[amazon 0310293162 thumbnail]The new Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism is being discussed in various venues such as Mark Snoeberger’s blog and by Kevin Mungons at Sharper Iron. In a few days, ETS will host a discussion on the book and its theme at the 2011 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Carl Trueman will be there serving as moderator along with coauthors Kevin Bauder and Al Mohler, both of whom I know and respect. Too bad Roger Olsen and John Stackhouse Jr. won’t make it, but they have their reasons.
While the book just came out recently, much of its content has been known among the Central faculty as Kevin has shared parts of it with us along the way, mostly his own material, seeking advice and help. He seldom needed it, quite frankly. When Kevin puts pen to paper, he is rarely outdone, and what little we might have suggested is so insignificant as to be of no consequence. I am, however, glad to have gotten a mention in a footnote. Thanks, Kevin.
I read most of the book on a flight to Romania the end of the last week of November where I am doing some administrative work for the seminary at our satellite campus. I finished the book this Monday. Let me weigh in with a few comments of my own.
1. First, there is really nothing surprising in the book. This is standard conversation that has been occuring in various contexts within the evangelical (including fundamentalist) world for several years now. The themes that both Kevin and Al herald I have been hearing from both for the better part of the past decade. It is nice to hear them talking to each other directly, but really they have been saying these things for quite some time now. I, for one, like Kevin’s “idea” of fundamentalism and, having worked for a time as an Emergency Medical Technician, Al Mohler’s “theological triage” resonates with me. In both emergency medicine and Christian theology, one has to sort out what is most important or one focuses on lesser problems to the neglect of more serious matters. We used to follow the ABC rule as EMTs—airway, breathing and then circulation. It was easy to focus in on a patient’s bleeding while missing the more serious occluded airway!
As for John and Roger, there are really no surprises here either. Roger has been pitching his “big tent” for a while now, and frankly, I think John’s take on evangelicalism (virtually echoed by Roger) is an accurate presentation. I recently read Doug Sweeney’s The American Evangelical Story (Baker, 2005). I am sufficiently persuaded that this is essentially the correct view of evangelicalism—you have to trace it to the Reformation and its descendents. Like the mighty Mississippi River that finds its headwaters in Itasca, MN, although it begins small and narrow, by the time it reaches the Gulf, so much other water has flowed into it to make it exceedingly broad and quite muddy indeed. I like David Bebbington’s quadrilateral, though I think it is enhanced with John’s, et al, addition of transdenominationalism as well as Roger’s fifth point—some sort of commitment to historic orthodoxy, vaguely defined. Evangelicalism predates the rise of the new evangelicalism and unless we understand this, the present day situation is hard to grasp.
Here I think Al especially is fighting a losing battle. He seems to want to reclaim what has clearly been lost since the death of the founders of the new evangelicalism—its ethos and identity. Carl Henry’s (et. al.) effort was clearly a Promise Unfulfilled. I do not think Al will succeed in resurrecting it. Where does this leave us—with Kevin’s idea? Well, yes, but I am persuaded few will be—persuaded, that is. Many will dismiss Kevin as simply obscurantist. Others will prefer not to engage his argument for pietistic reasons—it seems pattenly unChristian to separate from brothers. Still, without some form of separatism, there will be no way to separate the sheep from the goats.
2. This leads to a second conclusion about the book. Despite the book presenting four views, really there are just two. The book essentially offers a binary approach to the movement of the present hour, regardless of when one thinks evangelicalism began. Either evangelicalism is a centered set, or it is a bounded set. I know Al wants a centered and bounded set, which ultimately both Roger and John are forced to imply—not everything, after all, can be evangelical. But really, all attempts to put solid boundaries amount to some form of separatism—secondary at that. If you cut some cows from the herd, you are practicing separation.
Thanks Andy et al for pointing out this binary reality. But anyone who reads the book with attention will see what we saw. It’s a tag team effort with Kevin and Al in one corner arguing for a theological understanding of evangelicalism vs. John and Roger arguing for a sociological one. That may be a bit over simplified, but I think this is the reality. It may surprise the reader to hear that I actually agree more with John and Roger than with Kevin and Al on this point. Not that I don’t wish for a theologically-defined evangelicalism. I just don’t think it has ever existed, nor will it outside of some other effort like fundamentalism or something like a qualified evangelicalism, e.g. confessional evangelicalism. John and Roger will neither confess to the satisfation of Kevin and Al nor will they voluntarily surrender the term evangelical. Call them what you will; they will call themselves evangelical.
3. This leads to a third conclusion, while secondary separation is a concept that three of the writers wish to finally reject, it seems that even they have their limits of fellowship. So, while Roger will fellowship with an open theist, he clearly won’t fellowship with a Mormon. Nor will the others. So what does one do with Richard Mouw who repeatedly apologizes for the ways evangelicals speak of Mormons as non-Christians and cultists? Witness the recent kerfuffle over the comments of Robert Jefferess’ anti-Mormon statement when introducing Rick Perry. Jeffress called them a cult and Mouw begs to differ. Mouw speaks of one Mormon elder whom he heard focusing on the death of Christ. The published theology of the CJCLDS is well documented and one public pronouncement does not make Mormonism “more Christ-centered.” Because Al, John and Roger ultimately won’t practice secondary separation, I think it is quite likely that it won’t be long before the big tent of evangelicalism also includes the LDS, especially if Mouw has his way! Mouw says he still has serious issues with Mormonism, but they aren’t a cult. What are they then? Al might never accept Mormons as evangelicals but its looking more likely that Richard Mouw just might, at some time in the future, and he is the president of the school where evangelicalism began, at least one form of it.
As for John, he thinks Brian MacLaren is a “brother.” I really wonder if John adequately grasps the gospel he wants to place at the center of his view of evangelicalism. Or maybe he has not read much of Brian to know him well. MacLaren hardly seems evangelical under even the broadest definition. Roger has a frankly an odd view of Roman Catholicism. They aren’t apostates, in his view, but he won’t fellowship with them either! I am left wondering why. And Al will (thankfully) cut off the open theists at the knees (figuratively speaking), which is essentially secondary separation (from “Christian” brothers). I met Clark Pinnock and enjoyed chatting with him at the infamous ETS meeting in Atlanta where he was almost cast out. I found him to be personally engaging and quite likeable—for a heretic!
4. Since no one ultimately speaks for evangelicalism and no doctrinal statement finally defines evangelicalism, there is little prospect that anything serious will come out of this book in terms of definite boundaries. Kevin’s issues were largely dismissed by his co-authors, which virtually assures this. I knew that Al would reject Kevin’s view of separation from the errant precisely because the SBC conservatives reclaimed the Alamo! Perhaps Al thinks that his conservative brethren can do the same things with the evangelical world. Good luck! We are already seeing what I call the Southern Baptistification of ETS. The SBC men now come in droves and there is a definite pulling to the right. Al and his fellows did practice some form of secondary separation when they voted to remove Clark Pinnock and John Sanders from ETS. So, now that he and Kevin actually agree on the idea of secondary separation (by the way, secondary separation has to do with both separating from indifferentists and/or separating from errant brothers). However, if evangelicals will not set boundaries, and I am persuaded they won’t (sorry Al) then it is up to like-miinded men to start something new with boundaries. Evangelicalism is sadly like the Baptist movement. No surprise here since Baptists of all sorts are a part of the evangelical tribe. But as Baptists have no Rome or 39 Articles, each individual Baptist gets to define what the term means to him or her! I once led a PhD course on Baptist theologians. One of the men to be chosen for study was William Newton Clarke, the father of American liberal theology. Kevin said to me something like, “I thought this was a class in Baptist theology!” Meaning if you are not orthodox, then how can you claim to be a Baptist? Well, sadly many do. I wish—oh how I wish—we could finally and completely cut the liberal element from the Baptist herd and finally deny to them the Baptist moniker. But we cannot. No matter how much we protest that they—the liberals—are not real Baptists, they will offer a long list of recognized names who proudly wore the Baptist label (even as Roger gave us a list or recognized evangelical theologians that might not be). These Baptists denied serious parts of the Baptist and Christian faith. Were they Baptists? Well … no and yes. The same can be said of many so-called (there I go) evangelicals. Are the open theists evangelical? Well, they think they are. Is Brian MacLaren? John seems to think he is. Sorry Al, since evangelicalism has no tribunal, pope, creed, secret handshake, etc., we will both lose our battles to set boundaries—your more broad ones or my more narrow edges.
So, at the end of the day, what has been accomplished by this book? I want to be careful here, for I do not wish to disparage the labors of my esteemed colleague and personal friend Kevin Bauder. Several things come out of this book for sure. Zondervan has a new book to hawk and I am sure some are buying it, if only to read it and critize it for being too narrow or too broad. Also Kevin, Al, John and Roger have another title to add to their respective CVs. Evangelicals have something new to talk about at ETS this year and beyond, at least until the next theological skirmish distracts us. That issue may be on the table right now. Bruce Waltke, Peter Enns and others who deny the historicity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis want to retain the title evangelical also. But are they? Really? Here we go again.
I fear that talk is really all they (we) will ultimately do. We’ll have a conversation. This conversation too will pass when the next theological debate begins, and nothing will change. Unless, at ETS, Kevin and Al find they have more in common than they realize, and they formulate a plan for a new movement that is both centered and bounded to replace evangelicalism, even as it would move within the very broad and often-polluted stream that today is contemporary, fundamentalist, confessional, generic, big-tent, post-conservative, neo- and yet paleo-evangelicalism. But I’m not holding my breath! What would such a group look like? Might they publish a series of articles around a common theme across denominational lines? The series might be called The Fundamentals! Here we go again.