in and out of evangelicalism in Scripture. Tabulations and regression analysis won’t sanctify anybody, nor help you evaluate evangelicalism for the simple reason that the tools of the social sciences trade defy objective truth. Jesus said the Spirit moves like the wind in regeneration – He saves whom He wills whee He wants. Try charting that!

    To go in the right direction we must know what God’s delineation of what is “in the center” and what is “at the boundary.” Thankfully, such definitions are perspicuous and within reach. God teaches us the church in holy Scripture, but He does not teach something called evangelicalism.

    That’s why the authors are trying to fit a transmission into a doll house, and despite their best efforts it just won’t fit.

    Be honest. Isn’t the book like, really frustrating!?

  8. Trevin Wax says:

    Ted,

    It is frustrating indeed because there is no way for identity to be settled upon and endorsed and maintained.

    But the fact that evangelical identity is amorphous does not mean there is still no impact on churches. It’s difficult to get one’s mind around the borders and boundaries of radical Islam, and yet the movement clearly has an impact and is worthy of investigation. It IS possible to have a nebulous, hard-to-define movement with powerful influence. And that’s why this conversation about evangelicalism is important (even if frustrating).

  9. Ted Bigelow says:

    Trevin, Agreed brother.

    But at least with Islam we have a biblical category for it and thereby assessing its impact on the church – idolatry/false religion.

    What is the biblical category for evangelicalism?

  10. Simon Marc says:

    No CS Lewis was not an evangelical, nor are any other apologists that have sensible and intelligent things to say about Christianity. Anglicans are not properly described as Protestants or evangelicals. More and more we see the most engaging commentators being Orthodox, Roman Catholic and liberal Protestants. Liberal Protestants because at least these guys are honest given the precepts of the Reformation. Honest Protestants must be liberal.

    As the author of the blog correctly notes, CS Lewis is a inclusivist. He also has a completely different understanding of hell than evangelicals. Lewis’ understanding of hell is almost identical to the Eastern Orthodox, modern Roman Catholic view as articulated by Pope John Paul, NT Wright and others.. Contrary to what the author stated above, Lewis has a fairly clear understanding of the atonement. If you don’t believe me, watch the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s death was to ransom the boy’s release. This is very similar to the way many early Church Fathers thought about the atonement. It’s only “fuzzy” if you are trying to find penal substitution in Lewis. I mean could you call him even an unusual evangelical in the current sense? Not in the slightest could you call Lewis an evangelical.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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