Just when readers think that the evangelical “four views” genre has covered every possible angle, editors Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have come up with a book that explores evangelicalism itself. Zondervan’s Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism succeeds in presenting four engaging essays that describe the range of positions within evangelical thought. But the book leaves readers with a question. Are there really four views, or can they be boiled down to two?
More specifically, are we headed toward a convergence between mainstream fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals?
Sorting out the positions
Kevin Bauder presents mainstream fundamentalism as an idea worth saving, but not a movement worth saving. While many readers within fundamentalism are familiar with his views, the other three authors seemed somewhat surprised by his measured tone and his willingness to critique his own movement. Bauder contrasts his position with hyper-fundamentalism and populist revivalism, which he identifies as “deficient forms of the movement.” Bauder even worries that these two forces are now more prevalent in fundamentalism, with his own position losing influence. But for those who think that mainstream fundamentalism is identical to conservative evangelicalism, Bauder clearly states that it is not. For Bauder, there are still doctrinal differences related to the definition of the gospel, and practical differences related to separation. (Kevin Bauder’s chapter is excerpted as “Defending the Idea of Fundamentalism” in the November/December Baptist Bulletin.)
Al Mohler chose the term confessional evangelicalism to describe his own position in order to emphasize evangelicalism’s doctrinal center. He could have chosen the more popular title “conservative evangelicalism” (and in conversation he acknowledges they refer to the same movement), but the word “conservative” carries its own political baggage. Unlike the two authors who follow him in the book, Mohler wants an evangelicalism with clear, gospel-defined boundaries. His “first level theological issues” sound a lot like “fundamentals,” which he confirmed to me in a later Baptist Bulletin interview. For that matter, Kevin Bauder also affirms that they are talking about the same essential doctrines. But the difference between their two positions remains a matter of discussion.
John G. Stackhouse articulates a generic evangelicalism that represents the mainstream viewpoint of Christianity Today and cooperative evangelism. At first glance, the given label made me chuckle, thinking that it teetered toward ironic self-parody. But apparently Stackhouse chose the title himself, aiming for “a definition of evangelicalism that lets us all feel we are authentic evangelicals.” (Yes, it’s still all about our feelings. Okay, I’ll stop now.) But Stackhouse does draw some sort of line, suggesting evangelicalism should not be defined so broadly that the term becomes useless as a descriptor. Later, when critiquing Roger Olson’s “Postconservative Evangelicalism,” Stackhouse again suggests a distinction should be made between those who affirm evangelical doctrine (the Nicene Creed and Biblical authority) as contrasted with those who question orthodox theology. Even if one does not embrace mainstream evangelicalism, readers will benefit from a fine summary description of an important movement.
Roger E. Olson describes a postconservative evangelicalism that does not have definable boundaries. “An organization has boundaries; a movement cannot,” he says. Because of this, Olson can never say with certainty who is in and who is out; he is willing to accept all who use the label to describe themselves. And of the four authors here, Olson seems most willing to embrace the definition of evangelicalism suggested by Mark Noll and David Bebbingon (conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, activism). He concludes by describing evangelicalism as “a broad and inclusive movement of people churches, and organizations commonly committed to certain experiences and beliefs in varying degrees.”
So perhaps “spectrum” is a safe, nonthreatening way to describe the range of viewpoints here. At one point, Bauder suggests that “circus tent” might be a more fitting metaphor. If so, it’s the sort of tent that Bauder does not want to enter. His position remains in contrast to the other three.
Three test questions, two views
To demonstrate the similarities and differences between the positions, the editors asked each author to evaluate three contemporary issues: (1) Christian cooperation as modeled by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement; (2) doctrinal boundaries over issues such as open theism; and (3) the importance of penal substitutionary atonement in defining the gospel. The responses were interesting, with Al Mohler even voicing some measured regret for signing the Evangelical Manifesto.
In his concluding essay, editor Andy Naselli offers a chart that shows the various positions—with Bauder’s and Mohler’s summaries looking exactly the same. “Bauder and Mohler agree on the most substantive issues, and their views are virtually identical on the three contemporary issues each contributor addresses,” he says. Naselli also observes that Stackhouse and Olsen offer views that are “very much alike,” resulting in two major positions, not four.
Here the conversation turns interesting. Since the book’s publication, Bauder and Mohler have continued to explain how their views are different, as have Stackhouse and Olson. Some of these clarifications may be related to the limitations of the “four views” format. Each author was allowed to explain his position in a chapter-length essay, followed by a response from the other three authors. While some other books in this genre have gone a step further, allowing a final rejoinder by each author, this particular volume does not. Lacking a final say, each of the four authors later published additional reflections on their personal websites. Andy Naselli has kept track of the responses on his blog, compiling a running list that is well worth reading.
It’s all about…
Each of the four authors eventually discusses ecumenical evangelism in relation to the person most responsible for making the idea popular—even though his name was not on the original list of talking points. This was especially evident in the chapters from Kevin Bauder and Al Mohler. In the end, when it comes time to discuss differences rather than similarities, it’s still about…Billy Graham.
Having noted this in the essays they presented in the new book, I explored this further in a Baptist Bulletin interview with Kevin Bauder and Al Mohler (“Marking the Boundaries”), asking them how they related to Graham’s legacy.
Kevin Bauder responded by saying, “Al Mohler has been willing to cooperate with Billy Graham and honor him on his campus. We are not willing to honor Billy Graham. We think this is a man who deserves reproof and censure for what he has done to the gospel. There are some conservative evangelicals who agree that Billy Graham is wrong, but they will not censure him.”
In response, Al Mohler described all of the connections he had to Billy Graham’s ministry (and there are many) before saying, “At the same time, I would have come to some very different decisions than he did about some of the cooperative issues that became central to the identity of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and to his work.”
Mohler’s answer—though tinged with regret—does not seem to be “secondary separation” as it is traditionally taught by fundamentalists. But the situation seems complicated by the fact that conservative evangelicals have begun to practice something that looks a lot like separation, at times limiting their cooperation with other believers, even if they feel uncomfortable with the existing terminology. In an earlier Baptist Bulletin interview with Mark Dever, he responded to my “secondary separation” question by saying, “I would, I have, I do!…And yet? I don’t do it enough. [Pause.]
“I don’t do it consistently enough?”
Dr. Dever asked this question while looking straight at Kevin Bauder and the other fundamentalists in the room—and his question remains on the table.
In my recent interview of Kevin Bauder and Al Mohler, I asked about the separation issue. Dr. Bauder admitted that conservative evangelicals were doing “a certain amount of rebuking, reproving, censuring, and even separating within the evangelical community. In many cases, the conservative evangelicals are being separated from, by people who think they are far too narrow.”
But Dr. Mohler says these ideas are still in formation, noting that “confessional evangelicalism speaks to an historic identity. There is a certain defined reality to historic Protestantism and historic Biblical Christianity, requiring a separation from those who do not hold to those same truths. So separation has been a central part of evangelical identity from the beginning, but there has been an internal debate among evangelicals about the degree of separation that was historically described as ‘second degree.’”
Mohler also admitted he was reconsidering his own applications, saying, “If I were a fundamentalist watching evangelicals have this discussion, I would accuse evangelicals of often being lax in understanding that what was once described as second degree separationism is now an issue of first degree separation. And that’s where I find myself having to rethink many of these equations. The founders of the evangelical movement clearly understood the necessity to separate from liberalism. The question and the debate was what to do with midrange questions having to do with denominationalism and cooperation, not with liberals, but with persons who did have association with liberals.”
Describing how Southern Baptists have historically held a somewhat different view on separation, Mohler says, “We are a denomination that has had its own history of having to recover its theological integrity. We do not define cooperation as tightly as would more independent groups or the GARBC. At the same time, the SBC is being forced by theological and historical circumstance to define those issues much more clearly. So time will tell how much distance will remain between the SBC and independent Baptists on this issue.”
Mohler feels the situation may change over the next 10 years, driven by the external pressure of “a radical separation between Bible-believing Christians and all others.” He suggests the fundamentalist and evangelical divide may be replaced by “massive new divide that is going to separate those willing to go to jail for the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the objectivity of divine revelation—and those who are not.”
In the meantime, both authors continue to recognize important differences—fundamental differences. When I asked Kevin Bauder about a possible fundamentalist/conservative evangelical coalition, he responds, “I don’t think we’ll see any of them wanting to learn the secret fundamentalist handshake! They may never become members of ‘the club.’”
Bauder continued by making a distinction between discussion and actual cooperation. “It’s about strengthening, encouraging, and challenging one another. I think we can perform that ministry to them, and I think there are areas that they can challenge us as well—areas that we have been weak, where they could help us to become stronger.” Framed in these terms, the continuing discussion will be fascinating to follow.
Wherever readers may fall on the spectrum, Collin Hansen and Andy Naselli have performed an admirable service in releasing Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. One could imagine the two editors as photographers who have taken a snapshot at a given point in evangelicalism’s history. After the photo is taken, the scene continues to change; various subjects continue to interact with a rapidly changing society. But one gets the idea that the editors clicked the shutter at the right time—capturing an important moment, whatever it becomes.