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This week, I am summarizing and commenting on the arguments presented in an important new book: Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Editors Andy Naselli and Collin Hansen have asked four Christian leaders for their views on the spectrum of evangelical identity.

First, we looked at Kevin Bauder’s view (Fundamentalist). Yesterday, we worked our way through Al Mohler’s essay (Confessional Evangelical). Today, we’re taking a look at John Stackhouse’s position (Generic Evangelical).

What Is an Evangelical? The Generic Evangelical View

Representing the generic evangelical view is John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College. Stackhouse begins with a broad definition that conceives of evangelicalism in terms of ethos:

…to be evangelical literally by definition means to be grateful for, and necessarily involved in, both the tradition of the church and its ongoing life as it mediates, again with the help of God’s Spirit, the good news of Jesus to us and to the rest of the world. (117)

He unpacks the definition of this evangelical ethos by focusing on how it expresses itself in belief and practice:

Religious groups of any sort can be defined helpfully according to three components: tenets, affections, and practices – that is, what they believe, what they care about, and what they do. Evangelicalism has always been an initiative of renewal and mission. (117)

Stackhouse devotes significant attention to the theme of renewal as he works through the history of the movement and then speaks to our present situation. A major impetus for evangelicalism is the desire to make up for whatever deficiencies are present in the church at any given time. He writes:

Evangelicalism has thus been literally radical: concerned to (re) connect with the roots of genuine Christianity, to cut away all that hinders its vitality and to develop anything that will help it flourish… As a renewal movement, that is, evangelicalism would naturally seek to remedy what was deficient by a corresponding emphasis. (118)

This emphasis on renewal leads Stackhouse to affirm Bebbington’s quadilateral: crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism. But Stackhouse goes beyond Bebbington by adding more qualifiers. He traces our evangelical identity to the historical movement (based on the eighteenth-century revivals), and he adds “transdenominational” and “orthodoxy and orthopraxy” as appropriate criteria (124).

Additional qualifiers aside, Stackhouse recognizes the difficulty of excluding people as “unorthodox” from the evangelical fold. He admits:

…since it is part of the very ethos of evangelicalism to recognize differences of opinion precisely about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about a host of issues, many of them quite consequential, then when it comes to the present discussion, it now appears that none of us can properly say, “Well, anyone who holds to X can’t be an evangelical, because the Bible clearly forbids X. And that’s that.” Yet there is something troublingly odd about having to recognize a heretic as an evangelical. (126)

Indeed. So Stackhouse turns toward cooperation as the fundamental unifier of evangelicalism. He explains:

…evangelicals don’t just happen to cooperate: evangelicalism is marked by cooperation, by transdenominational partnerships to further the mission of God and the church in the world. (128)

But this emphasis on cooperation doesn’t mean that, doctrinally speaking, anything goes. That’s why Stackhouse can affirm ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) for what it signifies (if not for its doctrinal statements): “a willingness among evangelicals to undertake serious theological work with anyone who can help them do so, even as those evangelicals also hope to provide some benefit to their interlocutors” (129). And he can also maintain the traditional evangelical view of the atonement as essential to evangelical theology (136).

Still, the ultimate question comes back to how cooperation takes place. And that’s where Stackhouse advocates a fluid, utilitarian approach to evangelical fellowship:

For many evangelicals, the question of who is and who isn’t an evangelical isn’t particularly important. What matters is who can help us in a particular instance with a particular task we are undertaking in the work of the kingdom. (138)

It is within this framework of transdenominational partnership that Stackhouse advises a balance between preserving the past and pressing into the future:

…we evangelical Christians, like all Christians everywhere, ought in each situation to strike a good balance between conservation and discovery, between critique and creativity.  And evangelicalism will continue to be a vibrant and effective part of Christ’s church precisely as it is neither bellicosely conservative nor blithely innovative, but faithful in both senses:  to be loyal and to be effective. (142)

Responses to John Stackhouse

Kevin Bauder reiterates the point of his previous essay, that more important than determining who belongs to the evangelical movement is determining (based on the veracity of a person’s profession of faith) who is really evangelical (that is, simply Christian). He writes:

Fundamentalists are evangelical. We believe, however, that the definition of evangelicalism is being debated only because the founders of “generic evangelicalism” made bad choices about the evangel itself. Denying the gospel its rightful position as the boundary of Christian recognition and fellowship is the very thing that has produced the increase of theological and ecclesiastical flabbiness. (149)

Albert Mohler believes the shortcomings of Stackhouse’s position are evident in the way evangelicals are thus forced to “accept major divergences from the central commitments.” In other words, if charity is used as an excuse for “nourishing theological error,” eventually evangelicalism will no longer be a definable theological movement. He goes on:

I do not think John’s proposal identifies evangelicals in a way that ensures that all who bear that designation can be counted on to bear a true witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (154)

Roger Olson’s response focuses on the distinction between the evangelical ethos (Bebbington’s quadrilateral) and the evangelical movement (Stackhouse’s criterion of transdenominationalism, for example). In the end, however, Olson sees little difference between his own view and Stackhouse’s:

In most ways they are very much alike. The only substantial difference I can see is one of degree, not kind. (159)

My Comments

I believe John Stackhouse’s description of “generic evangelicalism” comes closest to defining what evangelicalism currently is as a movement and ethos. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe “generic evangelicalism” is the ideal or that this view is without its flaws. It simply means that I think Stackhouse has given us the best description of what the movement looks like at the present time.

In terms of trajectory, the evangelical movement appears to be moving from the generic position toward a broader, more open position in line with Olson’s “postconservative” view. Perhaps this is why I resonate both with Stackhouse’s description of the movement and Mohler’s critique.

Stackhouse has put his finger on evangelicalism’s biggest strength and weakness: its emphasis on cooperation. Cooperation is a strength because it is rooted in Christ’s desire for unity. Cooperation is a weakness because doctrinal unity is often compromised for the sake of continuing cooperation. And eventually, cooperation not based in truth leads to the dilution of a movement’s identity – even an identity that prioritizes cooperation.

There are times when the desire for theological purity has led to the sacrifice of unity. And there are times when the desire for unity has led to the sacrifice of purity. In Thinking. Loving. Doing., David Mathis writes:

Part and parcel of the central Christian message is an impulse toward purity and an impulse toward unity. The purity instinct resists the compromise of the message, while the unity instinct is eager to link arms with others also celebrating the biblical gospel.

The reason purity and unity are, in this way, ‘built into’ the gospel is that the God of the gospel is himself both a purifier and a unifier. No one cares more for the purity of the gospel — that his central message to humanity not be altered or tainted — than God himself. And, mark this, no one cares more for the unity of his church around her Savior, his own Son, than God himself. God is the great purifier and unifier.

So likewise, his gospel — which not only saves and sanctifies but is the richest, deepest, and fullest revelation of who God is — has both a purity impulse and a unity impulse ‘pre-packaged’ into it, as it were. It’s quite simple on paper and gets terribly messy in real life.

Messy indeed. That’s why there are no easy answers to the question of evangelical identity. The neo-evangelical movement came about during a time when the early fundamentalists were becoming increasingly insulated and unity was being sacrificed on the altar of ideological purity. Today the situation is reversed. Doctrinal purity is often dismissed for the sake of continued cooperation.

If the generic evangelical movement is to continue forward, it will need to lean more toward the confessional view in order to maintain a definite theological and ecclesiastical character about it. Otherwise, evangelicalism may eventually become so broad as to no longer be definable by distinctive elements at all.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at Roger Olson’s “postconservative” position.

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2 thoughts on “What Is an Evangelical? 3: The Generic Evangelical View”

  1. Robert says:

    I’ve never quite understood the fascination by some evangelicals at constantly drawing the tent in to exclude more and more individuals who are rather happy to associate with the others. If we read Marsden and Noll correctly, one of the chief difficulties in defining evangelicalism comes, largely, from the voices in the group seeking to reduce the canopy of definition. Yet since its (formal?) inception evangelicalism has always been a messy community of differentiated believers.

    I too find Stackhouse’s definitions better than the others and see that he is more dialed into reality than some of the other contributors. He seems to develop his case better too. For those of us not crazy about the confinement too many evangelicals put around inerrancy he seems more accomodating for where the majority of actual evangelicals are theologically and practically.

    Our church is happy to partner with others in reaching people. Yet we constantly receive criticism from others who don’t think our stance on the Bible (we believe it is authoritative and divinely inspired…but with the possibility of difficulties) is kosher enough to be “biblical.” Unfortunately our community ends up being the ones who clothe and feed the poor. Its an odd world. One’s orthopraxy seems to speak of their orthodoxy. Maybe this is why I like Stackhouse so much.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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