The Nature and Future of Evangelicalism: A Dialogue

Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Mar/Apr 2003

What is-or better, who comprises-Evangelicalism? An increasing number of books describe evangelical theology, record evangelical history, warn of evangelical hubris, and debate the future of Evangelicalism. But, can we even define an evangelical? Should we define Evangelicalism? Who controls the future of Evangelicalism and shapes its identity?

These questions are beginning to take on more importance as American denominational loyalty wanes and adherence to more broadly defined groups and parachurch ministries grows. Roger Olson and Michael Horton began discussing and debating these concerns in the Christian Scholars Review (Winter 2001). Over the past several months, in an extended e-mail exchange, they developed further reflections, the first of which we are happy to publish for the first time here in the pages of Modern Reformation.

In this new series of exchanges, Olson and Horton discuss and debate the character of evangelical faith and explore the future of the movement. Their discussion is far ranging; covering the classic Calvinism versus Arminianism debates, discussing Open Theism, challenging the prospects for greater unity within Evangelicalism, and even discussing the power and politics of such groups as the Evangelical Theological Society. Where they agree-and disagree-may surprise you. What motivates them both-the glory of God and the sanctity of the church-will not surprise you.

Mike,You and I have engaged in some fascinating and at times fruitful discussions about the nature and future of evangelical theology. We're both evangelicals, although from somewhat different theological perspectives, and we love to examine the movement's trends. It seems to me that there is a trend toward fragmentation among North American evangelicals and at the same time I think I perceive a well-intentioned attempt by some conservative evangelicals to unify the movement by emphasizing doctrine. While I have nothing against doctrine, I am concerned that a one-sided stress on theological correctness can lead to narrowness and exclusion of people who have much to contribute. Evangelicalism has always been somewhat doctrinally diverse; I hope the movement can have identity and unity while preserving that diversity. For example, there have always been monergist evangelicals and synergist evangelicals; both groups of theologians have always been somewhat suspicious of each other's doctrinal approaches to salvation. Monergists emphasize the "God alone" aspect of our salvation: God decides who will be saved and imparts the gift of salvation without any cooperation on the part of the persons being saved. Synergists emphasize the initiative of God in salvation, but also stress the cooperation of the human person. Of course, much more needs to be said about this complex subject, but that might be enough to get us started. What do you think about evangelical diversity? Can the movement include both monergists and synergists? What concerns do you have about the identity of Evangelicalism?

I look forward to your reply and wish you all the best as you continue your teaching, writing, and editing work.Roger

Roger,It seems to me that there are two issues involved in this question. First, there is the political question: who's in, who's out. I don't use the term "political" pejoratively here. Every group has its boundaries as well as centers, regardless of rhetorical flourishes to the contrary. I have Mormon friends who are offended that I cannot consider them fellow Christians according to their profession, but I suppose that "heresy" or even "blasphemy" is possible even for them, such as denying the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith. I could not be a Mormon and affirm the Nicene Creed, but they can apparently deny the catholic articles and consider themselves "Christian." I don't know what "Christian" means if it includes those who deny the Trinitarian Faith, the two natures of Christ in one person, salvation by grace alone, and a host of kindred convictions. None of this means that we should reduce piety to right doctrine, but it does mean that if there is too little specificity to one's claim to belong to the Christian church or that one's convictions are actually contrary to the key Christian claims, it is hardly a matter of intolerance to suggest that one does not truly belong to that group so defined.

All of this gets trickier, of course, when we are talking about differences among those who do affirm together the definitive articles of the Christian faith. Not all disagreements are at the same level. This is why Evangelicalism has found it possible to accommodate a rather wide variety of soteriological interpretations, ranging from Arminian (synergistic) to Calvinist and Lutheran (monergistic). Originally adopted as a label by followers of the Protestant reformers, especially in France and Germany, the term evangelical widened to embrace John Wesley. In fact, even Charles Finney is generally regarded as not only a tolerable figure in evangelical history, but as a hero, although it is indisputable that Finney went far beyond Wesley's Arminianism to embrace something close to Pelagianism. So every group has boundaries. Every group has various ways of policing those boundaries. Nevertheless, Evangelicalism has traditionally had pretty wide boundaries. All of the major mainline Protestant denominations in the United States were self-consciously "evangelical" before the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, although many of the leading intellectual authorities for the neo-evangelical movement tended more toward a moderate Calvinism. It is an empirical fact that Charles Finney was an evangelical. He would most certainly not have been countenanced in the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) of today. Is that illegitimate? It would seem to me that this depends not merely on what has historically been tolerated by evangelicals, but what any given body of evangelicals now living (in this case, the ETS) regards as "beyond the pale." This is not an ultimate jurisdiction, because the real polis that counts is the one founded by Christ, the institutional church.

If one aspect is political, what is the other way of approaching this matter? It is, I would argue, the normative-theological. It is one thing to say, for example, that Charles Finney was an evangelical (a historical fact) and another to say that he was sufficiently evangelical in his theology. He was also a Presbyterian, but he vehemently rejected the Presbyterian confession. I would argue this same distinction in connection with Clark Pinnock and other representatives of "open theism." It is a profound waste of time to fight over one's right to a label. (Even if the ETS "voted" them out of the evangelical theological guild, they could still continue to call themselves evangelical and who is going to stop them?) What is important, it seems to me, is attempting some sort of understanding about our consensus concerning what makes evangelical theology evangelical. To be sure, this is a spectrum. I don't think that Arminianism is as evangelical as it should be (theologically), but it's a good deal more so than, say, Unitarianism. I have Roman Catholic friends whom I regard without hesitation to be my brothers and sisters, but I do not regard the ecclesiastical institution to which they are attached as an evangelical body. Similarly, "open theism," to my mind, is out of bounds of historic Christian commitment, but that in no way indicates what I think about the destiny of its adherents. I do not believe that the questions at issue involve a direct denial of any essential article, but several indirect and implicit denials that cannot but end up undermining essential articles.

If it is a historical fact that certain theologies verging on Pelagianism have been tolerated in evangelical circles, it is just as much a historical fact that the particular theology being espoused under the rubric "open theism" has never been regarded as orthodox. The doctrines that "open theism" challenges have been considered essential Christian convictions across the otherwise immensely diverse evangelical theological spectrum. Proposals have consequences. The rules of academic freedom that guide the university fruitfully cannot be legitimately adopted by the church, for which body theologians are but hired help. Although I'm not inclined to be one of the folks thinking about where the line in the sand happens to be, I do want to argue the case for a robust evangelical theology, in relation to which "open theism" can only be regarded as a rival school.Mike

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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