Interview with R. Albert MohlerJr.
What is evangelicalism? What makes one an evangelical? Questions like these can be perplexing given the current diversity of evangelicalism. In Zondervan’s recent views book, Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew D. Naselli and Collin Hansen, the nature of evangelicalism has been debated by an array of scholars, including Kevin Bauder, R. Albert Mohler Jr., John G. Stackhouse Jr., Roger E. Olson. Today we are glad to have R. Albert Mohler Jr., representing the “Confessional Evangelical View,” talk about what he believes makes up an evangelical identity.
Why is the nature of evangelicalism a worthwhile discussion?
The question of evangelical identity is essential and unavoidable. For some time, people have considered abandoning the word – and that comes from different places in the evangelical world, both the left and the right. The problem is that it remains an indispensible word. Something has to characterize conservative Protestantism that is neither Roman Catholic on the one hand nor liberal Protestant on the other. Some term is going to define that and there will be an essential contest for its definition.
The original fathers and founders of what became known as the evangelical movement in the post-war period were determined to be as theologically orthodox as the fundamentalists but to differ with them in engaging the larger world of thought rather than shutting themselves off from it. And from the very beginning of that movement, there have been essential questions about who is and who is not an evangelical. Early on, there were questions about whether or not you could be an evangelical and remain in a mainline Protestant denomination. But most of the founders of the evangelical movement were actually at the time of their greatest influence within one of those denominations. There were questions about confessional Protestants and how they fit in.
Why does the discussion keep coming up?
This conversation was intense back in the 1970s and 1980s. In one sense what this book represents is a new generation trying to go back to the essential question of evangelical identity. And at least what I have found in the process is that we haven’t left this question at all. The question is where it was in 1945 and the question is where it was in the 1970’s and it’s where it will be as long as we continue to use the term. But I think one of the things that becomes clear is that there are persons now claiming evangelical identity who hold beliefs virtually identical to those held by those who clearly understood themselves to be theological liberals when the evangelical movement began. And that’s why I think we have to come back to the question.
I think also there are massive changes in fundamentalism and that, on the other side of the equation, raises question about where the boundary lines are. And what became clear in this project is that the boundary between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, at least as Kevin Bowder argued in his essay, is in the question of separatism, another enduring tension and question part of this controversy over evangelical identity.
Can you tease out the concept of a centered set and bound set as a way of talking about evangelical identity?
That really goes back to the 1980s. In particular, the question is, do you establish identity by determining boundaries so that you know who is inside based on whether or not they’re within those boundary beliefs? Or, do you define the movement in terms of a center so that everyone who shares a commitment to that center is simply a part of the movement? There are arguments for both, and that’s why I argue that both must be an essential part of the definition of evangelicalism. The boundary makes no sense without a center, but there are persons who claim allegiance to the center who are clearly outside the boundaries in terms of acceptable evangelical beliefs – legitimate, authentic, historic, biblical, justifiably evangelical beliefs.
So part of being a “confessional evangelical” means owning the linage before us?
Also being committed to it, having the convictional clarity to say, “Just claiming the term evangelical doesn’t make you one.”
In your essay, you suggest that the language of “right” and “left” when talking about more and less conservative evangelicals, though not ideal, is still useful.
Right-left is never adequate, but it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, the entire conversation is incoherent. If there is no such thing as theological liberalism and biblical orthodoxy, then let’s shut it down and go home. But if there is then we need an honest, straightforward, adult conversation about what it means to be an authentic evangelical. If you can deny Chalcedonian Christology, justification by faith alone and the inerrancy of Scripture and still remain an evangelical, then it no longer matters if you’re a liberal. So the term requires a careful, intentional definition, and there is an unavoidable spectrum that ranges from more conservative to more liberal beliefs. It’s reductionistic to say “left-right,” “liberal-conservative,” but nonetheless it’s essential.
During Southern Seminary’s Fall 2010 convocation, you told a story about the day when evangelicals taught Southern Baptists how to be evangelical, and then painted a vision for Southern Baptist now returning the favor. Is that still what you would say to readers?
We’re still in that period. I think this generation of pastors and students will have to be part of the process of determining a definition of not only what it means to be evangelical, but what it means to be Baptist, what it means to be missional. All these terms are out there now for the taking. I want Southern Seminary, both faculty and students, to provide leadership in presenting the right definition and understanding of these things. I was writing my essay for the book at the time, by the way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview, conducted by Aaron Cline Hanbury, “Towers” managing editor, originally appeared in “Towers,” September 2011, vol. 16 no. 2.