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Dave Strunk


Confessional Evangelicalism

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I grew up in a Southern Baptist church three hours from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I never said the Apostles' Creed growing up. I recall a time in high school English class when I was reading the part of John Proctor from the famous Arthur Miller play The Crucible, and I mispronounced Pontius Pilate, having grown up never pronouncing Pilate's first name. My classmates gave me a hard time. "I thought you were a Christian," they exclaimed.

Well, at this point in my life, I'd say I had a real and enduring faith in Jesus Christ, but I was ignorant of one of the oldest statements of Christian belief. It's that same Christian idiosyncrasy that makes Albert Mohler, president of Southern, an odd choice to defend what the editors call "Confessional Evangelicalism" in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism.

In essence, Mohler's defense of confessional evangelicalism is indistinct from a more generic yet still orthodox version of evangelicalism. Mohler does an excellent job, as always, of defending evangelicalism against its foes on the left and right. What Mohler fails to do, though, is to offer a compelling apologia for the benefits found in confessional evangelicalism.

Strengths of Mohler's Arguments

Mohler succeeds in defining evangelicalism in general by appealing to historical, phenomenological, and normative (theological) definitions. Briefly, he capably traces how evangelicalism got started and shows the early theological and practical emphases that occurred after World War II. He then discusses how in popular culture the word "evangelicalism" is defined, albeit with some truth but many misunderstandings. Lastly, Mohler begins to hint at the "confessional" qualifier when he states, "evangelicalism refers to that movement of Christian believers who seek a conscious convictional continuity with the theological formulas of the Protestant Reformation." This well-stated definition is what I thought the entire chapter would be about. It wasn't. Mohler went on to continue to frame a typically evangelical theology, though without much reference to the Reformation with the exception of a few doctrinal issues.

These discussions come in the familiar mathematically baptized language of centered and bounded sets. The idea is that evangelicals can unite around a center but still need a boundary to establish who isn't an evangelical. First-level doctrines—the Trinity, the nature of Christ, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone—are things all evangelicals can agree about at the center, and they also constitute the boundary. These first-level doctrines, Mohler argues, come from the great church councils that worked hard against heresy. Those who don't assent to these first-level doctrines aren't evangelicals. Second- and third-level doctrines—baptism, views of eschatology, etc.—are theological issues that evangelicals can disagree about while maintaining fellowship with one another as evangelicals. They don't define the center or the boundary, necessarily, but are inside the boundary nonetheless.

The strength of Mohler's account lies in how he positions evangelicalism. Every theological issue isn't the boundary, for that would be fundamentalism. On the other hand, evangelicalism doesn't lack a boundary, for that would be Protestant liberalism. Mohler defends evangelicalism in this appropriate way, as the center-bounded set.

My own denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), has attempted something like this center-bounded set. We have actually codified what we call "essentials." This comes from the oft-cited phrase (the origin of which is subject to debate), "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." These "essentials" are Mohler's first-level doctrines, including the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, salvation by and in Christ alone, and Christ's second coming. Other theological issues are deemed "non-essential" though that doesn't mean they aren't important.

It's the other theological issues that begin to form the distinction between what makes someone an evangelical and what makes someone a confessional evangelical. Mohler doesn't tread here, though. While he defines what confessional evangelicalism isn't, he doesn't adequately define what it is.

Weaknesses of Mohler's Arguments

In my estimation, it isn't that Mohler misrepresents confessional evangelicalism; rather, he largely ignores it. For instance, he doesn't even mention a famous confession or creed. He does refer to the councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, but he never explicitly outlines the content of the creeds that resulted from those councils. He mentions the importance of justification by faith alone, but never discusses the great Reformation-era statements of faith. Even with regard to his own Calvinist predilections, he doesn't mention the Westminster Standards or The London Baptist Confession of Faith.

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