For decades Evangelicalism has been in a constant flux and there is no sign of it slowing down. The nature of this flux centers on Evangelicalism’s very identity. But the nature of Evangelicalism itself hinges on defining two important terms or ideas: “What is the evangel?” and “Who is an evangelical?”

As if answering these questions were not controversial enough, throw into the mix the fact that everyone wants to have the answer(s) but not everyone agrees. Thus, within broader evangelicalism there is significant confusion and lack of unity about who is an (e)vangelical and what is (E)vangelicalism. This is a debate, and sometimes war, that has waged for decades and will continue for years to come.

It is a commonly held belief, applied to many arenas, that he who defines the terms wins the debate. Since Evangelicalism is so divided and spread out the question naturally arises, “Who gets to define these two terms/ideas?” Is any one definition correct? Can any definition be wrong? Can anyone be an evangelical? What does it take to be considered unevangelical?

In an effort to present and possibly come to more of a unified consensus on the definition of these terms Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have edited the new book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. This book brings together the views of four leading voices within Evangelicalism today. The contributors and their respective positions are as follows:

  1. Kevin Bauder – Fundamentalism
  2. Al Mohler – Conservative/Confessional Evangelicalism
  3. John Stackhouse Jr. – Generic Evangelicalism
  4. Roger Olson – Postconservative Evangelicalism

There are no doubt other slices within Evangelicalism that could have been represented but these four views seem to be the most dominate and have a large following.

Unity on the evangel

The basis for the word evangelical is the word evangel which means “good news.” Across the four views presented there is unity in believing that Evangelicalism as a movement and evangelicals as persons should be centered on the good news of the gospel.

For Bauder “profession of the gospel is the minimum requirement for Christian fellowship” which centers on 1 Cor. 15 and the events of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (p. 25). It is these events that make the gospel possible. But simply affirming the reality of these is not enough. “The gospel begins with events, but the events are not presented as brute facts. They are interpreted (p. 29).” To Bauder, the gospel is the explanation of the significance and meaning of those events. He states further, “That meaning explains why the good news is good….Therefore, the gospel has an irreducibly doctrinal component. The gospel is not only events; it is also doctrines (p. 29).” It is these explained doctrines that shape and provide the boundaries for an evangelical and should for those within Evangelicalism. “Since the gospel functions as the boundary of Christian fellowship, fundamental doctrines are part of that boundary (p. 29).” They are fundamental doctrines of the gospel and as such should be fundamental to and evangelicals explanation of the evangel.

For Mohler there is not much recognizable difference in what Bauder asserts. Mohler sees the doctrinal essentials inside a theological triad. There are first, second and third tier doctrines to the Christian faith. These first tier doctrines “include the Trinity, the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith alone and the authority of the Scripture (p. 78).” He goes on to say, “Denying these doctrines represents nothing less than eventually denying Christianity itself (p. 79).” The rub lies in the boundary between first and second tier doctrines. This is where Mohler and Bauder might disagree (and where Stackhouse and Olson certainly will) but where they would also part ways with Stackhouse and Olson. Both Bauder and Mohler agree that there is a fine line between the two but they would differ on what they are. Mohler further articulates the gospel as the center of evangelical confession by rounding it out with the idea that whatever becomes the center naturally defines the boundaries. If the gospel is the center of Evangelicalism then it also defines its boundaries, thus by definition weeding out those who can and cannot (should or should not) claim to be an evangelical. Mohler champions a “model of evangelical identity that directs constant attention to both the center and the boundary…..Attention to the boundary is not a matter of mere doctrinal policing. It is necessary for our faith to resemble and represent what the Bible reveals. Attention to the boundary lines is essential lest the evangelical movement forfeit its responsibility to make our confession of Christ clear (p. 77).”

John Stackhouse understands the evangel to be “a message about the life, work, and significance of Jesus Christ as God reconciling the world to himself and how we can participate in that salvation (p. 116).” Though in somewhat different words Stackhouse falls in line with Bauder and Mohler on identifying the gospel as the center of evangelical confession. He too believes there are to be sets of beliefs that mark out an evangelical as well as convictions they hold to. As an individual an evangelical is to be Christ centered, Bible centered, conversion centered and activist minded (p. 119). As a movement Evangelicalism is to be Christ centered, Bible centered, conversion centered, missionally focused and transdenominational (p. 124).  Going beyond Bauder and Mohler, Stackhouse believes an evangelical need not only confirm right doctrines (orthodoxy) but also right feelings (orthopathy) and right practice (orthopraxy) (p. 124). The issue for Stackhouse is how much of each sphere does one have to hold to in order to be considered an evangelical? Can you major on one and minor on the others and still be an evangelical? Can you ignore one or two and solely focus on the last that you cannot be identified as an evangelical who is committed to the gospel?

In much the same vein as Stackhouse, Olson seeks to shape the identity of an evangelical and Evangelicalism around the ideas of conversionism, biblicism, crucicentricism and activism. These form the center of evangelical belief. Unlike the other contributors he does not come out and define the gospel per se but one does get the general idea throughout his discussion of the aforementioned shapers of evangelical identity.

All in all the four authors have general agreement that the gospel is the center of the life of the evangelical and Evangelicalism as a movement. They also have general agreement that there is a center of sorts around which an evangelical and Evangelicalism is set. Where they clearly divide over is on whether this gospel center, and it’s attending doctrines, by definition or naturally sets its own boundaries in which one must stay inside in order to biblically identify as an evangelical and associate and fellowship within Evangelicalism.

Disunity on who is or can claim to be an evangelical

Even a cursory look at the history of Evangelicalism will yield the harsh reality that it is fractured. There are many factors to this which historians of many perspectives have charted over the last decade or so. Perhaps the issue that is most responsible for these fractures is the place of separation among evangelicals. Do evangelicals separate from others who claim to be evangelicals but do not keep the gospel the center and what that implies? Do we have biblical warrant to separate from other professing evangelicals? It is here where the marked division occurs.

Compared to many Fundamentalists Bauder brings a welcome tone to his view of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. He is of the same stripe but different. The heart of the difference for Bauder is what Fundamentalists have become famous for (whether they want to or not) – second degree separation. As central as this belief is it takes up very little of Bauder’s chapter. The crux text is 2 John 9-11. For Bauder these verses describe how Christians are to handle other Christians who extend fellowship to other professing believers who they would not fellowship with. From these verses Bauder’s conclusion is clear

Christians who make a habit of encouraging apostate teachers are hardly a model of Christian discernment. We should treat them as people who have a share in the evil of apostasy. That is why fundamentalists separate from Christian leaders who will not separate from apostates. By refusing to break with apostates, such Christian leaders are losing reward by bringing themselves into fellowship with apostasy. The evil of apostasy becomes common property between them and the apostates (p. 40).

What seems reasonably clear is how person A (evangelical) is to relate to person B (apostate). What I am not sure of yet is how to reconcile where person C (evangelical who associates with person A) is even in the picture in these verses. It seems like a point of implication at best. There are two parties in this passage not three. Whether or not Bauder’s conclusions about 2 John 9-11 are as clear as he seems them to be, there is some merit and wisdom to his words. Bauder is more than reasonable earlier in the chapter as he recognizes that each person will draw the line differently and we must give everyone some room for different movement and personal discernment and application of separation. What has plagued Fundamentalism is that too often second and third degree doctrines are held to the level of first degree doctrines and thus first and second degree separation happens where there should be fellowship and unity. This is not healthy for the church. Bauder’s conclusion is worthy of thought, “Any fellowship between fundamentalist and other evangelicals must grow out of what they hold jointly, and it must not ignore their differences (p. 49).”

Coming not far behind Bauder is Mohler. Mohler as many know is responsible for the restoration of the Southern Baptist Convention which the church and the world are better for. What God has done through him as nothing short of remarkable and plenty of fundamentalists know this. Where it seems that Mohler and Bauder would diverge is that it looks like Mohler would fellowship with institutions or organizations that are largely evangelical and orthodox though there may be some within the group that he would not fellowship with on an individual basis. I am not sure. Mohler (all three other contributors other than Bauder for that matter) does not speak of second degree separation except in his response to Bauder when he asks, “How far is this to be taken (p. 55)?” This has been the cry of those who hold second degree with suspicion.

Taking a jump we come to John Stackhouse. Stackhouse shows his flavor of evangelicalism when he addresses the issue of open theism. Bauder and Mohler would separate directly from them Stackhouse (and Roger Olson) would not. Stackhouse states, “I would say that open theists are, to my knowledge, genuine evangelicals. They are just wrong evangelicals (p. 132).” Further, when it comes to the atonement Stackhouse follows the same line. He agrees that the substitutionary atonement is “a nonnegotiable part of the Christian understanding of salvation” but again they are evangelicals who are just wrong in his mind about those doctrines (p. 136-37). This is a generous view of evangelicalism. But Stackhouse can hold to this because he does not see the denial of one doctrine by one person that another holds dear and central to the gospel as an act of forfeiting ones evangelical identity. It has to be more than that.

At the other end of the spectrum is Roger Olson who touts a postconservative evangelicalism. Olson does not believe anyone person can make a claim to setting the theological boundaries for Evangelicalism or even those who call themselves evangelicals. To do so is “an interesting but ultimately futile project (p. 162).” While Olson sees the gospel as the center of Evangelicalism this does not mean there are any boundaries (contra Bauder and Mohler). Gospel doctrines are centered sets and not bound sets. “The reason these entities do not compose a bounded set is that nobody can identify the precise boundaries around then, and therefore, at least in some cases, it is impossible to say with certainty exactly which entities belong to the set and which do not (p. 164).” What is confusing about Olson’s proposal here is that later in his discussion on conversionism he seems to betray his own words when he says, “Conversionism of the evangelical type assumes some surrounding doctrinal beliefs (p. 171).” Foreseeing the accusation that this is a boundary Olson replies, “Rather, this hallmark….forms part of the gravitational center of evangelicalism (p. 172.” In this readers mind this is wishful thinking. This is why Olson is described as holding to ‘big tent’ evangelicalism because almost everyone is in. In this view there are many people under the tent and all are facing the center though some are closer to the center than others. Because of this there is almost no view of many doctrines that one could hold to that would push one out of the tent. It seems as if good intentions are all that are required to be under the tent.

Conclusion

Of the four views I come from Bauder’s camp but I feel myself between him and Mohler. I like a lot of what Bauder had to say but I still have some concerns with second degree separation. I really liked Mohler’s stance but I would find it helpful if there was some good interaction with the separation issue. I will say I agree with what Mohler did with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention. Does this make me not a Fundamentalist? To some yes. All too often I find myself more in line with Mohler’s Evangelicalism than Bauder’s fundamentalist version. Of course, there are many self-proclaimed fundamentalists who would say Bauder has jumped ship.

Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism is a great glimpse into a few of the many views on the movement of Evangelicalism and professing evangelicals. This seems to be a timely book but considering the fast pace at which Evangelicalism changes I am not sure it will be a timeless book much less a good historical reference book in the decades to come. Never the less, this is a good read and will prove a challenge to all readers alike.

NOTE: I received this book for free and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

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