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Weekend Reading: Pocket History of Evangelical Theology

June 8, 2012

I consider myself an evangelical. I believe I fit that term based on virtually anyone’s definition of what it means to be an evangelical.

A number of years ago I had a job in the sales field. My manager told me over and over that you sell the sizzle, not the steak. To use another metaphor, if you are selling clocks, most people buy the clock based on the things they perceive about it – outward design, sound of the chime or alarm, size, etc. Only a few people care even a little bit about how the clock works, most just want to know that it works.

I think that is how a number of evangelicals feel about their evangelicalism. They don’t care much about where it came from or how it got to be what it is. They just want it to work for them.

I think that is unfortunate. Knowing something about the current evangelical movement goes a long way toward explaining why we worship the way we do. It speaks to the current stresses within the movement. And it gives us a hope and a groundwork for reaching others with the gospel and enlarging the kingdom.

Roger Olson’s Pocket History of Evangelical Theology (2007, InterVarsity Press, taken from The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology, 2004, Westminster John Knox Press) does a great job of filling in those blanks.

Often books about evangelical theology and/or evangelical history make the mistake of going one of two directions. Some work from the assumption that the only legitimate evangelical history and theology is reformed. This has been called the “Presbyterian Paradigm”. This is the assumption that “authentic Evangelicalism and evangelical theology is rooted in the Puritans and the Princeton School of theology.” (page 142) The other approach to evangelical history has been referred to as the “Pentecostal Paradigm”. This is the view that “authentic Evangelicalism and evangelical theology is revivalistic and at least implicitly Arminian, not Reformed.” (page 142)

While on his website and in other works Olson makes no secret of his Arminianism, he does a great job in this work of presenting Evangelicalism as a tapestry woven from both of those heritages along with others. Olson describes several influences that come together to form what we now recognize as Evangelicalism:

  • The Pietism that began among German Lutherans in the late seventeenth century

  • The revivalism founded by John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, followed by Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Billy Graham

  • The Puritans, which became influenced by the Pietists and then (in the New World) by early revivalists like Jonathan Edwards

  • Wesleyanism as it was born out of the ministries of John and Charles Wesley

  • The role of the Great Awakenings served in combining a number of these influences and becoming something like a birth of what became known as Evangelicalism

  • The early shaping of what became evangelical theology by the Princeton School of theology

  • The influence of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, especially on twentieth century Evangelicalism

  • The fundamentalist movement of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s

After taking us on a journey through the roots of evangelical theology, the author offers brief profiles of a few key theologians of what he calls “Postfundamentalist Evangelical Theology”. He would characterize all of these as being conservative in their theology. These theologians include:

  • Carl F.H. Henry

  • E.J. Carnell

  • Bernard Ramm

  • Donald Bloesch

I usually think about Evangelicalism being pretty conservative by nature. Olson makes room for a little bigger tent than I prefer. I don’t know that he is wrong to consider as evangelical what he calls “Postconservative Evangelical Theology”, but I am not really comfortable with it. In a chapter by that title, he spends most of the time describing the progression of the late Clark Pinnock. Pinnock was a proponent of what he called “Open Theism”. While I do not agree with Pinnock’s view, I do now have a better understanding of it. For that I am grateful.

The last chapter is spent describing what Olson sees as the tensions within Evangelicalism. The primary one he identifies is the growing tension between “conservative, aggressive Calvinist evangelicals and defensive Arminian evangelicals”. (page 142) Unfortunately, he is probably correct.I really enjoyed this history. It gave me a greater appreciation of where I have come from theologically and the role those with very different viewpoints have played in forming my perspective. I think this is healthy. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of what Evangelicalism really is. It would not hurt if a few journalists, along with others from outside the evangelical camp, read this book. If you consider yourself an evangelical, you should read it as well.

Thoughts?

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