Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review of Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism

ed. By Andrew David Naselli, Collin Hansen and Stanley Gundry
ISBN 978-0-310-29316-3
Published by Zondervan
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Many people use the term evangelical these days. Outside of the church, the word evangelical is used to refer to anyone who is a politically active conservative Christian. Inside the church it can be equally as confusing. For instance, the largest Lutheran church group in the United States is called the “Evangelical” Lutheran Church in America, and yet mainstream Lutheran doctrines of salvation and Biblical authority run counter to the contemporary understanding of what the “evangelical movement” defines as essential doctrine and faith experience for evangelical Christians.  Historically, churches who believed in the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith were considered “evangelical” churches. Today, as many folks attempt to work across denominational boundaries with like-minded persons with evangelical experience and theology, there is an attempt to come to an understanding of who fits into the fold of the interdenominational evangelical movement.

As the title suggests, the reader is confronted with four viewpoints. The perspectives they espouse are as follows: Fundamentalism (Kevin Bauder), Confessional evangelicalism (R. Albert Mohler Jr.), Generic evangelicalism (John G. Stackhouse Jr.), and Postconservative evangelicalism (Roger E. Olson). As is true with all of the counterpoint books, each author gets to write their own chapter, and then respond to their debate partners essays as well.

The choices the editors made in who would be the primary contributors to this text is interesting. Perhaps not everyone noticed, but three of the four contributors in this text are affiliated with Baptist institutions. Roger Olson is at a Baptist seminary in Texas affiliated with more moderate Baptist groups. Mohler is the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary (which has tension with the groups Olson is affiliated with). Bauder is affiliated with an independent Baptist institution in Minneapolis.  In many ways, the arguments over who is truly evangelical could also be arguments over who the “real” Baptists are. Furthermore, Mohler and Olson have been lightening rods for controversy in the past. Thus, in my opinion the dialogue is not as jovial and open as it sometimes is with other counterpoint books.

The most conservative understanding of evangelicalism comes from the person who also accepts the label fundamentalism—Kevin Bauder. Confessional evangelicalism tries to operate in a similar fashion as fundamentalism, with clear, prescriptive theological boundaries for those who call themselves evangelicals. Stackhouse offers some guidelines on what it means to be evangelical. Olson says that evangelicalism is a group of Christians with shared experiences and beliefs, but he cannot really define what those beliefs are completely.

It is hard to define someone as “evangelical” or not within the evangelical community, because to judge someone as not evangelical is, to many Christian believers, to say that the person you are speaking of is not a believer, and very possibly hell-bound. In my opinion, none of the contributors make convincing arguments that establish themselves as right and others as wrong as to what an evangelical is. Nevertheless, the dialogue between these four scholars will get many readers to think about what beliefs and practices are central to their faith, and what items of faith are perhaps simply preferences.

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