Evangelicalism, a View from the Antipodes

The subject of “evangelicalism” is being discussed around the blogosphere a bit these days. First, Scot McKnight has a series of posts on “The End of Evangelicalism” with reflections on David Fitch’s book The End of Evangelicalism. The most recent one (# 5) includes the claim that the “master-signifiers” of evangelicalism are “the Inerrant Bible, Decision for personal salvation, and the Christian Nation”. Though I would point out that this is a very parochially American definition of evangelical. Most evangelical confessions of faith throughout the world use the word “infallible” and biblical authority is emphasized rather than the inerrancy of the autographs (think about Lausanne Covenant and UCCF as examples). A decision for personal salvation, yes, you can find that everywhere, but in many places like Africa and Asia, evangelicals also have a strong idea of family bonds and corporate identity. On the “Christian Nations” thing, well, you can get the odd English hymn here and there about building Jerusalem, but by far in most countries evangelicals are minorities and have no ambitions about becoming a Christian Nation (or as one televangelist put it: getting all of America converted, baptized, and enrolled to vote)! So if we think of evangelicalism as a global phenomenon then I don’t think Hitch’s hunch really applies.

Second, Trevin Wax posts on what evangelicalism can learn from the SBC (“Southern Baptist Convention”). He points out that evangelical has come to be so broad that it is a nebulous term when it includes folks like Brian Maclaren. Wax proposes that just as evangelicals helped out the conservative resurgence in the SBC, so now the SBC can help strengthen and support evangelicals in their efforts to reclaim the center of evangelical identity. He exhorts his friends: “Let’s be Southern Baptist – not against other evangelicals, but for the good of evangelicals.” Noble thoughts, but I think he’s up against a strong culture of resistance. The problem is, as Wax notes, that some in the SBC think that  “Those outside our denomination are not like us. Therefore, Southern Baptists who network with others are suspect. Their Baptist credentials are called into question” and “There are some who feel that the purity of Southern Baptist identity will be polluted if we join coalitions or encourage other networks.” Good luck Trevin, hope it works out for you! I’ll be leave the light on in case you get kicked out of home!!

So there are clearly two trends emerging: (1) Evangelicals who want to broaden the boundaries of evangelicalism into a post-conservative evangelicalism; and (2) Evangelicals that want insularity from others who are leftward of them and leave evangelicalism for a neo-Fundamentalism.

My questions are:
1. Is this just an American thing or is it a trend in global evangelicalism?
2. Do you see evangelicalism ending by either becoming too broad or by conservatives returning back to Fundamentalism?
3. Is there a centrist evangelicalism and if so what does it look like?
4. What exactly is post-conservative evangelicalism?

  • http://www.christpantokrator.blogspot.com Terry

    Roger Olson deals with No. 4 in Reformed and Always Reforming.

  • http://www.christpantokrator.blogspot.com Terry

    Roger Olson deals with No. 4 in Reformed and Always Reforming.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    What is fundamentalism? And what makes it so reprehensible?

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    What is fundamentalism? And what makes it so reprehensible?

  • Anonymous

    Having read quite a bit of Roger Olson’s work in the past let me attempt to synthesize a brief definition of post-conservative (PC) via some bullet points (and remember this is only a generalization that cannot encompass every figure that would call herself or himself post-conservative):

    - it is not anti-conservative
    - PC does broaden the boundaries of evangelicalism beyond what some more neo-fundamentalist would allow
    - it focuses on Scripture in an instrumental way over against focusing on inerrancy. PC (on a whole) does not deny inerrancy per se, but may utilize other categories of thought to emphasize the trustworthiness of Scripture.
    - PC attempts to move beyond tradition and sometimes sacred tradition when needed to ensure biblical fidelity and this is in the face of some evangelicals who clinch too tightly to confessional documents or traditional doctrinal framings and disallow any progress towards deeper understanding of God’s revealed truth.
    - The last tenet points up two major differences: PC thinkers tend to be critical realist instead of naive realist when it comes to epistemology, as well as tending to move beyond foundationalism in any number of ways
    - PC moves beyond a simple propositional understanding of Scripture and truth more towards narrative, yet without completely relinquishing an important place for propositions. You simply can’t because they are there in Scripture!
    - a diminished focus on who is in and who is out that means there is less dogmatism (this goes along with and is a result of the wider boundaries)

    I’m sure I missed something along the way, but I think these are some of the core tenets of what would define a post-conservative over against a neo-fundamentalist thinker. I think post-conservatives would be fine existing under a broad tent of evangelicalism with neo-fundamentalists and overly right leaning thinkers, yet the latter groups cannot and will not in the same way encompass the former as we’ve seen with the whole Bell fiasco.

    • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

      Randy, isn’t your last point is betrayed by every point preceding it? Every one of your tenets is phrased as beyond this or instead of that. So how exactly is post-conservatism not so focused on who is in and who is out? Even your last point doesn’t avoid creating an in-and-out mentality. Are the more dogmatic folks in or out of post-conservatism?

      • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

        Let me clarify: post-conservative evangelicals would not attempt to say who is in and out of evangelicalism as a broad movement. This is a typical move of neo-fundatmentalist types who pronounce those such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, et. al as outside of the evangelical movement at large. Yes, there will be obvious differentiation between types of evangelicals, for example between neo-fundamentalists, moderates, and PC types.

        For me to be able to explain what PC is, it is necessary to give some sort of orientation point for understanding and that is the reason I’ve described the position as I have above. The pertinent point here is that PC evangelicals are not pronouncing who is in and out of the evangelical movement as a whole, but yes, they may say this person is a PC thinker or this person is not. This is a different type of in and out in my opinion than pronouncing someone is completely outside or inside the evangelical world.

        Even though Olson in his book “Reformed and Always Reforming” names some who are in and some who are outside of what he considers PC, he is not doing it for the purpose of prescription but description. There is a different motivating factor here; it is not to exclude from evangelical fellowship those who are not PC evangelicals, but simply to describe their mode of thought. On the flip side of this, neo-fundamentalist evangelicals are prescribing for themselves and assumedly for other evangelicals who is in and out of the movement as a whole. There is a big difference in motivation here.

        Further, there is no sense of exclusion from fellowship by most PC thinkers who have divergent theological framings from others in the evangelical world. Again, this is not true for the neo-fundamentalist who declare someone in and out; if you are out, you are out of fellowship with them.

        In essence, I’d say that differentiation of categories is a different type of in/out than prescriptive boundary setting and exclusivity of fellowship.

        • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

          Randy, if post-conservatives “would not attempt to say who is in and out of evangelicalism as a broad movement,” do they then refuse to say whether they themselves are in this broad movement?

          Given your distinction between description and prescription, is it legitimate for neo-fundamentalists to describe Brian McLaren or Rob Bell as being outside evangelicalism? If not, why not?

          Also, Roger Olson recently said on his blog that “perhaps the time has come for moderate and progressive evangelicals to say ‘Farewell neo-fundamentalists.’” That sounds to me like what you mean by “prescriptive.” Does this put him outside the post-conservative movement? (See the last paragraph in the blog post: http://rogereolson.com/2011/03/25/the-promised-response-to-bells-love-wins/ ).

          Perhaps a real way forward between the neo-fundamentalists and the post-conservatives is to be honest about our frustrations with each other and then admit that we both have a lot to lose if the evangelical movement continues to splinter.

          I say we put a panel together of Carson, Mohler, Olson, and Franke with Tim Keller and Mark Noll as moderators. Now that would be exciting. Who’s with me?

          • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

            Peter-

            Let me work through point by point. First, the whole in/out notion is primarily mentioned in relation to unduly declaring Christians as outside of the broad evangelical movement, such as certain strands of evangelicalism are prone to do. Keeping the purpose of this characteristic in mind is important. The idea has nothing to do with them declaring themselves “in” the movement; if they didn’t think they were evangelicals we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place!
            On my reading, if someone holds to Bebbington’s core evangelical tenets (crucicentrism, biblicism, activism, and conversionism) and they declare themselves in the movement, then fine, they are in for a PC thinker.

            I don’t think it is legitimate for N-F to declare Bell or McClaren outside the movement. Who gives this specific group with a narrowly defined theology, much more narrow than the generally accepted tenets of Bebbington, the right to declare someone outside the movement? There is no evangelical pope and that means no one technically has the right to define a strict boundary to the movement. This is exactly what N-F do: they create boundaries that are narrower than the four qualities and declare that those outside their very narrowly defined set of doctrines are out. I’d would rather create an open-set that instead of declaring people outside the movement, would say that they may be further from the center. This is a hard to swallow notion for black and white thinkers such as N-F, but because there always has been such a variance of thinkers in evangelicalism and because of the fact that none of us are perfect interprets of Scripture, it is a fact that I feel we must live with until the return of Christ. Either that or vote for a Pope..you decide!

          • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

            As for Olson’s comments on his blog, yes, I read those when he wrote them. However, you failed to mention the key nuance: he is not declaring neo-fundamentalist/fund. as “out” of the evangelical movement. He seems to advocate a split within (not without and this is key) evangelicalism between n-f and PC types. This split actually already exists and the whole Bell fiasco has only made the division more overt.

            This move by Olson doesn’t necessarily overturn what he has said in many other places about the whole in/out of evangelicalism issue, because he isn’t declaring anyone outside the broad evangelical movement, but simply advocating that we make the implicit division in the movement explicit.

            Further, we have to be careful to press, taxonomies and typologies too far; they are merely descriptive of streams of thought and are only helpful if we don’t attempt to over exert ourselves on them. Obviously, with most descriptive taxonomies, thinkers that are within the broader constraints of their defining characteristics may deviate on points here or there.

            Lastly, Mohler and Franke did have a discussion recently at ETS and well, let’s just say that they didn’t see eye to eye and there was no movement in either direction.

          • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

            Randy, I’m not so sure regarding Olson. Those he says farewell to get the moniker “fundamentalist” while the others are “evangelicals.” What happened to his term “post-conservative”? In any case, I struggle to see the point of differentiating between describing someone as outside the tent and describing someone inside as “behaving badly”? Either one acts as an explicit sanction on one’s credentials.

  • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

    Having read quite a bit of Roger Olson’s work in the past let me attempt to synthesize a brief definition of post-conservative (PC) via some bullet points (and remember this is only a generalization that cannot encompass every figure that would call herself or himself post-conservative):

    - it is not anti-conservative
    - PC does broaden the boundaries of evangelicalism beyond what some more neo-fundamentalist would allow
    - it focuses on Scripture in an instrumental way over against focusing on inerrancy. PC (on a whole) does not deny inerrancy per se, but may utilize other categories of thought to emphasize the trustworthiness of Scripture.
    - PC attempts to move beyond tradition and sometimes sacred tradition when needed to ensure biblical fidelity and this is in the face of some evangelicals who clinch too tightly to confessional documents or traditional doctrinal framings and disallow any progress towards deeper understanding of God’s revealed truth.
    - The last tenet points up two major differences: PC thinkers tend to be critical realists instead of naive realists when it comes to epistemology, as well as tending to move beyond foundationalism in any number of ways
    - PC moves beyond a simple propositional understanding of Scripture and truth more towards narrative, yet without completely relinquishing an important place for propositions. You simply can’t because they are there in Scripture!
    - a diminished focus on who is in and who is out that means there is less dogmatism (this goes along with and is a result of the wider boundaries)

    I’m sure I missed something along the way, but I think these are some of the core tenets of what would define a post-conservative over against a neo-fundamentalist thinker. I think post-conservatives would be fine existing under a broad tent of evangelicalism with neo-fundamentalists and overly right leaning thinkers, yet the latter groups cannot and will not in the same way encompass the former as we’ve seen with the whole Bell fiasco.

    • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

      Randy, isn’t your last point is betrayed by every point preceding it? Every one of your tenets is phrased as beyond this or instead of that. So how exactly is post-conservatism not so focused on who is in and who is out? Even your last point doesn’t avoid creating an in-and-out mentality. Are the more dogmatic folks in or out of post-conservatism?

      • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

        Let me clarify: post-conservative evangelicals would not attempt to say who is in and out of evangelicalism as a broad movement. This is a typical move of neo-fundatmentalist types who pronounce those such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, et. al as outside of the evangelical movement at large. Yes, there will be obvious differentiation between types of evangelicals, for example between neo-fundamentalists, moderates, and PC types.

        For me to be able to explain what PC is, it is necessary to give some sort of orientation point for understanding and that is the reason I’ve described the position as I have above. The pertinent point here is that PC evangelicals are not pronouncing who is in and out of the evangelical movement as a whole, but yes, they may say this person is a PC thinker or this person is not. This is a different type of in and out in my opinion than pronouncing someone is completely outside or inside the evangelical world.

        Even though Olson in his book “Reformed and Always Reforming” names some who are in and some who are outside of what he considers PC, he is not doing it for the purpose of prescription but description. There is a different motivating factor here; it is not to exclude from evangelical fellowship those who are not PC evangelicals, but simply to describe their mode of thought. On the flip side of this, neo-fundamentalist evangelicals are prescribing for themselves and assumedly for other evangelicals who is in and out of the movement as a whole. There is a big difference in motivation here.

        Further, there is no sense of exclusion from fellowship by most PC thinkers who have divergent theological framings from others in the evangelical world. Again, this is not true for the neo-fundamentalist who declare someone in and out; if you are out, you are out of fellowship with them.

        In essence, I’d say that differentiation of categories is a different type of in/out than prescriptive boundary setting and exclusivity of fellowship.

        • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

          Randy, if post-conservatives “would not attempt to say who is in and out of evangelicalism as a broad movement,” do they then refuse to say whether they themselves are in this broad movement?

          Given your distinction between description and prescription, is it legitimate for neo-fundamentalists to describe Brian McLaren or Rob Bell as being outside evangelicalism? If not, why not?

          Also, Roger Olson recently said on his blog that “perhaps the time has come for moderate and progressive evangelicals to say ‘Farewell neo-fundamentalists.’” That sounds to me like what you mean by “prescriptive.” Does this put him outside the post-conservative movement? (See the last paragraph in the blog post: http://rogereolson.com/2011/03/25/the-promised-response-to-bells-love-wins/ ).

          Perhaps a real way forward between the neo-fundamentalists and the post-conservatives is to be honest about our frustrations with each other and then admit that we both have a lot to lose if the evangelical movement continues to splinter.

          I say we put a panel together of Carson, Mohler, Olson, and Franke with Tim Keller and Mark Noll as moderators. Now that would be exciting. Who’s with me?

          • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

            Peter-

            Let me work through point by point. First, the whole in/out notion is primarily mentioned in relation to unduly declaring Christians as outside of the broad evangelical movement, such as certain strands of evangelicalism are prone to do. Keeping the purpose of this characteristic in mind is important. The idea has nothing to do with them declaring themselves “in” the movement; if they didn’t think they were evangelicals we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place!
            On my reading, if someone holds to Bebbington’s core evangelical tenets (crucicentrism, biblicism, activism, and conversionism) and they declare themselves in the movement, then fine, they are in for a PC thinker.

            I don’t think it is legitimate for N-F to declare Bell or McClaren outside the movement. Who gives this specific group with a narrowly defined theology, much more narrow than the generally accepted tenets of Bebbington, the right to declare someone outside the movement? There is no evangelical pope and that means no one technically has the right to define a strict boundary to the movement. This is exactly what N-F do: they create boundaries that are narrower than the four qualities and declare that those outside their very narrowly defined set of doctrines are out. I’d would rather create an open-set that instead of declaring people outside the movement, would say that they may be further from the center. This is a hard to swallow notion for black and white thinkers such as N-F, but because there always has been such a variance of thinkers in evangelicalism and because of the fact that none of us are perfect interprets of Scripture, it is a fact that I feel we must live with until the return of Christ. Either that or vote for a Pope..you decide!

          • http://www.randyboswell.com Randy Boswell

            As for Olson’s comments on his blog, yes, I read those when he wrote them. However, you failed to mention the key nuance: he is not declaring neo-fundamentalist/fund. as “out” of the evangelical movement. He seems to advocate a split within (not without and this is key) evangelicalism between n-f and PC types. This split actually already exists and the whole Bell fiasco has only made the division more overt.

            This move by Olson doesn’t necessarily overturn what he has said in many other places about the whole in/out of evangelicalism issue, because he isn’t declaring anyone outside the broad evangelical movement, but simply advocating that we make the implicit division in the movement explicit.

            Further, we have to be careful to press, taxonomies and typologies too far; they are merely descriptive of streams of thought and are only helpful if we don’t attempt to over exert ourselves on them. Obviously, with most descriptive taxonomies, thinkers that are within the broader constraints of their defining characteristics may deviate on points here or there.

            Lastly, Mohler and Franke did have a discussion recently at ETS and well, let’s just say that they didn’t see eye to eye and there was no movement in either direction.

          • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

            Randy, I’m not so sure regarding Olson. Those he says farewell to get the moniker “fundamentalist” while the others are “evangelicals.” What happened to his term “post-conservative”? In any case, I struggle to see the point of differentiating between describing someone as outside the tent and describing someone inside as “behaving badly”? Either one acts as an explicit sanction on one’s credentials.

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  • Mjriii2003

    I personally think the terms post conservative and neo fundamental are unhelpful and misleading. Where does Christian fit in – “Daring to change, embracing the unchanging”?

  • Mjriii2003

    I personally think the terms post conservative and neo fundamental are unhelpful and misleading. Where does Christian fit in – “Daring to change, embracing the unchanging”?

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Re: #1, American Evangelicalism was forged in the fires of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and so it should not surprise us that it often comes out with a different flavor than Evangelicalism around the world. Furthermore, we have a history of needing to defend ourselves by defining ourselves so this current round of (re-)defining is not all that historically surprising.

    In any case, don’t miss Gerald McDermott’s recent piece on this issue in First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/evangelicals-divided

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Re: #1, American Evangelicalism was forged in the fires of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and so it should not surprise us that it often comes out with a different flavor than Evangelicalism around the world. Furthermore, we have a history of needing to defend ourselves by defining ourselves so this current round of (re-)defining is not all that historically surprising.

    In any case, don’t miss Gerald McDermott’s recent piece on this issue in First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/evangelicals-divided


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