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 Christi