Defining “Evangelical”: Why It’s Necessary and Impossible

Defining “Evangelical”: Why It’s Necessary and Impossible January 13, 2013

Defining “Evangelical”: Why It’s Necessary and Impossible

Some years ago Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox Press asked me to write a volume for a theological handbook series. Mine was to be The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology. It was published in 2004. This was one of the most labor-intensive writing projects I’ve ever undertaken and completed. In published form it contains 328 double column pages. Although it has not been one of my best-selling books (that would be Finding God in the Shack), it received good reviews including positive endorsements (published on its back cover) from Randall Balmer, Gary Dorrien, and David Bebbington. Here is what one of my blog’s frequent visitors said of it recently:

“I am almost finished with your Westminster Handbook of Evangelicalism.  Who would have thought that a handbook that is essentially a dictionary would be a great read, but I have enjoyed every entry.  I think you have acheived a much better integration of the material than most dictionaries/handbooks with multiple authors.  As usual, the work reflects a very ecumenical perspective without underplaying the important differences.  I especially appreciated how you brought out J.I. Packer’s “paradox” view of God’s sovereignty as a kind of middle path between Calvinism and Arminianism, and I think you have clarified the precise difference between Semi-Pelagianism and Classical Arminianism as well as I have ever seen it done.  Your works are all self-contained courses in themselves, and I think you have a rare talent for being able to achieve this in a truly balanced way.  Most authors just seem to have to bash their opponents somewhere along the line but you never do that.  Great work, Roger, and many thanks for providing these tools. They are models of clarity and balance.”

One of the reasons I accepted the publisher’s invitation and assignment was because I didn’t trust just anyone to write such a book. I feared if I didn’t do it, someone else who defines “evangelical” differently would do it! And by “differently” I don’t mean “slightly” or even “somewhat,” I mean “radically.”

As anyone who has come here frequently and long knows, there is a huge struggle over the meaning of “evangelical.” Many evangelical spokespersons and leaders desperately want to define it by putting their preferred boundaries around it so that they can control public perception of it. Many of my interlocutors have asked me very sincerely why I care about this struggle. Why not “let them have it?” (Meaning by “it” the ability to define “evangelical.”) Well, the reason is obvious to anyone inside the movement. The struggle is for the hearts and minds of influential evangelical decision makers—publishers, editors, denominational executives, college, university and seminary administrators, etc. Having been on the inside of the movement all my life and having been close to such influential people in it, I can tell you that many of the movements’ movers and shakers make decisions based largely on their perception of the meaning of “evangelical.” Is so-and-so “truly evangelical?” She might get hired or not based on that perception. He might get published or not based on it. A great deal of money flows around within evangelicalism and it flows in the direction of someone’s perceived “authentic evangelical” status. For the past fifty years students have flocked to evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries, often making their decisions based on the schools’ reputations as either evangelical or not.

I’m not saying this tendency is right; I’m just explaining why “ownership” of the label is such a battleground. “We’re more evangelical than they” (and often “than anyone else”) is the claim of many executives and administrators.

A few years ago a group of influential evangelical scholars began a several years long project to define “evangelical.” I attended some of their sessions and was at the final one where it became clear that there was no working consensus about the matter. Frustration filled the room. Why couldn’t a diverse group of evangelical scholars come to agreement about what the term means? The urgency was fueled, I believe, by the fact that many people who in times past would have called themselves “fundamentalists” were attempting to shift the center of the evangelical spectrum far to the right and even truncate the spectrum to exclude many individuals and organizations that they considered “doctrinally compromised” or “theologically liberal” (which almost always meant “influenced by neo-orthodoxy”). The session dragged on, tensions rose, there was a general feeling (I sensed, anyway) of disappointment. Then, a Lutheran scholar who had written on evangelicalism and evangelical theology stood at the very back of the room and said “I suggest that an ‘evangelical’ is anyone who loves Billy Graham’.” The room broke out in applause!

The product of that project was published as The Variety of American Evangelicalism first by the University of Tennessee Press and then, in 1991, by InterVarsity Press. The editors were North Park College and Seminary professor and provost Robert K. Johnston and Donald W. Dayton, professor of ethics at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Both men moved on to other institutions since then.) The volume portrayed evangelicalism as a very large and broad tent, inclusive of a great diversity of traditions and affiliations.

Partly, I suspect, in response to those broad definitions (or descriptions) of “evangelical” and “evangelicalism,” some evangelicals began attempting to narrow those concepts down by identifying “evangelical boundaries”—as if such a large and diverse movement could be confined within walls. Many wanted to identify inerrancy as such a boundary such that anyone who does not at least pay lip service to it cannot be legitimately evangelical. Some of the same wanted to add monergism to the definition of evangelical such that anyone who does not believe in irresistible grace cannot be authentically evangelical.

Throughout the 1990s I became increasingly involved in these debates. I knew I was authentically evangelical; I had grown up in the thick of the movement and still believed in its basic tenets and held its basic convictions and yet realized I was among the many targets of those who wanted to define many of us out of the movement. They wanted to rip my wallet out of my pocket (so to speak) and take out my evangelical credentials and rip them up and burn the pieces. Of course, I wasn’t nearly as much of a target as some of my friends. So I came to their defenses. Then I became even more of a target (than I had been).

Sometime in the late 1990s I was invited to speak to the presidents of the thirteen colleges of the Christian College Consortium—all self-identified evangelical institutions . They were holding one of their annual meetings and invited me to talk to them about evangelicalism. I knew they were particularly interested in the issue of evangelical “boundaries.” I also knew all of them were under pressure from constituents, many of them with “deep pockets,” to bow to conservatives who, through their publications, wanted to label many of us as what Luther called “false brethren.” I gave my presentation, which argued for a relatively broad and inclusive definition of “evangelicalism,” using the same hallmarks as Mark Noll and David Bebbington (biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism). I was supposed to answer question after my presentation, but the presidents had few questions of me. They fell into polite but pointed argument among themselves about the meaning of “evangelical.” What became clear to me as I listened was that two of the presidents very much wanted to define it in terms of creedal orthodoxy, with very narrow boundaries, while others insisted on keeping it broad and inclusive. What was playing out before my eyes and ears was my own description of two approaches to defining “evangelical” and “evangelicalism”—one centered and one bounded. To two of the presidents, I discerned, a person is either “in” or “out.” It was for them a matter of black and white. They did not seem to want to admit degrees of “evangelicalness.” To others (some didn’t express opinions but only asked questions), “evangelicalness” is a matter of degrees—a spectrum. (A couple of presidents seemed to want to abandon the concept altogether but everyone there knew that wasn’t possible for them.)

That’s just once case study of problems top level evangelicals have with the concept. I’ve been in many meetings where the same issues have divided the participants—sometimes in very harsh tones.

It seems necessary to at least attempt to define “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” At the same time it seems impossible—at least in terms of reaching consensus. Noll’s and Bebbington’s four hallmarks approach is helpful, but then, among those who use them, the question arises about whether they constitute the “center” of a set or its boundaries. And, especially if boundaries, how are they to be defined? What, for example, constitutes “biblicism?” Is inerrancy part and parcel of true biblicism? Most boundary seekers would say yes; most center seekers would say no. The moment you define biblicism as including inerrancy you set a boundary. But then the problem becomes patrolling it and keeping the right people “in” and the wrong people “out.” Who does that? There’s no evangelical magisterium or headquarters, so what exactly is the function of boundaries?

Some boundary people answer that identifying and keeping clear evangelical boundaries has practical functions. It helps know whom to hire or publish or listen to. But, of course, especially with regard to the first two functions, everyone knows and admits that organizations have boundaries. That’s not in debate. But just because an organization sets a boundary doesn’t mean that’s a boundary for all evangelicals. A case in point is Carl F. H. Henry, a founder of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and they set a boundary for their organization that includes biblical inerrancy. But Henry himself stoutly denied that belief in inerrancy is a boundary for evangelicalism as a whole. He considered non-inerrantist evangelicals inconsistent but not thereby non-evangelical.

As for the third function, knowing whom to listen to, that seems to me what this is mainly about. But, of course, all it means is that someone doesn’t want someone else (usually students and administrators) to listen to another. But, of course, all that is happening, when someone declares someone else not truly evangelical and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as an evangelical thinker, for example, is expressing an opinion.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Pietism. And I’ve written some articles and given some talks about Pietism. (My most recent article is on Pentecostalism and Pietism in Pneuma, the journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It’s a version of a lecture I gave at Regent University in North Carolina about a year ago.) Debate about defining Pietism has heated up again. It was hot in the early eighteenth century. Then and now one point of disagreement among scholars is whether Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravians, should be considered a pietist or not. Historians of the movement disagree sharply about its boundaries.

It has always seemed self-evident to me that movements cannot have boundaries. In fact, secretly, only to myself, I have long considered people who think movements can have boundaries either disingenuous or sociologically ignorant. Organizations have boundaries; movements do not. It’s self-evident. Movements have centers, not boundaries.

Just yesterday I came across a reference to and discussion of a scholar I’ve never heard of before whose work helps a great deal—in explaining what movements like Pietism and evangelicalism are and are not and how to describe them when clear definition is impossible. The scholar I refer to is George Lakoff and the book where he puts forth his idea of prototypical defining of categories (such as movements) is Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1997). The scholar who pointed me to Lakoff and his ideas is Peter James Yoder (whose excellent chapter in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity is entitled “’Rendered Odious’ as Pietists: Anton Wilhelm Böhme’s Conception of Pietism and the Possibilities of Prototype Theory”).

According to Lakoff, according to Yoder (I have yet to read Lakoff for myself), categories such as Pietism and evangelicalism (Yoder’s and my examples, not Lakoff’s) can only be defined in terms of “prototypical members.” Yoder summarizes Lakoff’s suggestion this way: “Some members of a category are more prototypical than others. As individuals or groups construct categories, they show a propensity to see some category members as better representatives of the grouping than others. At the same time, these categories tend to have “fuzzy edges,” as they stand for several conceptions of the same grouping.” (The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, The Princeton Monograph Series, ed., Christian Collins Winn, et al., [Pickwick, 2011], p. 24) Such categories admit degrees of membership and they are defined centrally, that is in terms of a center constituted by the prototypes. “Prototypes merely speak of a cognitive centrality and allow for fluid, fuzzy boundaries.” (p. 24) According to Yoder, Lakoff’s theory allows one to recognize central members of categories and yet maintain fluid boundaries of the movement.” (p. 25) Yoder applies this to the debate over whether Zinzendorf should be considered part of the Pietist movement. He concludes Zinzendorf should be so considered while at the same time allowing that he may not be a member of the center of prototypes. Yoder concludes that “Prototype theory, as a mediating model, provides the ability to maintain central figures and attributes while also allowing for a more fluid boundary of the movement.” (p. 26)

Of course, I intend to obtain Lakoff’s book and read it for myself, but if Yoder is right about Lakoff’s theory, it agrees completely with my vision of evangelicalism, but it adds a dimension I have been previously lacking—“prototypes” as category-defining (and movement-defining). I use the word “defining” cautiously because many people automatically think that once you’ve defined something you’ve pinned it down so that it is either this or that. But when it comes to categories, and especially movements, “defining” means something else. It means describing in terms of prototypes and allowing for degrees of membership. (Here “membership” doesn’t mean what it means when referring to organizations with formal membership. It simply means “belonging to the category.”)

Thus, I argue that evangelicalism, like Pietism, charismatic movement, “New Age,” etc., etc. refers to a category that can only be defined in terms of prototypes that constitute a center. I would put Noll’s and Bebbington’s four hallmarks at that center and with them Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. What did those men have in common that was not as noticeable among most of their peers in Protestant Christianity? I would say those would be biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. And I would add to that a tendency strongly to defend the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy (broadly defined). Yes, to be sure, there were others who displayed the same characteristics, but they especially stand out as the prototypes of the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century that gave birth to the modern evangelical movement.

Narrowing “evangelicalism” down to the post-WW2 “evangelical movement” (which is mostly what I write about and insist on being included in), I would again look to prototypes such as the five hallmarks above and prototypes such as Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, Harold John Ockenga, Christianity Today, Carl Henry, Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, Billy Melvin, Eternity, World Vision, etc., etc. This way of “defining” evangelicalism and “evangelical” allows fluid boundaries (if they can be called boundaries at all!). How close to the prototypes are certain entities (people, organizations)? is the question. The Lutheran theologian was not far from right, if far at all, when he suggested that an “evangelical” (in the sense we all meant) is someone who loves Billy Graham. Of course, he did not mean, and nobody in the room assumed he meant, anyone who simply likes Billy Graham as a person is an evangelical. He meant, of course, we all knew—anyone who ardently desires to emulate Billy Graham and/or looks up to him as a prototype of modern, authentic Christianity in terms of his basic beliefs and approach to Christian life (conversion, devotion, evangelism, holiness of life, activism in seeking to change the world “for Christ,” etc., etc.).

Now, I fully realize, this approach to defining (!) “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” will never satisfy those who are out to manipulate those concepts for their own gain. But it is the most reasonable approach; all others have far greater problems.

I tend to think most people look at the world either in black and white, either-or terms or in terms of degrees, that is, appreciating ambiguity as embedded in the nature of things (or at least in our knowing). Black and white thinkers who are allergic to ambiguity will have great trouble with Lakoff’s and my approach. I simply think they are stuck in a relatively immature stage of mental development. I have no problem with their setting up organizations and patrolling their boundaries. That’s their business. I don’t have to belong to any of their organizations. But when they start treating “evangelicalism” as one and themselves as the boundary setters and patrollers I have great trouble with that. I will call them either disingenuous or uninformed.

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  • Jack Harper

    Professor Olson, thanks for sharing the complexities of defining Evangelicalism. I have noticed for myself, that if I want to be part of a theological society, that there are usually well defined beliefs and standards that I as a member would have to acknowledge in order to be accepted. I find this troubling in some respects since none of us agree 100% with what one group adheres too. Since defining Evangelicalism is such an difficult task, could it be that it is non-word in the sense that Christianity has such a wide array of nonessential beliefs (apart from salvation that is), but one could still be a believer in what Jesus did without being part of a particular group?

    • rogereolson

      Like “evangelical,” “Christian” is a centered set category, not a bounded set category. It’s “defined” in terms of prototypes (Jesus, prophets, apostles, Scripture, church fathers, reformers, great Christian leaders and thinkers, creeds, etc) and central convictions. It admits of degrees of “membership.” Can a person be a Christian without belonging to any particular organization? I suppose so, but normally being Christian involves being part of the church visible as well as the church universal and (sometimes) invisible. I have qualms about someone who claims to be a Christian but eschews all church participation. But we are all defective Christians at best.

      • Craig Wright

        I have usually used the prototype answer for people, who are not Christians, asking me what kind of Christian I am. I say I am like Billy Graham.
        On the other hand, I use Billy Graham with people within my own church when I say that he allows for biological evolution (in an interview with David Frost), or does not judge people from other religions (in an interview with Newsweek magazine) to defend my own membership qualifications in evangelicalism.

        • rogereolson

          This is what makes Billy Graham such a wonderful model and prototype for the whole evangelical movement–conservative theologially but also open and flexible and holding some opinions that are not knee-jerk conservative. I guarantee there will be (and I think already is) a struggle over Graham’s legacy as soon as he’s gone. One side will want to argue that he was misunderstood or “not himself” when he said certain things in certain interviews. Others will insist that he was just not a fundamentalist and allowed himself to hold opinions not popular among fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.

  • Craig Wright

    Here is something that ties together your article in Christianity Today and the “evangelical” identity article of today.
    I came home from church today after having our young worship leader ask if I had read your magazine article. He asked me why you didn’t mention universal reconciliation as a third option to Calvinism and Arminianism. We attend a large (formerly BGC, now Converge) Baptist church in the Los Angeles area. I explained to him that your intent was to clarify that Arminians are not semi-Pelagian because of the need for prevenient grace, and so that was what you focussed on.
    It occurred to me, that since you were writing to a general audience in an “evangelical Christian” magazine that many readers would not know where you were coming from. It was interesting to hear our worship leader’s response. But it also struck me that, in your mention of “boundaries”, I have taught a class in our church looking at the issue of universalism, with our pastor’s awareness of me doing so, and with the favorable interest of our worship leader, and favorable response from our adult Sunday School class.
    At this time, I am not discussing how Calvinism and Arminianism affect the idea of universalism, but just showing how interesting the dynamics of discussing doctrinal issues can be in a non-academic setting.

    • rogereolson

      I think “evangelical Calvinism” does believe in universal reconciliation while acknowledging that God allows people to opt out if they insist. The idea that all will be saved in the end, without qualification, is not something Christianity Today would publish as an evangelical option.

  • scotmcknight

    The issue, brother Roger, is Who are the prototypes right now?

    • rogereolson

      You, of course! 🙂 That sounds like a subject for another blog post!

  • Bev Mitchell


    Not to make fun of the serious problem that you raise, I offer the following nearly parallel problem from systematic biology to emphasize the universality of the difficulties encountered. And perhaps to offer a potential solution – though not in any way an easy one.

    In biology we have, for example, species, genera, families, and orders of insects. These interesting creatures, 10-30 million species in all, are not as bad as Jonathan Edwards would have them be (hanging by a thread, silken I suppose, over the fires of hell). But, they are all animals, and share many characteristics with other animals that they do not share with plants.

    Now, within the Insecta are 30 some orders, depending on who is counting. Wasps and beetles are very dissimilar, but they are all insects – full card-carrying members of the Class Insecta. This Linnean arrangement, kind of boxes within boxes, almost works for your problem. But, one cannot say, for example, that one kind of insect is more insect-like than another kind of insect. However, one can say that this non-insect is more closely related to the Class Insecta than this other non-insect.

    As for prototypes, this only works in today’s version of Linnean taxonomy for the specimens that were first described in a particular specific category (or specific clade if you’re a cladist). A clade may represent a single species, and you can find, in a museum somewhere, the official representative of that clade. This dry bit of former insect does not hold its exalted position because it’s the best representative. It holds this position because the original description of the species was made from it. These are called “type specimens” and are no longer burdened with the nominalist/essentialist baggage of past centuries. Their exalted position is simply practical not ontological. Genera will also have type species that help ‘centre’ the genus, but this is perhaps less official than the type species.

    The bottom line in all of this cladistic categorizing is that it fundamentally (almost ontologically) recognizes inherent diversity. No one expects all of the members of even the most well defined species to be identical. Even less so for the members of a very well defined genus, and so on. Maybe a bit of cladistic systematics (formally dubbed phylogenetic systematics) would help in your categorizing problem. However, be warned, cladists have their enemies (numerical taxonomists) and have even been know to leave a little blood on the floor in their in house meetings.

    So, the real bottom line is, categorizing anything appears to be a very difficult problem for human beings. Even if politics, control, reputations etc. are not involved, there will most likely be very spirited disagreement, at minimum.

    P.S. You will be pleased to know that the patron saint of phylogenetic systematics is one Willi Henning, a fine German biologist (1913-1976). Wiki has a nice little writeup on him. His foundational work for your topic is Grundzüge einer Theorie der phylogenetischen Systematik, Berlin: Deutscher Zentralverlag, 1950.

    • rogereolson

      If I’m not mistaken, there are life forms that are difficult to categorize as clearly and unequivocally either plant or animal. Good scientists live with ambiguity, however uncomfortably. Theologians (especially conservative ones) need to learn the same trick.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Yes indeed, though the biological part is less problematic than 50 to 100 years ago. The most significant example of this kind of category difficulty (actually error) in biology is the early classification of so-called blue-green algae. These were the first oxygenic photosynthetic organisms – but they are not algae at all, but bacteria, specifically cyanobacteria. What makes them so significant is that some of their ancestors took up residence in plant (proto plant) cells, became symbiotic and now do yeoman service in all green plants as photosynthetic factories – transducing the sun’s energy into chemical energy (electrons and protons) thus powering the production of sugars. Without them, life as we enjoy it would not exist.

      • Bev Mitchell

        I have found an even better example than the cyanobacteria story, and cannot resist. Just today I began reading one of the newest books on human ancestry entitled “Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins” by Ian Tattersall. Palgrave MacMillan 2012. His prologue is a wonderful summary of many issues in modern biology that bear directly on our understanding of our biological origins. This treatment looks very different from those stogy old tomes on human origins of even a decade ago, by one of the most experienced men in the field (curator emeritus of the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City). He is also on the Board of Advisors of the John Templeton Foundation.

        The following three quotes are more or less directly related the general problem of classification. I admit, however, that they are provided here largely to tempt you to read Tattersall’s wonderful summary of where we are today on the paleoanthropology front.

        “… is hardly realistic to expect that we’ll ever find an anatomical “silver bullet” that will by itself tell us infallibly if an ancient fossil is a hominid or not.”

        “We humans have rather reductionistic minds, and we are beguiled by clear, straightforward explanations. But where murky Mother Nature is concerned, beware of excessively simple stories.”

        “….it should never be forgotten that everything we believe today is conditioned in some important way by what we thought yesterday; and some current controversies are caused, or at least stocked, by a reluctance to abandon received ideas that may well have outlived their usefulness.”

        See more on the author here:

  • Andy W.

    3 words coined by Christian Smith explain why this is impossible: Pervasive Interpretive pluralism.

    • rogereolson

      And yet, even he cannot escape the temptation and task of defining “evangelical.”

  • So much to think about here. Thanks for your very thoughtful contribution. My brand of evangelicalism has been informed by my years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I would think that organization fits most your image of what evangelicalism should be. It would be hard to imagine a local church that keeps together all the different views that IVCF allows, even encourages. But they do demonstrate to me both movement and wise boundary management. I am busy writing a book whose working title is “I Am an Evangelical.” It has been quite a mind-bending experience as I examine my own boundaries, who gets in and who is out. I have strong pietistic preferences, having grown up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but my theological training was at Westminster Seminary. Even though I have since moved to an Arminian framework, the DNA of boundary setting was injected into my spiritual chromosomes at Westminster. I could not identify with their boundary markers but I did have a taste of the necessary work of genuine alertness when it comes to theological drift. This has never left me. It takes a lot of work to stay on the balance beam of Evangelicalism without letting the firebrands on either side pull us off.

    • Jack Harper

      Don, I think I understand your dilemma about staying on that balance beam and not going head long into either side. In our desire to walk in love towards each other we will always have to make a decision weather our doctrine that disagrees with another is important enough to divide over, perspective is key I think and I’m not sure there is an easy answer. Bless you brother.

  • James Petticrew

    Leaving aside the more substantial point of your piece I am interested in why the Moravians are not thought to be Pietists by some scholars? ….. I always assumed they were the archetypal Pietists with their emphasis on “religion of the heart”

    • rogereolson

      There was real tension between the “Halle Pietists” (led by Francke and his son after him) and Zinzendorf and the Moravians (in the early 1700s).

  • Steve Rogers

    At one level I am in agreement with your and others’ efforts to keep evangelicalism from constricting into an exclusive club of neo-fundamentalists. But when I encounter terminology like “boundaries”, “hallmarks”, “prototypes”, “center” and the like, it leaves me wondering if we aren’t expending a great deal of effort on “straining gnats.” I can only hope that when I stand before the Judge he doesn’t ask me for my definition of evangelical. If he does, my only defense will be I didn’t have time because I was too busy trying to love my neighbors and enemies… and myself.

    • rogereolson

      Did you read the whole post? I explain why keeping “evangelical” a broad and inclusive category is important. You may not be touched by the politics of the matter, but many of us are.

      • James Petticrew

        Roger do you think the current desire to define evangelical more narrowly is part of an attempt to wrest control of non denominational evangelical educational institutions and wider evangelical publications and societies by the resurrgent Reformed movement? In others words do you see it as prelude to an attempt by them to purge “evangelicalism” from what they consider to be “deficient” Theologies ? I heard via the grapevine that I once failed to get an interview for a job at an evangelical organisation in Scotland because someone said the Church of the Nazarene, of which I am a minister, believed in “sinless perfection” and was “Arminian and so not fully evangelical” I fear evangelical inquisitions if the battle for this is lost.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, that is exactly what I fear and am certain is happening. I was once informed by a friend who taught briefly at a well-known trans-denominational evangelical seminary (not committed to either Calvinism or Arminianism) that an Arminian would never be hired there. I know Arminians who teach in evangelical colleges and seminaries who are treated as interlopers by their Calvinist colleagues. (I’m talking about non- and trans-denominational institutions not committed to either Calvinism or Arminianism.) So, yes, I am sure this is happening and has been happening for some decades. Some of these institutions were once wide open to Arminians; their histories were not particularly influenced by Reformed theology. Now they lean heavily toward the Reformed side to the point of marginalizing, if not excluding, Arminians. As I have mentioned before, I once taught at an evangelical institution that was not confessionally Reformed where the president, who grew up in the thick of the Holiness movement, told people he was a “recovering Arminian.” Imagine how that made me feel. He had become friends with and influenced by a well-known anti-Arminian evangelical theologian. All this is why my friend and co-author Stan Grenz asked me not to tell anyone he was Arminian.

    • Jack Harper

      Steve, I agree that if a definition is difficult to come by it make me wonder if it is a real issue to even contemplate, however with so much bad teaching out there it is almost necessary to side with a belief system that most reflects our understanding of God and his word. My problem with Evangelicalism is not that it is a belief system, but it isn’t clearly defined: which Professor Olson seems to be attempting to do.

  • JohnD

    In my “formative” years as a Billy Graham evangelical, I benefitted from the work of Donald Bloesch, e.g. The Essentials of Evangelical Theology; and Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism.

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad you mentioned Bloesch. He serves as a prototype of evangelical theology for many of us. So does Ramm. However, toward the end of his life, Carl Henry called Bloesch (in correspondence with me) a “mediating theologian,” by which he meant somewhere between liberal or neo-orthodox and evangelical. So, at least since the publication of The Battle for the Bible in 1976 evangelicals have been locked in a struggle over prototypes. We have pretty much agreed about Billy Graham (except the far right wing of the movement, the fundamentalists who considered Graham compromised) but not many others (except the founders such as Ockenga). Bloesch and Ramm are among my favorite evangelical prototypes, but just saying that out loud would probably lock me out of some evangelical circles and institutions.

  • Derek

    Hey Dr. O,

    You mentioned a blurb is your article (which was great btw) about False brethren according to Martin Luther. I am curious as to how he categorized such people – is there anything you can link me to on the net (I couldn’t find it)?


    • rogereolson

      See the book Luther and the False Brethren by Mark Edwards (Stanford U. Press, 1975). According to Luther almost anyone who didn’t agree with him about anything was included in that category. Well, that’s an exaggeration, of course. But he rejected as “false brethren” especially the radical reformers including the Anabaptists.

      • Jack Harper

        Dr. Olson, was Luther Arminian?

        • rogereolson

          That would be an anachronism because he lived a century before Arminius. But had he lived at the same time as Arminius he would have been very critical of him. We know that because he wrote a rebuttal to Erasmus’ book on free will. Luther called free will an idol and considered those (both Catholics and Protestants) who believed in it, even the “Arminian way” (prevenient grace freeing the will that otherwise is bound to sin), “pig theologians” and “false brethren.” He heaped scorn and ridicule on Erasmus for believing in free will, even when Erasmus qualified it by insisting on assisting grace as the basis for any good that we do. However (!), Luther’s “right hand man,” Melanchthon, seemed much more amenable to free will. Arminius mentioned Melanchthon when defending his own view as properly Protestant (against his critics who accused him of being a closet Catholic).

  • Scott

    Thank you Rodger I put “The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology” on my wish list.
    I look forward to reading it. I wish it was on Kindle also : )

  • Derek

    Many thanks.

    It’s funny, I consider myself a Calvinist/monergist, yet I have great difficulty reading Luther or Calvin, in fact, much of the time it makes me feel as if I am in sort of a cult, especially when Reformed Pastors keep referring to “Luther & Calvin” – makes me want to jump out a window. =)

  • Roger,

    Just wanted to let you know that I have a love affair going on with your book “The Story of Christian Theology” and I’m only on page 65. I started yesterday and I can’t put the thing down! Just thought I’d let you know that I can’t thank you enough. I know you don’t come to New York City (what gives?!) but the moment I can fly somewhere to see you I’m going to embarrass you with a hug. LOL

    While on a flight yesterday the person next to me heard me whisper to myself “I can’t believe I’m so ignorant!” while I read your book (I know. I learn something I never knew on every page). He asked me what I was reading and I explained it to him. The book is written so simply and clearly that everything somehow automatically sticks on my mind, including the terms and stuff. Consequently, I had an awesome conversation with the guy about how Christian theology was formed. He didn’t give his life to Christ but seemed visibly shaken by the facts I told him I learned. In fact, he told me he never paid attention to Christianity because he thought it was not intellectual enough (kind of reminds me of Celsus). By the time the flight landed he thanked me and said he had much to think about.

    When I landed in the airport in NY my friend Lu picked me up and went to a dinner (Neptune Dinner here in the Bronx). I told my friend about the book and why I loved it. As I went on and on little did I know that an elderly gentleman at the table behind us was listening. When we left he stopped me and asked me about what I was talking about. He told me “I’ve spent too many years away from God and as I hear you talk about how the church had to battle against all those heretics it reminds me that I haven’t done anything with my life”. Lu and I got to encourage him and point him in the right direction. Isn’t that awesome?

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for helping me get excited about my Christian heritage. By the way, would you ever consider writing another book specifically for us Arminians? Perhaps one where you deal with all the proof texts Calvinist’s throw around. You’d be perfect to compare and contrast how different Arminians (Classical and Wesleyan) have handled those passages. I could study a thick book like that from cover to cover. No?


    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the encouraging message, David. I hope we can meet sometime, somewhere.

  • Dan

    I agree with many of the “prototypes” you suggest. While I do understand the tensions such definitions can cause and the implications for academic and church employment, I’m unconvinced the “centered-set” approach is helpful. I dearly love C.S. Lewis but have no problem thinking of him as “not evangelical”, that is “excluded” from the “bounded set”. He was orthodox without question. But even using the Mark Noll terms I don’t think Lewis would be accused of “biblicism” or necessarily “conversionism”. That is not a slam on Lewis, it is a statement of definition. So I don’t see a necessary problem with “boundaries”.

    For example, is someone outside of “orthodoxy” if they deny the trinity or deity of Christ? Is someone who denies such things therefore “outside” the boundaries of evangelicalism? I think Thomas Oden and J.I. Packer did us a bit of a favor with their little collection “One Faith” which attempted to show that there is a fair amount of consensus in Evangelical Protestantism on some “central” issues.

    To be sure, I wish Evangelical doctrinal statements would lead with the three creeds and include lesser denominational distinctives in appendices or footnotes, but it is necessary, though very difficult, to have some boundaries and to draw a line somewhere, even Christ spoke of separating sheep and goats. Is there too much nit-picking? Sure. But saying someone is not an evangelical is not the same as saying someone is not a Christian and drawing lines is not always bad.

    Most evangelicals, until recently, were inerrantists or at least believed there was a reasonable approach to an objective and authoritative Biblical text. Most insisted on salvation by grace through faith and a personal commitment to Christ. I think what troubles the folks who want to draw lines is not so much where the lines should be drawn, but the post-modern impulse to insist that all lines are by definition oppressive power grabs and therefore boundaries must be eliminated in the name of inclusiveness. While the “power grab” complaint can be true, it is not necessarily true. And without some definitions and boundaries, words like “evangelical” can quickly become meaningless.

    • rogereolson

      So who do you nominate to draw the boundaries? Packer and Oden? I hope not. They would probably both exclude me. Your own words show how impossible it is to define the boundaries. You say “Most evangelicals, until recently, were inerrantists or at least believed there was a reasonable approach to an objective and authoritative Biblical text.” “Most” and “at least” are indicative of no absolute boundaries. Every time someone mentions what they think is an absolute boundary (around evangelicalism) I mention an exception they can’t deny. For example, even B. B. Warfield, a champion of biblical inerrancy, believed James Orr of Scotland was an evangelical. Orr was not an inerrantist. On and on it goes. Too many exceptions for absolute boundaries.

      • Dan

        Then are you saying that “orthodox” can be a bounded set (three creeds) but “evangelical” cannot? Maybe I am misunderstanding you. That would suggest to me that the term “evangelical” has become fluid to the point of being useless and perhaps that is true.

        As for who should draw the lines, I think Packer and Oden would agree that they should not draw the lines, but that there can be a way to form a broad consensus around at least a few boundaries. It is a collective effort that has been going on since the Reformation, is evidenced by common themes in diverse doctrinal statements, and there is much agreement on issues such as justification by grace through faith. A “mere evangelicalism” emerges. The question I raise for the moment is not who should draw the lines but whether it is conceptually correct to say that lines can and should be drawn on some issues. If not, I don’t see much point in using terms like “evangelical” or even “Christian”, for without definitions such words are just noises. If you are only saying the word “evangelical” is too diverse for a definition, then perhaps you are correct in this present post-modern era. I simply don’t think attempts at a definition are a bad thing in and of themselves. Else, why bother to define Arminian (of which I am one) as opposed to semi-Pelagian (which I would resist).

        • rogereolson

          I said defining evangelical and evangelicalism is necessary. So we are agreeing on that. Where we disagree, I think, is on whether attempting to put boundaries around them such that everyone is either “in” or “out” is possible. We all will have our opinions about who’s in and who’s out, but that’s what they will always be–opinions. And I’m urging that we all recognize that such judgments about fuzzy categories like this must always remain somewhat flexible. You want the boundaries to be doctrinal; I would emphasize (as central) just as much experiences such as conversion. Can one be an evangelical who is unconverted but believes strongly in justification by faith alone? Can one be an evangelical who is converted but doesn’t believe in justification by faith alone? I don’t have absolute answers to those questions, but my tendency would be to lean more toward “no” to the first one and tentatively toward “yes” to the second one. Many evangelicals in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition have serious qualms about “justification by faith alone” because it sounds to them like excluding love from salvation. All the way back to Wesley people in that tradition have affirmed that salvation is by grace alone through faith but wanted to add that true “faith” is never alone. The result is that many in the conservative Lutheran and Reformed traditions have wanted to exclude those people from evangelicalism. “Definition” can exist without definite, firm boundaries. We do it all the time. Who’s really “charismatic?” Who’s really Baptist? Who’s really Christian? It’s not as simple as you suggest. These categories have meaning but not in the same WAY that categories like “Roman Catholic” have meaning–where there’s a magisterium with power to enforce decisions about who’s “in” and whose “out.”

  • Roger – while you recognize trends in some schools towards pushing out Arminian voices, I am happy to report that the school I attend and work at (TEDS) makes a point of welcoming faculty and student voices from both Calvinist and Arminian camps, as well as across other lines that tend to divide faculties (e.g. complementarian / egalitarian). Our Dean, Dr. Tienou, speaks to new students at the beginning of each semester and classifies TEDS as “pan-evangelical” – we are positioned to serve the global church and to welcome all evangelicals.

    I’m proud of this because I agree with you that defining evangelical is both important and very difficult. My hope moving forward is that the students we’re training here can go out and be evangelical in the sort of broad, robust sense evident in your work (evident also in your more recent post about the strengths you’ve gained from other denominational traditions). We’ve got a lot of those represented in our faculty and students and I’m proud of it. I think, in the past, that this has not always been the perception of TEDS in some people’s eyes (whether rightly or wrongly), but this is becoming more and more the standard by which we identify ourselves. It’s neat to have a school at which D. A. Carson and Tom McCall and Kevin Vanhoozer (to just name three) can teach comfortably side by side.

    Sorry if this seems like a shameless plug for TEDS…I’m playing a pivotal role in helping shape TEDS’ marketing messaging right now and your thoughts on evangelicalism resonate deeply with what I’ve found as I’ve interviewed faculty and students and had conversations with various other staff. Just wanted to encourage you that there truly are evangelical institutions striving to embody the sort of generous, “centrist” (Vanhoozer’s word to me in an interview) evangelicalism you talk about here.

    • rogereolson

      I will keep watching the situation there.