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.

0 Responses to “And Now for a Little Controversy…”

  1. D.J. Brown

    Oh, brother!
    Or do I mean, “Oh, bother”?
    All I can say is that I’m glad the Spirit didn’t call me to the kind of work you are doing.
    May the Lord bless you and keep you.
    May the God of miracles enlarge minds and hearts through this latest of your contributions.

  2. Stephen Dawe

    Aw man, And here I thought I’d finally found a book I could give a pass. Since I’m a Canadian former Anglican now Baptist preaching at a Presbyterian Church in Asia….. and I have no idea if I’m evangelical or not, and I read and appreciate both you and “brother Mohler” (over different things, and you both drive me nuts at times)…. well, I guess I’ve officially blown my reading budget for this month too.

  3. Jeff Patrick

    I will probably pick it up on Amazon. But honestly, the authors I want to see you interacting with are (in no particular order): John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur. Simply put, they’re having a bigger impact on the next generation of church leaders than brother Al. At least in my circles.

  4. Richard

    I am glad you noted that the spectrum of contributors is narrow, I am an evangelical living in the UK and I had to Google search every contributor to see who exactly they are, which did cause me to chuckle somewhat.

  5. Linda Wightman

    I’m 99% certain yours would be the chapter I’d appreciate the most, but how did you pass up the opportunity to title it, “Mere Evangelicalism”? That would have been replete with positive associations instead of sounding like a knock-off drug.

    I hadn’t realized quite how ignorant I am of major evangelical figures these days. From Jeff Patrick’s list of those he wishes you to inter with I recognize all three, but of this book’s authors I’ve heard of no one but you.

  6. Stan Fowler

    As a Canadian refugee from American self-styled fundamentalism now serving in self-styled evangelical circles with occasional fundamentalist outbursts, I’m a sucker for this one. Thanks, John, for stimulating conversation as usual.

  7. John Metz

    So far, I have read posts on this subject by Roger Olson, Al Mohler and now you. The book is on order and I look forward to reading it. By the way, I enjoyed your sense of humor above.

    “Evangelical” is extremely difficult to define; it may mean something different to each one who attempts a definition and I suppose the book might well prove that. A confession, I knew of all mentioned except Kevin Bauder. I regularly check both Roger Olson and Al Mohler’s blogs and I will add yours to my list.

  8. don

    I like Dr. Martyn LLoyd-Jones’ definition of an evangelical.
    Search it out.

  9. Preston

    Nice! Just when this week was starting to look a little stale, your post reminds me that everything is going to be OK.

  10. Random Blog Posts and Stuff « Cheese-Wearing Theology

    […] John Stackhouse talks about his contribution in the new book, The Spectrum 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). […]

  11. Graham Veale

    “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.””

    lol – Quote of the year!!!!

    Seriously, though, this is a real problem for us “Gospel Coalition” types. I’m not convinced that we form a coherent movement. On the TGC site you can watch videos in which Kevin de Young comes to grips with the Great Awakening; while a click away Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald are arguing that all our Churches should be multi-site!

    We’re definitely not all singing from the same hymnal!


  12. Graham Veale

    I’m a big “Kevin de Young” fan by the way! I think the interesting work on the TGC comes when true confessionalists and conservative calvinistic evangelicals interact.

    But to be effective TGC needs to be narrower (focusing in on the confessions) or much broader (open the doors to all conservative evangelicals, using something like Oden and Packer’s “One Faith” as a basis of unity.)


    • Timothy

      I am not a great fan of Kevin DeYoung by the way. If I was to hold up one othe TGC bloggers above the others it would be Justin Taylor who seems better at accepting those who disagree with him. He has had Arminians blogging. In contrast, the recent KDY blogs on the subject of biblicism seem to fail to understand or be capableof listening to what others are saying.

      • Graham Veale

        Kevin de Young doesn’t really engage in blog discussions; and I don’t think that you should judge him by those who post on his blog.
        I haven’t read his recent posts on Biblicism; there’s no point in reading a critique until you have read the book itself. Smith’s isn’t on my reading list at the minute. Unfortunately, among other things, I’m trying to make sense of Sam Harris’s views on morality. So you can pray for me.


  13. Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

    […] the blog has other things too! Tim Dalton helps us know the greatest theologians of the church. And John Stackhouse helps us understand evangelicalism, ruffling some feathers in process. And Roger Olson is […]

  14. Timothy

    I have just read your article on Olson and Erickson in CT and found it most stimulating.
    One amusing aspect of the division of evangelicals into those positive to postmodernism and those negative towrds it is that those who propose it, Olson and Erickson, seem to place themselves among those positive towards postmodernism and yet the very division into just two groups is very modernistic. There are two jokes I like very much, one at the expense of modernists and the other at the expense postmoderns.
    1. It is said that the world is divided into two kinds of people; those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.
    2. It is said that the world is divided into three kinds of people, those who can count and those who can’t.

    At the risk of allying myself very much with those who cannot count, I found the essay of Paul Hiebert on epistemology in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues very helpful. He argues that different notions as to what the nature of truth have a poweful influence on how we relate to others. Naive realists, or to be less pejorative, objectivist realists, are more likely to be polemical and abrasive while critical realists more comfortable with discussion and sharing.
    So how do we explain the occasional abrasiveness of e.g. Olson and Tom Wright? Well I think it is through reaction. When critical realists feel under attack from their objectivist interlocuters, they can react as polemically as the objectivists. But I do not think that their epistemology really suits such dialogue modes. Tom Wright is better discussing with James Dunn or Michael Bird, people who disagree with him (often) but with whom the disagreement is expressed in discussing mode, rather than with John Piper where everything is more abrasive but which is Piper’s natural terrain. Having said that, I do think that Wright has MUCH the better of the argument with Piper, so much so it is rather embarrassing even if one is not a Piper fan.

    • John Stackhouse

      I love the “two kinds of people” line and use it often. I think Roger Olson is prone to that outlook, and I say so in the CT piece in which I disagree with his urge to pose “postconservative” as a counterpart to “postliberal.”

      I, too, like Paul Hiebert’s work and I plan to draw on it as I write my book on epistemology this year. We do need to act according to our convictions (!), and that includes having a mode of discussion that matches our metaphysical and epistemological convictions. (This, frankly, is the whole point behind my book Humble Apologetics.)

      But naive/objectivist realism is a reflexive way to see the world–most of us have to be educated by books or experience to qualify it, don’t we?–and when one is hard pressed by certain people and positions one has special reason to dislike (as I think some evangelicals have particular animus toward people on their right the way conservative can’t stand people on their left, even a little), well, it’s easy to fall back on the time-tested tradition of interreligious dialogue: “There are two ways to look at it: your way and God’s way. I stand with God.”

  15. Verity3

    Well, we only need to avoid “foolish” controversies, right?

    Christmas is comin’…

  16. JD Crowley

    In the second to the last paragraph of your post you warn us about failing to be scrupulous in our representations of a brother’s views, and then immediately disregard that warning (“. . . 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”). In the context of your post, this would describe Bauder and Mohler. As usual, evangelical charity is reserved for those to the left.

    • John Stackhouse

      I’m sympathetic to your sense that among many evangelical academicians, everyone to the left can be interesting and worth considering while everyone to the right can be embarrassing and worth condemning. And I do sound like I’m giving fundamentalists short shrift in the first part of what you quote.

      I’m afraid, though, that a characteristic of fundamentalism simply is to have real trouble making distinctions among matters of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance. The jokes and stereotypes speak to this fact: dancing is bad because it might lead to illicit sex; card-playing is bad because the World enjoys it and it has associations with gambling; and so on.

      In theological discussions similar problems arise. A defense of egalitarian understandings of gender, no matter how painstakingly argued from Scripture (as in, say, the work of William Webb or myself), are assailed in exactly the manner I have described, and you can see it in Brother Mohler’s own circle, if you know where to look on the Internet. Because I hold another view of the Bible’s teaching on gender, I must not believe the Bible, which means I don’t follow Christ or the true God, and I am therefore an enemy of the faith. I am not making this up: It’s a matter of public record among certain fundamentalists who have condemned Bill or me.

      I was raised in such circles and I have studied them as a scholar. It’s simply the way that sort of defensive mindset tends to work: No quarter can be given, no compromise tolerated, no flank exposed. Everything could be an occasion for the devil to gain a foothold, so everything matters. Truth is truth, they’ll tend to say, and we must uphold the Truth–in every respect and on every occasion.

      I do not mean to give the left a pass. Those who know my writings know that I am critical in particular of evangelicals who deal with insufficient critical wariness with non-evangelicals. (See my essay, “Evangelical Theology Should Be Evangelical” in my edited book on theological method, Evangelical Futures.) And I am critical of Roger Olson as I was of our late friend Stan Grenz for, at best, some dangerously hazy writing about the role of experience in evangelical theology vis-à-vis the other resources we use.

      But that’s not the point in that paragraph you cite, so I say what I did. And I’m afraid I will stick to my guns on this one, so to speak. I do think Brother Al, and his associate Russell Moore, and others of their ilk have a demonstrable penchant for adding ‘way too much to the non-negotiable core of the faith–and I explicitly say so in the essay in this book regarding Brother Al’s campaign, with others, to add gender roles to the non-negotiables of the SBC statement of faith.

      • JD Crowley

        I’m thankful that you do not give the left a pass.

        Fundamentalists certainly invite caricature, and your caricature in the paragraph I cited is all too accurate in many respects. But I’m left to wonder what specific tertiary issues lead people like Bauder and Mohler (the only actual fundamentalists mentioned in your post) to call others the anti-Christ. Or is this unhelpful exaggeration?


        • John Stackhouse

          I said, “have the spirit of Anti-Christ.” I doubt that I’ve ever been called the actual Antichrist, since I lack sufficient status for that epithet. But the point is that one is declared contrary to Christ: anti-Christ.

          I have mentioned gender specifically. Related to that is the issue of the hysterical condemnation of the TNIV translation. Now we have the pronouncement from SBC officials that Allah is never referring to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus–which is flatly contrary to the testimony of many converted Muslims–and the requirement that SBC publications toe this party line.

          I trust we’ve hashed this out enough?

  17. David Baker

    Loved your column. Great humour! (Whoops – I mean humor, as I think it is mis-spelt in the US of A).

    What you write applies over here in the UK just as much. In England, you can be an open evangelical, charismatic evangelical, conservative evangelical, or post-evangelical. And that’s just in the Church of England. You might be an Anglican evangelical or an Evangelical anglican.

    I always go back to these two quotes – DL Moody who a long time ago said: “Talk not… of this party and that party, but solely and exclusively of the great comprehensive cause of Jesus Christ…” and even longer ago the puritan Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) once said: “I never yet took up party religion in the lump… I have found Gospel holiness where you would little think it to be, and so likewise truth. And I have learned this principle, which I hope I shall never lay down till I am swallowed up of immortality, and that is, to acknowledge every truth and goodness wherever I find it.”

    Love your blog and your writing. Have just read “Can God be trusted?” and pleased that He can!

    Thanks for all your work

    Best wishes

    David Baker

    Eastbourne, England

    • Verity3

      I’m adding the Goodwin quote to my list of favorites. Thanks for sharing it.


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