Who is an "evangelical theologian?"

Who is an "evangelical theologian?" October 26, 2010

Who is an evangelical theologian?  Recently there has been much debate about this.  I have heard influential evangelical theologians declare most emphatically that Clark Pinnock (for example) was not an evangelical.  (One publicly declared he was not even a Christian!)  Recently some have questioned whether Brian McLaren is an evangelical.  I know for a fact my own evangelical credentials have been questioned.  As I mentioned earlier here, Carl Henry told me he did not consider Donald Bloesch an evangelical theologian and instead labeled him a “mediating theologian.”

Well, of course, anyone can SAY whatever they want to and hope others agree with them.  To a very large extent that’s what I think is going on in all this fussing about who is “in” and who is “out.”  If you can get people to agree with you and ostracize someone you’ve gained a great deal of power and prestige.  But, in other cases, people are sincere when they (mistakenly) try to read someone out of the evangelical camp.

So let me take a stab at this and solicit your opinions.  I realize mine is going to be controversial.  I count as an “evangelical theologian” anyone who says he or she is an evangelical and does theology and (here comes the litmus test) operates within the evangelical movement and its network of organizations (denominations, umbrella groups, publishers, professional societies, etc., etc.). 

Thus, my answer to whether Brian McLaren is an evangelical theologian is: “Of course he is. What else would he be?”  Brian’s whole shtick (I don’t mean that in any demeaning way) is only of interest to evangelicals.  His publishers are mostly evangelical publishers.  He speaks mostly in evangelical institutions.  He pastors an evangelical church.  To a very large extent he has no constituency outside of evangelicalism.  What does it even mean to declare him “not an evangelical theologian?”

Well, of course, some will say it means his theology is not consistent with “the received evangelical tradition.”  Are we taking about apples and oranges here?  Sociologically he IS an evangelical theologian regardless of his theology–so long as he works within the evangelical movement and they are his constituency and audience.  Theologically–he may or may not be an evangelical theologian.  But who is to say?  Who has the authority to decide whether he is or not?  (I’m only using Brian as a case study here; I’m not really focusing on him per se.)

People have opinions about these things.  For some evangelical spokespersons (self-appointed, of course) ONLY monergists can be evangelicals (theologically).  Thus, even John Wesley would not count as an evangelical.  How ludicrous is that?  And yet, more than a few Reformed evangelicals think that way.  For some evangelical spokespersons ONLY young earth creationists can be evangelicals (theologically).  For many ONLY inerrantists can be evangelicals.  (And yet the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith does not include inerrancy!)

This endless debate over who is and who is not evangelical gets very tiresome because its all just opinion!  There’s no pope of evangelicalism.  To be sure, if enough evangelicals turn their backs on someone and ostracize him or her, his or her status as an evangelical comes into question.  This has happened–usually when someone moves so far away from the evangelical consensus about basic experiences and doctrines that the label just doesn’t fit anymore.  But there’s no person who decides this.  And there’s no group that meets secretly like the “Star Chamber” of movieland and casts votes and puts out a contract on someone to cast them out of the evangelical “kingdom.”

I propose that instead of talking about evangelical boundaries and who is or who isn’t an evangelical we talk about appropriate diversity and unity (not conformity) and include as many people as possible while criticizing their beliefs insofar as that is genuinely called for biblically and in terms of tradition and reason.  I have no problem sometimes saying, “Well, that’s not a traditional evangelical belief” without meaning “So that person isn’t evangelical.”  Are there people who have strayed so far from the center that I no longer recognize them as evangelical?  Yes, and in virtually ever case I can think of they have already decided that and “resigned” from the movement.

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