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Review: Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism

Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Edited by Andrew D. Naselli and Collin Hansen. Contributors: Kevin Bauder, R. Albert Mohler Jr., John G. Stackhouse Jr., Roger E. Olson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Reviewed by Matthew Barrett

“I have become increasingly convinced that evangelicalism holds the key to the future of Western Christianity.” These words by Alister McGrath, in his book Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, ring as true today as they did when he wrote them a decade and a half ago. But it is my fear that the wrong kind of evangelicalism holds the key to the future. Today, evangelicalism is very diverse, making the term itself almost impossible to define. Everyone seems to wear the label, including those of a more liberal theological orientation. It is no wonder many have given up, insisting that the term no longer has any meaning. However, others continue to battle for custody, as evident in Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism.


The Spectrum of Evangelicalism begins with Kevin Bauder, who has written an impressive chapter, defying many of the typical stereotypes of fundamentalism. Bauder claims, perhaps to the surprise of many, that it is not purity that is most important to fundamentalists but unity and fellowship. And this unity comes with belief in the gospel. It is the gospel that is primary and central, separating the orthodox from the heretical. Doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the full omniscience of God, and the verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture are essential to the gospel itself. And many conservative evangelicals would agree, demonstrating that Bauder is not that far removed. Bauder only helps his case when he distinguishes between fundamentalism and hyper-fundamentalism. Hyper-fundamentalists (1) understand fundamentalism in terms of loyalty to an organization, movement, or even leader, (2) adopt a militant stance regarding some extrabiblical or even antibiblical teaching (e.g., KJV only), (3) understand separation in terms of guilt by association, (4) are marked by an inability to receive criticism, (5) are anti-intellectual, (6) turn nonessentials into fundamentals, (7) treat militant political involvement as a criterion for fundamentalist standing, and (8) hold a double standard for personal ethics. Bauder could not be more clear: “Hyper-fundamentalism is not fundamentalism. It is a parasite on the fundamentalist movement.” However, Bauder admits that hyper-fundamentalists do tend to make up the majority, not a small problem for those like Bauder seeking to escape the stereotypes.

Bauder’s chapter is a major step of progress for fundamentalists. But I remain skeptical as to whether other fundamentalists will be as generous as Bauder has been. The major issue that has plagued fundamentalism is obvious: peripheral issues are elevated to primary issues. While Bauder does distinguish between primary and secondary issues, it remains to be seen whether other fundamentalists will apply these theological categories consistently. Furthermore, the rub comes when Bauder insists that evangelicals “who fellowship with apostates undermine the gospel’s function” and “remove the gospel from its position of privilege as the boundary between Christianity and non-Christianity.” Here we see the essence of what distinguishes fundamentalists from evangelicals. Mohler issues his own concern: “How far is this to be taken? At face value, this would seem to imply that orthodox believers would never seek to rescue or redeem wayward institutions and wavering Christians. Had this principle been strictly followed, there would have been no conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and no reformation of its institutions.” Therefore, the gulf remains between fundamentalists and mainline evangelicals.

Confessional Evangelicalism

Much like Bauder, R. Albert Mohler argues that an evangelical “is recognized by a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, by a deep commitment to biblical truth, by a sense of urgency to see lost persons hear the gospel, and by a commitment to personal holiness and the local church.” But to be an “evangelical” must mean much more. To be an evangelical means to be a “conservative Protestant who is not, quite simply, a Roman Catholic or theological liberal.”

Mohler is critical of David Bebbington’s four qualities which characterize an evangelical: (1) conversionism, (2) activism, (3) biblicism, and (4) crucicentrism. Bebbington’s categories have been widely accepted, but Mohler argues that while these no doubt are necessary qualifications they are by no means sufficient. Why exactly? “These criteria are so vague as to be fairly useless in determining the limits of evangelical definition. Construed in such general terms, it is hard to see how many Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants would not consider themselves included. They, too, believe that lives need to be changed, hold ‘a particular regard for the Bible,’ place a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and seek an activist demonstration of their faith.” Mohler’s point is an outstanding one and may very well be the Achilles heel in the views of Stackhouse and Olson (as we have yet to see).

To the contrary, argues Mohler, evangelicalism “refers to that movement of Christian believers who seek a conscious convictional continuity with the theological formulas of the Protestant Reformation.” In planting the evangelical flag in the soil of the 16th century Reformation, Mohler now has a reason to title his view “confessional evangelicalism.” “Confessing this faith [i.e., that of the apostles], evangelicals embrace and affirm the historic creeds of the Reformation churches in their respective communions, even as they seek to engage the larger world of life and thought with a reason for the hope that is in them.” Therefore, contemporary movements like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) must be rejected for how “could evangelicals square this with the centrality of justification by faith alone?” Justification by faith alone is “an evangelical essential, a first-order issue.” In short, says Mohler, “I cannot recognize the Catholic Church as a true church.” Mohler is unashamed: “I am a convictional heir of the Reformers.”

Mohler’s emphasis on the Reformation as a defining mark of what it means to be an evangelical is further seen in his assessment of where evangelicals should stand on a variety of doctrinal issues. To be an evangelical one should affirm the “Reformation formula of sola scriptura” as well as the total trustworthiness and truthfulness of Scripture, rejecting not only higher-critical views of Scripture in liberal thought, but also the contemporary approach of revisionists to abandon the inerrancy of Scripture (e.g., Kenton Sparks). Mohler stands firmly in the tradition of the 1978 Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy and believes that “abandoning biblical inerrancy requires some new model for understanding the Bible’s truthfulness and the nature of its inspiration, and that new model accommodates to some degree the secular assumptions of the Bible as a human artifact marked by the frailties of human finitude.” Unlike Stackhouse’s “Generic Evangelicalism” and Olson’s “Postconservative Evangelicalism,” Mohler argues that affirming “the total truthfulness, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible is a first-order theological issue” since without “an unqualified confidence in the Bible as the revealed Word of God, we are left without any means of knowing what the gospel is and what we are to believe and teach.”

Not only should inerrancy be central to what it means to be an evangelical but so also should doctrines such as the exclusivity of the gospel (contra inclusivism), a classical view of the doctrine of God (contra Open Theism), penal substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith alone. Each of these are “first-order theological” issues and should we reject them we run the danger of putting the gospel itself in jeopardy. 

Generic Evangelicalism

In contrast to both Bauder and Mohler, John Stackhouse makes his case for a “Generic Evangelicalism.” Stackhouse is in virtual agreement with Bebbington’s four criteria, though he adds two more: evangelicals are (1) transdenominational and (2) have an emphasis not only on orthodoxy but orthopraxy.  The real question, however, is just how orthodox and orthoprax one must be. Though his tent may not be as big as Olson’s, nevertheless, it is big. Stackhouse looks approvingly upon Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and while he may not agree with their views he sees no reason to view open theists and anti-inerrantists as outside the bounds. But Stackhouse goes further still, asking, Who gets to say that those who support core tenets of evangelicalism and yet simultaneously affirm homosexual partnerships or the “prosperity” gospel are not evangelicals? Maybe Stackhouse is not that far from Olson’s postconservative view after all! Therefore, as appealing as “Generic Evangelicalism” might be to some, it is hard to see how its lack of doctrinal uniformity can avoid taking that next step into postconservative evangelicalism, to which we now turn.

Postconservative Evangelicalism

The most troubling view in the book is Roger Olson’s. I fear that if evangelicalism takes a turn down the road of postconservative theology it shall lose its evangelical identity altogether as it drifts towards liberalism.

While Mohler argues for a “centered-bounded” set, seeking to preserve not only evangelicalism’s core emphasis on the gospel but to protect the doctrinal orthodoxy that encompasses it, Olson argues for a strictly “centered” set, insisting that there can be no definable boundaries. Much like the charismatic movement or the New Age movement, evangelicalism is a movement not an organization, he protests. Consequently, it is “simply impossible to say with certainty who is and who is not an evangelical.” Nonetheless, there still is a center, for evangelicals do have “common commitments.” Olson is satisfied with Bebbington’s categories: conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. Doesn’t this assume, however, doctrinal boundaries? “Not at all.” Take conversionism, for example. It is not a doctrinal boundary but a “hallmark” which “forms part of the gravitational center of evangelicalism.” Consequently, “It is not always possible to tell with absolute assurance who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the evangelical camp; some people are nearer the center than others, and some people are far away but moving steadily toward it.” Olson advocates a “broad tent” model as opposed to an “in or out” model. But just how broad is this tent? So broad that it may include Oneness Pentecostals, as long as they are moving towards the center. The point here is that we identify evangelicals by which direction they are facing and moving, not on the basis of some doctrinal litmus test.

But is Olson consistent? He is not. Notice, even Olson has doctrinal boundaries for evangelicalism that he is not willing to let others cross. It “seems to me to stretch the meaning of evangelicalism to include groups such as Seventh-day Adventism and Churches of Christ,” since each of them “borders on legalism and works righteousness.” For one who is absolutely hostile towards “policing the borders” this is a shocking confession on Olson’s part. The real question, therefore, is not whether there are doctrinal borders (clearly there are, whether Olson wants to admit it or not), but rather what these doctrinal borders should be. For Olson, these borders are wide, very wide, including monophysites, Sabellians, open theists, and anti-inerrantists. I agree with Stackhouse when he concludes that Olson’s advocacy of Oneness Pentecostalism as an affiliate of the National Association of Evangelicals is “quite startling.” “It seems to me simply obvious that that tradition cannot be admitted since its talk of God varies greatly from orthodox Trinitrianism.” Dare I say, if this is the kind of evangelicalism Olson envisions then I want nothing to do with it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

What are we to conclude from such a wide spectrum of evangelical representatives? First, it needs to be stated outright that Olson’s postconservativism is dangerous. As Mohler observes, postconservativism resembles “nothing as closely as the Protestant liberalism against which the early evangelicals defined evangelical identity.” There is a dangerous tendency in postconservative theology not only to criticize doctrinal emphasis but to then open the door to heresy, all in an effort to eliminate “doctrinal boundaries.” Much could be said in response, but two things must be noted: (1) A skepticism towards doctrinal boundaries is certainly unbiblical. Watching our doctrinal boundaries is essential lest we fail to faithfully represent what the Bible teaches concerning the gospel. (2) It is difficult to see how Olson does not compromise Christian orthodoxy, as his story of Oneness Pentecostalism demonstrates. An evangelicalism with no boundaries will inevitably result in an evangelicalism with no orthodoxy, plain and simple.

Second, we need not only to ask what an evangelical is, but what an evangelical should be. Olson and other postconservatives insist they make up evangelicalism, as if this means that postconservatives should make up evangelicalism. But is this enough? Does claiming the label mean that one is an evangelical? It is my contention that it is not sufficient to look at the spectrum of evangelicalism in order to determine what an evangelical is. To the contrary, we need to ask the question: what should an evangelical look like? If we answer this question by paying attention to Scripture itself, it seems impossible to include postconservatives.

In conclusion, evangelicalism may hold the key to the future of Western Christianity. But the question that must be decided first is, What exactly is an evangelical? Or better yet, What should an evangelical look like in the first place? 

[This review is cross-published at The Gospel Coalition.]

Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive editor of Credo Magazine. He has contributed articles and book reviews to a variety of academic journals. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Georgia and Cassandra. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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