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.
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.