Book Review of Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism edited by Andrew Naselli and Collin Hansen. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 222 pp.

Zondervan’s “Counterpoints” series invites contributors to lay out differing positions on issues pertinent to evangelical Christianity. This volume gets right to the heart of the matter—what is evangelicalism itself? Editors Andrew Naselli and Collin Hansen provide a forum for four men to describe their views on the nature of evangelicalism, not only what it is but also what it should be. Kevin Bauder of Central Baptist Seminary in Minnesota lays out the position for fundamentalism, R. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville describes what he calls confessional evangelicalism, John Stackhouse of Regent College in Canada advocates what he labels generic evangelicalism, and Roger Olson of Truett Seminary at Baylor University defends postconservative evangelicalism. Each writer not only presents his own view but also responds to the views of the others.

To be fair to these writers, one ought to read their own essays for their positions, but the following summary will serve to orient the reader. To some extent, Bauder and Mohler use a doctrinal framework whereas Stackhouse and Olson emphasize practice more and rely on the self-identification of professed evangelicals. Bauder defines the fundamental teachings as doctrines related to the gospel, making these both essentials of Christianity and the reference for Christian fellowship. Mohler advocates a doctrinal “triage” (his term) offering levels of doctrinal importance, with fellowship and cooperation dependent on the level of doctrine involved. Stackhouse uses David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” of distinctive characteristics of evangelicalism (described below) plus transdenominationalism as defining evangelicalism, limited only by what is not truly Christian (such as Mormonism). Olson outlines a “centered-set” approach to evangelicalism, where there is a core of Christian evangelical belief in the middle around which evangelicals gather but no identifiable boundaries. All of the contributors but especially Stackhouse and Olson refer to Bebbington’s quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives: stress on conversion, “activism” in holy living and evangelism, emphasis on the Bible, and the central place of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

From each of these writers come useful insights. Kevin Bauder points out that there can be no outward unity where inward unity does not already exist. Intriguingly he uses the gospel (not simply “the fundamentals”) as demarcation for essential Christian belief and fellowship. Here he raises a point for further consideration as his position establishes a greater objectivity in definition and application. He compares favorably with approaches to fundamentalism that are more subjectivity based, such as individually defined fundamental doctrines or an appeal simply to disobedience as a test of fellowship. In response to Mohler, he correctly highlights the differences between fundamentalism and the new evangelical heritage, noting that the divide was not over issues of intellectualism and scholarship but rather the gospel as the boundaries of Christian fellowship, revealed particularly in the debates over the ecumenical evangelism of Billy Graham. Consistent with the fundamentalist approach, Bauder argues against Olson that it is not consensus about doctrines that makes them marks of a position but their biblical foundation.

For his part, Mohler points out that Bebbington’s four-point definition is more descriptive than normative and therefore insufficient to define evangelicalism. In answer to the charge that doctrinal definition requires a “magisterium” to authoritatively define dogma as the Catholic Church claims for itself, Mohler says doctrinal consensus must be based on “persuasion and argumentation.” His own position as a Southern Baptist suggests that  church discipline within denominational churches and structures must be the agents to maintain the necessary doctrinal discipline, not an extra-ecclesial authority. It is also good to note that Mohler apologizes for signing the Manhattan Declaration, a document that aligns evangelicals with Roman Catholics to fight for moral issues.

Stackhouse notes that Mohler’s confessional evangelicalism is really more conservative evangelicalism (no creed or confession is involved), although he then mistakenly and abruptly equates this approach to primitivism. More significantly Stackhouse makes the telling point (worth further consideration) that investigators of the evangelical ethos such as George Barna define evangelical improperly. Therefore such observers make false conclusions and generalizations, for example, that “evangelicals” do not differ from the mainstream of Americans in divorce rates, charitable giving, and so on. In fact, accurately defined, Stackhouse argues, evangelicals do differ for the better in these areas. Even Olson, who is likely most problematic for fundamentalist readers, makes the good point that evangelical conversion is vital in any definition of evangelicalism, a point not always evident in the other discussions.

At the same time, none of these writers is exempt from criticism (although not in equal amounts). With Bauder these are more matters of interpretation and emphasis. He makes much of “revivalism” as the root of many of fundamentalism’s problems. His definition of revivalism appears to rely on Iain Murray’s categorization of revivalism as mechanical and human-centered activities, classically represented by evangelist Charles Finney. The contention of Murray and Bauder has weight, but if revivalism is defined more broadly as that which awakens/reawakens faith, then it may serve as an important formative force for fundamentalism without all the baggage. As for his (richly deserved) criticism of Finney, one may wonder whether he places too much of the blame on Finney’s shoulders alone. One recalls Herbert Hoover’s comment that blaming him for the Great Depression was “a great compliment to the energies and capacities of one man.” Also Bauder may be too pessimistic. The “hyper-fundamentalism” he criticizes is indeed noisy but is it really as numerous as he asserts? Does the extreme wing really make up the majority of card-carrying fundamentalists? (One notes that Bauder is not alone in this view; see Chris Armstrong’s article in Christian History, issue 102 [2012]). A closer study of the actual numbers of fundamentalists, rather than the impressions that guide so many observers, might present a different picture.

Al Mohler links himself explicitly to the new evangelical movement (with its suggestion of the rejection of fundamentalism), claiming the new evangelicalism as part of his heritage. (Mohler in fact corrects Olson, who says that fundamentalists labeled the dissent “neo-evangelicals” in the 1940s, when actually new evangelicals devised the term themselves.) In doing so Mohler raises an essential question for those who look for a convergence of fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals: Have the issues been resolved that contributed to the original division of the 1940s and 1950s? Answering that question is a prerequisite to pursuing further cooperation.

Stackhouse (responding to Bauder) removes the priority of doctrine by elevating “correct practice” and “right affections” to essentials of evangelicalism. These matters are certainly important, but they derive from a proper doctrinal foundation. Orthodoxy always has a logical, if not necessarily chronological primacy, over orthopraxy. Raising practice to the same level as doctrine duplicates the error of the Orthodox Churches. Also, despite his reservations about Catholicism, Stackhouse refuses to say Catholics deny the gospel, despite Catholic failure to admit justification by faith alone. Finally, the very label “generic evangelicalism” is unsatisfactory, perhaps a compromise forced on the writer to explain how his position is not fundamentalist, not conservative evangelical, and not postconservative. Actually, the term broad evangelical coined by David Beale in the 1980s might work better, except that one would still need some distinction from Olson’s postconvervative position.

Olson probably raises the most problems for the fundamentalist reader. He divorces experience from doctrine and removes doctrine from its central place. At times Olson creates impression that anything a professed evangelical believes cannot preclude him from being considered an evangelical. To Olson doctrinal boundaries are “litmus tests.” Yet this overused metaphor as a pejorative masks the truth that a litmus test does indeed indicate the nature of the substance tested. If Christianity is defined by truth, then there must certainly be a contrasting error. And it is worth noting that although Olson impugns some to the right of him for lack of charity, he resorts to judging the motives in critics of open theism, saying that controversy over this position was “an emotional brouhaha … fueled by a pent-up desire by fundamentalists calling themselves conservative evangelicals to test evangelical theological boundaries (which, as I have made clear, do not even exist).”

In light of the earlier fundamentalist–new evangelical split, this book reveals several ironies. For one thing, it manifests the further splintering of the evangelical  movement, as shown by the need to present three different evangelical views beyond fundamentalism. The book also displays the irony that the new evangelicalism rejected the separatist approach of fundamentalism (which had produced a series of independent fundamentalist institutions) in favor of a strategy of infiltration into the American religious mainline. Yet evangelicalism ultimately ended up instead only creating a different set of independent institutions.

Finally the book highlights the point that “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are not necessarily points on a continuum. To be specific, one can easily define fundamentalism (whatever its shortcomings in living up to that definition) but one is more likely to describe evangelicalism (although its historical characteristics are sometimes doctrinal). Perhaps one comes back to a basic question in this book—what evangelicalism should be. To his credit, Kevin Bauder shows that fundamentalism can articulate a vision of what it ought to be. The other contributors, particularly Stackhouse and Olson but also Mohler, need to articulate more clearly what evangelicalism ought to be, if it is to survive as a distinct phenomenon.

This is a useful book for surveying the current religious scene. The editors and authors present their positions clearly in an easy-to-follow manner. The work will reward the reader who thoughtfully considers its content.

This book is available at www.BJUCampusStore.com

Mark Sidwell

 

 

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