Roger Olson has opened a vein on Molly Worthen’s new book about post-WWII evangelicalism. You don’t need to read between the lines to understand that this review is more about Roger than Worthen’s book. And much of what has appeared to motivate the theologian of divine openness is a bone (it was clean a decade ago) he continues to pick with Reformed Protestantism, especially with the way Calvinists are always “running things.” Here is how he ends the first of his series:
I have been criticized by some Reformed evangelicals for claiming that Arminians (among others) have been persecuted by Calvinist evangelicals. Worthen’s book provides support for what I say—not that we non-Reformed evangelicals are actively persecuted but that we have been patronized and treated like stepchildren by the Reformed leaders of neo-evangelicalism and that we have been accepted by them only to the extent that we take on their flavor of intellectual life and spirituality.
But Olson lets on more than he knows because Arminians are not simply victims in this relationship. Turns out they willingly cooperated and may have approved the persecution themselves (at least Olson’s uncle and father did):
My uncle was president of our little Pentecostal evangelical denomination for twenty-five years. He served on the boards of both the National Association of Evangelicals and the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America. As I grew older and became more actively interested in our religious “family tree” he and I had many discussions about all things Pentecostal and evangelical. It was he who informed me that we were “conservative” and “evangelical” but not “fundamentalist.” We were not the latter because we were not cessationists (which in our informal taxonomy, anyway, all fundamentalists were by definition). We also didn’t practice “secondary separation”—refusal of Christian fellowship with all who didn’t agree with us. Compared with hard core fundamentalists we were downright ecumenical.
My father read and introduced me to magazines such as The Christian Herald and Eternity and Christianity Today. (He also read The Sword of the Lord but often only to laugh at it or borrow a sermon outline from it.) We watched both Billy Graham crusades and Oral Roberts healing meetings on television (when we had a television). Our ideal Christian hero would be a hybrid of Graham and Roberts. When it came to the past our heroes of the faith were (after Jesus and the apostles) Luther, Wesley, Finney, Moody, Amy Carmichael, Fanny Crosby, Aimee Semple Macpherson, Billy Sunday, A. W. Tozer, and, later, Kathryn Kuhlman, John Stott, Alan Redpath (Keswick) and David Wilkerson.
My father attended all the local Evangelical Ministerial Alliance meetings and participation in Youth for Christ was taken for granted—as much as was church attendance. I saw every Christian film from “Without Onion” to “The Tony Fontaine Story” to “The Restless Ones” as a kid. (We didn’t go to movie theaters but often viewed these and many other gospel-themed films at churches and YFC events.)
So Olson’s family was not as intent on staking out a separate “evangelical” identity as Olson is. Why, the Olson’s even had positions of authority within evangelicalism. But only later did Olson understand that he was different:
When I was growing up in a pastor’s family with many close relatives in ministry I was well aware that we were most definitely evangelicals. As I look back on my home church and denomination now I realize we were also fundamentalist Pentecostals. I knew then that we were Pentecostals even though we preferred the label “Full Gospel.” However, throughout my childhood and youth we spoke the language of American evangelicalism and evangelicalism’s heroes were ours—especially Billy Graham. The music that filled our home was “gospel music”—on “Christian radio” and from evangelically-produced “sacred albums.” Our home and church were filled with evangelical publications. I was raised on childrens’ stories such as “The Sugar Creek Gang” series.
But apparently, the cozy relations and positions of power for the Olsons are not good enough for the son and nephew:
One of Worthen’s main themes is that Ockenga’s and Carl Henry’s neo-evangelicalism always was and still is (as represented by Christianity Today, for example) heavily Reformed. Putting this in my own language, her point is that neo-evangelicalism privileges Reformed theology and more or less expects other evangelicals (Holiness, Pentecostal, Anabaptists, Restorationist) to adjust to that to be acceptable. And many non-Reformed evangelicals have succumbed to that pressure while others have resisted it—causing tensions among evangelicals and within denominations.
I for one don’t particularly care who gets to run evangelicalism, or who is upstairs and who’s the help. If Olson knew much about Reformed Protestantism, he’d know that folks like Cornelius Van Til, E. J. Young, or John Murray hardly had guest passes to the executive washroom at NAE headquarters because of their theological convictions. It could very well be that Princeton Seminary provided a better and classier model for conducting evangelicalism in the public square than Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. Go figure. Should that kind of status consciousness influence the way Christians organize or conduct themselves? Probably not, as the founding experience of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church attests. The OPC was willing to let goods and kindred go for the sake of a Reformed church, just as it also declined to sign on to neo-evangelical institutions like the NAE.
Whether Olson is willing to make a similar renunciation is not at all clear. His continuing complaints about evangelicalism have the feel of being slighted. But given his own family’s status within evangelicalism, his complaints sound decidedly ungrateful.