Why I Still Call Myself “Evangelical” In Spite of Everything
Evangelicalism Is Dead; Long Live Evangelicalism
Roger E. Olson
Prelude: This is the talk I would have given had I been invited to speak at the 2001 conference “Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail” which I attended at Beeson Divinity School. It’s a bit updated, but essentially the same as what I would have said there and then. I gave it in chapel/convocation at Samford University as part of the Holley-Hull Lectures the week of October 5-9, 2015.
Some of my best students and most astute friends ask me why I still call myself “evangelical” in spite of the perceived lack of “fit” between my theological orientation and spirituality and the popular image of an “evangelical.” Somehow, “evangelical” has come to be closely associated in the popular mind with an ultra-conservative approach to Christianity, one that is harshly judgmental, narrow-minded, inseparably related to conservative politics, and backward-looking rather than progressive. I begin by telling them that it isn’t I who have changed; it’s American evangelicalism that has changed and I’m just too stubborn to give up a label I’ve used for my particular Christian identity my whole life. I also explain that when I identify myself as “evangelical” I’m referring to a particular Christian ethos and not a movement. My own judgment as a theological historian is that the American evangelical movement is either dead or hopelessly divided, but the spiritual-theological ethos I call “evangelical” is still alive and well. It pre-dates the “evangelical movement” and will survive its demise.
When I talk about “evangelical” as my spiritual-theological identity I mean the evangelical ethos. The evangelical movement, as a cohesive coalition, is dead. It has dissolved into competing parties, each with its own expression of the evangelical ethos. To be sure, there still exists “evangelicalism” as an affinity group, but it is too large and too diverse to call a movement. The affinity is its ethos, but the affinity is too weak and admits too much opposition and competition to forge and cement a coherent and cohesive movement. According to evangelical historian George Marsden the post-fundamentalist, neo-evangelical movement that came together in the 1940s died out in 1976. I think its last gasps were in the 1990s as the evangelical coalition divided over politics, biblical inerrancy, the roles of women in church and family, God’s attributes, Calvinism versus Arminianism and postmodernity. As a historian of evangelicalism I was not surprised by the movement’s fragmentation and demise; it was a combustible compound from the beginning. And from the beginning held within it the seeds of its own destruction and I mean especially its tendency to identify with Americanism and its obsession with opposing liberalism in every form.
From the beginning, the American evangelical movement, symbolized by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Billy Graham ministries, Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based evangelical publishing houses, and the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, consisted of two quite different visions of the “essence of Christianity” slapped together, held together by two common enemies—extreme fundamentalism and the liberalism of the mainline Protestant denominations. I grew up in the bosom of that movement and was educated in it. Later, as I studied the movement historically, I realized that it was from the beginning composed of people and organizations with two very different, competing visions or pardigms of Christianity’s essence. Historian Donald Dayton refers to them as the “Presbyterian” and “Pentecostal” paradigms; while agreeing with Dayton’s analysis I prefer to refer to the two paradigms as “Puritan-Reformed” and “Pietist-Pentecostal.” These two paradigms of evangelical Christianity were bound to clash and clash they did—largely over how big and broad the “evangelical tent” should be and whether the constructive task of theology is completed or whether there is “more light” to break forth from God’s Word. The Puritan-Reformed crowd tend to view the “stout and persistent theology” of Charles Hodge, the conservative Calvinist Princeton theologian of the nineteenth century, as the summit and completion of evangelical theology only to be translated into modern idiom. The Pietist-Pentecostal crowd tend to view spirituality as the essence of authentic Christianity and reject any idea of a final, closed system of doctrine that forms the inner core, the center, even the boundaries of evangelicalism.
Over the past twenty-five years or so I have watched with somewhat of a heavy heart as the evangelical movement of my childhood, youth and education has dissipated if not evaporated in a cloud of controversies over biblical inerrancy, predestination, women in ministry, God’s foreknowledge, and the value, if any, of postmodernity for Christianity’s theological renewal. I have also watched with sadness as the Puritan-Reformed paradigm has grown in strength at the centers of evangelical theology while the Pietist-Pentecostal paradigm has been neglected and marginalized if not excluded from those centers.
So, my thesis is that the late, great evangelical movement is dead and gone, but that the evangelical ethos that once energized it, unified it, and served as its living center is alive and well. When I identify myself as “evangelical,” then, I mean ethos-wise.
So what is the evangelical “ethos?” This is how I view David Bebbington’s and Mark Noll’s four hallmarks of evangelicalism. First, according to the two historians, evangelicals share “biblicism,” a general regard for Scripture as the uniquely inspired, written Word of God. I argue, however, that what’s unique about evangelical biblicism, as distinct from, say, confessional, Protestant orthodox biblicism, is love for the Bible. Evangelicals love the Bible as the story of God with us. Beyond the debates about its inerrancy or infallibility that divide evangelicals stands the experience of, in the words of theologian Hans Frei, the Bible absorbing the world. Ethos evangelicals are Christians who see the world through biblical lenses. So, evangelical biblicism is a distinctive kind of biblicism. It’s not just sola scriptura in a formal sense. It’s a very close, personal relationship with the Bible as God’s message to us, our means of knowing God in a personal, intimate way. The evangelical ethos encourages Bible reading for devotion as well as study; it motivates Bible memorization and a strong desire for everyone to have the Bible in their own language. In a word, ethos evangelicals view the Bible’s main purpose as transformation, not information.
Second, Bebbington and Noll identify conversionism as central to evangelicalism. The evangelical ethos is distinctive in the way it views salvation. In contrast to sacramental spirituality evangelicalism, as a spiritual ethos, believes that a right, reconciled, transforming relationship with God begins with a personal decision of repentance and faith. Evangelicals disagree about the nature of that decision, but all agree that authentic Christianity always includes it. A process may precede it, whether that be irresistible grace regenerating and bending the person’s will or prevenient grace enabling acceptance of God’s saving grace. But that a person must repent and trust in Jesus Christ for authentic Christian life is part and parcel of evangelicalism as an ethos. The point is often expressed in a folksy way as “God has no grandchildren.”
Third, Bebbington and Noll point to crucicentrism—cross-centered proclamation and devotion—as an essential hallmark of authentic evangelicalism. Evangelicals cling to the cross of Jesus Christ in faith. We sing about it. We preach it. We celebrate it. We re-enact it. Evangelicals disagree about theories of the atonement, although by far the majority of self-identified evangelicals have historically affirmed objective atonement—Christ’s death as having an effect on God and not just on people; changing the fundamental nature of the God-human relationship making reconciliation and redemption possible. The evangelical ethos is cross-centered.
Fourth, Bebbington and Noll regard activism in missions, evangelism and social transformation as essential to the evangelical ethos. Evangelicals have always been and are Christians who feel called to spread the gospel and help the poor and suffering. The evangelical ethos is marked by concern for the kingdom of God and its growth or approximation through divine-human cooperative effort in the world.
These are Bebbington’s and Noll’s four hallmarks, distinguishing features, of what I am calling the authentic evangelical ethos. In other words, “evangelical” is not merely “Protestant;” it is Protestantism energized with transforming personal experience of God. It is Protestantism on fire.
To these four hallmarks I add a fifth—respect for the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy especially as interpreted by the Reformation broadly defined (for example, to include the Anabaptists). Evangelicals always have been orthodox Protestant Christians in the sense of having a high Christology, embracing a trinitarian view of God, and believing in original sin and salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. Evangelicals agree, however, that “saving faith” can never be merely notional; it always bears the fruit of Christ-centered discipleship, obedience and good works made possible by the indwelling, transforming Holy Spirit.
This ethos, marked by these five common features, “family resemblances,” is alive and well. Unfortunately, those who share it tend to emphasize and underscore their differences about details such as the exact nature of biblical accuracy, whether it should be regarded as strict inerrancy or infallibility in matters of faith and practice. Other differences that divide those of us who share this ethos were mentioned earlier. There is no need to dwell on them here. Suffice it to say that it now seems unlikely, perhaps impossible, that these differences will allow reunion of evangelicals into a cohesive movement. These five hallmarks of the evangelical ethos constitute my particular brand of evangelicalism; whole heartedly embracing them I still consider myself “evangelical” in spite of everything—including the demise of the evangelical movement and the mistaken popular association of “evangelical” with conservative politics and reactionary social activism.
It seems to me that one great rift among evangelicals that has opened up in the last twenty-five to thirty years and underlies much else about which evangelical disagree has to do with the authority of tradition. Reacting to perceived doctrinal drift among evangelicals some evangelical leaders have turned to tradition to shore up and reinforce evangelicalism’s identity. These evangelicals perceive an identity crisis within evangelicalism. They’re right, but in my opinion they are part of the problem. They tend to regard right doctrine as the sine qua non of evangelical identity; for them, as for Carl Henry, the “dean” of evangelical theologians, at least in his later years, evangelicalism is primarily a mental category—defined by firm cognitive boundaries. As they perceive these boundaries loosening, these theologians and leaders influenced by them have appealed to one of the two distinct visions of evangelical tradition and, as a result, I believe, hardened evangelical categories into a kind of rigid traditionalism that repels all creativity and ongoing reform.
One of these visions of evangelical tradition is sometimes called “paleo-orthodoxy.” Its champions have been and are Thomas Oden, Christopher Hall, and Daniel Williams (although they do not all use the label “paleo-orthodox.” The gist of it is that Christians, including, of course evangelicals, are not free to interpret Scripture apart from and especially not against the ancient, ecumenical tradition of the church fathers. Oden has expressed this in many writings but most succinctly in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (2003). Oden, Hall, and Williams all affirm sola scriptura as prima scriptura—Scripture above tradition. But they also argue that Scripture should never be separated from tradition or interpreted against it. By “tradition” they mean the catholic and orthodox tradition of the first seven to eight centuries of the undivided church.
The second traditionalism of conservative evangelicals is what some, including Millard Erickson, call the “received evangelical tradition.” Wayne Grudem offers a list of its exponents in his Systematic Theology. They include Hodge and Benjamin Warfield and especially theologians who follow in their train—those who are faithful to the Old Princeton School of theology—almost all conservative Calvinists. This is a modern evangelical tradition perceived to be faithful to the reformers. The evangelicals of the Gospel Coalition are among those who seem to hold to the authority of this tradition as the hermeneutical litmus test for proper interpretation of Scripture and therefore authentic evangelicalism.
So what’s the practical point of identifying these two evangelical traditionalisms? Just this: according to these conservative evangelicals authentic evangelical theology’s only tasks are critical and contextual. That is, theology’s task is to defend tradition and translate it into contemporary idioms. The constructive task of theology, then, is closed, finished. Doctrines are not to be revised.
Rarely do moderate, mediating evangelicals put it quite so starkly, but their reactions to evangelical attempts to revise traditional doctrines such as God’s omniscience and justification by faith reveal their sympathies with evangelical traditionalists. Let’s look at these two case studies.
The first case study is open theism. Open theism is the belief among evangelicals that the future is partly open, underdetermined, and that even God does not know with absolute certainty events not yet settled by anyone or anything. Conservative evangelical traditionalists such as Oden and Al Mohler have condemned open theism as heresy. Moderate, mediating theologians like Timothy George have labeled it a “deep deviation”—presumably from evangelical tradition. (He said that to me in a non-private conversation.) I conclude that, at least in some cases, these conservative and moderate evangelicals made up their minds against open theism before even studying it because it is non-traditional. Some of them have publicly stated that the weight of tradition is so against it that it isn’t even worthy of serious consideration—no matter how seemingly compelling the biblical and philosophical reasons for it may be.
The second case study is N. T. Wright’s revisions of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. This is spelled out in several articles and books but nowhere better than in Wright’s 2009 book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. There the British evangelical scholar concludes that justification is not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on account of individual faith but the accounting of one as righteous, forgiven, based on inclusion in the people of God and “the faith of Jesus Christ.” But most importantly, it isn’t about individualized salvation at all; it is about the creation of God’s new family and the extending of God’s purposes into the wider world. (p. 248) As everyone knows who has been paying any attention to happenings in evangelical theology, Wright’s revisions have resulted in hysterical screaming from conservatives—especially those associated with the Gospel Coalition. Much of that is in defense of tradition. “This is what we have always believed; don’t mess with it!”
Wright defends his revisionist project by saying “God has always more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word. …. [i]f the light comes, and can be shown to come, from the Word, from Scripture itself, there is no tradition so strong, venerable or previously fruitful that it should not be prepared to learn from it.” (p. 249)
Open theism and Wright’s revision of the doctrine of justification are two examples of what I call “postconservative evangelicalism”—belief that the constructive task of theology is still open and ongoing and that no doctrine of tradition is so sacrosanct that it cannot be reconsidered and amended in light of fresh and faithful interpretation of Scripture.
Critics of postconservative evangelicalism have often portrayed it as “worshiping the goddess of novelty” or following the lure of unfettered innovation. They see it as opening a Pandora’s box of confusion and accommodation to culture; they see it as the beginning, if not the middle, of a slippery slope leading down to out-and-out theological liberalism—the wreck of so-called “mainline Protestantism.” For them, the best protection against that downhill slide is the absolute closure of theological openness, saying a definite “Nein!” (No!) to theological creativity among evangelicals.
The problem with is reaction is, of course, an ironic contradiction with one of the hallmarks of the evangelical ethos—biblicism as defined by Noll and Bebbington. In order to defend and protect the “received evangelical tradition” and fend off perceived liberal accommodation, conservative evangelicals are willing, sometimes even openly, to accommodate Reformation biblicism—sola scriptura—Scripture above tradition—to a kind of catholicizing tendency where tradition is equally authoritative with the Bible. Rarely do conservative evangelicals admit this, but this tendency appears in their frequent appeals to tradition against even fresh and faithful biblical interpretation.
One of my evangelical mentors of an earlier generation was Bernard Ramm; a hero of postconservative evangelicals such as myself. Ramm was fond of saying to evangelicals “Let’s remember that it is just as possible to sin to the right as to the left.” In other words, suspicion, criticism and knee-jerk rejection of all innovation and creativity in biblical scholarship and theology can be just as damaging as uncritical love of novelty and innovation.
Somehow, if the evangelical spirit, the evangelical ethos, is going to survive and be “salt and light” in our world, we evangelicals have to overcome our petty squabbles, discover and build a new evangelical ecumenism, “big tent” evangelicalism, value our particularities without beating each other up over them, put secondary doctrinal, moral and ethical issues on the back burner where they belong, rediscover our spiritual heritage of Jesus-centered piety closely related to generous Christian orthodoxy, and recover from paranoia toward science and culture and shed every hint of judgmental triumphalism.
Can the late, great evangelical movement of the 1950s through the 1970s or 1990s be revived? Or is it gone forever? I doubt that it can be revived and I suspect it is a thing of the past. In my opinion, it would take another Billy Graham to revive it. To a very large extent it was centered around him and his many ministries. We will have to learn to live with a shattered, fragmented evangelicalism and focus our attention and energy on keeping alive the evangelical spirit, ethos, among us. It will take many different expressions and we’ll need to learn to live with them. Only when we think there is such a thing as “the evangelical movement” does diversity among evangelicals cause consternation and confusion among us. Once we’ve disabused ourselves of that notion, perhaps we can get on with the business of being evangelicals in our own, distinct ways and accept others as equally evangelical without trying to make them conform to some stereotype of our own imagination and invention.