Roger Olson, “Why I am an ‘Evangelical Arminian Christian’ Part 8: My Second Reason for Embracing ‘Evangelical, Arminian Christianity’: ‘Evangelical'”

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*First read my first six posts in this series. They set forth my fundamental “principles” for living and thinking.

*Now continues a second part of this series; this series is about my reasons for being a Christian and for embracing a particular “brand” of Christianity called (as in the name of this blog) “evangelical Arminianism.” In order to understand this post you need to read the immediately preceding one about my reasons for being Christian.

8) My Second Reason for Embracing “Evangelical, Arminian Christianity”: “Evangelical”

My immediately preceding post/essay explained why I am a Christian—both descriptively and prescriptively. Now, here, I turn to explanation of why I identify as an “evangelical Christian.” I have written about the meaning—to me—of “evangelical” here before, but perhaps I will now say something new that will enhance my explanation. So even if you have read me before on this topic, please consider reading this.

Of course, especially in America today, “evangelical” is a much contested category and label. I care little for that controversy; it is created primarily by the popular media and even serious journalists have challenged the popular media’s misrepresentation of “evangelical” as a political category. Even if ninety-nine percent of people who call themselves evangelical should happen to also be vegetarians that would not make evangelicalism vegetarian. Evangelical is a spiritual-theological “type” of Christianity with a history and must be defined that way.

Again, descriptively, I was born into the “bosom” of evangelical Christianity. I have lived and worked within it my entire life with one relatively brief exception—my foray into “mainstream, liberal Protestantism” during my doctoral studies. Even then, however, I attended, as often as I could, an evangelical church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. And I did my best to represent evangelical Christianity within the mainstream, liberal Protestant church and its denomination where I served as a minister.

Not only have I lived and worked within evangelical Christianity almost my entire life; I have also studied and written about it as a student and scholar. I have taught theology in three evangelical Christian institutions of higher education over thirty-five years.

But why do I remain “evangelical” when it is such a contested and widely misunderstood, even despised, category? Simply put—because I can think of no better label for the particular “brand” of Christianity I embrace.

Historically, evangelical Christianity is rooted in the spiritual awakenings among Protestants in Europe, Great Britain and North America in the early eighteenth century. These spiritual awakenings are called by various names but two representatives, prototypes of evangelical Christianity, stand out as especially signal:Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, both born in 1703. Together with others such as Count Zinzendorf in Germany and George Whitefield in England and the American colonies, they launched a worldwide spiritual renewal among especially Protestant Christians that emphasized the Bible as God’s inspired and life-transforming Word, conversion-regeneration by grace through faith as the gateway into a redeemed life, the cross of Jesus Christ as the only source of salvation, and the importance of Christian activism in missions, evangelism and social transformation. I consider any orthodox Christian, broadly defined, who embraces these hallmarks, these characteristics of “awakened Christianity,” to be an evangelical Christian—whether he or she uses that label or not.

So, moving on to prescriptive reasons why I embrace evangelical Christianity and identify myself with that ethos-brand of Christianity. I have had many opportunities to bid goodbye to evangelical Christianity. One of my most influential and persuasive spiritual-theological mentors during my doctoral studies was a convert from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy. He gently invited me to join him on that journey and I half-heartedly considered it. What I mean is that I seriously looked into it without ever really intending to “make the leap.” I learned much from him and from my study of Eastern Orthodoxy that has greatly benefitted me spiritually and theologically. For example, I eventually adopted belief in theosis—“deification”—into my evangelical Christianity. However, I never was convinced that Eastern Orthodoxy is a more authentic type of Christianity than evangelical. (I have met some Eastern Orthodox Christians who I consider evangelical even though they might not appreciate me so labeling them.)

Eastern Orthodoxy is not the only alternative type of Christianity I have studied and closely encountered. As I mentioned earlier, I served for three years as a minister in a mainline, liberal Protestant church and its denomination. I studied theology with a German Lutheran theologian who I would not consider evangelical in the sense I described above. I have participated in Protestant-Catholic dialogues both in Germany and the United States. I have invited Catholic priests and theologians to speak to my classes in every institution where I have taught.

I have never discovered a non-evangelical type of Christianity that I found to be as authentically New Testament as evangelical Christianity. While evangelicalism has numerous faults and failings, especially in the ways individuals and groups express it, I find the historical-spiritual ethos of evangelicalism, broadly defined trans-denominationally, to be the type of Christianity closest to the New Testament gospel. That is not to say it has any corner on truth or spiritual power; it is only to say that no other type of Christianity has for me the “heartbeat” of primitive Christianity that I read about in the New Testament and that matters to me very much.

“Evangelical Christianity” itself comes in many “flavors” but all share the New Testament emphasis on the power of God at work transforming people’s lives by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Some evangelical Christian baptize infants; some only baptize believers. Some believe in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; some believe in dynamic inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Some believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit through supernatural “sign gifts” such as speaking in tongues; some believe such ceased with the last of the apostles and the completion of the canon of Scripture. I consider them all fellow evangelicals insofar as they embrace the New Testament gospel in its power and fullness as described above.

I do not believe evangelicals are “better Christians” solely by virtue of being evangelical; nor do I believe evangelicals have a corner on truth. There is truth in all types of Christianity. All contribute something meaningful and helpful to the body of Christ, the world wide community of people committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. I do believe there are evangelical Christians in every denomination; no denomination has a “corner” on evangelical Christianity.

Still, and nevertheless, I find the “evangelical ethos” especially true to the New Testament and especially powerful in carrying forth the gospel of Jesus Christ. I apologize for my fellow evangelicals who give evangelical Christianity a bad name by being harsh, judgmental, overly dogmatic, mean-spirited and/or superior-minded. And I loudly decry the tendency of many self-proclaimed evangelicals to identify the gospel with a political ideology whether it be “right wing” or “left wing.” But I do not apologize for identifying with the gospel as preached by Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, Zinzendorf and other leaders of the evangelical awakening of the early eighteenth century: “You can and must be born again in order to enter into God’s new order, the Kingdom of the heavens, now and in the future.”

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