A Few Notes on the "Spectrum" Book

The book I mentioned a little while ago, The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, is now officially released by Zondervan. Looking it over, now that I’ve got a copy in my hands (!), I want to add a few small remarks to the record. If you’re not interested in the book, of course, you’ll be even less interested in these jottings, so do feel my friendly blessing to stop reading now!

1. I am gratified by the generally genial tone of Brother Al’s response to my essay. I am also impressed that he seems actually to get what I’m trying to do in my definitional work–which, alas, I can’t say is true of the other respondents, nor of the editors. (More on that point below.) Al alone, in fact, seems to see clearly how I’m defining things and what the implications are of that work, even as he (understandably) then disagrees with me on where he stands vis-à-vis that definition. And I think our interaction (his response to my essay and my response to his essay, as well as our two responses to Roger Olson’s essay) make it clear that Roger and I do have significantly different positions and that Al and I agree on a number of matters over against Roger, even as Roger and I agree on a number of matters over against Al.

2. The upshot of this pattern is that editor Andy Naselli is mistaken, in my view, to suggest that there are only two main positions in the book: the more conservative pair (Bauder and Mohler) and the less conservative pair (Stackhouse and Olson). I said in my essay that I think there are three main varieties represented in this book: Bauder/Mohler, Stackhouse, and Olson. And I think that all the more now that I’ve read the interaction. The spell of the “two-party system” of categorization is strong in American culture (right back to the Puritan self-image of their establishing a “city on a hill” versus Old Europe and its dark ways, gladly left behind), and it shows up, interestingly, at both ends of this spectrum: in fundamentalism, yes, but also in Roger’s typologizing. I continue to resist it (perhaps partly because we Canadians are quite used to thinking in multiple categories in politics and culture, as well as church), and I trust readers will resist it also.

3. Roger rightly presses me on what status I give to belief in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement: Is it truly “essential” to Christian theology and therefore to evangelical theology, as he rightly says I say it does, or can someone be a Christian and, indeed, an evangelical, even in denying it? In response, I would say, “Yes, and also yes.” The ambiguity is in the word “essential.”

I affirm that you cannot believe and teach the doctrine of the atonement properly without including–and, indeed, foregrounding–penal substitutionary atonement. It isn’t the only important concept of the atonement, but it is one without which the idea of the atonement is badly compromised.

At the same time, I don’t think someone is a non-Christian (and therefore non-evangelical) for teaching “Christus Victor” plus perhaps some subjective dimensions of the atonement while holding back on penal substitutionary atonement. (Yes, I’m thinking of certain fairly recent books on the atonement by evangelical scholars, and those authors know who they are!) In my experience, those who do so usually are demurring from a poorly expressed view of the penal theory and I am hopeful that they will reintegrate it into their theology once they find it properly articulated.

I would not say their view was simply heretical and non-Christian so long as there is a robust objective element in their understanding of the atonement. And this is the point I didn’t make in my essay that, upon reflection, I realize prompted my apparent inconsistency that Roger noted. Orthodox Christianity requires affirmation that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” that the Cross of Christ accomplished something and made a difference--and did so whether any of us human beings are improved by it or even notice it. (That is, one must affirm this objective “game-changing” accomplishment of the atonement, regardless of the subjective benefits of the atonement, as important as they are.)

Again, I think penal substitutionary atonement is an element to that event so important that any account of atonement that lacks it is seriously deficient. But what makes an account of atonement simply unorthodox is one that reduces the atonement to its subjective benefits: the Cross as a demonstration of God’s love, or the Cross as an expression of God’s solidarity with us in our suffering, or the Cross as an inspiring example of faithfulness, and so on. Again, I think those benefits are considerable, but they are not enough. Salvation comes not only by what God inspires in us, but also in what God does for us that we cannot do for ourselves.

4. Roger might well bristle at my disagreeing with him as to who or what is most important in the rise of the “neo-evangelicals.” In my response to his essay, I put weight decisively on the career and network of Billy Graham, not so much the National Association of Evangelicals, and I still think I’m right about that. But to be fair to Roger (and to do better history than I did) I need to acknowledge that the founding of the NAE and of Fuller Seminary are of course quite significant and that they come ‘way before Graham becomes influential. He’s not even 25 years old when the NAE starts (in 1942) and not even thirty when Fuller begins (in 1947). Indeed, it’s not until the Los Angeles “crusade” of 1949 that Graham comes to national prominence. So I apologize, Roger and readers, for fuzzifying a bit of the narrative that I have actually studied and have no excuse for rendering unclear!

5. Finally, I maintain that Roger’s distinction between evangelical “ethos” and evangelical “movement”–which he thinks would help clarify the confused thinking of the other three contributors–is exactly one of the mistakes my essay is aimed at remedying. I don’t think there is such a thing as an evangelical ethos. I think there are such things as “observant Protestantism” (and Christianity), as “conservative Protestantism” (and Christianity), as “revivalism,” as “pietism,” and other categories often used as synonyms for evangelicalism. But evangelicalism as a clear category–and especially one lifted out of an exclusively American context–is, I believe, something pretty much like I (and my historical betters, such as Professors Bebbington, Marsden, and Noll) have been saying it is for some decades now. Thus it simply is a category mistake for Roger to call certain Roman Catholics evangelicals (unless they are in fact crypto-Protestants, which I’m sure Roger doesn’t mean), or Missouri Synod Lutherans, or “Jesus Only” Pentecostals. Furthermore, since I don’t come anywhere near making that mistake, it is a related mistake to lump our two views together, as both Roger and Andy seem to want to do.

And if you’re wondering what the last paragraph means, well, that’s what this book is for, among other good things!

0 Responses to “A Few Notes on the "Spectrum" Book”

  1. LLM

    I’ve read 5 or 6 books in the Counterpoint series by Zondervan. They have all been worthwhile as an overview/summary of the various positions on whatever the issue is for that particular Counterpoint book. I definitely want to get a copy of this new book on the spectrum of evangelicalism. I found it interesting to read your behind the scenes thoughts, response, and clarification for the issues covered…Thanks!

  2. John S.

    I am looking forward to reading this book. I appreciate Al Mohler’s position and views on a lot of things, but I also disagree on a few others. And at the same time I agree with your positions and views on a lot of things, and disagree with a few others.

    To be honest, I am pleasantly curious to see your interactions and responses to each other. It will be good to see how Christians and brothers within the wide-stream of Christendom interact with each other, while disagreeing yet maintaining the common faith.


  3. RogueMonk

    Its interesting to note that no women were represented as contributors to the book. I simply note this fact, not sure what conclusions to draw. Perhaps there were no suitable women scholars available to present one of the essays. Perhaps it is something more telling about evangelicalism itself. I’m not in a position to tell. I would be interested in Dr. Stackhouse’s reflections on this.

    More tongue in cheek – “generic” is not my experience of Dr. Stackhouse. 🙂



  4. gingoro

    I got the ebook version and have read it since you posted this. One question, what do you mean by Bib·li·cist which I find defined as:
    1. An expert on the Bible.
    2. One who interprets the Bible literally.

    Neither of those definitions seems to match what you mean very well or at least what I expect you to mean. Some folks that I know call themselves by this term but take the Bible in an even more woodenly literal fashion than I would expect Al Mohler to do.

    I am in the process of rereading your section and will attempt to respond more after finishing.
    Dave W

    • John Stackhouse

      Biblicism here is the attitude and method of referring directly, ultimately, and generally exclusively to the Bible in religious matters. Contrary to Al’s claim to be “confessional,” he refers to no confessions (= creeds, statements of faith, etc.) nor do they even implicitly figure in his theology except in the general sense that he tries to be orthodox and so would agree with creeds that are orthodox. What he doesn’t seem to try very much to do is to consider the theological tradition of the church, or even of any particular part of it, but instead tends strongly to refer simply and directly to the Bible. That’s Biblicism.

      Now, I myself argue pretty strongly in the book that Christians ought to put the Bible above all other texts, and not just as foremost among equals, but as alone the Word of God written by which every other text, including the creeds, is to be judged. But I’m not a Biblicist in that I don’t theologize (or preach, or make up my mind privately about religious matters) by exclusive, or almost exclusive, reference to the Bible alone. Fundamentalists, among others, typically do, as I think Brothers Bauder and Mohler do in this volume–even as (and here’s an irony) they clearly are in the grip of a very particular theological and ecclesiastical tradition as they do so, namely, conservative American Baptist Christianity. But I don’t think they see the water they swim in as anything other than water, rather than a quite particular stream, of a particular dimension and history and quality and direction. I think they think it all “just” comes directly from the Bible.

  5. Lynn Betts

    “here’s an irony) they clearly are in the grip of a very particular theological and ecclesiastical tradition as they do so, namely, conservative American Baptist Christianity. But I don’t think they see the water they swim in as anything other than water, rather than a quite particular stream, of a particular dimension and history and quality and direction. I think they think it all “just” comes directly from the Bible.”

    I came out of the same tradition as A. Mohler, and I would agree with your assessment. I find it befuddling how highly-educated and revered Christians (by a very large segment of Christianity) can retain – with a clear conscience – such a narrow historical/theological/ecclesiastical view? I see this in other brothers who have great contributions as well, in particular John Piper and David Platt (from recent reading). I’m not as bright as they are, but even I can see holes in their logic and theology. Strange.

    I appreciate your gracious, and insightful, assessments. We need to keep one another sharp.


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