The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology

This book is part of The Westminster Handbooks to Christian Theology series. Roger Olson is a well-known professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. This book is written for scholars and students who study topics of theological significance. Olson writes about people, organizations and controversial subjects related to evangelical theology.

First, about the book’s design. The first section is a 63-page summary of “The Story of Evangelical Theology,” beginning with an attempt to define evangelical theology. “Evangelical,” etymologically, means “of the good news” or “related to the gospel.” Evangelicalism, writes Olson, is simply synonymous with authentic Christianity as it is founded on and remains faithful to the “evangel-the good news of Jesus Christ.” He goes on to list the seven different definitions that are given to the term today.

In this introductory section, which is worth the price of the book because of its summary of twentieth century evangelicalism, he covers the diversity of roots in evangelicalism such as: pietism, revivalists, Puritans, Wesleyans, Old Princeton, Holiness-Pentecostals, fundamentalists and postfundamentalists. He also covers the tensions in evangelicalism among the Calvinists, Arminians and Pentecostals.

While Olson mentioned Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield in connection with old Princeton, I was disappointed that men like Machen, Van Til and Allis were not included. He did talk about Gordon Clark’s influence on Carl Henry who led the postconservative arm of the movement. He concludes with explaining how Billy Graham became the figure head of the movement of postfundamentalists in evangelical theology.

You will find the first 66 pages very interesting as Olson threads all the parts together into a tapestry that gives a wholistic view of evangelicalism in North America. The remainder of the book deals with movements and organizations related to evangelical theology. Some examples: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, The Charismatic movement, Dispensationalism, Fundamentalism, Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, Princeton Theology, Lausanne Conference, Puritanism, World Evangelical Alliance, and others. These are dealt with in alphabetical order and not usually more than one to two pages.

I particularly appreciated his defining Scottish Common Sense Realism and its later connection with Princeton Seminary. This influence philosophy simply states that human beings share certain basic experiences and cognitions that require no proof but are “common sensical.” The Princeton theologians then applied it to the knowledge of God and other theological subjects.

The book contains other good summary explanations of topics such as ethics, authority, doctrines, the Lord’s Supper, miracles, and prayer, as they relate to the broader evangelical movement.

The third section deals with current issues in evangelicalism such as: the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, creation/evolution, Calvinism/Arminianism, epistemology/faith and reason, homosexuality, inerrancy of Scripture, and open theism.

My disappointment in the book is in the omission of some of the men from the Westminster Seminary faculty such as Machen (only mentioned briefly) and Cornelius Van Til who is generally looked to as the most influential presuppositionalists of the twentieth century; however, he does attempt to present presuppositionalism as distinct from fideism and evidentialism.

While I would like for him to have said more in certain places that would have given a stronger emphasis on reformed theology, this book will be of much value to its reader. It is concisely and clearly written. It will be an easy handbook to use.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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