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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: "Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism"

TITLE: Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
EDITORS: Collin Hansen & Andrew David Naselli
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (224 pages).

Many people call themselves 'evangelicals' by name, but disagree among themselves more often than not. Whether in the academy, in both denominational, independent or non-denominational churches in  evangelicalism, scholars, pastors, teachers and laypersons, it is hard to find a united front when it comes to what evangelicals actually believe. Part of the problem is basically the lack of understanding of another fellow brother or sister's version of belief. Another problem also stems from one's lack of understanding of what one believes. Throughout this book, there is a sense of openness with pockets of strongly worded beliefs. The very nature of the discussion encourages the frank sharing, hence the no-holds-barred tone of the book conditioned by moments of charitable words for one another. Collin Hansen describes the problem as follows:

"Evangelicals recognize that Scripture trumps every human authority, yet they do not agree on the extent and nature of biblical authority. They do not regard every theological issue as equally clear-cut or crucial, yet they do not agree on which doctrines should be of first importance." (16)
The editors invite all the four scholars to both commend their respective movements at their best and to critique them honestly at their worst. At the same time, three important questions are broached.
  1. How do they view 'Christian cooperation?'
  2. What do they think about open theism?
  3. What is their understanding of 'penal substitutional atonement?' (or what they mean about Christ taking on God's wrath against sinners) 
The first person, Kevin T. Bauder represents the 'Fundamentalism' perspective whose 'primary motive is the unity and fellowship of the church' (21).

The second contributor, Albert Mohler represents the 'Confessional Evangelicalism' position which is basically defined based on 'historical, phenomelogical, and normative' contexts (70). All these three contexts are to be held together in order to maintain such an identity of a confessional evangelical. He tries to be as inclusive as possible by pointing to a larger task of evangelical being 'centered' on the love of Christ and 'bounded' by set of beliefs that reflect that love.

The third participant is Regent-College's John Stackhouse Jr, who stands for the oddly named 'Generic Evangelicalism' position which comprises two definitions. The first is a hybrid of two scholars: David Bebbington's popular 4 criteria of evangelicalism and George Marsden's transdenominationalism of uniting for a common concern. The second refers to evangelicalism as a 'movement' that contains a 'cluster of convictions.' (123)

The result is a six-criteria summarized by 'crucicentric,' 'biblicist,' 'conversionist,' 'missional,' 'transdenominational,' followed by a trinity of ortho-terms: Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Orthopathy.

The fourth is Roger Olsen who represents the Postconservative Evangelicalism perspective.  He blows away any need to classify boundaries of evangelicalism, choosing instead to say that unlike an organization, evangelicalism is a movement that has 'no definable boundaries and cannot have them' (163).

My Thoughts

I can sense the struggle each contributor has about asserting what they believe, and at the same time, not condemning alternative points of view. This is also evident through their own awareness about differences of opinion from within their domestic movement. Hence, there are frequent qualifiers in each of their statements. They are scholars after all, and while they are able to quote other works, it is also important that they do not misquote another person. The latter is made a lot easier in honing, correcting, or clarifying the views through the immediate interactions of the other contributors with each of the four positions. I admit that the discussion will appeal more to the theological community rather than the general layperson. It is most likely suitable for any seminary courses on evangelicalism, and to a limited extent, Christian Education courses in churches. I like the graciousness and the thoughtful perspectives of the writers including the editors.

Here is my verdict. The intent of this book is to 'help correct' any misperceptions and to encourage a 'better understanding' of the different views of evangelicalism. Somehow, I feel that this book does a better job at 'correcting' rather than 'understanding' one another. More specifically, and understandably, the four main contributors do a better job at 'correcting' while the two editors do an excellent job at 'understanding.'

Four Views of Evangelicalism is more an initiative to encourage conversation rather than blatant conversion of each other. This in itself is a mark of scholarship. One does not need to agree with any one perspective in order to talk. Good talk begins with charitable hearts, something that Stackhouse shines in this book. I like the clarity of Mohler and Bauder, and the openness of Roger Olsen. One can let the different opinions open up new ground for understanding, and perhaps deeper cooperation between the different groups. In the end, the four contributors seem more passionate about defending their distinctive positions than to answer the three questions laid out. It takes the Andrew David Naselli's summary to bring together all the viewpoints in his closing summary. Given the mood of the discussion, I will not be surprised if some (even all) of the four scholars take issue with Naselli's observations. So, which view am I more inclined toward? At the risk of appearing biased, after considering the four views, I find that I have more points of agreement with my seminary professor.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation of a positive review. Opinions offered above are mine.

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