Just over 30 years ago, SCM Press published James Barr’s Fundamentalism. It’s a bit of a rant, adopting a tone only slightly less dismissive and self-satisfied than that taken more recently by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Barr maintained that ‘fundamentalism’ does not have a theology at all, it merely has doctrines.
What Barr meant by ‘fundamentalism’ was what you and I know as ‘evangelicalism’. It is refreshing, then, that the good people at SCM Press have finally decided that not only there is such a thing as ‘evangelical theology’ after all, but that it would be worth their while getting someone to write an A to Z of it.
That someone is Roger E. Olson. Olson is a self-confessed evangelical, and his work is well informed, clearly written, and up-to-date (the book was published in 2005).
The book is in five main sections:-
The Story of Evangelical Theology discusses various definitions of ‘evangelicalism’, and then traces its development from its roots in pietism up to the present time.
Next, Olson outlines Movements and Organisations Related to Evangelical Theology, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Charismatic Movement, the Keswick Movement, Princeton Theology, and others.
Then comes a section summarising the contributions of key individuals, such as Edward John Carnell, Carl F.H. Henry, C.S. Lewis, J. Gresham Machen, Francis Shaeffer, and B.B. Warfield.
Olson’s fourth section discusses various doctrines, from amillenialism and atonement to virgin birth and worship.
The book concludes with a consideration of Issues in Evangelical Theology, including Calvinism and Arminianism, Creation and Evolution, Gender Roles, Homosexuality, Scriptural Inerrancy, and various others.
Olson has done his work extraordinarily well, and his book is informative and illuminating.
A couple of evaluative comments are, I think in order.
First, Olson’s own theological commitments (including a considerable debt to the late Stanley Grenz) are apparent on just about every page. Although his approach is thoughtful and irenic, his own preference for a rather progressive Arminianism (in contrast to what some would identify as a historic reformed or Calvinistic perspective) is apparent. At a few points, the discussion becomes almost polemic (cf. his evident distaste for the 1999 Christianity Today document, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration”).
Second, I have questions about Olson’s basic approach. The assumption in his book is that evangelical theology is what evangelical theologians have taught. But is it not a central tenet of evangelicalism that theology is primarily derived from what the Scriptures teach, and only secondarily from what theologians have taught? If you look, for instance, at the systematic theologies of Berkhof, Milne and Grudem, you will find that the primary aim of each of them is to reflect on what the Bible teaches. But there is very little appeal to Scripture in Olson’s book, and I think that he may therefore have conceded too much to non-evangelical notions about what theology is.
Nevertheless, as an overview of evangelical ideas, people and movements, and as a guide to some of the recent issues and debates, this is a very useful handbook. It should not be read uncritically. But then again, no book should.