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The SCM Press A–Z of Evangelical Theology

by
02 November 2006

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 SCM Press £22.99 (0-334-04011-6)

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Too tight a hold on scripture?: Peter Forster praises a review of the many faces of Evangelicalism

THIS substantial addition to the SCM A-Z series opens with a historical essay that traces the emer-gence of the modern phenomenon of Evangelicalism, and exhibits its multi-dimensional character.

Professor Olson structures his account around seven distinct, if somewhat overlapping, meanings of the term "Evangelical": gospel-centred; Reformed Protestant; Anglican Protestant; Pietist; Reformed-cum-fundamentalist; post-fundamentalist; and mission-minded.

The use of the common descriptive term "Evangelical" denotes a loose affiliation of mostly Protestant Christians of many orthodox (Trinitarian) denomina-tions and independent Churches and parochial organisations, with certain beliefs commonly held: the supreme authority of the Bible; the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour; the common fallenness of humanity; a distinctive doctrine of the atonement; the need for personal faith; holiness; a missionary outlook; and a belief in the return of Jesus at the end of history.

The opening essay is followed by shorter sections on key Evangelical organisations and individuals, and by reliable accounts of the main doctrinal subjects that are important for Evangelicals.

The focus is mainly upon the past 130 years in the United States, which gives the book a good analytical depth, but a limited scope. Over this time, different theological subjects have been more or less dominant; but this has evolved through debates about evolution, biblical inerrancy, predestination, Charismatic phenomena, millenarianism, atonement theory, and (more recently) sexual ethics.

As a result, the focus of Evangelical theology has often looked too narrow to outside observers, and — for all the energy that Evangelical theologians have demonstrated — their lasting theological achievements can seem limited.

The significant 20th-century figures in more conservative Protestant theology — such as Barth, Moltmann, Jüngel, and Pannenberg — are not regarded as Evangelicals, although some, such as Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch, have drawn a degree of inspiration from them.

Olsen could have enquired more deeply into the limited theological achievements of Evangelicalism. Is it a result of too narrow a focus on scriptural authority, to the neglect of the rich heritage of subsequent theological reflection? Or has a weak doctrine of the Church too easily detached theology from worship and broader spiritual themes? The ecclesiological weakness in Evangelicalism has also allowed it to accommodate a marked fissiparous tendency.

The modern Roman Catholic critique of the Reformation is relevant here. Broadly, it recognises that there was much truth in the theology of the Reformers, but the weak ecclesiological foundation has produced an ever-growing multitude of denominations and sects. The underlying disunity among Evangelicals leads too readily to a rather Promethean feel in the writings of individual theologians.

Yet modern Roman Catholicism has itself acquired something of an Evangelical spirit, well exemplified by Pope John Paul II. Perhaps Evangelicalism will mature as it learns to shed, or at least modify, its historic antipathy to Roman Catholicism

This is a stimulating and authoritative book, which has a particularly good account of the relation between fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, and the significance of Billy Graham for American Evangelicalism in the latter part of the 20th century. The limitations of its transatlantic purview are, paradoxically, its strength.

Dr Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester.

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