Carl Trueman, the Osteens & the Quest for Evangelical Identity

by Jason K. Allen September 13, 2019

Sometimes I think Carl Trueman single-handedly preserves equilibrium in the universe with Joel & Victoria Osteen. The former is lucid, biblical, and relentlessly convictional. The latter comfortably occupy the other pole.

Victoria Osteen’s past comments that Christian obedience and worship should be self-centered reminded me of this polarity, and it prompted a recollection from Trueman’s The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and an observation on how the Osteens might actually help evangelicalism.

In The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Trueman plays off Mark Noll’s landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, inverts Noll’s thesis and argues the “scandal” is not so much that “there is no mind, but rather that there is no evangelical” (37).

Trueman partially concedes Noll’s thesis, noting, “The views of some evangelicals do, indeed, marginalize us in the public square,” but, “more concerning is the lack of any consensus about evangelicalism’s intellectual identity . . . ” (12). He adds, “For there to be a scandal of the evangelical mind, there must be not just a mind, but also a readily identifying thing called an ‘evangelical’ and a movement called ‘evangelicalism’—and the existence of such is increasingly in doubt” (12).

Driving home his point, Trueman reflects, “When asked if I am an evangelical, I generally respond with a question: What exactly do you mean by that term? In a world in which everyone from Joel Osteen to Brian McLaren to John MacArthur may be called an evangelical, I want to know into what pigeonhole my answer will place me” (21).

Trueman’s observation reveals the real point of agitation with the Osteens. Convictional evangelicals respond viscerally to the Osteens’ self-help soliloquies not because they are different from us, but because so many onlookers think they are one of us.

It’s the same reason we are amused when someone else’s child picks his nose in public but embarrassed when our own child does it. Relational proximity causes the shame. Guilt by association causes the embarrassment.

The Osteens embarrass us because so many onlookers think they are one of us, the watching world thinks the pastors Osteen represent us. And that is why among convictional evangelicals, ridiculing the Osteens is not only permissible, but expected.

In fact, for many of us ridiculing the Osteens has almost become a sport. In conservative evangelical circles it’s a guaranteed applause line, like calling for lower taxes at the Republican National Convention.

However, the most helpful response is not just to give the Osteen’s a well-deserved rebuke. The more rigorous—and fruitful—response is to strengthen our confessional and testimonial identity as much as possible so that evangelical theology and Osteen principles become clearly distinguishable categories, with distinct identities and different constituents.

Herein is the upside of the Osteens, and our opportunity. Just like false teachers in the early church provoked councils and creeds that proved to strengthen the church, I pray the Osteens will, unwittingly, prompt an evangelical gag-reflex that catalyzes a pan-evangelical movement towards clearer doctrinal identity and conviction.

The lack of evangelical identity and boundaries is an age-old problem. Many, including David Bebbington, J. I. Packer, Darryl Hart, and Albert Mohler, have made helpful contributions to remedying this ailment. And we must acknowledge there are pockets of tremendous strength, like the doctrinal statements enjoyed by groups like Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, the Council of Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and the Southern Baptist Convention. However, a brief reflection on how much nonsense passes under the moniker “evangelical” reminds us how much work we have left to do.

Admittedly, a group as amorphous as evangelicals will never enjoy theological Maginot Lines, but patching gaps and reinforcing boundaries wherever we can is a helpful step in the right direction. And as long as the world can’t tell the difference between Joel Osteen, Brian McClaren, and John MacArthur, we still have some fence building to do.

We will not be able to rid the world of the Osteen’s teaching. When they stroll off the stage, many more will step forward to work the cottage industry of ear-tickling. But perhaps we can find in them a utility, a catalyst to define and redefine ourselves so aggressively that even secular onlookers will perceive that the preachers of the prosperity gospel “went out from us because they were not of us.”

Editor's Note: This originally published at JasonKAllen.com