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Olson: Defining Evangelicalsm

I’m quite sure I fit into some peoples’ definition of an “evangelical.” I’m equally certain that, to others, I don’t even come close. To be honest, I really don’t care. “Evangelical” is not a label I intentionally wear (or refuse to wear). Many years ago, James Leo Garrett, E. Glenn Hinson, and William E. Tull collaborated on a book called Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? The three scholars answered, respectively, yes, no, and maybe.

In a recent blog post, Roger Olson says it is both necessary and impossible to define “evangelicalism.” His key point is that movements never have boundaries, only centers. Organizations (schools, denominations, publishers, etc.) have boundaries—and it’s expected of them to enforce those boundaries. But movements don’t work that way, and it’s either (in Olson’s words) disingenuous or sociologically ignorant to speak and act as if they do.

Rather than defining where the presumed boundaries lie, Olson thinks it would be much more fruitful to suggest “prototypical members” of a movement—those who embody its ethos better than most. For a movement like contemporary evangelicalism, for example, Billy Graham and Wheaton College immediately spring to mind. Thinking like this makes it possible to acknowledge that someone is a member of a movement even if he or she is not a member of the center of prototypes.

Olson concludes,

I tend to think most people look at the world either in black and white, either-or terms or in terms of degrees, that is, appreciating ambiguity as embedded in the nature of things (or at least in our knowing). Black and white thinkers who are allergic to ambiguity will have great trouble with Lakoff’s and my approach. I simply think they are stuck in a relatively immature stage of mental development. I have no problem with their setting up organizations and patrolling their boundaries. That’s their business. I don’t have to belong to any of their organizations. But when they start treating “evangelicalism” as one and themselves as the boundary setters and patrollers I have great trouble with that. I will call them either disingenuous or uninformed.

The post is worth a read, and not just for self-described evangelicals. For example, I wonder who would be a “prototypical member” of whatever movements my readers are a part of? Who would be a “prototypical” Fellowship Baptist? A “prototypical” Lutheran? A “prototypical” emergent?

And no fair claiming “I just follow Jesus.” Every Christian follows Jesus with an idea in his or her head of people who followed (or are following) Jesus more accurately and admirably than the rest. Who are those people for you?



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