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.

First, we looked at Kevin Bauder’s view (Fundamentalist). Then we worked our way through Al Mohler’s essay (Confessional Evangelical). Yesterday, we summarized John Stackhouse’s position (Generic Evangelical). Today, we wrap up this series with Roger Olson’s essay (Postconservative).

What Is an Evangelical? The Postconservative View

Representing the postconservative viewpoint is Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor University. Olson agrees with the rest of the contributors that “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” are contested concepts, but unlike the other contributors he believes the project to define these terms is futile. He explains:

…evangelicalism has no definable boundaries and cannot have them. An organization has boundaries; a movement does not. And without boundaries it is simply impossible to say with certainty who is and who is not evangelical insofar as he or she shares certain common commitments identified by historians of the movement. (163)

Olson likens evangelicalism to a centered set that “admits of degrees of membership where absolute limits of membership elude identification” (164). As a movement (as opposed to an organization), evangelicalism has no definite membership. Historically speaking, Olson writes:

…contemporary evangelicalism is an unstable compound composed of two incompatible traditions.  These joined together… to fight liberal theology’s takeover of Protestant institutions and to provide a conservative ecumenical alternative to the National Council of Churches. (166)

From a sociological standpoint, Olson is largely in agreement with Bebbington’s quadrilateral (conversionism, crucicentrism, biblicism, and activism). Olson adds a fifth hallmark: “respect for historic Christian orthodoxy” (176). After working his way through each of these common themes of evangelical identity, Olson declares that there is such a thing as evangelical unity:

All the foregoing is to say that in spite of the fact that evangelicalism is an essentially contested concept and in spite of the reality of evangelical diversity and in spite of the movement having no boundaries, evangelical unity does exist. What does not exist is evangelical uniformity. (178)

Olson spends the rest of his essay playing “unity” and “uniformity” against one another, arguing for a “broad tent” view of evangelicalism that “includes a great variety of people all facing toward the center” (179). He does not believe inerrancy should be imposed on others as a mark of evangelical identity. Nor should any one objective theory of the atonement take preeminence in these discussions. He explains:

I view evangelicalism as a broad and inclusive movement of people, churches, and organizations commonly committed to certain experiences and beliefs in varying degrees. As a movement, it is unified without uniformity. Its unity is found in certain historical and theological family resemblances; its diversity is found in interpretations of the core, unifying beliefs and experiences. The core or center of the movement is composed of five discernible commitments: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and respect for the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Evangelicalism as we know it today grew out of revivalism and fundamentalism and has tried to take the best from both traditions while leaving their worst excesses behind. (186)

What separates Olson from the other three contributors is his attempt to define evangelicalism inductively. He begins with those who self-identify as “evangelicals,” and then he works his way backward to a definition that will include them all.

Responses to Roger Olson

Kevin Bauder disagrees with Olson’s attempt to define evangelicalism as a movement. Bauder believes we should begin with “evangelicalism as an idea.” By focusing on the evangel of evangelicalism, Bauder concludes:

No one who denies the evangel can be reckoned as an evangelical. It does not matter whether the denial comes in practice or in principle. It does not matter whether it is explicit or implicit. The gospel stands as the touchstone of any legitimate evangelicalism. (191)

Ultimately, Bauder disagrees with Olson because the “broad tent” view forces evangelical theology “to impute normative status to mutilations and monstrosities” (192).

Al Mohler believes the main problem with Olson’s desire for evangelicalism to be a “centered set” without visible boundaries is that “the center has to be defined” (196). Mohler concludes:

I believe that Roger, despite his best and most honest efforts, does see the need for some boundaries. Yet he does not want to devote much attention to these boundaries… (198)

John Stackhouse believes that Olson’s convictions are overwhelmed by his “empathy for those at the receiving end of doctrinal restrictiveness” (200). It’s clear that Stackhouse is uncomfortable with some of Olson’s conclusions. He writes:

So we stand in the Great Tradition, yes, but always under the supreme authority of Scripture that is itself an instrument in the hands of its divine Author, who continues to teach us from it in the context of all the other things God is teaching us through all the other media with which God has blessed the world… (204)

My Comments

The difficulty in defining “evangelicalism” is due largely to the various ways we can approach this question:

  • The inductive approach, adopted by many historians and sociologists, asks, “Who claims to be evangelical?” and then seeks to find common themes that unite those who say they belong to the movement.
  • The descriptive approach is slightly narrower, as it takes into consideration the fact that many who claim to be evangelical are not recognized by the majority of evangelicals as “authentic.”
  • The prescriptive approach answers this question from a theological perspective and seeks to shore up essential evangelical commitments as a way to maintain the viability of genuine evangelicalism for the future.

Olson’s essay takes the inductive approach and then adds a prescriptive twist. In other words, Olson doesn’t stop at saying, “here is what evangelicalism is (unity without uniformity)”; he goes on to prescribe by saying, “unity without uniformity is what evangelicalism should be.

The strength of the postconservative view is that it seeks to define “evangelicalism” in a way that includes every person who likes the label. From the inductive perspective, this makes perfect sense. I happen to like Olson’s description of evangelicalism as “a great variety of people all facing toward the center.”

The big problem, of course, is that evangelicals are not in agreement as to what “the center” is. And once you get into the nitty-gritty of defining the center, you necessarily exclude. It is simply impossible to have a centered set with no boundaries, because the very idea of a center implies the existence of boundaries. Otherwise, there is no way to determine what the center is.

It seems to me that Olson’s essay is a noble attempt to rescue evangelical identity from those who would be quick to exclude certain persons from the camp. The rush to exclusion is certainly a danger – one that fundamentalism is quite familiar with. But in his rush to condemn “uniformity,” it seems that Olson has undercut any chance of seeing a vibrant and unified evangelicalism.

If there is to be uniformity, it should concern the evangel that unites evangelicals. There is no evangelical unity apart from gospel uniformity. This does not mean that we must all define and describe the gospel exactly the same way or in exactly the same categories. But some level of uniformity is necessary if evangelicalism is to thrive in the next generation.

The center must be renewed if the center is to hold.