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  • Writer's pictureMichael Burgos

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism: A Review

by Michael R. Burgos

“‘Evangelicalism’ has always been made up of shifting movements, temporary alliances, and the lengthened shadows of individuals.” So says Mark Knoll in his text The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995, p. 8). Defining a movement whose nomenclature is applied to multitudinous expressions of Christianity, often with transient norms and boundaries, is a seemingly intractable task. In this installment of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, Kevin Bauder, Albert Mohler, John Stackhouse, and Roger Olson present a positive case for what each believes evangelicalism to encompass while providing concise interaction with each contributor. Additionally, key areas of doctrinal controversy (i.e., open theism, penal substitutionary atonement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together) are utilized as a foil from which each contributor’s vision of evangelical identity is compared.

This text presents a congenial tone throughout and begins with an introduction by Colin Hansen which sets the stage for the balance of the book: In many quarters “evangelical” has become an amorphous taxonomy used to describe Christians from disparate theological and ecclesiastical backgrounds. Or worse: It is merely a term that is a circumlocution for a certain particular political viewpoint. Bauder presents a vision for fundamentalism, Mohler for confessional evangelicalism, Stackhouse for generic evangelicalism, and Olson for postconservative evangelicalism. Each contributor sets the parameters for his viewpoint, articulating his understanding of what constitutes evangelicalism. At the end of this text, Andrew Naselli revisits each perspective and provides insightful observations and summaries.

A book on this thesis needed to be written. While “evangelicalism” has become hard to pin down within Christian circles, the secular culture still has a fair grasp on what constitutes an evangelical. For this reason, the term still has some utility and should be retained if only for his illustrious history.

One might flinch at the notion that a book on evangelicalism would include a contribution by a self-professed fundamentalist. Indeed, some reviewers have registered gripes for that very reason (e.g., Wenig, 2012). However, in the American context, virulent secularism tends to lower the bar of Christian fellowship, and through that lens, Bauder’s fundamentalism is evangelicalism. This is due in large part to the kind of fundamentalism Bauder has advocated—it is not modern fundamentalism. Instead, what Bauder calls “hyperfundamentalism,” the distinctives of which are King James Version Onlyism, guilt by association, revivalism, anti-Calvinism, etc., is what has presented as the predominant fundamentalism for the last five decades. While he agrees that this “hyperfundamentalism” likely comprises the majority of fundamentalist churches, he refreshingly characterizes it as a “parasite” (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, p. 55). Indeed, there are significant parallels between the modernist takeover of traditionally conservative Protestant institutions and denominations and the hyperfundamentalist takeover of the fundamentalist movement. Due to the predominance of hyperfundamentalism, one is made to wonder if Bauder’s fundamentalism is merely a vestige of a former time.

The most revealing observation Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism is a brief comment made by Stackhouse at the end of his response to Bauder: “I think we see in this book only three versions of evangelicalism” (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, p. 76). That is, on Stackhouse’s view, the evangelicalism presented by Bauder and Mohler is not truly distinct. This observation is seen in broad relief at the end of the book when each contributor provided a concise response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), open theism, and the essentiality of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Both Bauder and Mohler reject ECT, open theism, and a denial of PSA as compatible with biblical Christianity. Both see inherent divergences from the biblical gospel.

The only substantial difference is the manner in which Bauder and Mohler arrive at their conclusion and their respective takes on Christian cooperation. Whereas Mohler grounds evangelical identity in the theological commitments and history of the Protestant Reformation and the conservative Protestant leaders in the post-war era (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, pp. 72, 74-75), Bauder grounds it in a consideration of the gospel and its implicit theological boundaries (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, pp. 25-29). Both arrive at virtually the same conclusion albeit with slightly different emphases (Mohler’s confessionalism vs. Bauder’s separatism). The fundamentalist doctrine of separation that Bauder puts forward is essentially a commentary on past Evangelical cooperation with non-Evangelicals. One wonders if Billy Graham had not cooperated with theologically liberal churchman and members of the Roman Catholic communion, would there be a fundamentalist-Evangelical divide? Even then, Mohler lamented over some of these compromises, just as with his signing of the Manhattan Declaration (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, p. 85).

While Bauder and Mohler arrive at entirely similar conclusions, Stackhouse and Olson do as well. In effect, there are really two evangelicalisms presented in Four Views On the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Like Olson’s, Stackhouse’s viewpoint is centered around David Bebbington’s quadrilateral with the addition of George Marsden’s observation of transdenominationalism. What results is an evangelicalism that is and is not theological in scope. That is, Stackhouse is willing to affirm the evangelical identity of certain open theists and those who deny PSA but simultaneously insists PSA is “essential” to evangelical theology (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, p. 136). This is, as Olson points out, a contradictory proposition.

Olson, like Stackhouse, does not view evangelicalism as definable according to central theological commitments. Instead, without the least sense of irony, he defines it as a movement without a definable core. This big-tent evangelicalism can, on Olson’s view, even accommodate a congregation that affirms non-trinitarian theology, namely, Oneness Pentecostalism—so long as the congregation was theologically “moving in the right direction” (Naselli & Hansen, 2011, p. 178). This claim divulges a bit of theological naivete since Olson is reticent to admit restorationist groups like the Church of Christ into evangelicalism while the vast majority of Oneness Pentecostals affirm restorationism and a legalistic soteriology that is entirely similar to the Campbellite movement. Other objections could be raised regarding Olson’s comments about Seventh Day Adventism. It would seem that Olson, like Stackhouse, desires some theological boundaries to evangelicalism, but only the ones he is willing to accept.

In the final analysis, any cogent definition of Evangelicalism must move beyond conversionism and transdenominationalism and be explicitly theological in content. Mohler’s vision of a confessional grounding is the most successful in the real world where theological boundaries and ecclesiastical and individual cooperation occur. Repeatedly in Four Views On the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, the contributors ask the same question: Who determines the boundaries of evangelicalism? The answer is perhaps so obvious that most of the contributors missed it or in the case of Stackhouse and Olson, reject it: Evangelicals themselves have determined the boundaries. This is visible in the contemporary evangelical affirmation of ancient credal documents (e.g., The Apostles Creed; the Symbol of Chalcedon), evangelical confessions (e.g., the Lausanne Covenant, the National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith), and modern doctrinal “statements” (e.g., Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy; the Nashville Statement). The euangelion is itself a doctrinal position and argument. Thus we might confine the theological boundaries of evangelicalism around the five Solas of the Protestant Reformation, credal trinitarianism, and the missionary impulse engendered in the early church. Each of these elements presupposes other doctrinal commitments that are present in every expression of Evangelicalism (e.g., Sola Scriptura presupposes biblical inerrancy and infallibility; trinitarianism presupposes Chalcedonian Christology).

Olson’s big tent evangelicalism and Stackhouse’s generic evangelicalism fail to account for what Evangelicalism is: Catholicity among conservative Protestant Christians who set aside secondary and tertiary doctrinal differences for the greater cause of the kingdom of God. Typical fundamentalism rarely distinguishes between primary and secondary doctrinal categories and thus has historically neglected to participate in cooperative efforts to the same extent as other expressions of conservative Protestantism. Even so, there are many examples wherein fundamentalists have, for an important cause, cooperated with other conservative Protestants on key issues (e.g., the pro-life cause).

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism is a thought-provoking text that puts a fine point on a few of the major fault lines present within contemporary evangelical thought. All of the contributors provide interesting and well-argued visions for what constitutes evangelicalism and although there are significant similarities between these construals, the differing perspectives and methodologies should aid readers with an appreciation of the important differences therein. Much of the contemporary evangelical debate over issues such as critical race theory and intersectionality would benefit from recognizing the various understandings of evangelical identity and its boundaries.

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