Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

Written by Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, eds Reviewed By Anthony Chute

Whereas evangelical authors have contributed their differing perspectives on a range of theological issues through the Zondervan Counterpoints series, the question “What is an evangelical?” has finally reserved a volume on its own. It is an appropriate addition to this series because it demonstrates the fundamental need for the point-counterpoint. The lack of an evangelical magisterium makes such a discussion both possible and necessary and, for all of its frustrations, exploring evangelical differences is certainly more entertaining than what the Catholic or Orthodox churches could produce from within their own ranks. To be sure, if the Holy Father were to pen a chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary, any Catholic counter-pointers would need to be quite delicate with their response.

Though one certainly could quibble with the number of positions represented (wanting more, not less), one cannot argue with the choice of representatives for each group. The four contributors and their respective positions include Kevin Bauder (fundamentalism), R. Albert Mohler Jr. (confessional evangelicalism), John G. Stackhouse (generic evangelicalism), and Roger E. Olson (postconservative evangelicalism). Each contributor represents and defends his position well, offers critical and constructive remarks to his counterparts, and with conviction and care realizes that the conversation will likely never be settled. Editors Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have moved the discussion beyond mere definitions by asking each author to address three recent issues that have openly divided evangelicals: Evangelicals and Catholics Together, open theism, and penal substitution. Naselli's concluding chapter is particularly helpful as it summarizes the key arguments and their implications in fine fashion. Taken altogether the theme, contributors, structure, and format do not disappoint.

Bauder's position is best described as critical fundamentalism, as he distinguishes himself not only from broad-based evangelicals but also from populist revivalism and hyper-fundamentalism. Accordingly, the essence of fundamentalism is not purity but the unity and fellowship of the church. Such unity is at minimum based on the gospel itself (i.e., guilty sinners forgiven by the grace of God through the work of the incarnate Son, whose death on the cross provides substitutionary atonement on their behalf), but it also entails limits to fellowship from those who profess to be Christians. These limits include first-degree separation from those who deny the gospel (i.e., Catholics) and some level of second-degree separation from those who cooperate with those who deny the gospel. Though Bauder distances himself from extremes within the fundamentalist movement (such as the King James Only crowd), he avers that mainstream fundamentalism still must distance itself from evangelicalism as a whole: “As long as some evangelicals cannot tell the difference between a person who professes the true gospel and one who denies it . . . fundamentalists are not likely to view those evangelicals as thoughtful or perceptive Christian leaders” (p. 48).

Mohler, a thoughtful and perceptive Christian leader in his own right (except in the eyes of those on the leftward side of Baptist life), promotes confessional evangelicalism as an alternative to the other three positions. Evangelical, he argues, is a crucial term that helps to clarify a segment of Christians who are neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant liberals. Nevertheless, examining evangelicalism from a historical, phenomenological, and normative sense demonstrates how the term is not sufficient in itself to tidy up such a group. While appreciating Bebbington's famous quadrilateral, Mohler notes how Catholics, liberals, and Mormons alike can too easily coopt it. His call for confessional evangelicalism is based in part on conducting “theological triage,” where evangelicals can agree on first-order theological issues (such as the Trinity, deity of Christ, justification by faith alone, and the full authority of Scripture) while at the same time refusing to divide over tertiary issues (e.g., finer points of eschatology). The secondary issues that normally give rise to denominational distinctives (i.e., issues of baptism) do not lie dormant in such a confessional model, but neither do they produce further divisions among brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, Christians who may not worship together because of secondary issues are still able to cooperate on various levels without the inherent fear of fellowshipping with “apostate” Christians.

Stackhouse softens the discussion a bit, not only with his wry humor but also by asserting that evangelicalism is more flexible than Bauder or Mohler suggest. To their chagrin, his idea of generic evangelicalism would include not only open theists but also some who are repelled by the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. This is not to say that such views are valid, he says, because people who maintain these positions can be truly evangelical and truly wrong at the same time. Stackhouse's nuance is not meant as doublespeak. He is careful enough to close the evangelical door to those who either (1) have little in common with orthodox Christianity or (2) do not subscribe to Bebbington's quadrilateral. But he argues that there is always room for improvement in the evangelical camp. This path can even be a two-way street where those on the periphery may ultimately provide a positive contribution to the broader evangelical family.

Olson sprinkles his chapter with a series of personal reminiscences in the evangelical world, presenting himself somewhere between a martyr-in-waiting and the still-unrecognized savior of sensibility. The premise of his postconservative evangelicalism is that evangelicalism is a movement-not an organization-and as such has no definable boundaries. Olson recognizes that his detractors will accuse him of taking a sociological rather than theological approach, but he insists that theological beliefs of evangelicals have been sociologically conditioned: “Who is to say which theologians and confessional statements were historically normative for evangelicals?” (p. 166). Olson believes that historic evangelicalism has a definable center but argues that the Bebbington quadrilateral leaves sufficient room for diversity on each point. He therefore adds a fifth criterion: respect for historic, Christian orthodoxy. Olson contends that this addition provides a necessary connection to the ancient church fathers as well as the reformers, but he also uses this addition to illustrate further how Christians throughout the centuries have nuanced key doctrines, thus proving the ongoing need for evangelical latitude.

In addition to the typical audience that forms the “must read” for this book (pastors, professors, students, and the like) one can easily add a fourth group: outsiders who study evangelicals. The positions affirmed in this book clarify that believing the Bible, respecting Billy Graham, and voting Republican do not an evangelical make. And yet this particular strength of the book also reveals one of its most significant weaknesses: one person simply cannot represent the whole. Other confessional evangelicals could easily see Mohler's refusing to sign ECT as leaning towards fundamentalism, whereas other postconservatives can see Olson's appreciation for the great tradition as nostalgic nonsense. Such a criticism is muted by the reality that fuller representation would lead not only to a larger book but perhaps a multi-volume set. Thankfully, Naselli and Hansen successfully got the conversation underway without letting it get out of hand.

Anthony Chute

Anthony Chute
California Baptist University
Riverside, California, USA

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