Who Is An “Evangelical Theologian?”

I’m currently working on a rather lengthy chapter on evangelical theology for an edited book to be published by a major university press. Because the book is aimed at a general audience, not a specifically evangelical one, I feel a burden to explain who counts as an “evangelical theologian.” Who does “evangelical theology?”

The problem, of course, is that “evangelical” has so many meanings. I have identified (in The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology and The Pocket Guide to Evangelical Theology among other places) six distinct meanings of “evangelical.”

First, it sometimes means Protestant and especially Lutheran. Anyone who has traveled on the European continent knows this. This is the meaning of “evangelical” in the name of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States (the ELCA).

Second, it sometimes means a certain party in the Church of England (and, I assume by extension, the Anglican Communion). Historically, it’s the party descending from non-separatist Puritans, but today it is the party associated with people like John Stott and N. T. Wright.

Third, it sometimes means that form of religious life, of Christian devotion, witness and worship, influenced by pietism and revivalism–“heart Christianity,” “experiential Christianity.” This meaning looks back to the pietist movements in Europe and the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and North America in the 1700s and 1800s. All those contemporary Christians who carry on that ethos, within a generally orthodox Protestant frame of reference/belief, are “evangelical.”

Fourth, it sometimes means conservative Protestantism especially in Great Britain and North America that reacts against liberalism in biblical studies and theology and emphasizes Protestant orthodoxy as normative for authentic Christianity. This is “confessional Protestant orthodoxy” and is usually, but not always, Reformed in orientation.

Fifth, it sometimes means the post-WW2 neo-evangelical movement that for decades looked to Billy Graham and his favored institutions and leaders for leadership. This is trans-denominational, post-fundamentalist evangelicalism, a loose network and affinity group of relatively conservative Protestants at the core of which, for decades, stood the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today and various ministries associated with or loosely identified by some kind of appreciation of Billy Graham.

Sixth, it sometimes means whatever a media talking head means by it–usually (in the last two decades) the Religious Right.

When I talk about “evangelical theology” I am referring to the fifth definition above.  The other definitions are simply too broad or too narrow to be meaningful, although I trace the neo-evangelical movement’s roots back into Protestant orthodoxy and pietism-revivalism. And I don’t mean by “evangelical theology” only theology done by members of the Evangelical Theological Society or churches affiliated with the NAE. The post-WW2 neo-evangelical movement is broad, deep and diverse.

When looking outside the U.S., I mean theology done within the orbit of the world evangelical movement. Countries such as Canada and the U.K. have similar movements to the U.S.’s post-WW2, post-fundamentalist, neo-evangelical movement.

I often am asked “Is so-and-so an evangelical theologian?” Well, there’s no litmus test or membership list or anything like that. It’s a relative judgment call. The leader of a well-known “mainline” ecumenical institute once called me asking for a recommendation of someone to speak at one of his meetings. He wanted an evangelical theologian. I named a well-known Methodist theologian embraced by many evangelicals. The caller said “He’s just a conservative Methodist.” I had to agree. Being “conservative” doesn’t automatically make one evangelical in my sense or in that caller’s sense. Then I mentioned Richard Mouw and that clinched it. He was invited and spoke. So what’s the difference? The first theologian is a conservative Methodist but not an evangelical (in my sense or the caller’s sense). Mouw is a conservative Presbyterian but also an evangelical. Ah, there’s that issue of “affinity with the movement.”

There’s nothing wrong with being a conservative Methodist, but it doesn’t automatically make one an evangelical. The same is true of Lutheran and Episcopalian.

So what’s the added dimension that makes one “evangelical” and not just “conservative” theologically?

Here’s my thesis: An “evangelical theologian” is one who works from within the broad and diverse neo-evangelical movement, affinity group, network of networks with recognized evangelical credentials. Who recognizes evangelical credentials? Well, other evangelicals. But there’s no magisterium that decides. So it’s purely a sociological call.

Does that mean a rank heretic might be an evangelical theologian? Yes. I said “might.” After all, there is no evangelical membership committee who decides who is and who is not truly evangelical. And who wants there to be? The only people I know who want there to be such want it to be they!

Here’s a case study. Clark Pinnock was by all accounts solidly an evangelical theologian in his early career. Then he became Arminian, open theist, inclusivist. Some evangelicals wanted to drum him out of the ranks of evangelical theologians. My response: Sorry, too late. He’s one of us, like it or not. The only way I would count him (or someone else who “came up through the ranks,” so to speak) out would be if he said “I no longer consider myself an evangelical.”

Here’s another case study. One of my favorite liberal theologians (by his own identification) is Delwin Brown. I’ve never met him, but I’ve tracked his career and read many of his writings. I especially enjoyed his dialogue book with Pinnock. Brown was, early in his career, an evangelical. He belonged to the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and taught at Anderson College (now Anderson University). Solid evangelical credentials. But, with integrity, when he became liberal (process theology) he left all that behind and went to teach at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Although I respect him as a good thinker (though, in my opinion, wrong about many things), I don’t consider him an evangelical theologian. He doesn’t consider himself that!

What I want to know is what is a viable alternative to my approach? I can’t think of one. Lots of evangelicals want to have an alternative approach, but their suggestions are simply unworkable. They want to set up some kind of informal magisterium (almost always, if not always, themselves), a court, that decides who is and who is not an evangelical. How in the world does that work? Sure, their declaration that someone is no longer an evangelical or not an evangelical theologian might carry some weight and convince some people. But not me, at least not automatically.

I will continue to consider a theologian “evangelical” so long as he or she is working from within the broad evangelical network, affinity group, movement. I will say, for example, so-and-so is an evangelical theologian who deviates from traditional evangelical norms on such-and-such an issue. Only when the person breaks away and publicly leaves the evangelical movement will I say “no longer an evangelical theologian.”

Again, what’s the alternative?

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  • Fred Wallis

    Does Evangelical imply anything definitive about confessional redemption? By that I mean an understanding about the salvific moment that holds to an immediate justification and reconciliation upon confession (the sinner’s prayer). That seem to put one in the tribe that acknowledges Billy Graham’s call to confession at the closing of his crusade services.

    • rogereolson

      I do see that as one of the common features of evangelical Christianity. I admit that I scratch my head over people who call themselves evangelical (in my sense of post-WW2 neo-evangelical) who believe in infant baptismal regeneration without the necessity of later personal decision for Christ. I don’t think, of course, that one has to “walk the aisle” at an evangelistic crusade, etc. It’s just a matter of looking back and saying “I once was lost, but now I’m saved” with a decision to follow Jesus through repentance and faith being the turning point (conversion).

      • Jesse Reese

        I’m all about enxhorting people to personal decision, but I think some of your language here is the key sticking point for those of us with a sacramental mindset. “Repentance and faith,” “conversion:” These are seen in “higher” sacramental circles as ongoing processes that continually and gradually happen as we receive God’s Word and Sacraments, and the risk of collapsing these terms into one-time events concerns us. In my understanding of evangelical piety, I generally like to stick close to Wesley, and I like the balance that he struck between calling for personal decision and lived experience of sacramental promises and the ongoing process of liturgical/sacramental formation.

        • rogereolson

          Yet Wesley himself had a conversion experience. (I know about the debate between Ken Collins and Randy Maddox, both friends of mine, but I definitely side with Collins–that Wesley’s Aldersgate experience was his conversion to true Christianity.) Evangelical piety does not negate sacramental spirituality; it just doesn’t believe sacramental spiritual can be the whole of the Christian’s relationship with God. At some point a person must make a conscious decision for Christ, repent and believe. Whether that is a datable event or a process is open to debate, but one cannot simply evolve into being authentically Christian without personal decision in repentance and a commitment to Jesus Christ by faith.

          • Jesse Reese

            We might not be that far away from each other in substance, though I’m not totally in on the scholarly debates regarding Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. I do think that without holistic, sincere personal commitment that goes beyond the partial, customary, and collective, one is wanting of fully authentic Christianity, and that is why I consider myself evangelical. I just might use a bit more trepidation in applying theological language such as repentance, conversion, faith, etc. to describe that experience because for me they tend to automatically imply a “walk-the-aisle” or “say-the-prayer” type experience. That was how I grew up, but I have found that for people who were baptized as infants, have been repenting of their sins daily (or at least every Sunday), have been Confirmed, and have professed the creeds and said the liturgy, and have always meant it (which I would describe as its own kind of process of commitment and conversion), this type of language can be very confusing and frustrating.

          • Jesse Reese

            We may be fairly close in perspective, though I am hesitant about movements that apply biblical/theological terms to their experiences in a limiting way (“repentance,” “born again,” etc. similar to the Pentacostals/charistmatics and “baptism in the Holy Spirit” language). Nonetheless, I am in full agreement that without a holistic, sincere personal commitment going beyond the partial, customary, and corporate, one is wanting in fully authentic Christianity. This is why I consider myself an evangelical and where I most often cannot understand the attitude of very “dry” liturgical types. They often refuse to acknowledge that simplicity and accessibility can be sought (i.e., using music that connects with the congregation in an emotional way) without abandoning the commitment to Word and Sacrament as the dependable means of God’s presence and grace. I am definitely in favor of a careful application of revivalistic piety in the Church.

      • M. 85

        “I don’t know Who — or what — put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone — or Something — and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
        Dag Hammarskjold, Markings (1964)

  • John I.

    Asking who is an evangelical is like asking who is a country music artist: depends on who you talk to and, as you noted, this is an affinity issue. The style of modern country music (one of the many styles of music I enjoy) often sounds like MOR rock, or pop, or “adult contemporary”. There are certain types of instruments, chords and melodies that appear more frequently, and the style is typically more narrative, but it is impossible to define it “musically” without excluding or including those who would be considered as belonging (or not). Consequently, it is defined by who certain radio stations play, who is considered for winning certain awards, who plays with who at concerts, who is written about in certain magazines, and by listeners–all very sociologically.

    The centred approach that you have mentioned before is helpful, as are previous sociological analyses. However, for non-“evangelical” readers I think that one would have to discuss briefly the various definitions of “evangelical” and why you are choosing one definition, otherwise the default interpretation of many in the target audience might simply be the media definition of “evangelical”. I suppose also that this is an opportunity to take back the definition of evangelical from the media and from fundamentalists, so any definition would also have to distinguish it from other terms and groupings (e.g., from neo-fundamentalists). I don’t envy your task.


    • rogereolson

      It’s not easy, but someone has to do it. 🙂

  • Joshua Wooden

    This just came up in my Intro. to Theology class, actually. I’m at TEDS, and Kevin Vanhoozer is teaching the course. We spent a good deal of time defining the spectrum of Evangelicalism and Vanhoozer actually went through the categories in the book you contributed to. I don’t remember anything definitive from Vanhoozer (he seems reluctant to side with a camp on any given issue, at least publicly), but no one seemed to have an answer to the issue (that I had to raise) about determining boundaries with no authority like a magisterium. It would appear that Evangelicalism as a centered and bounded set sounds like a good idea until the boundaries have to be set. Then the issue is: who has that authority, and what’s to stop anyone from saying, “Well, I disagree, and I’m still an Evangelical.”?

    In a radio interview, I heard you mention that Tom Wright considers himself post-conservative. Do you know if his understanding of the term is any different from you, and do you know if he has any differeing opinion about determining who’s “in” and who’s “out”? Just curious.

    • rogereolson

      No, he just told me after reading Reformed and Always Reforming that he’s one of my “postconservative evangelicals.” Except that he sees himself more in the Puritan tradition than the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition. His work on the doctrine of justification is a good example of what I call postconservative evangelical theology. He’s committed to the authority of Scripture, but not to every traditional interpretation. He’s revising traditional understandings of justification through fresh and faithful biblical research (not cultural accommodation). Bauckham also told me he’s postconservative after reading Reformed and Always Reforming.

  • Wright

    One of the many problems a religious movement/group sans magisteria faces, I guess.

  • I think you’re on the right track, and by that I mean that it is a similar track as mine, of course!

  • Marshall

    I think your definition makes Evangelicalism quite precisely what Alasdair McIntyre called a Virtue, in a word a conversation, and I think it is correct if the desire is to describe and live in the world as it is. The desire for boundaries and gatekeepers would be just more modernist desire that everything should have well-defined hard edges, which has unfortunate consequences for change/progress/adaptation. But then a conservative movement values other things more highly than progress, at the least.

    Thinking of Christianity as a whole as a Virtue, not just as morality but as the whole package, is quite valuable to me personally. That would be an “open” thought.

  • I am probably coming at this from a Fundamentalist / Calvinist perspective (Definition #4, above) but it seems to me that we need a means of identifying the Body of Christ as the communion of the saints. Who is a fellow believer in Jesus Christ? In order to do this we need to know what are the essential elements of Christian gospel or “euangelion,” which I think was the original aim of J. Gresham Machen and the early “Fundamentalists.” It would certainly include the ancient creeds, the divine inspiration of Scripture, justification by faith, and the new birth, along with responses to more current trends such as God’s role in creation and providence (I would insist on some form of Intelligent Design, and the Divine Command theory of morality, the Resurrection, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment). For something more involved, I would look to the areas where the classic Lutheran and Reformed theologians of the 17th Century were agreed (i.e., I would not make consubstantiation or Covenant Theology necessary parts of the definition).
    I think that the problem I have with your approach is that it is too fluid, and ultimately indefinable. I think that one someone, like Clark Pinnock, changes his theology, at some point he is no longer an “evangelical.” So the question is, where is the line he stepped across to make himself not an evangelical?

    • rogereolson

      No, the question raised by my post is who decides. Are you the pope of evangelicalism? No. Neither am I. No one is. You might be able to decide who belongs to your church or denomination or professional society, but you can’t decide for everyone who’s an evangelical. Neither can I. There’s no headquarters. The closest thing we have is a small office building in suburban Illinois, but even they can’t decide definitively. They can only try to persuade others to agree with them. For example, has Brian McLaren crossed some boundary into non-evangelical status? One will say yes; another will say no. I don’t see any alternative to saying he’s an evangelical theologian, as much as I might disagree with him, so long as he chooses to be identified that way and continues to work from within evangelicalism and with that as his main audience. My definition isn’t prescriptive; it’s purely descriptive. I don’t know any way to make it prescriptive and make that work.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Sometimes it’s helpful to throw things into stark relief….What would make someone NOT an evangelical theologian? Would that be helpful here or is that kind of a fundamentalistic way of thinking? I’m not talking about obvious heresy. That is an interesting take you have there, too, that as long as someone doesn’t break away from the evangelical movement they could be considered an evangelical (if you will).

    • rogereolson

      But I gave an example of it–Delwin Brown. But if you want another example, the other way, I’ll mention Brian McLaren. Some folks think he’s no longer evangelical, but evangelicalism is his audience and network. Without it he’d have no tradition or community within which to work. Who has the authority to cast him out? No one. All a person can do is say “I don’t consider him an evangelical anymore,” but that carries no weight except with those who agree. Again, there’s no pope of evangelicalism. Do you know of one? Or a headquarters that keeps the membership list?

      • J.E. Edwards

        True indeed. No, I don’t see anyone declaring to be the ring leader, nor should they. I agree with you there. That is one of the main problems with the hyper-fundamentalist movement (Sword the Lord and such folks). The funny thing is, some of the self-appointed hierarchy think they are the ones who determine who is in and who isn’t. I think this give their followers some kind of mind-numbing comfort. I know that sounds harsh, but it is the reality in many places….as you know. I think it’s part of culture to cling to hard labels. I’m not saying they aren’t helpful at times, but it can lead to leads to us thinking too categorically. Also, one of the strong points (I believe)of conservative evangelical/neo-fundamentalists (your term) is their unity on the fundamentals, yet there is still some broadness among them theologically and practically. Maybe that’s where the friction is here, some want there to be more defined bounds on evangelicalism.

  • Jesse Reese

    I would identify as an evangelical, but I’m not sure how strongly, and I can easily see why some might not. I am generally Protestant but do not by any means think that the Reformers had all the right answers when they were responding to Rome, sometimes on vital issues. For instance, though N.T. Wright insists otherwise, I’m not sure whether his understanding of justification in Paul can rightly be said to align with the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith alone” – but I agree with him in his view, generally. Do you think that an evangelical can be shaky on justification? It seems kind of unfair that we are seemingly relegated to a trichotomy of Reformers, Rome, or liberalism on this one.

    Of your list, I would identify most with #3 and #5, but with definite qualifications. I have a strong view of worship in Word and Sacrament (and other objective means of grace) as the manner of God’s presence, and I think that the luminaries of the First Great Awakening understood this (especially Wesley). What I think they wanted to do was to strive for holistic, sincere personal commitment for each believer by making Christianity accessible to them, and I certainly applaud that goal. I have many problems, though, with evangelicals who seem to tie the presence of God to a feeling, experience, or anything unstable, as if it depends on that thing rather than the promise of God. I blame this on the Second Great Awakening. In my thinking I seek to stress that there are stable means by which God makes himself present to us, and we can be sure of that whether we recognize it or not. Maybe I’m pushing the boundaries of the definition a bit, but I still strongly admire the evangelical fervor of the early Methodists and revivalists when it finds expression in a liturgical-sacramental framework.

  • Sometimes you make me cringe, Dr. Olson. But you always make me think. That is good! And that is why your books are good reads, even when you are wrong. Ha! These days I’m reading more in your “Westminster Handbook To Evangelical Theology.” It deserves a wide reading (with some discretion). Ha! again. I read the end first, and now have returned to the beginning. Your chapter, “The Story Of Evangelical Theology” is very informative. Recently, I read your thought-provoking book, “Questions To All Your Answers.” (Do I get a commission for promoting your books?) How can readers communicate with you about your books? By email? I want your input on some points in some of your books.

    • rogereolson

      Ask here and I’ll respond as I am able to. Thanks for reading my books and mentioning them here. I hope you’ll buy and read The Journey of Modern Theology: from Reconstruction to Deconstruction when it is published (hopefully in 2013).

  • Steve Rogers

    I, too, catch myself looking for a category or label to put upon others when trying to figure them out. It’s a bad habit. Too often the label does not square with their actions. Some clearly identified “category 5” evangelicals have proven to be really bad Christ followers. And, some judged to be liberals exude the fragrance of Jesus. Relating to others through such label filters almost always hinders fellowship and prospects for heart-to-heart community.

  • Brian

    I just had a question. Where do Pentecostals fit in? I understand that they are evangelical, but which camp are they in? For example, would you put the Assemblies of God with neo-fundamentalist theology and their approach of doing things, or would they be more in with what Billy Graham had established?

    • rogereolson

      I know AG folks across the spectrum of evangelicalism.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson said, “I don’t think, of course, that one has to “walk the aisle” at an evangelistic crusade, etc. It’s just a matter of looking back and saying “I once was lost, but now I’m saved” with a decision to follow Jesus through repentance and faith being the turning point (conversion).”

    I WAS SAVED BEFORE I WAS SAVED: — “It is a fact that most Christians equate the word ‘saved’ to some religious thing they have either performed, fulfilled, or mystically experienced at some specific place and on some specific date. But in truth all of us were ‘saved’ even BEFORE we first claimed to be saved! Scripture explains it this way: “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus BEFORE the beginning of time” (2 Tim 1:9).

    “Can it be true? Saved before the beginning of time? Saved before we were biologically born? Saved before we knew him? Saved before we had faith? Saved before we accepted? Saved before we confessed? Ah, yes, it’s true. Saved before anything!”
    (An excerpt from a new ‘5-Star’ book, Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace, by Ivan A. Rogers. A look inside the book may be seen at Rogers’ website: http://goodreportministries.com/

    • rogereolson

      In Acts 16 the Philippian jailer asked “What must I do to be saved?” The apostles didn’t say “You’re already saved.”

  • As for the question “who decides,” the ideal solution would be an ad hoc synod, along the lines of the Synod of Dort or the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The biblical norm is that the unity of the church should be promoted through consensus, and the council of Jerusalem is a model. One of the problems with modern American evangelicalism is that it has so little sense of the unity of the church as the Body of Christ. Some want to extend the bonds of fellowship to anyone who wants to call themselves j”Christian,” including liberals and Catholics, and others want to define the boundaries so narrowly that they can’t recognize other conservative evangelicals.
    My thinking is that we need to draw the line where Christ draws the line — between those who know Him savingly and those who don’t, and I would think that that would necessitate adherence to the doctrine of justification by faith.

    • rogereolson

      Well, the problem with that is that many conservative evangelicals of the Reformed type think Arminians don’t “really” believe in the doctrine of justification by faith even though we all say we do. There have been attempts at what you are suggesting–evangelical summit meetings to define the gospel and thereby decide who is and who is not an evangelical. The problem is the invitation list to such meetings; it’s always stacked in favor of conservative Reformed theologians–just as with the Westminster Assembly and the Synod of Dort before that. Both, by the way, had civil authority behind them to enforce their decisions. We don’t have anything like that (thank God!).

      • Wasn’t John Wesley considered an “Evangelical Arminian”? May I take the occasion to ask a distinguished Arminian theologian what makes the difference between an “Evangelcal Arminian” and a non-Evangelical Arminian? I know that Wesley waffled a bit on the subject of imputation, and that that caused some consternation among his contemporaries.

        • rogereolson

          Reformed theologian Alan P. F. Sell distinguishes between “Arminians of the head” and “Arminians of the heart” in his excellent little book The Great Debate. I borrowed the distinction from him in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. An Arminian of the head is a rationalist, free-thinking, probably theologically liberal Arminian. I would tend to not call such a person an Arminian at all. At some point a person has wandered so far away from Arminius that it doesn’t seem right to call him or her an Arminian anymore. However, the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands, the denomination that descends from the followers of Arminius in the 17th century, tends to fit Sell’s category of Arminianism of the head. Arminianism of the heart is epitomized by Wesley (even though not all evangelical Arminians will agree with him about everything). It is evangelical in ethos whereas Arminianism of the head is not.

  • Craig Wright

    It occurred to me that, since in my older years I have seen some of my own doctrinal positions evolve, that I could ask myself if I am still an evangelical. I think that the line for me would be if I still accept the doctrine of the incarnation, which means that I believe in a personal God, and the deity of Jesus Christ (which I still do).

    To add to some of this discussion, in church, the people in the pew still get confused between “evangelical” and “evangelistic.”

    • rogereolson

      Many people believe in the incarnation who I could not count as evangelicals. Being conservative doctrinally does not automatically make on evangelical in the sense I mean it.

  • Earl Simmons

    This is totally irrelevant! But it kinda reminds me of the present national election. At least all one has to do is follow the money trail and we find they all are politicians who want power and money and use labels on themselves to try to achieve same. Ah, the truth will set you free!!

    • rogereolson

      What are you suggesting, then, about theologians. That’s all we are about–power and money? I would agree that some seem to care a lot about those things.

  • It’s interesting because many [conservative] evangelicals put certain requirements on what it means to be evangelical (as opposed to evangelical theologians). One that always gets put forth by many is that of holding to inerrancy with regards to scripture, which for me goes beyond the word itself. An evangelical is one committed to the evangel, good news – believing it and announcing it in all the manner of ways you can.

  • Scott

    Imagine someone starts out as a typical evangelical, years after decides to worship Satan, and still refuses to give up the label ‘evangelical’. Does your view imply that such a person is an evangelical? Imagine instead that someone starts out as a typical evangelical, never changes her theology, but decides that she is no longer to be called an ‘evangelical’. Does your view imply that she is not an evangelical? I agree that the boundaries of evangelicalism are blurry and that blurriness is OK. But I don’t think they are no such boundaries. And I don’t think they just amount to being an evangelical at one time and then still calling yourself an evangelical.

    • rogereolson

      Who decides on the boundaries and when/how to enforce them? My point is the boundaries are subjective unless tied to the evangelical movement. Anytime someone talks about blurry, fuzzy categories, extreme cases can be brought up (and will be, in my experience). Could a Satanist be an evangelical if he/she grew up evangelical and then turned to Satanism and still wants to be one? I consider it a silly question.

      • Scott

        “Who decides on the boundaries and when/how to enforce them?” In my opinion, there does not have to be a boundary decider in order for there to be boundaries. Nor do I think there needs to be a boundary enforcer in order for there to be boundaries. I don’t have any idea what the boundaries are or how they are determined. Maybe it is for social scientists to speculate about. But, in my opinion, there are clearly some boundaries, whatever they are. Satanists and athiests wouldn’t be evangelicals even if they insisted otherwise.

        • rogereolson

          Without known boundaries, a set can only be defined by its center. And affinity group has a center (common interests and commitments) but no boundaries. To say there are boundaries that no one knows is, IMHO, the same as saying there are no boundaries.

          • Scott

            OK. That makes sense. I think I understand you now. Thanks.

  • CGC

    It seems to me that since the Evangelical Affirmations Conference in 1992 (?), Evangelicals were dealing with a lot of Pr problems, authority and indentity confusion. They decided that the best course of action is the more all-inclusive “big tent” Evangelicalism. I remember at that event, one of the contoversial moves they made was one could be an Evangelical if they believed in annihilation but not universalism. Now there is a growing number of people talking about Evangelical universalists. This all reminds me that todays liberals will eventually be tommorows Evangelicals. There may always be some kind of boundaries but the boundaries keep getting stretched more and more every decade. It’s a strange sight to behold modern Evangelicalism continues to water down doctrine while they draw harder lines in their political theology.

    • rogereolson

      In scholarly circles (biblical studies, theology) the “boundaries” (such as they are) are being narrowed. I agree that in the pews they are being broadened to cover too much. My question was about theologians. Can a person still be an evangelical theologian and be a universalist? Who is there to say no? The “authorities” who called the Evangelical Affirmations Conference (and similar meetings) excluded people they didn’t consider evangelicals. Who makes them the magisterium of all evangelicalism?

  • I always thought that the core of Evangelicals was that people were lost and needed to be Saved – aka accept Jesus. Thus Evangelical is culled from Evangelism.


  • David LaDow

    Maybe we should ask the Pope to tell us who is and who isn’t an Evangelical. He seems like an unbiased third-party.

    • rogereolson

      I am sure he’d say “Anyone who loves Billy Graham.” At least I hope so. That’s what I heard one Lutheran theologian say. The many evangelicals present applauded (after not being able to agree among themselves on who’s an evangelical).

  • doug e

    roger, i think you did a fine job of distinguishing an “evangelical theologian” from the LEFT side of the continuum, (process theology, universalism, but my question would be, what distinguishes an ET from the RIGHT side of the spectrum? imo, a significant cause of the confusion and unclarity regarding the term “evangelical” is that at the term has been co-opted by fundamentalists who discovered that being called an “evangelical” was more socially acceptable than being called a “fundamentalist”. at one time (Marsden, etc) these groups were clearly distinguished, but no more.
    So should we distinguish “fundamentalism and evangelicalism? If so, how would you define “post-fundamentalist” ?

    • rogereolson

      In my taxonomy, I include fundamentalist Protestants under the umbrella term “evangelical.” Among evangelicals there are types or tribes. I distinguish between the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist, neo-evangelical type or tribe and the fundamentalist type or tribe. Admittedly, that traditional way of distinguishing between them is becoming less reliable. Now I distinguish between postconservative evangelicals, conservative evangelicals, and fundamentalists. But I agree with you that the line between the latter two is increasingly difficult to discern.