What is an evangelical?

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2011, 224 pages.Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism

“Labels are for boxes and dieters” a friend told me after I asked him his theological persuasion. Many of my new Christian friends tell me basically the same thing. Most of them are under the age of forty, and none of them want to be labelled. They don’t want to identify themselves as Baptist or Presbyterian or Calvinist or conservative. They just want to be known as Bible-believing Christians.

Ever the instigator, I say, “Wait a minute. That is a label, isn’t it? After all, what other kind of Christian is there besides those who believe the Bible?” Then we have that discussion of what it means to be a Christian and how much of the Bible you have to really believe to be considered one.

For the first time in my life, I attend a non-confessional church. Previously I’ve attended churches that held to historic confessions of the faith—like the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession. However, due to accepting a pastoral position, I now am ingraining myself in a broader evangelical church that confesses a belief in the Bible and in a short statement of faith similar to that of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. The change of church has resulted in my having many more of the above conversations than I ever thought I would.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. This is the age of individualism and self-sufficiency. What has surprised me is how, despite our anti-label culture, the term evangelical is still one that is so commonly contended for and shared by so many anti-labellers.

In 1995, Mark Thompson wrote about the label evangelical:

We are not simply defining an interesting and distinctive group within the Christian spectrum; we are defining authentic, biblical Christianity. Evangelical theology is not simply our label; it is God’s truth for the world. 1

Have the last fifteen years changed anything? Is the label worth fighting for? Does it mean anything anymore to call a church or someone evangelical?

Some authors—most notable of them is David Wells in The Courage to Be Protestant—think there is little hope of rescuing the term evangelical. Perhaps this landscape prompted Zondervan to commission Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Like many books in this comparative genre, this one attempts to allow representatives of differing views to make an argument and interact with others through a series of articles. The four views and their representatives are:

  • Kevin Bauder—Fundamentalis
  • Albert Mohler Jr—Confessional evangelicalism
  • John G Stackhouse Jr—Generic evangelicalism
  • Roger E Olson—Postconservative evangelicalism

The editors asked these scholars and pastors to speak and interact not just on their view but also around these three issues:

  • What is their view’s take on Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration?
  • What doctrinal boundaries do you think evangelicals should have (using the issue of open theism and the role of the Evangelical Theological Society as examples)?
  • What is your view on penal substitutionary atonement and its place in considering a belief to be evangelical?

This book was a fun read from cover to cover. The format allows bright men to interact with each other’s arguments in a thoughtful and measured way. My assumption was that I would early on take a side, enjoy that one article and then read begrudgingly through the rest. However, throughout the book I found myself agreeing with bits and pieces of each author’s response to another. Further, as one who enjoys reading church history, the treatment of the history of the evangelical movement—through four different lenses—was fascinating.

But it was a confusing read as well. While the editors presented the contributors the list above to interact around, I was not exactly sure what the goal of the book was. Sometimes the contributors were making a case for their particular view to be the defining view of an evangelical. Albert Mohler’s confessionalism article makes the case that evangelicalism’s identity lies in how one (or one’s church) responds to these issues—the trustworthiness of the Bible, the exclusivity of the gospel, the integrity of theism, and the nature of justification and the atonement (p. 89).

Certainly, the evangelical circles I know best would agree that those are the signifying issues, marking the difference between evangelicalism and mainline confesssionalism or liberalism. However, I was left wondering if confessionalism can really exist when there is no singular confession to confess. I know what confessionalism means for an Anglican or for many Presbyterians. I don’t really understand it when it comes to evangelicalism. The devil surely is in the details. Does one vacate evangelicalism with certain views on polity or six-day creationism? Depends on who you ask.

Kevin Bauder took a different approach while representing fundamentalism. Bauder argues that fundamentalism’s approach should be considered part of evangelicalism but that evangelicalism is not restricted to a fundamentalist approach. He says, “the rift between fundamentalists and other evangelicals is more than a half century old” (p. 48, emphasis added). Bauder clearly believes evangelicalism is broader than his fundamentalism.
Stackhouse and Olson both have a bit of a reactionary argument, arguing for a broader view than Bauder and Mohler. For example, Stackhouse says “Evangelicals who diminish or dismiss substitutionary atonement seem to be in the same camp as my evangelical brothers and sisters who espouse open theism: truly evangelicals, and truly wrong about something important” (p. 137).

Similarly, Olson labours to make the case that evangelicalism is a movement. As such:

Evangelicalism has no definable boundaries and cannot have them. An organization has boundaries; a movement does not. And without boundaries it is simply impossible to say with certainty who is and who is not an evangelical. (p. 163)

Interestingly, he later then questions the possibility of Seventh-day Adventists and Churches of Christ being evangelical (p. 180).

Detailed arguments for and against each strand of evangelicalism by the contributors are found within the book. I certainly wouldn’t be able to add much insight beyond what these scholars have already put forth. But, after reading and thinking about these arguments, I have little more clarity than when I started. I still wonder if the evangelical label is worth contesting for and, if so, what exactly one would be fighting for or against.

A complaint on the methodology of the book is that it seemed like there was an intentional avoidance of Scripture. Perhaps the editors thought it would open up too many proverbial cans of worms. But I would have enjoyed a healthy debate on key texts that may signify the exclusiveness or inclusiveness of an evangelical brand of Christianity and if any other such brand of Christianity could really exist.

The book could be helpful to some, especially those who are in the trenches of these debates. However, for my friends mentioned above, I doubt a book like this would be helpful. In fact, I worry that the book may reinforce their views that labels are only good for fighting over or, more generally, that words contain so little meaning that we should focus instead on just getting along. I would not be too fussed if those views were held only in relationship to the issue at hand—the nature of evangelicalism—but such vacuums do not exist.

I’d rather commend something concrete and singular like John Stott’s Basic Christianity, and the dialogue over its plausibility and correctness. There will still be nagging questions about whether there is such a thing as non-evangelical Christianity or the role of confessions and creeds. But, now equipped with a summary of the core doctrines of the Bible and a summary of the gospel—as Stott’s classic book provides—it would be clear that words and doctrine do matter, and that beyond anything else Jesus is Lord.

  1.  Mark Thompson, Saving the Heart, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 1995, p. 7.

2 thoughts on “What is an evangelical?

  1. I believe there is no doubt that a clear and unambiguous belief in justification by faith alone is essential to any claim to be evangelical.

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