Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Using History to Understand Evangelicals

Pocket History of Evangelical Theology by Roger E. Olson, InterVarsity Press 2007

A Review

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.

11 comments:

Aric Clark said...

Thanks for the recommendation Viola, sounds like a useful cliff notes.

Though I'm pretty sure this is not true: "such scholars as Charles Hodges and J. Gresham Machen were in the Reformed tradition and considered themselves both fundamentalists and Evangelical."

Hodges was pre-fundamentalism which wasn't coined as a term until around 1910, though he probably did consider himself an evangelical. Machen never embraced the term fundamentalism and criticized it on several occasions because most fundamentalists were also dispensationalist which he despised. Fundamentalism is basically incompatible with the Reformed tradition for reasons I lay out here.

Evangelicalism as a term has so many meanings, as this book points out, that it is compatible with almost anything. As for me I think that if you need to add an additional label (of any kind) to your Christian identity you're probably beginning to stray from what's important.

Viola said...

Welcome Aric,
I guess you will have to get the book and read it, but here are a few quotes.

"Conservative Protestants who wished to affirm what they considered the 'fundamentals of the faith'--such as a supernatural worldview (including the miracles of the Bible), the transcendence of God, the reality of the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the inspiration and authority of the Bible--called themselves both fundamentalists and evangelicals.. Many of their leading thinkers, speakers and writers stood in the Reformed Protestant tradition and looked back to the great protestant orthodox thinkers such as Francis Turretin, Archibald Alexander, and Charles Hodge for guidance. The paradigm of such a fundamentalist evangelical was Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen, who taught at Princeton Seminary and then helped found Westminster ...."

Okay, after rereading that and putting the quote in I realize I have put Hodge in the wrong era. So you are right on that. I may have to go back and rewrite that section. Thanks. But I do have to tell you this is more than cliff notes because although compact it is small print and dense.

However, I don't think you can call most very early fundamentalists dispensationalist, although certainly later ones would be.
Olson Also writes:
"An older and more historically correct meaning of fundamentalism is the conservative Protestant reaction to the rise of liberal Protestantism in the later decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century. All such fundamentalists also called themselves evangelicals and regarded themselves as guardians and defenders of evangelical truth in an increasingly secularized and liberal theological world. In this Sense. B.B. Warfield and his student J. Gresham Machen were fundamentalists. So were many, if not nearly all, conservative evangelicals of the first few decades of the twentieth century."

I have not read what you have linked to yet but I will.

Viola said...

Aric, I read what you linked to on your blog. Although I have to say I in no way intend to defend fundamentalism as it evolved into a subculture, I totally disagree with the very first part of your post.

You write:

"At its heart the Reformation is a movement which declares scriptural interpretation, doctrine and the church itself open to critique." (Bold Mine)

The Reformation is a turning back or going forward which ever way you want to put it to biblical and classical Christian faith. Calvin is constantly quoting the Church Fathers in particular Augustine. I believe the Reformation declared Scripture open for reading, nurturing guiding, interpretation yes, (But on a classical and faithful level). The Reformation was a matter of clearing away all of the debris of the centuries. I don’t believe that reformation is ever about progressing on to new truths or ways of seeing things. It is always a return to scripture.

Aric Clark said...

Thanks for your responses, Viola.

"In this Sense. B.B. Warfield and his student J. Gresham Machen were fundamentalists. So were many, if not nearly all, conservative evangelicals of the first few decades of the twentieth century."

I suppose I can't disagree that if you take the term fundamentalism very generally and not at all referring to the specific movement that claimed the name then many people including Machen could be regarded as fundamentalists, but the point still remains that Machen himself did not embrace the term because he saw it as connected with Dispensationalism. At least according to James H. Smylie in A Brief History of the Presbyterians.

As for your response to my post, I'd prefer to hold that conversation over on my blog so that my readers may benefit from your perspective. I will copy and paste your remarks there.

Cheers!

Viola said...

I have put Aric's response here so I and anyone else who wants to may respond to him here. I will also put my response on his blog.

Aric Clark said...
Viola,

The Reformation certainly did/does claim the heritage of a Biblical and Classical faith as all movements within the church worth their while do. Modern Reformers like the feminist Elizabeth Johnson equally claim this heritage and quote heavily from Augustine/Aquinas/Luther/Calvin to justify it. Absolutely. This is what I mean in point 2 when I say if we must be "reformed catholics".

However, I must disagree that the Reformation doesn't progress on to new truths or that it is as simple as a 'return to scripture'. There is no 'return to scripture'. The Roman Catholic church used scripture, venerated scripture, read scripture, worshiped with scripture etc.. etc.. as much as the reformers. It wasn't that Luther discovered the Bible, but that he read it and realized he had a different interpretation than he'd been taught by his masters. Calvin wasn't innovative in using the Bible for his theological arguments, his Roman adversaries did so as well. Calvin was innovative in the way he read the Bible. The argument isn't whether scripture is good and authoritative it is over how we interpret scripture and basically - if our interpretations can be changed once as they were for Calvin and Luther by the rise of Humanism and other new scholastic approaches, then they can be changed again by new scholastic approaches like Higher Criticism. The point that we must be faithful to our interpretations of scripture remains true, but those interpretations can and DO change.

There is no "clearing away the debris of centuries". The Reformed Church isn't closer in practice and belief to the early church - pacifism and attitudes toward secular authority for example are major differences.

Cheers.

1/16/2008 10:11 AM

Viola said...

Aric,
I am not sure where to even begin. First your original posting actually has so many things I don’t agree with that I just picked one last night to deal with. A different one is, “To be consistent with the heritage of the Reformation we cannot set anything up as unimpeachable or absolute, which is what Fundamentalism attempts to do.” Well first let me slide that over into the Evangelical camp because I am not a fundamentalist and I do equate the Evangelical view with the Reformation. And I do equate absolutes with both the Reformation and part of what it means to be Evangelical as well as reformed and orthodox.

Martin Luther in his “Exhortation to the Clergy at Augsburg” declares that “What is altered according to God’s Word is no innovation, for all customs must give way to the Word of God; so your own law says. God and His Word are older than you are; they will be younger and newer than you and we, for they are eternal. Therefore the Word must alter and rule both old and new [innovations], and not be altered or ruled either by new or old.” Luther writes this in the midst of a discourse against such things as indulgences and relics. And this is what I meant about clearing away the debris of centuries.

How can you even come to the Reformation with out understanding that the reformers insistence on Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia was itself an absolute? And as far as holding boundaries of course they held boundaries against both the encroachments of the Roman Catholics and the antinomians.

In your answer to me you write that “I must disagree that the Reformation doesn’t progress on to new truths or that it is as simple as a ‘return to scripture.’

Many of the clergy at the time were uneducated and unable to read and performed their duties much like magical rites. The people did not have access to scripture either, so the reformation was a return to the Word of God. In fact, as a teenager, over fifty years ago!! I lived with and worked for a very devout Catholic family who were amazed that I read the Bible daily and thought that as a Baptist I must worship John the Baptist. Things have certainly changed now but it gives just a hint of what it must have been like for some people in the middle ages. (I am not saying here that scripture wasn’t used or read during the medieval period—but hardly in any meaningful way among the lower classes including the clergy.)

I must say you haven’t listed any new truth that the Reformers came up with from their new interpretations.

I find nothing in the main body of their writings on the Bible and theology that can’t be found in Holy Scripture.

Viola said...

Also there is nothing you can write or say that would ever persuade me that Elizabeth Johnson has any connection to reformed theology. To progressive theology yes. I did not mean that anyone who quotes the Church fathers or the Reformers was reformed.

Aric Clark said...

Viola,

Thanks for continuing the discussion.

"I am not a fundamentalist and I do equate the Evangelical view with the Reformation."

I think you must mean something other than 'equate' here, because the term Evangelical encompasses many Anabaptists, some Pentecostals, Non-Denominational folks, Arminians, even conservative Catholics - none of which are Reformed. Some things about the Evangelical view are more or less compatible with Reformed theology but they ought not simply be considered equal. And I am specifically addressing fundamentalism in this post, which I rather specifically define. Obviously my comments would be different if addressed broadly to 'evangelicalism'.

"Martin Luther in his “Exhortation to the Clergy at Augsburg” declares that “What is altered according to God’s Word is no innovation, for all customs must give way to the Word of God; so your own law says. God and His Word are older than you are; they will be younger and newer than you and we, for they are eternal. Therefore the Word must alter and rule both old and new [innovations], and not be altered or ruled either by new or old.” Luther writes this in the midst of a discourse against such things as indulgences and relics. And this is what I meant about clearing away the debris of centuries."

Surely I agree with this. And being "Fundamentalist" (or "Evangelical" or even "Reformed" for that matter) is purely a human custom, culture bound and temporally specific. Furthermore the Word of God is living, it is Christ himself, and so we ought to expect our understanding of it and our interpretations of it to grow and change. Precisely because it is the Living Word we are engaged with and not a dead letter we cannot set anything up as absolute. God can and does do new things. We must expect it. Today's orthodoxy is tomorrow's idolatry.

"How can you even come to the Reformation with out understanding that the reformers insistence on Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia was itself an absolute? They wuld not have allowed anyone to change that. And as far as holding boundaries of course they held boundaries against both the encroachments of the Roman Catholics and the antinomians."

I certainly don't come to this discussion ignorant of the reformers insistence on the 'solas' as you suggest. But once again we are not contesting here whether Scripture is useful, or faith is necessary, or grace is what saves - we are asking what does all that mean? And in this question there is disagreement, differences of interpretation. It is the interpretation which matters and which must not be made absolute, because that is idolatrous.

"Many of the clergy at the time were uneducated and unable to read and performed their duties much like magical rites. The people did not have access to scripture either, so the reformation was a return to the Word of God. In fact, as a teenager, over fifty years ago!! I lived with and worked for a very devout Catholic family who were amazed that I read the Bible daily and thought that as a Baptist I must worship John the Baptist. Things have certainly changed now but it gives just a hint of what it must have been like for some people in the middle ages. (I am not saying here that scripture wasn’t used or read during the medieval period—but hardly in any meaningful way among the lower classes including the clergy.)"

Widespread ignorance isn't the same thing as formal disagreement between those of education. There are plenty of ignorant protestants too. Technology and the printing press had more to do with the education of the populace than the Reformation (though I don't deny that the emphasis on Bible reading among the reformers was important). Frankly many present day Presbyterians are woefully ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The point is that knowledge of scripture among the lay people isn't necessarily an indication of a theology that is more or less Biblical. Many Dispensationalists I know are extremely Biblically literate and I find their theology to be shockingly bad.

As for New Truths of the Reformers - Jodie's done well to bring up Luther's approach to the canon though he didn't mention Luther's hatred of James. What about worship styles? The style of Worship Calvin instituted in Geneva was a radical departure from anything that existed in 1500 years of Christian history. Calvin's penal approach to atonement in likewise a new theological concept. Denying the episcopal office - New. Priesthood of all believers? New.

Did they have interpretations of scripture to support these innovations? Of course. As their opponents had scriptural interpretations to support their more traditional and orthodox beliefs. It comes down to judging between different interpretations which is itself an evaluative act involving coming to our own interpretation.

Read some Elizabeth Johnson she is really an extraordinarily good interpreter of scripture, a solid academic in dialogue with all the great theologians, and rightfully calling the Church to its true vocation in the manner of all true reformers.

Viola said...

So Aric,
Let me clarify what I perceive as our main differences here. You, I think, believe that the Reformation was progressive leading to new truths based on different ways of interpreting the Scripture. And you also see it as an ongoing reformation with continuing truths forth coming. (Correct me if I do not understand you please.)

I on the other hand see the Reformation, along side other constant renewals in the church, such as the Cluniac reform and the pre-Reformation Hus era, as times of returning to the basic and essential beliefs of Christianity as they are given in Scripture. Now let me clarify even further I don’t think we will ever return perfectly to N.T. times nor will we always agree on all the essentials, although there are some very basic beliefs that belong to Christianity including the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ the denial of which moves a person or church outside of Christianity.

Such renewals as the Cluniac renewal are more about returning to the purity of the Church. Such a renewal also happened under Saint Teresa of Avila. On the other hand there are renewals or reformations that have to do with a return to the essentials of the faith. These sometimes lead to the writing of confessions. The Confession calls the Church back to the truths of Scripture. And it usually has to do with whatever truth was under attack. Before the Reformation “justification by faith” was almost totally obliterated from Christendom. But it was Luther’s reading of Scripture and I have to believe the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit that led him back to that truth.

As far as interpretation goes I believe we have quite a few differences also. I get the impression that you believe that interpretation always leads to new truth. I on the other hand see interpretation opening up new ways of clarifying the basic truths of Christianity. For instance Marianne Meye Thompson, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary has a book, The Promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament, where she returns to the Old Testament to show that God is also known as Father there thus opening a larger space for understanding God as Father. Also Richard Bauckham in the same vein has a book, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament that future fortifies the understanding of Jesus as God.

These are interpretations but they do not change the basic beliefs of Christians. Elizabeth Johnson on the other hand does change Christianity away from its basic biblical and confessional standards. Since I have read She Who Is I will quote one of her more heretical viewpoints:

The fundamental nature of Christian identity as life in Christ makes clear that the biblical symbol Christ, the one anointed in the Spirit, cannot be restricted to the historical person Jesus nor to certain select members of the community but signifies all those who by drinking of the Spirit participate in the community of disciples. Christ is a pneumatological reality, a creation of the Spirit who is not limited …” (162)

Johnson has also returned to something. It is called gnosticism.

Aric Clark said...

Viola,

I think you've correctly identified some key differences in our perspectives. I would say that both ways of viewing the Reformation have their merits, and I certainly would hold the Reformation alongside other reform movements in history which claim to be reaching back to a 'better' time. However, studying history usually shows us that the time they're reaching for never existed and the ideals they propose are at least as novel (read new) as they are based on something historical. It's like the Rennaissance - it was the 'rebirth' of classical culture, but that classical culture really looked nothing like Ancient Greece or Rome. The Rennaissance DID draw on the past as everything does, but it was still it's own beast. The Reformation is the same. Clearly it was indebted to the past, but it was really a new event with new ideas. The Reformed Church it points toward is in the future, not the past because no such thing as a "reformed" church ever existed in the past.

"Returning to the purity of the church" as you put it is either fantasy or a future oriented movement, because the Church as it existed in the past was never pure. Not from day one. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (or the book of Acts) ought to persuade us of that. The only hope for a better church is ahead of us.

I think your comments about how interpretation works "opening up new ways of clarifying old truths" is very apt. Although I've emphasized the 'new' here I fully recognize that nothing is completely new. We are always rehashing what we've heard and seen to some degree in semi-novel combinations.

"Johnson has also returned to something. It is called gnosticism."

Very witty. You made me laugh out loud. I'm not really interested in defending Johnson here. Fair enough, you don't like her.

Viola, this tension between new and old is a core tension in every tradition and it's a constant Biblical theme as well. Surely you're not wrong to see things of value in the old that we ought to hold onto. The old is the source of our strength, it guides our footsteps and, it provides us the material from which the new is created, but God also does new things, He exalts the new creation and we are part of a reformation that is either participating in that new thing or it's dead. Christianity can never be nailed down to a list of essentials because that would deny that Christ is alive, and because he is alive he confronts us and challenges us, surprises us and confounds our expectations. The essence of faith is being willing to be surprised.

Viola said...

Aric,
Just a few things I want to clarify and then I am finished. You write
"’Returning to the purity of the church’ as you put it is either fantasy or a future oriented movement, because the Church as it existed in the past was never pure. Not from day one. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (or the book of Acts) ought to persuade us of that.”

I never meant to imply that there was ever a totally pure or perfect Church in the past. However, there are, in the Scriptures, absolutes that we reach back to. And Jesus Christ and what he has done in his death on the cross and resurrection is a part of what I consider absolutes. For instance, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is either true or it is not true. I believe God’s word lets us know it is true and if most of the church does not believe that then we need a reformation or renewal that returns us to that biblical truth.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to a relationship with God and if the Church is letting go of that she need renewal and Reformation for that to happen. I do not believe there will be a perfect church until Jesus returns and all of creation is made new.

But I do believe that in our union of Jesus Christ God looks upon the church in her perfection because he sees the righteousness’ of Jesus Christ. That is the purity of the Church the righteousness’ of Christ.