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And Now for a Little Controversy…

Readers of this blog know how I abhor ruffling the tiniest feather on the teeniest birdie. Nonetheless, I yank out a few–and get mussed up a bit myself–in the new Family Feud book released by Zondervan, The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, edited by Collin Hansen and Andy Naselli.

The editors rounded up four authors who purport to represent four kinds of evangelicalism. Immediately, of course, the problem surfaces that we four can’t possibly represent the wide, wide range of evangelical varieties, even if you narrow the field to middle-aged, white, North American, baptistic, male, middle-class, Anglophone theological professionals. (You noticed that that does narrow the field a bit, did you?) It doesn’t even begin to represent the variety of theological approaches, let alone the varieties of evangelicalism along other axes (e.g., liturgy, social action, ecclesiology, ad infinitum).

Still, what it does do is bring together proponents of four discernible theological stances that are shared, to greater or lesser extents, by large numbers of white North Americans who are willing to identify with the words “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” And it gives us an opportunity to set out our stances with reference to similar topics (in this case, with reference to Open Theism, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and penal substitutionary atonement–since these have been contested among such evangelicals over the last couple of decades) and in the light of response essays by the other three. (Alas, the authors of each chapter were not given opportunity to smite respond to the other three, so the reader is left to imagine what each of us might have said in reply.)

The other three contributors are as follows: Kevin T. Bauder (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is president and professor of systematic and historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis; R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), is president and professor of Christian theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky; and Roger E. Olson (PhD, Rice University) is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

(Yep, three of the four of us are Baptists and Americans, while I’m an ex-Plymouth Brother Canadian who, since leaving the One True Church, has been a free agent who currently worships with, yes, Baptists, but also with United Church folk.)

Kevin represents fundamentalism, although an agreeable fundamentalism–agreeable enough, in fact, that he is willing to participate with the rest of us in such a project, as many (perhaps most) fundamentalists would not.

Al represents what he calls “confessional evangelicalism,” but I say in the book that he’s basically a fundamentalist, indistinguishable in any important theological, sociological, or historical sense from Kevin. I am not confident he is going to thank me for saying that. He’s certainly not confessional  in the normal sense of “standing under particular confessions,” as a confessional Dutch Reformed Christian hews to the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dordt, and Belgic Confession while a confessional Lutheran adheres to the Augustana and the Formula of Concord. But while his essay never makes this clear, I have since concluded that he uses the term in the way the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals likes to use the word “confession,” as in “we confess our selection of favourite orthodox confessions that we militantly adhere to in every respect except when, say, on matters of church polity or the sacraments or…whatever, we don’t.”

Roger represents what he calls “postconservative evangelicalism,” a term I find so unfortunately vague that I have assailed it in the pages of Christianity Today magazine and do so, albeit kindly and gently, here, too.

And your servant? Well, I wanted to call my chapter “Authentic Evangelicalism” but–oddly enough–the editors thought that might be a bit tendentious. So we agreed on “generic evangelicalism,” by which I could embrace Kevin, Al, and Roger as my fellow evangelicals, even as I reserved the right to call them “wrong evangelicals” on this or that, as I’m sure they have reserved the right to return the favour. (In fact, they don’t just reserve the right, but exercise it in this volume–as well they should.)

As a historian and theologian of evangelicalism who has devoted many an hour to researching, describing, and defining evangelicalism in the past, I found this exercise interesting enough on its own terms: to set out a definition of evangelicalism that I could commend to other people and to say a few words along the way about some of the interesting, and not-so-interesting, controversies of the recent past. But, to be honest, I accepted the invitation to write only once Al Mohler came aboard the project.

I didn’t know Brother Bauder and he seems like a nice fellow with whom I have so many and such obvious differences that it didn’t seem like much would be accomplished by spelling them out–even as I do embrace him as a fellow Christian and a fellow evangelical. Brother Olson I know fairly well and both like and respect the man, even as Roger and I have tussled from time to time on this or that relatively minor issue of definition. And since I had already said what little I had to say about his project of defining evangelicals according to his term “postconservative” in CT, I didn’t see that it would accomplish a lot to interact with him again in this book. Readers can judge for themselves, then, whether the Bauder-Stackhouse or Olson-Stackhouse interactions amount to much.

Brother Mohler, however, was someone I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting but whose considerable shadow I have judged to both bless and blight the landscape of American evangelicalism, as it has his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Since Al seems to imply at every turn that his position is the one all right-thinking Southern Baptists, evangelicals, Christians, and human beings ought to hold–since he thinks it is simply the gospel truth–and since I am pretty sure it isn’t that, and also since I try to engage  in public controversy only with people who are in some sense public figures who have invited such controversy by asserting their views as normative in public…well, then how could I turn down the opportunity to interact with Brother Al? I couldn’t, so I didn’t.

I say all this because it might interest you and also because it might explain both what’s in the book and what might emerge now from Al’s remarkable media machine. His main target so far has been Roger Olson, but I’ll likely come in for a share of rebuke as well. And that’s fine, so long as it makes clear where in fact we differ: we must not bear false witness against each other, but be scrupulous about representing a brother’s views accurately. And controversy is fine so long as it does not obscure where we agree: we must be careful to say just what is at stake and what really isn’t–a rhetorical approach that has not generally been the strong suit of fundamentalists, for whom Everything Matters and disagreement on this or that tertiary subject can easily be viewed as disagreeing with The Very Word of God and therefore you must not be a Christian and in fact you have the spirit of Anti-Christ…. It’s the old temptation to jump on the invigorating ride down the Slippery Slope of Escalating Invective and we must be Christian enough to eschew it. Here’s hoping we can keep doing so.

So if you care about such things–and many of you wisely attend to other matters, God bless you!–then here’s the notice of the book coming out at month’s end. If you happen upon it, let me know if you think it’s doing any good: I’d honestly like to know if you do.


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