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Theses about evangelical Christianity

A post by the Arminian theologian Roger Olson this week outlining “9.5 Theses about Evangelical Christianity” serves to illustrate a number of the points that I made with my little diagram about theology and history. It’s a quick read. Here’s my take on it.

1. I don’t see the problem with classifying evangelicalism as a movement. Olson is anxious to say that it is trans-denominational, but to reduce it to a “spiritual-theological ethos” seems to misplace the activist and community-based character of evangelicalism.

2. The claim that evangelicalism adds to orthodox Christianity an emphasis on the Bible as the “inspired and authoritative” Word of God and on the cross as the ground for salvation underlines a point I made in a recent comment. An absolutist doctrine of scripture is used to enforce a flawed compression of the New Testament narrative. We can understand why evangelicals felt the need to protect the authority of scripture against the ravages of rationalism, but it has made it much harder to get to grips with a constructive historical paradigm.

3. “Evangelical Christianity… is best understood by studying its prototypes such as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham, Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm, John Stott, et al.” Sad but true.

There may have been good reasons for prioritising personal evangelism in the modern era, but it came at considerable theological and missional cost.

4. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: at the heart of the New Testament is not the salvation of the individual by faith in Jesus but the establishment of the rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the ancient world. There may have been good reasons for prioritising personal evangelism in the modern era, as a reaction to the decline of a socially validated Christianity in the West, but it came at considerable theological and missional cost. It’s an over-simplification, of course, but I think a future evangelicalism will have to organise its theology around the action of the creator God, who raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, rather than the redemptive death of Jesus.

5. The resolutely apolitical character of evangelicalism has been a big part of its success, but it has tended to obscure 1) the radically “political” dimension of the New Testament proclamation concerning the lordship of Jesus and the nations, and 2) and the central place of justice in the biblical witness. Evangelicalism, in practice, has confined its testimony to the sphere of a domesticated church-and-family spirituality.

6. Standard evangelical statements of faith give a very poor, fragmented, incoherent, decontextualised, ahistorical account of the thought of the New Testament.

7. I have no quarrel with the statement that “As with every religious type, evangelical Christianity has its scoundrels, imposters, posers, self-appointed spokespersons, etc.”

8. Only an American would need to say that evangelicalism is not uniquely American and cannot be identified with “any particular nation or nationality.” Nevertheless, it is clear—not least from #3 above—that evangelical Protestantism is the product of a specific set of historical circumstances. It is a reaction against the social and intellectual marginalisation of Christianity in the modern era. It has flourished globally to a large extent because of American economic and cultural dominance. These are not necessarily bad things, but they remind us of the historical contingency of the religiosity of Edwards, Wesley, et al. The world is changing.

9. Olson thinks that evangelicalism “at its truest and best, emphasizes love for all being (Jonathan Edwards) and especially for all people (John Wesley).” He’s a much better judge of these things than I am. But I’m a bit surprised by the specific ethical corollary: “Evangelicals of all denominations believe (by consensus) that sex outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sin but without hating sinners.” His defence of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” principle misses the point. Now, as much as in the first century, it’s a question of whether a person is qualified or not to be a member of the covenant people of God.

Comments

This is a somewhat unkind thought, but in recent years it has seemed to me that the Romans 1 “under the sun wrath dynamic” is visible at times in the churches as well as beyond them. The individualistic “what’s in it for me” vision of the meaning of the Gospel, in addition to being a serious misreading of the old stories, is likely to corrode public spiritedness (Edwards’ vision of ‘true virtue’) and community.

And the emphasis on post-mortem consequences, it seems to me, entails a an over-discounting of these under-the-sun wrath consequences and failure to prudently foresee them and seek refuge. The idealized “love for all being” posture may in future look more like intentional neglect.

The ship is listing to the right, as you note in your 2010 “is it worth fighting for” post. I expect it to capsize.

I realize this is not the case everywhere, but in the United States, there’s not a single non-evangelical who would consider evangelicals “resolutely apolitical.”

I think that’s part of what Olson is getting at. The evangelicalism of the seven wise men was resolutely apolitical, and that worked until when? the early eighties? But he laments the fact that in the US it has become increasingly a partisan, nationalist movement, and perhaps in a much smaller way a partisan progressive or even socialist movement. Would that be fair to say? Olson is old school.

It probably worked until the 70s when the Moral Majority spun up.

You’re right, those men he calls prototypes of evangelicalism could generally described as being apolitical, at least from a specifically “my theology dictates my political affiliation” standpoint (although Edwards’ theology about God’s covenant with America is perhaps an exception to that).

The vibe I didn’t get from the article, though, is that Olson is lamenting that evangelicalism is largely different from that on the political score, today. Although I’m not familiar with him, and if I were, maybe I would see that.

To me, I thought he was defining what he thinks evangelicalism is, and point 5 is more of an apologetic. As in, “People sometimes accuse evangelicalism of being theologically political, but we’re not.” I think most American evangelicals would say that their theology is apolitical, but the behavior tends to suggest otherwise.

Because of my lack of familiarity with Olson, I very well might be reading American evangelicalism back into him as opposed to the other way round.

I was picking it up, somewhat indirectly, from: “Evangelical Christianity exists in nearly every country in the world and is not uniquely American. It is simply ignorant to identify it with any particular nation or nationality.” That and the fact that he seems to have in mind an older type of evangelicalism.

Going back through the comments and some of Olson’s responses to them, I think you have it right. He does seem to think the whole Evangelical = Republican thing is an American thing and encourages people to think about evangelicalism in a much broader spectrum than that.

Man. And my cynicism normally has such a high accuracy rate, too.

Thankfully, we’re not all in the same evangellymould.