Roger Olson on the Definition of Evangelical

Olson continues to fight for the right use of the word “Evangelical.” He posts regularly on this topic, and while the themes are becoming standard for him, each post adds a nuance or two that fill out this war for words that matter. Here is his latest.

I am more conservative than Olson and would draw lines a bit more severe. He does his best to include others until they effectively rule themselves out, pushing him to make the call. I do not have to be pushed as much as he does. I am willing to call the game earlier on account of darkness.

I will never forget the first time I heard Jerry Falwell being called an Evangelical. I thought, and still think, Falwell fit best into the Fundamentalist mode. But all of a sudden Falwell and I were classed together. I had exerted a good amount of effort to escape Fundamentalism and now, magically, they caught up with me and made me theirs – according to the press. And now the guy on the street hardly makes a distinction between Falwell and me. This is a burden too heavy to bear!!

If you forced me to choose between theological liberalism and Fundamentalism, then I am a Fundamentalist. However, that is not the choice available to me. I can stand between, and I do. Thus, liberals think I am a Fundamentalist and my Fundamentalist friends think I am mostly a liberal. I am okay with that. What I can’t abide is being forced into the Fundamentalist camp.

The chief concern I have about Fundamentalism has more to do with their trajectory than with any specific belief. They show themselves unwilling and maybe incapable of seeing “Christ in culture,” to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s classification. Their rejection of the power of common grace to keep us human and reveal aspects of God’s character is for me their chief short falling. In this rejection they are too quick to draw very thick lines between the church and the world and culture where the lines should be thinner and maybe even dotted. Thus, they create sects and subcultures that become cages, dark holes from which no light can escape.

Not too long ago, now that I am in my retirement, I visited a fundamentalist church, if only to see for myself what it looked like some 50 years after I left it. But, at least in this one instance, there it was, unchanged and unmoved. Women wearing thongs was as big a deal as the coming AntiChrist. There was an unchastened dispensational premillennialism and a world bashing tone that drew battle lines where there were none to my way of thinking.

So the battle for the word Evangelical continues, if for no other reason than to rescue it from those who would turn it into a cultic anti-intellectualism.

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