Here I was thinking that I’d be able to get through a couple days with the kids home and not much time to blog and then enter into the conversation a few posts in by tonight. Little did I know that over 50 posts would appear on this blog in the meantime!
I wrote back in November about the boundaries of evangelicalism on a post about where Barack Obama seems to fall on the religious spectrum. That post had originally been a response to what I had wrongly taken to be a claim that Obama is an evangelical, and the person I was responding to hadn’t meant to imply that at all, so the post is somewhat geared toward him and particularly an interview he gave when he was running for the U.S. Senate. I thought it might be worth taking some of what I said there and generalizing it outside that context. Those who want to read the original can follow the link. In it, I was trying to get a handle on some of the boundaries of evangelicalism as I’ve usually heard and used the term. (I fully acknowledge that people in different contexts might have learned and used the term differently.) The result was almost a brainstorming session on some of the people I’m aware of or know personally who hold views that I think are out of the evangelical mainstream but hold them in ways that I think allows them to remain within evangelicalism (and there are those who take the same views further in ways that I think will place them outside evangelicalism). So most of what follows, except the concluding paragraph, is a reworking of sections of the above-linked.
As I’m thinking about this, I would include some theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) as possible for evangelicals to hold while remaining evangelical. I might include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my sometime co-blogger Wink at my personal blog). I know some who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy). I know at least one universalist of the sort who is convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so (but it might take a very long time in many cases), and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose). There are inclusivists of the sort where Christ’s sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view). I know someone who considers a homosexual lifestyle morally ok but who feels the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view, and I think this friend is clearly an evangelical who for that reason alone will not say the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.
There are some who deny something they call inerrancy, but I think they really affirm the view I know as inerrancy and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is. I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don’t actually follow this, though. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn’t be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it’s hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That’s just theological liberalism in its most plain form.
So I’m open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. my friend Wink’s view of the atonement doesn’t seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they’ve been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It’s a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I’m not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren’t evangelicals by the criteria I’ve outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term ‘Christian’ so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it’s linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.
I’m pretty open to thinking of someone as evangelical, albeit on the fringes, even if the person is not theologically conservative. I consider Keith DeRose an evangelical because of the way he frames his universalism in a way that fits it to core evangelical convictions. There are some whose views I simply can’t discern, such as Brian McLaren, largely because he never really comes down on the details of the views he makes a lot of hay about questioning. But some have expressed enough of a clear rejection of core evangelical convictions that I think there’s reason not to consider them evangelicals, and in some cases I’m not sure there’s even anything distinctively Christian about their religious views, even if they attend a Christian (in name at least) congregation.
I’m not saying all this to try to lay down rules but exactly the opposite. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to try to form rules for figuring out who is inside a group whose name is defined in such contextualized and varying ways. A lot of the posts in this conversation so far have been pretty good at focusing on the positive core or key views of evangelicalism. I’m not all that good at thinking in those ways, so I’m glad there are people here doing so. I’m much more practiced (for better and worse) at troubleshooting and defensive thinking, and I thought it might profit to think a little about the fuzzy boundaries and some actual people who I consider near the edges but within the camp.