Pocket History of Evangelical Theology by Roger E. Olson, InterVarsity Press 2007
A last minute shopping grab turned out very well. The book, Pocket History of Evangelical Theology by Roger E. Olson is a useful book in the midst of on going discussions. The author attempts to answer such questions as, “what does Evangelical mean,” “who is an Evangelical,” “is Evangelical Fundamentalism or something else.” The book is taken from an earlier book, by Olson, The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology. It is a small book, 151 pages, but densely packed. What makes this so helpful is the author’s use of history as a means of defining.
Olson names seven kinds or types of Evangelicals, and most of the categories are historically defined and therefore defined by the movements of which they were a part. The last category the author names, he thankfully, does not use. It is the popular understanding often used by the media. That is, “those that seem particularly (by the journalist’s standards) enthusiastic, aggressive, fanatical, or even simply missionary minded.”(13) As Olson points out this sometimes includes such groups as Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims.
1. The first category does not belong so much to history but to orthodoxy. That is Evangelical can be seen as “simply synonymous with authentic Christianity as it is founded on and remains faithful to the ‘evangel’—the good news of Jesus Christ.”(8) The other categories can be listed thus:
2. The second definition is from the Protestant Reformation: centered in an understanding of “salvation by grace alone.”
3. The third definition is from the history of the Church of England: That is the “low Church;” those who opposed the Roman type of liturgical service and put more stress on salvation by faith.
4. The fourth definition is from the “Pietist and revivalist attempts to reform and revive Protestant Christianity in Germany, Great Britain, and North America in the early eighteenth century.(10). Many will recognize the name Moravian in Germany and the names John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in England and American. One can already see that this history involves both Arminians and Calvinists.
5. The fifth definition comes from the rift between those who espoused biblical fundamentals and those who pushed for liberal theology. Olson shows how such scholars as B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen were in the Reformed tradition and considered themselves both fundamentalists and Evangelical. The author also shows how this movement later became a separatist “subculture,” disconnected from its early scholarship and ability to interact with the surrounding culture.
6. The final useful category is Post-Fundamentalist or Neo-Evangelical. This is the Evangelical community waking up to its surrounding culture and beginning to deal with it via, schools, institutions, journals and scholars. Billy Graham plays an important part in this movement.
About half of Olson’s book covers the history of these movements. Presbyterians will be interested in such chapters as “The Puritan Roots of Evangelical Theology,” and “Old Princeton Theology and Evangelical Theology.” But the Chapter on “Holiness-Pentecostalism and Evangelical Theology” is very interesting, and the chapter on “Fundamentalism and Evangelical Theology is a must read for everyone.
In his last chapters Olson looks at theologians for the last Evangelical movement; the first and most important one being Carl F. H. Henry. He includes a chapter on E.J. Carnell, Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch. I had a few problems with his last two chapters “Postconservative Evangelical Theology,” and “Tensions in Evangelical Theology.”
That is because I felt, a prejudice I know, that Clark Pinnock received too much attention.
While open theology, which Pinnock espouses, is an important movement among Evangelicals, I believe it is a small movement. This could have been more balanced with a greater amount written on the rise of Calvinism among Southern Baptist and others.
Also the author tends to categorize those who are attempting to hold boundaries against an encroaching liberalism as moving back to a more separatist fundamentalist position. He refers to this as a conflict between “traditionalists” like Thomas Oden and “Reformists” like Clark Pinnock. I believe Oden is both a traditionalist and reformist. And Pinnock is moving closer to the Progressive side.
However, Olson does write, “During the 1990s and into the decade of the new millennium it [Evangelical theology] has begun to emerge as a widely accepted legitimate theological alternative to mainline protestant liberalism (e.g. process theology), liberationist theologies (e.g., radical feminism and Marxist-inspired Latin American Liberation theology), and neo-orthodoxy (e.g., postliberal, Yale-New Haven theology).” (150)
This is an important little book packed with important information for those debating the meaning of the term evangelical. The history the author provides is well done, reasoned and full of answers. I recommend the book.