Who Is An “Evangelical Theologian?”

Who Is An “Evangelical Theologian?” September 6, 2012

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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