Trevin Wax|3:33 am CT

What Is an Evangelical? 2: The Confessional Evangelical View

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.

Yesterday, we looked at Kevin Bauder’s essay (Fundamentalist). Today, we’re taking a look at Al Mohler’s view (Confessional Evangelical).

What Is an Evangelical? The Confessional Evangelical View

Representing the confessional evangelical position is Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. Mohler begins in a manner similar to Bauder, pointing to the gospel as the center of evangelical identity. He writes:

An evangelical is recognized by a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, by a deep commitment to biblical truth, by a sense of urgency to see lost persons hear the gospel, and by a commitment to personal holiness and the local church. (69)

Mohler recognizes the difficulty of coming to an established view of evangelical identity due to the ongoing nature of the conversation. He admits that “evangelical definition is dependent on a continual conversation and debate among evangelicals, association with evangelical institutions or churches, and identification with core evangelical beliefs” (74). And yet he also believes that “the integrity of evangelicalism requires a normative definition of evangelical identity.”

In developing a “normative definition,” Mohler points toward “Christian believers who seek a conscious convictional continuity with the theological formulas of the Protestant Reformation” (74-75), hence the introduction of the “confessional” aspect of his definition. He writes:

Evangelicalism is a movement of confessional believers who are determined by God’s grace to conserve this faith in the face of its reduction or corruption, even as they gladly take this gospel to the ends of the earth in order to see the nations exult in the name of Jesus Christ. (75)

How does this play out in practice? Mohler believes that evangelical identity is established by directing “constant attention to both the center and the boundary.” The way this takes place is through recognizing that doctrines can be distinguished and categorized in terms of their closeness to the gospel. Mohler’s “theological triage” divides issues into different levels:

  1. First-level theological issues are most central and essential to the Christian faith. (78)
  2. What distinguishes first-level and second-level doctrines is that evangelicals may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement creates significant boundaries between believers. (79)
  3. Third-order issues are doctrines over which evangelicals may disagree and yet remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. (80)

After recounting his spiritual pilgrimage in Southern Baptist life, Mohler directs his attention to several contested areas of evangelical identity. He begins with the “trustworthiness and truthfulness of Scripture” and then outlines recent challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy. It appears that Mohler goes beyond his mentor, Carl F. H. Henry, in regarding inerrancy to be a first-order issue:

In Henry’s formation, inerrancy should be considered a measure of evangelical consistency rather than evangelical authenticity. But the trajectory of the debate quickly revealed that abandoning inerrancy and a verbal model of the Bible’s inspiration required adoption of some other model that could not undergird evangelical authenticity. Affirming the total truthfulness, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible is a first-order theological issue. (91)

Mohler also affirms the exclusivity of the gospel and the “integrity of theism” (against open theism) as first-order issues. In writing about justification, Mohler sides with the early Reformers:

Justification by faith alone is an evangelical essential… If evangelical means anything, it means a bold assertion that sinners are justified only on the basis of what the Reformers called an alien righteousness – the righteousness of Christ imputed to all who believe in him. (93)

After having paid attention to the center of evangelicalism and the boundaries, Mohler concludes:

The center of evangelical faith is devotion to Christ and joyful confidence in the gospel. These are and must be the animating energies and passions of evangelicals as individual believers and churches, as well as the evangelical movement as a whole. But evangelicalism is coherent as a movement only if it is also known for what it is not. Attention to the boundaries is as requisite as devotion to the center. (95)

Responses to Al Mohler

Kevin Bauder points out the many similarities between the fundamentalist and confessional evangelical perspectives. But he is concerned about the message communicated by evangelical leaders who maintain alliances with those who are indifferent to the importance of doctrine and theology:

Fundamentalists reject indifferentism and refuse to recognize indifferentists as insightful Christian leaders. While not indifferentists themselves, confessional evangelicals have certainly been slower to distance themselves from indifferentism or to warn against it publicly. (102)

John Stackhouse points out that Mohler’s view is more “conservative” than “confessional,” as it is not tied in its entirety to any one theological tradition. He worries about the emphasis on sharp definition at the edges of evangelical identity and how “theological triage” is decided:

Without a clear presentation of what is primary, secondary, and tertiary in the Christian faith and how we can arrive properly at such distinctions, believers are rather at the mercy of this or that evangelical “magisterium” to say what’s what. (107)

Roger Olson complains that historically speaking, “many of the things Mohler wants to pack into the essentials category have been considered nonessentials by evangelicals of the past” (111). He makes a distinction between affinity and uniformity:

Affinity is different from uniformity; it simply designates common interests and goals. Marsden and other historians of evangelicalism are right; it has always been very diverse, and people like Mohler simply need to become more comfortable with that diversity and the ambiguity resulting from it. (115)

My Comments

The confessional evangelical position resonates with me because of its emphasis on the church. Mohler sees evangelicalism as a cross-denominational movement built around common doctrines, practices, and themes. And yet Mohler recognizes that even as evangelicalism is important, the church is more so. At the end of the day, issues related to boundaries must be established and enforced primarily within local congregations, not para-church organizations or broad cross-denominational movements.

I also agree that we need to be specific when considering the doctrines that define “evangelicalism.” Mohler is right to point out that simply stating key Christian themes does not help us narrow down “evangelical” identity as opposed to Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Protestant Liberalism, etc.

But I wonder if Mohler’s specificity runs into problems when viewed through the lens of evangelical history. For example, if we adopt Al Mohler’s confessional evangelical position strictly (which requires a belief in double imputation), John Wesley would not qualify. Historically speaking, it’s difficult to make sense of evangelicalism apart from Wesley and his influence. To adopt a level of specificity that excludes Wesley seems a little like climbing up into a tree and sawing off the branches we’ve used to get where we are.

This leads me back to Mohler’s expressed desire for a normative definition of evangelical identity. Unpacking what we mean by “normative” can be instructive here.

For example, can C. S. Lewis be considered an evangelical? Perhaps, but an unusual one. That is, Lewis was not an evangelical in the normative sense. He affirmed an inclusivist position regarding salvation and was fuzzy on the specifics of the atonement. And yet few would contest the vibrancy of his faith and the deep evangelical commitment to the gospel that underscored most of his writing.

In the case of Lewis, Carl Henry’s distinction between evangelical authenticity and consistency is more helpful than Mohler’s proposal. Henry’s distinction gives us the ability to express a “normative” definition of evangelical identity (which is something Mohler believes is necessary too) while maintaining that evangelicals who depart in various ways from that definition can still be considered “evangelical,” albeit in an unusual and inconsistent sense.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at “generic evangelicalism” as defined by John Stackhouse.

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