Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism: A Confessional Review

I read Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism quite by accident, and at a time when I should have been attending to other matters—in particular, getting assignments back to my students in a timely manner. I asked Zondervan for a review copy for a class proposalzondervan, 2012 in the Centre for Christianity and Culture at the secular university where I teach. “Evangelicalism and the New Global Christianity,” would introduce to students who would not know what evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals are really like this branch of Christianity that is (uniquely) not declining in North America and is showing surprising growth in global South,

My hope was that this inexpensive book from prominent scholars would make a good baseline textbook for the course. On a Wednesday afternoon in the rush of a semester’s end, I sat down with the intention of scanning the text to get a quick sense of its value for the course. Very quickly, however, I got drawn in to a detailed read, and found myself pouring over every page of this engaging book.

So, while I know now that The Spectrum of Evangelicalism will not make a good text for this class, it was, for me, surprisingly informative and quite gripping at points. What began for me as a quick pragmatic scan ended with answering the question of where I fit within The Spectrum of Evangelicalism.

The Dust Jacket

True to the dust jacket description,

“Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism compares and contrasts four distinct positions on the current fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum in light of the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.”

Andrew David Naselli

This description, however, truly undersells the book. This volume, edited by Andrew David Naselli (research manager for D.A. Carson) and Collin Hansen (author of Young, Restless, Reformed) offers far more than a flowchart of evangelical belief. In a bold and forthright conversation that remains at the same time gentlemanly,[1] The Spectrum of Evangelicalismis an exciting dialogue between four key leaders of conservative English Christianity, of which C.S. Lewis is an influential part. Most importantly, this conversation allows the reader to assess his or her beliefs within a substantial dialogue of friends.

Collin Hansen

The authors have been charged to share their understanding of evangelicalism, and to assess three key issues: 1) cooperation with Roman Catholics in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement (ECT); 2) Open Theism, the idea that the future, as far as it is not fixed, is unreal and therefore unknowable, so that while God is omniscient, God does not know the unknowable future; and 3) Penal Substitutionary Atonement, where Christ pays the penalty for human sin on the cross.

Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and Set Theory

Before we begin with the four views, a brief description of evangelicalism is helpful. In ch. 1 of his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Dave Bebbington of the University of Stirling provides a brief and helpful description of what evangelicalism is as a social movement, known popularly as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.[2]

  1. Biblicism: evangelicalism has a particular regard for and devotion to the Bible
  2. Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross in evangelical teaching and preaching (I am unclear whether practice—cruciformity—is considered central too)
  3. Conversionism: the belief that human beings “must turn from their sin, believe in the saving work of Christ, and commit themselves to a life of discipleship and service”[3]
  4. Activism: evangelicals believe that the gospel needs to be expressed in everyday life

The three non-fundamentalist authors actively engage with this historical lens, with Stackhouse and Olson adding each a dimension. Stackhouse adds 5) transdenominationalism, and 6) a mix of orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopraxy (right living), and orthopathy (right feeling); Olson adds respect for historic, Christian orthodoxy, what he calls “generous orthodoxy” (177).[4]  Mohler dismisses it as “so vague” that it is “fairly useless in determining the limits” (73). Whatever the value of Bebbington’s historical paradigm, it is presupposed in the conversation.

“Set theory” is a mathematical concept that use to understand movements. I am no expert in this, so I will let Christian theologian Miroslav Volf describe it:

“In analyzing the category ‘Christian’ missiologist Paul Hiebert suggests that we make use of the mathematical categories of ‘bounded sets,’ ‘fuzzy,’ and ‘centered sets.’ Bounded sets function on the principle ‘either/or’; an apple is either an apple or it is not; it cannot be partly apple and partly pear. Fuzzy sets, on the other hand, have no sharp boundaries; things are fluid with no stable point of reference and with various degrees of inclusion–as when a mountain merges into the plains. A centered set is defined by a center and the relationship of things to that center, by a movement toward it or away from it. The category of ‘Christian,’ Hiebert suggests, should be understood as a centered set. A demarcation line exists, but the focus is not on ‘maintaining the boundary’ but on reaffirming the center.”[5]

Two of the scholars use set theory intentionally, but I will use this lens in presenting each of the views.

From Right to Left: The Four Arguments on the Spectrum

The “Four Views” technique is a favourite of mine. Each author presents his view in turn, which is then critiqued by the other three authors. Besides the brief introduction and conclusion by the editors, there are four core chapters and twelve short responses. I will briefly present each author’s views, some of the critiques, and my own response before giving an assessment of the conversation as a whole by way of personal confession.

Fundamentalism

“Imagine the difficulty of explaining fundamentalism in a book about evangelicalism.”

Kevin T. Bauder

This is how Kevin T. Bauder, research professor of systematic and historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, begins his article. Without replaying the whole of his tightly written chapter, Bauder’s key discussion is a distinction between minimal and maximal Christian fellowship. Minimal Christian fellowship is both presuppositionally and programmatically based on the fundamentals:

“The gospel draws the boundary of Christian fellowship. Those who are outside the boundary must not be recognized as Christians” (33).

Maximal Christian fellowship is a perspective on the fundamentalist doctrine of secondary separation: Christians fellowship with all other Christians on the minimal level; they must, however, limit cooperation and assert separation “from Christian leaders who will not separate from apostates” (40).

In terms of set theory, Bauder seems to focus on a bounded set, but he clearly believes in a bounded-centred set—I think his minimal-maximal understanding is exactly that, where there is a centre of focus as well as definable boundaries. On the three issues, Bauder applies his approach to faith clearly:

  1. Roman Catholicism “denies the gospel” (31) because it denies justification by faith alone, and working with Catholics is out of the question.
  2. Open theism denies the gospel because it denies the full knowledge of God.
  3. Penal substitution sits at the centre of our understanding of the gospel.

Bauder’s essay is intentionally self-critical, what he calls “critical sympathy”[6] (20). It is generous in tone, but quite firm on the boundaries of the gospel. There are clear lines, in and out. Central to Bauder’s approach is that “the gospel is always doctrinal” (29), so it is not surprising that if someone, like a Roman Catholic, is missing the very doctrinal core of the gospel, she is not a Christian.

While Mohler also separates himself from Catholicism, Bauder’s essay sets him apart from evangelicalism as well. There is a clear sense in the book—and here I disagree with Naselli in the conclusion (214) and Orson on his blog—that Bauder’s fundamentalism is different than the evangelicalism of the other three. Mohler and Bauder are similar on the key issues, but the doctrine of secondary separation, while applied similarly to ECT, separates Bauder. Moreover, in his response to Mohler and here, he sees himself as separate from, though connected to, evangelicals:

“Wherever fundamentalists are wrong, evangelicals have a right to confront them and to ask them to abandon their errors. By the same token, wherever fundamentalists are right, they have a right to challenge evangelicals and to ask them to adopt ideas and practices that conform to scripture. The better sort of fundamentalist will take an evangelical’s rebukes as the wounds of a friend. I hope that some evangelicals will also receive this essay as the entreaty of a brother” (49).

Confessional Evangelicalism

R, Albert Mohler Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., a prolific author and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, represents confessional evangelicalism, or, I would suggest, conservative evangelicalism in its best form. Mohler adopts a centre-bounded set approach to understanding evangelicalism. He does not spend much time delineating the centre—remember that this is a mostly internal discussion, so the four authors share the core (for the most part)—but spends his time talking about the boundaries:

“Our task is to be clear about what the gospel is and is not” (96).

To approach this task Mohler uses the metaphor of Theological Triage. Just like a nurse will triage patients, Mohler argues that there are first-, second-, and third-level doctrines. The first-level doctrines are essential to all Christians, namely the Trinity, full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith alone, the authority of the Scriptures. The second-level doctrines are those that evangelicals may disagree on but that individual churches will share as a whole, like the means and mode of baptism. Third-level doctrines are those that individual Christians might disagree with even in local congregations, like eschatological sequencing.

If we imagine the three levels of Mohler’s triage as concentric circles around the gospel (the centred set), the bounded-set line is drawn only at the inside circle, the first-level doctrines. This is why Mohler describes himself as a “confessional evangelical”—he holds that the first-level doctrines are essentially captured in the historic creeds (though I am uncertain where justification by faith alone fits in the ancient creeds). The other two levels of doctrines are characteristic of what evangelicals might believe, but are not normative. What is interesting, then, are what boundary issues Mohler draws out.

  1. Because it denies justification by faith alone, Catholicism is not a true church (85), so ECT is out because Protestantism has nothing in common with Catholicism.
  2. Open theism denies the gospel because it denies the full knowledge of God, and thus denies a first-order doctrine (and is therefore not evangelical, i.e., not Christian).
  3. Penal substitution sits at the heart of the gospel, a first-order doctrine.

To these three things, Mohler adds two doctrinal questions that are truly in the conversation of what it means to be an evangelical: the trustworthiness and truthfulness of Scripture, and the exclusivity of the gospel. An undercurrent throughout this volume is Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible[7]—the questions Lindsell asked in the 1970s remain, I think, the key presuppositional conversation of evangelicals today. In Mohler’s view, abandoning biblical inerrancy will always create a model that “accommodates to some degree the secular assumptions of the Bible as a human artifact marked by the frailties of human finitude” (90). Mohler, I suspect, would see the second problem as deriving from the first, that leaving inerrancy will lead to a rethinking about inclusion and exclusion that takes its cues from culture rather than the word of God.

Generic Evangelicalism

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, offers what he calls “generic evangelicalism.” The choice of terms is difficult to explain, but is perhaps a theologically-centred Big Tent evangelicalism. While he does not think “that ‘mere Christianity’ is contestable in every aspect,

“evangelicalism cannot be sharply characterize in its beliefs, affections, and practices beyond understanding it to be observant Protestant Christianity expressed in authentic, vital discipleship issuing forth in mission with similarly concerned Christians of various stripes. As such, the definition of evangelicalism is inherently contestable, as it has been since Wesley and Whitefield disagreed over it, only because the definition of authentic and healthy Christianity is inherently contestable” (141).

Stackhouse argues that defining evangelicalism is about defining Christianity, that the essence of evangelicalism is a search for faithful Christianity. This is why he adds to Bebbington’s quadrilateral both transdenominationalism—the running dispute over the definition of Christianity itself—and a combination of orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopraxy (right living), and orthopathy (right feeling), what he calls “beliefs, affections, and practices” above. Therefore, Stackhouse argues that:

“it is part of the very ethos of evangelicalism to recognize differences of opinion precisely about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about a host of issues, many of them quite consequential…. [I]t now appears that none of us can properly say, ‘Well, anyone who holds to X can’t be an evangelical, because the Bible clearly forbids X. And that’s that’” (126).

The foundation of Stackhouse’s “Big Tent” idea is the very nature of evangelicalism itself. Therefore, his assessment of the boundary issues are different than Mohler’s:

  1. Based on his understanding of evangelicalism (and Christianity), ECT is a step in the right direction.
  2. “Open theists are, to my knowledge, genuine evangelicals. They are just wrong evangelicals” (132).
  3. Stackhouse agrees with Mohler and Bauder that penal substitutionary atonement sits at the heart of the gospel, but holds that “evangelicals who diminish or dismiss substitutionary atonement … are truly evangelicals, and truly wrong about something important” (136).

While Stackhouse does not use this language, we can see that he takes a centred-set approach to the question of evangelicalism (and Christianity, much like Hiebert), and that the key point is the individual’s relation to the centre, to the gospel.

Postconservative Evangelicalism

Roger E. Olson

Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, offers the postconservative response. Although all the essays are personal, with the authors telling their own stories of self-definition, Olson’s essay is peppered with his experiences in the problem of defining evangelicalism. All the authors recognize the difficult nature of defining movements, but Bauder sets his article up specifically with this difficulty in mind, and for Olson, much like Stackhouse, it is the running thesis of his essay.

While Olson says of Stackhouse, “I think we’re more or less on the same page” (158), Olson approach his definitions differently and probably is right when he says that he disagrees in “degree, not kind” (159) with Stackhouse. The tone of Olson’s essay is positive overall, despite the fact that he had a number of negative experiences as someone left of centre in evangelicalism, but also in that he says defining evangelical boundaries “is an interesting but ultimately futile project” (162).

While it is critiqued by the others, Olson’s helpful distinction of organizations as bounded sets and movements as centred sets demonstrates why he holds the belief that:

“Evangelicalism has no definable boundaries and cannot have them…. And without boundaries it is simply impossible to say with certainty who is and who is not an evangelical” (163).

What he calls a fundamentalist and conservative obsession with defining narrow evangelical boundaries (as Bauder and Mohler presumably do), is problematic from the get-go. Key to evangelicalism is “generous orthodoxy,” the element that Olson adds to Bebbington’s quadrilateral. As such, against the charges of others that he creates a centre that acts as a boundary, Olson believes that the centre of evangelicalism is identifiable while the boundaries have always been fluid. Historically, evangelicals have disagreed on the boundary issues that Mohler mentions, and while one should have a respect for Christian orthodoxy, asking core theological questions is part of the essence of evangelicalism. Kevin Bauder is right, I think, in assessing Olson’s argument succinctly:

“Roger’s concerns are really two in number. First, he views evangelicalism primarily as a movement, and he insists that movements cannot have boundaries. Second, he repeatedly expresses concern that those who attempt to impose boundaries on the movement are acting in the role of an evangelical magisterium” (189).

Bauder critiques this perspective, but captures Olson well.

The three answers to the boundary-type questions addressed in the book are not necessary next step from Olson’s approach. As someone who asserts that generous orthodoxy is key to a big tent evangelicalism, he could still hold quite conservative views on these issues. And despite the fact he calls himself postconservative, he is relatively conservative, agreeing with Stackhouse at each point.

  1. Based on his understanding of evangelicalism, ECT is not a betrayal of the gospel.
  2. Open theists are wrong but not heretical, and the issue has become overblown.
  3. Penal substitutionary atonement “is normal but not normative” (183) and he recognizes that evangelicals have held a diversity of atonement beliefs. He asserts that for all evangelicals, the cross is more than an exemplar, but something essential takes place.

Where Do I Fit?

Since each of the authors shared his own journey toward evangelical self-understanding, I felt invited into the conversation to assess where I sit on the spectrum. Unlike the four authors, I am a convert to Christianity, growing up with only a vague awareness of evangelicalism (in my community) and Catholicism (at school). Still, my dramatic conversion was in the context of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the independent churches of Christ/Christian churches in Eastern Canada.

The Christian church/church of Christ Context

Processing my Christian experience within a movement instead of a denomination involves some complexities. Olson’s distinction helped me understand my own Restoration Movement better. We are a centred set, attempting to restore the New Testament unity of the church through faith and practice (and, I would add after reading Stackhouse’s chapter, in affections).

Because it is a movement, there is a tremendous amount of diversity with respect to the centre of the circle. Historically, there is a denominational group that is generally (but not specifically) liberal Protestant called the Disciples of Christ, and there is a non-denominational movement distinguished by their choice not to use musical instruments (what we call the a cappella churches of Christ, though some use instruments in worship as of late). Olson mistakenly calls the latter group a denomination, though on the outside they appear to have a remarkably homogenous Christian experience and they act like they have a bounded set, like a denomination would. Olson, with Mohler in agreement, argues that the churches of Christ are not evangelical because they understand baptism by immersion to be for the purpose of the remission of sins, and that they hold this belief to be a central doctrine, apparently contradicting justification by faith alone.

I belong to a third group—there are several others, including a number of “cults” and less than orthodox denominations—the independent Christian church/church of Christ. While we are not a denomination and hold to no confession or creed, there are “house rules” that churches tend to follow. We are elder-led (in principle, though typically board-led in practice), Bible preaching-oriented, and typically non-Charismatic, Arminian, and amillennialist (though there is quite a diversity of thought on these issues). Almost universal are the practice of baptism by immersion and a weekly celebration of the Lord’s supper: I know of no churches that claim to be part of this movement that stray far on these issues.

Because our movement is older than the fundamentalist-evangelical split after WWII, like Pentecostalism, the independent Christian churches have had an uneasy relationship with evangelicalism. Although restoration Christians and individual churches self-identify as evangelical today, the dialogue is really quite new. Part of the problem occurs with evangelical understanding (and sometimes polemic) about baptism. How do we hold to justification by faith alone and also hold to the necessity of baptism?

This is where this book is helpful to me in working out my own thoughts publicly. I cannot speak for everyone in my movement—it is a movement after all, with no creed or “magisterium”—but I would briefly answer the question like this. Baptism is not a work—it is not even something that one does. In fact, it is only something that we receive, that is done to us. We are baptized by others, and the Holy Spirit does whatever the Holy Spirit does at that moment. From this point of view, justification by faith alone and requiring baptism for church membership is not problematic.

Someone might argue here that I may not be capturing the core of the Christian churches/churches of Christ. Again, while we (as a movement) share the Acts 2:38 experience of baptism, we express it differently. Some do believe, in my experience, that baptism is sacramental, that it is processing grace in some way. Others describe baptism as the occasion but not the means of salvation. And still others have argued that baptism demonstrates the salvation story, but we have been saved by grace. The fact that many churches practice an open communion—that Christians from whatever tradition and regardless of the mode of their baptism may participate—and that Christian churches consistently use Anglican and Presbyterian hymns and charismatic praise songs indicates that, at least on the practical level, baptism teaching is misunderstood.

A critic might note that the Christian church insistence on mode is legalistic at best, and, at worst, is inserting something into the centre of the definition of Christianity that should not be there—drawing a second-level issue to the first level, to use Mohler’s triage metaphor. However, the argument from the restoration view is more complex.

By way of illustration, I was sharing a post-Easter turkey sandwich at lunch with my family today. My seven-year-old son lifted his plastic fruit juice cup and declared, “This is the blood of Christ.” Then he took a piece of mango, held it up, and said, “This is the body of Christ.” He then tried, unsuccessfully, to tear the mango in half, like he had seen done with the loaf of bread at our church’s Garden of Gethsemane service. My son smiled at his parents—both with mouths hanging open in a kind of mild surprise—then proceeded to eat the mango.

While this Eucharistic moment at lunch today demonstrates that children learn a lot by what they see in churches—a thought that should cause church leaders to break out in a cold sweat—this beautiful lunchtime moment was not the Lord’s Supper. We cannot confuse the idea of breaking bread together in fellowship, or the childlike learning moments that emerge beautifully into our imagination, and the specific breaking of bread that is a memorial of that history-laden evening in the upper room. There is great value in fellowship, and I think churches would do well to institute a meal as part of their communion experience, but simply sharing food religiously is not communion.

Similarly, people from the restoration movement recognize the value of connecting people to faith through rituals. That is why many churches practice baby dedication or forms of confirmation (like recommitment services and the like). Their understanding of the New Testament word, baptizo, is that it means to dip or immerse.[8] So, for restoration Christians, to put a bit of water on the forehead is simply that—a ritual to connect a person to faith in a meaningful way, but not the historic practice of baptism as described in the New Testament. They reject adult sprinkling because it simply isn’t baptism, not because it is meaningless.

For my part, I do not think that viewing baptism as sacramental is problematic as an evangelical. But I do not believe that we are saved by baptism, and I do not separate from others because of baptism issues. Moreover, I don’t see how receiving baptism is any more a “work” thank confessing Christ or repenting of sin—both required by most evangelicals in their ritualized conversion moments. The simple reality is that in most of my sister churches, until a person emerges as a leader in one of our churches, we tend to operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding baptism. In my own life, I don’t feel that paedobaptism tells the story well. But I recognize it as baptism and am anxious to break bread with Christians with whom I disagree about this very point.

And Me?

So, am I an evangelical? Although Roger Olson says that the churches of Christ are not evangelical,[9] I certainly am.

I have identified myself as one for over a decade, whenever I felt it was helpful. I never knew that term when I was in a restoration Bible college in the mid-nineties, but I fellowshipped with others that I knew shared my beliefs and practices (and affections) even though we came from different groups and disagreed on key things. I was the leader of a Christian group in grade 12, which included evangelicals and practicing Catholics. As a pastor in Western Canada and Japan, I was part of both the local ministerial and the regional evangelical fellowship group. Chief among my evangelical shibboleths is that I was a staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for two years. On the topic of Christian formation, my bookshelves have given preference to evangelicals, and as a worship leader I have always drawn from whatever well seemed most meaningful and relevant to me.

My intentional embracing of evangelicalism is best captured in my choice not to go to a seminary from my movement (like Lincoln Christian Seminary or Emmanuel School of Religion), but to go to a nondenominational evangelical graduate school. I chose to go to Regent College in Vancouver, I now recognize after reading Stackhouse’s essay, because I already shared the ethos of this evangelical unseminary. While I disagreed often enough with my teachers throughout my time at Regent, it was part of an internal conversation, not an external one.

Admittedly, I connected best with John Stackhouse’s chapter. Although I never had him as a teacher, and he would only recognize me by the accidence of a name-memory mind, his presentation of evangelicalism and his delineation of core issues is largely mine. While Mohler’s presentation fit best where I was in my early Bible college days (though I came from a non-Reformed perspective), my own thinking has emerged as generically evangelical.

Part of this is practical: For seven years I have been a tutor for Rikk Watts’ and Eugene Peterson’s courses at Regent, and as a religious studies teacher at a secular university, so I encounter a broad range of students who identify themselves as evangelical.

But more than the practical necessity of encouraging Christian growth in an academic setting, I value the evangelical conversation. For me, what makes evangelicalism so important is the complex reality of being in an ongoing conversation. It is also for this reason that I remain part of the independent Christian churches—although even as an elder of a local church I am not at the centre of the conversation, there is value in engaging in the broad and diverse views I find within the restoration movement.

Torn: My Self-Critique and Critique of the Spectrum

Although I identify with Stackhouse’s approach, why do I use Olson’s “generous” language? The polemic over McLaren’s work (see note #3) has made the term “generous orthodoxy” difficult for any of us to really use; Mohler’s response to revisionist evangelicalism as neo-liberalism is a prime example of why—I still cringe at the term “liberal,” which was a kind of insult in my Bible college days. I would argue that the “spectrum” concept, though represented well enough by this book, is really problematic, for two reasons.

First, the spectrum leaves a lot of people out. Bauder intentionally leaves out hyperfundamentalism, but honestly, that’s who we meet in media and digital conversation. The Westboro Baptist Church (the God Hates Fags crowd) and the King James Only and anti-everything folk are simply not part of this spectrum.

Perhaps this omission is okay, since they probably would not want to be included, but where is the charismatic-Pentecostal conversation? The third and fourth waves of the 20th century Pentecostal movement are inherently evangelical, but what about the first two? Kevin Bauder is clear that they are not fundamentalist, but I am not clear about whether they are evangelical.[10] Moreover, I am not sure that every evangelical fits very well on the spectrum. I do not know very much about the American Episcopalian experience, but Canadian Anglican evangelicals might have difficulty identifying themselves within the spectrum. And no one seems to know where the prosperity gospel crowd fit.

The second, and deeper, reason I find the spectrum problematic is because, although I identify with Stackhouse’ ethos the most, I probably think most like Olson, though I use Mohler’s approach to do so. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but let me explain why I think the spectrum metaphor fails to identify individuals like me very well.

Like Kevin Olson, I am asking questions that threaten to cross Al Mohler’s boundaries. I am doing it using the same approach that Mohler uses and with Mohler’s instincts that formed my first theological imaginations. I believe that scripture is the authority regarding Christian faith and experience, which is why I wanted to consider the Open Theist argument. To me, open theists were trying to take seriously passages where God repents, and I appreciated that. I don’t buy open theism—I think it fall philosophically—but they were willing to take seriously a perfectly-knowing God who says, “My heart is changed within me” (Hosea 11). It is my commitment to biblical authority that drives me to the question; unlike Mohler and Bauder, I am not content to simply lump their questions into an outside-the-boundary fourth ring called heresy.

And like Mohler in his other work, I am concerned about the biblical understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality. We may take the question from culture, but the answer comes from the Bible. It is my reading of the Bible, for example, that leads me to affirm both men and women as full partners of church teaching, preaching, and leadership. We simply come to different conclusions. Ultimately, then, I think Stackhouse and Olson are right that when we use a bounded-set definition of evangelicalism we end up with an ad hoc magisterium, a papacy of print journals and presidential addresses.

So where do I fit on the spectrum? To use Stackhouse’s words, I don’t think Mohler would have much sympathy with my conclusions, but does that make me “left” of centre? Perhaps, since there are undoubtedly more people on my “right” I may be left of centre. But I feel torn: I embrace culture in communicating the gospel precisely because I have sought to die to all things in Christ (Gal 2:20). I’m not, in that sense, a very good liberal.

Other Critiques

I have spoken glowingly of The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, but I have some critiques. Although Olson is the best person to write a chapter about postconservative evangelicals, he isn’t the best example of a postconservative. I think that better choices may have been Scot McKnight, who is an emerging evangelical with deep biblical and historical roots, or Tony Evans, who accepts biblical authority but argues for a different view of atonement. As such, and Roger Olson agrees, Stackhouse and he are too close on the spectrum.

I understand the instincts of the editors to choose important issues that are important but not too divisive, but I think that Mohler actually hits on what the core issues in the evangelicalism are: the question of how to read the Bible, and the inclusion/exclusion of Christ’s salvation. These two issues cut to the heart of two of Bebbington’s key aspects of evangelicalism. I see a crumbling at the heartland of evangelicalism, and it is the question of our relationship with the Bible.

I was really disappointed that the authors did not spend more time on the “activism” and “conversionism” of Bebbington’s definitions. This is Stackhouse’s critique as well. To me, orthodoxy without orthopraxy (and orthopathy) is essentially meaningless. While I think that Bauder and Mohler would agree with me (and Stackhouse) on this, their chapters are essentially doctrinal. Olson’s chapter, too, is largely lacking the missional component I see in other postconservative theologians. While the nature of the book may have necessitated the limitation, the absence was felt.

From a structural standpoint, I think that Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and the Set Theory discussions were needed in the introduction in order to thin down the individual essays, avoid overlap, and give more space for the best part of the book: clear and friendly dialogue. Overall, I was underwhelmed by a solid introduction by Collin Hansen. The conclusion, written by Andrew David Naselli, was simple and really helpful in three key areas, but quite short to the point of oversimplification on pages 215-216.

Finally, technical critiques aside, I think that buried beneath this discussion is what I would call the “Safety Fallacy.” When we are genuinely interested in believing and doing and feeling true things, as I am, we have the tendency to protect the truth by trying to stay far from danger. But I think it is false to believe that becoming more conservative is better than the danger of becoming liberal. I would argue that we are not called to conservativism (or liberalism and progressivism, on the other side), but to faithfulness. Therefore, I was pleased when I saw Stackhouse address the issue.

“Worries about liberalism are not best answered by becoming more conservative. Rather than steering left or right, I would rather we go deeper: deeper into the Christian tradition, deeper into the best deliverances of contemporary reason and experience, deeper into imagination and intuition, and deeper most of all into the Bible” (109).

John Stackhouse puts it far better than I have, but I understand the conservative instinct. It is, I suspect, that instinct that led the Pharisees to put fences around the Law, to protect faithfulness with guidelines that would make sure no one accidentally transgressed the Law.

For my part, I believe that God is stronger than that, and not threatened by our questions. Like Daniel, we sit with the scriptures in front of us in a strange, strange land, and we pray through our questions with the intellectual gifts that God has given us. And like reflections within the Bible itself upon Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles, there are different perspectives on the issue, though a common hope. While I still feel the sting of “liberal” that is thrown at me from time to time—as is “fundamentalist” in other contexts, demonstrating that I can’t please anyone—I commit to faithfully searching for truth following the biblical evidence where it leads.

I do this as an evangelical, not as a fundamentalist—as Bauder says, he would have “reasons for not teaching [me] the secret fundamentalist handshake” (97). But, as iron sharpens iron, my hope is that my conversation will be both tempered and sharpened by the critiques of gentlemen like these. And on that journey for truth, The Spectrum of Evangelicalism make an excellent companion—an intelligent, generous, witty, and faithful pack of co-pilgrims that, for once, bring clarity to a difficult discussion rather than just wading in the difficulties.

Notes:

[1] There were no ladylike responses as all four authors and the two editors were men, as is the Counterpoint series editor, Stanley N. Gundry. The fact that I cannot think of any woman at the level of these scholars demonstrates the male-dominated nature of the conversation—on this wiki list of evangelical leaders there is only one woman, Joyce Meyers. If there was a chapter of Charismatic evangelicalism, Cheryl Bridges Johns would have been a good candidate, though she would argue, I suspect, that Pentecostalism (in particular) always has a difficult relationship with evangelicalism. Perhaps such a book written by my generation of scholars will include women, but I have my doubts.

[2] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1-20. Originally published in 1989 by Unwin. See also the works of George Marsden and Mark Noll.

[3] From the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada website.

[4] I wonder if the topic of Brian McLaren, who may not have coined the phrase certainly popularizes it in his book, Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), is a kind of Bauder-style “test of fellowship” (see below). Olson uses this phrase as a fellow postconservative evangelical (note that McLaren is published by evangelical house, Zondervan), Stackhouse says that he is not “terribly sympathetic to his agenda of raising many more questions than he satisfactorily answers” (109), and Mohler says that he, with Olson and (surprisingly) Stanley Grenz, is a new kind of Protestant Liberal (87-88)—if I interpret Mohler correctly by my own experience, “liberal” is no compliment. McLaren is not even on Bauder’s radar.

[5] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 71.

[6] Which is a step beyond the “critical empathy” I encourage my students to attempt when assessing religious experience.

[7] Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).

[8] Everett Ferguson largely agrees, though puts it in a fuller context. See his Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

[9] I suspect, in any case, he means the noninstrumental churches of Christ.

[10] Roger Olson also thought the book should represent Paleo-Orthodox Evangelicals.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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15 Responses to Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism: A Confessional Review

  1. robstroud says:

    Wow, what a thorough review of this significant volume. As a sacramental evangelical, I share the ambivalence of your Anglican evangelical friends. (I happen to be Lutheran, of the LCMS fellowship.) These are truly important issues–as is Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the Church. Thanks for offering this review.

    Like

    • Thanks Rob. You might want to find out what Roger Olson means by “Paleolithic Evangelical,” someone drawing from pre-Luther roots primarily I suppose.
      Lutherans were mentioned at a few points, but I think that “postconservatives” are exploring liturgy and sacrament in new ways.

      Like

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  4. jeremy scott says:

    Great article! I identify somewhere between fundamentalism and confessional evangelicalism, as I was raised LCMS as well, but now attending a non-denominational church. I also enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    Like

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