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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)
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
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
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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