Theological method is ultimately far more crucial than differences or agreements on particular beliefs not only because it affects every belief, but also because it determines how false beliefs can be corrected. My deepest concern for theology, therefore, is that it should be evangelical, conservative, and contemporary, in its method.

Preliminary Definitions

The term evangelical today is imprecise. Since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, it has denoted the Protestant as distinct from the Catholic effort to be faithful to the Gospel. It has been used since then for less numerous groups within the Protestant coalition to indicate their efforts at a return to the authentic and original revelation. Although people differ on what they are pleased to call evangelical—for example, I am not altogether pleased to concede Schleiermacher’s claim that his theology is evangelical—nevertheless, it is a noble term indicating faithfulness to the Gospel.

In speaking of conservative I have in mind an essential fidelity to the doctrinal structure of the biblical and Christian tradition. I doubt that a theology lacking a conservative side would deserve the name Christian or evangelical. However much someone may feel compelled to reword or revise the earlier understandings of the faith there must surely be the intention to represent this structure of belief and not some other. By conservative I mean to indicate that there are limits to adaptation that we ought not to transgress because they represent essential elements of the apostolic proclamation. We are expected to be faithful to the stewardship of the Gospel attested authoritatively in the Holy Scriptures, and to bring our own theology and preaching under the judgment of the written Word of God.

By contemporary I have in mind our proper responsibility to the contemporary hearers of the Gospel whereby we seek to communicate the message meaningfully to them and apply it creatively to the modern situation. Generally speaking, the failure to be contemporary is the weakness of traditional orthodox theology, and the failure to maintain clear continuity is the weak spot in liberal theology. But I think there is a widespread desire on all sides to be both conservative and contemporary if possible; certainly it is my own fond wish.

In theological method, therefore, I am convinced that our theology and preaching ought to be bi-polar. We should strive to be faithful to historic Christian beliefs taught in Scripture, and at the same time to be authentic and responsible to the contemporary hearers. On a popular level Francis A. Schaeffer tries to do this.

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Two Different Styles In Contemporary Theology

When we look at the bi-polar method more closely, we find less agreement than at first glance. What exactly is a faithful stewardship of Gospel and Creed? Do we mean, for example, the literal authority of the whole canon of Scripture, or something less, a canon within the canon? And as for our responsibility to the contemporary hearers we might ask with Thielicke, “How modern should theology be?” What degree of influence should the situation of modern man be permitted to exercise upon our theological reflections? Can modernity pose questions only, or answers also? Such questions as these force us to go deeper into the matter and begin to expose differences of opinion in theological method. They compel us to decide how we weigh the relative authority and status of the scriptural as opposed to the modernity pole, for example, and help to reveal two distinctive approaches to theology in our day: the classical approach and the liberal experiment. In so doing I am not inventing the categories, though my preferred terminology may be novel, but am following the lead taken by such theologians as Barth, Thielicke, Kenneth Hamilton, and others. I believe that this cleavage in contemporary theology is the most important distinction we can note, and, though the precise limits and exact membership in each group is fuzzy at the edges, I think we should be able to see the two basic families with some clarity.

Style One: The Classical Approach

Classical (conservative, orthodox) theology is characterized by a concentration upon fidelity and continuity with the historic Christian belief system set forth in Scripture and reproduced in creed and confession, with what C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity. Prior to the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century, there was quite a consistency of approach to the normative priority of divine revelation in theology over the natural and uninspired thoughts of men and women, despite important differences in the interpretation of Sacred Writ. Certainly for the conservative Reformation the one and only foundation of Christian theology was believed to be the revealed Word of God, uniquely and authoritatively attested in the Bible. Even Aquinas, though he believed that natural theology was a legitimate part of Christian theology, also considered the truth content of faith to come through divine revelation, not through natural reason.

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Classical Christians have always sought to exalt the truth of divine revelation, embodied in the Incarnation and attested in the Scriptures, far above the thoughts of mankind. They have considered the Bible to contain didactive thought models to guide their theology, models that were infallibly authoritative because they originated in God’s witness to himself. For this reason they have shown themselves committed to an undiluted, we might say an undemythologized, biblical framework, which enjoyed absolute cognitive authority over them. B.B. Warfield is a good, near-contemporary example:

“The confession of a supernatural God who may and does act in a supernatural mode, and who acting in a supernatural mode has wrought out for us a supernatural redemption, interpreted in a supernatural revelation, and applied by the supernatural operations of his Spirit—this confession constitutes the core of the Christian profession” (Biblical and Theological Studies, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952, p. 21). Put in a nutshell, contemporary questions are revised in confrontation with the biblical text, not the text in correlation with the questions. The modernity pole is not permitted to compel any substantial revision of the original deposit of faith. Although St. Paul, for example, made every effort to adapt himself to the person or audience he was addressing, he was also prepared to go against and contradict the presuppositions of Jews and Greeks where they were incompatible with the truth. He adamantly refused to compromise the divine mysteries of which he was a faithful steward. This is also the stance of classical Christianity. If the requirements of revelation are opposed to the currents of contemporary thought, then Christians should be expected to swim against the stream, whether from within secularism, Marxism, capitalism, or humanism. We are not called to register, like a theological weathervane, which way the winds of the day are blowing, but rather to sail boldly into them.

At the same time, we must also criticize classical theology for its neglect of the contemporary situation. Of course, it is wrong to let the world set the church’s agenda. But it is also wrong to live in fear of modernity and in neglect of the contemporary situation of modern man as if God were no longer active in it. After all, it is essential to express the Gospel in context, as preachers well know. Even the Scripture itself is an effort at putting the Gospel in first-century terms, which requires readers today to think carefully about its meaning and application. Conservative Protestants often appear to be indifferent to context. It is not good enough to reprint and rehearse the sixteenth century in our generation. We have not been faithful to the Gospel until we have made it our own, and tried to express it relevantly. Conservative Christianity needs to work much harder at formulating creative proposals of the biblical message for today. It is not enough to expose the un-Christian assumptions of modernity unless we are prepared to do this task, too. Somehow, the classical doctrines have to be reappropriated in terms of modern experience, and this can be done without compromise with the help of the God who rules over every age and generation.

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Modern conservatism has often become anticultural in a bad sense. Just because we are alert to the sinful potentials in every phase of world culture does not require a moratorium on all appreciation of positive elements in modernity. The modern sense of outrage toward such crimes against humanity as slavery, torture, and hunger, while it has some Christian roots itself, has called a neglectful church back to its own Bible. Modern research into social and psychological dimensions of human experience, too, are surely valuable tools, when used with discrimination, for getting at the intention of the scriptural message. There is no excuse for boycotting these disciplines. Had we not gone through the Enlightenment with its criticism of absolute social structures, for example, we might never have recovered the biblical suggestions about democratic pluralism and the liberation of women. Much of the modern contempt of classical Christianity is due, not to its stand on Scripture, but to its nonessential narrowmindedness in regard to the gifts of common grace that God has freely given us.

Style Two: The Liberal Experiment

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology, initiated a new approach to theology. Within its number over the past century and a half have been some of the most creative and erudite Christian thinkers the church has ever known: Ritschl, Troeltsch, Harnack, Bultmann, Tillich, and so forth. The liberal experiment in theology is essentially an effort at contextualization and is not unconcerned, as some critics charge, about maintaining links with the Bible and classical beliefs. Characteristic of the liberal experiment, however, is a deep desire to make effective contact with the beliefs and experiences of modern man. It tends to concentrate upon the receiving “I” of the message (hence Thielicke calls it “Cartesian” and Hamilton calls it “earth bound” and “hermeneutical”). It is concerned with how belief is possible today, and is prepared to make use of an outside criterion as an aid in the understanding of the Gospel: for example, Heidegger’s philosophy, or Husserl’s phenomenology. Let us take some illustrations, being careful to avoid caricature or neglect of the great diversity within this approach.

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Schleiermacher himself (d. 1834) took his departure from the religious dimension he detected in ordinary human experience. He sought to form a dogmatic system based on a descriptive analysis of the sense of absolute dependence he saw in man. Religious experience became for him the criterion for assessing the teachings of the past and the means for reinterpreting the faith for modern man. To Karl Barth, Schleiermacher represented perfectly the liberal experiment, which dwelt upon man’s feelings rather than upon God’s revealed Word. Out of this method emerged a theology of immanence and a Christology reckoned as an innate possibility of human nature. Whatever Schleiermacher’s theology is, it is not classical Christianity.

August Sabatier, a French liberal theologian (d. 1901), offers another clear example of the liberal method in theology. In his book The Religion of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit published posthumously in 1904, Sabatier rejected classical Christian belief, which was based on the divine revelation in Scripture, and advocated in its place a religion of man’s moral and spiritual experience, a version of the Quaker inner life.

The use of an outside criteria by which to understand the kerygma allows the Gospel itself to come under alien control.

In the twentieth century we can look at Bultmann’s proposal for theology. When he made his initial call for believers to demythologize the New Testament in 1941, he was not conscious of making a novel suggestion. He was perfectly aware, even if his readers were not, that the process of dismantling the biblical and orthodox framework of Christianity had been going on for a century already in the liberal experiment. To Bultmann, and in this he is simply a liberal, it was self-evident that a person could not sacrifice his modernity even for his faith. Indeed, it would be a treasonable act to force oneself to believe outdated notions. Instead, he proposed demythologizing these ideas, for example, the fall of man, the Virgin Birth, the atonement, the bodily resurrection, the second coming, and reinterpreting them in ways acceptable to the modern spirit, or more accurately compatible with the philosophical thinking of the early Heidegger.

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Schubert Ogden is an American interpreter and follower of Bultmann, as well as a leading light in the development of process theology. Because of a certain stridency peculiar to his writings, Ogden lucidly expresses the theological approach I am describing. Like his German mentor, Ogden finds the undemythologized New Testament message “unintelligible, incredible, and irrelevant” and contends that “no one could seriously maintain it.” With Bultmann, he is aware that demythologizing does not simply have to do with details in the text, but requires “the complete destruction of the traditional Christian conception of the ‘history of salvation’.” And why is that? Simply because the demand to demythologize “arises with necessity from the situation of modern man and must be accepted without condition.” Granted, there are perhaps few theologians who would express themselves in so forthright a manner and in a way so disturbing to classical Christians, and I would not want to tar all liberals with Ogden’s brush. Nevertheless, I have not found many of them condemning what he has to say and suspect he is more of an exception in style than in content. From the conservative side, Ogden is an almost perfect example of “apologetic” liberal theology, which tailors the message of Scripture to suit the Zeitgeist, because it does it so self-consciously and undeceptively.

In the popular arena, few books have sold more than Honest to God (1963). It admirably represents the liberal experiment in theology. Because the biblical understanding of God as creator outside the universe is repugnant to modern man, Robinson urges us to think of him as the ground of being. And since the supernaturalism of biblical and creedal Christology causes offense, he suggests we think of Jesus in simply human terms as the man for others. We are asked to accept Jesus as a “window into ultimate reality” rather than the divine son in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelled bodily. By these means the former bishop hopes to win inquirers to the Christian faith.

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Earlier I referred to Paul Tillich as one who advocated the correlation of the biblical message with the situation of modern man. The way Tillich presents it, you would get the impression that the modern situation provides only questions and the Bible only answers. But this is not so. In Tillich’s theology the modern situation does most definitely provide answers as well as questions. Indeed his logos-philosophy, derived in large measure from German idealism, acts drastically upon the biblical message. There is almost no biblical exegesis in his three-volume Systematic Theology. Salvation becomes ontological reunion with the impersonal ground of being, instead of forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ. Jesus becomes the historical symbol of an ontological principle, rather than the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God. Kenneth Hamilton has gone so far as to say that “to see Tillich’s system as a whole is to see that it is incompatible with the Christian gospel.” In a milder vein, it is no exaggeration to say that Tillich created his “system” out of materials at least partly present in philosophy, not in Scripture, and does not acknowledge the authority of the Bible to criticize and judge his thought.

Proceeding much more cautiously in these matters, Langdon Gilkey allows his theology to be heavily influenced by the secular philosophy of history. In his important book Reaping the Whirlwind (1976), after revealing a sound grasp of the biblical and traditional understanding of God’s providence, he finds it necessary to dismantle and reconstruct the historic Christian belief. He asks, “How can the activity of God in social process be understood if history as a whole and political action within it are viewed at the deepest level naturalistically? This entire volume is devoted to an explication of and answer to this question” (Seabury, p. 199). His meaning becomes quite clear in two later statements: “Our effort will be to reinterpret them (the classical concepts of providence) in the light of the modern historical consciousness which we share, and so to modify, if not dissolve entirely, these latter orthodox elements of the conception” (p. 240). “We are seeking to avoid a ‘supernaturalist’ explanation of history and yet to find a valid and significant meaning for the conception of divine providence” (p. 247). It is surely plain that the modernity pole exercises for Gilkey hermeneutical authority over and above the scriptural text, and that he feels perfectly free to reinterpret the sacred text in accord with the modern self-understanding.

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A particularly clear example of liberal theological method is supplied by the recent and highly praised book Blessed Rage for Order by David Tracy (1975). The modern theologian, he claims, has a double faith commitment, faith in the God of Jesus and faith in the modern experiment. Because of this double commitment, he is compelled to undertake a “basic revision of traditional Christianity.” The theologian must provide an “appropriate symbolic representation of the faith of secularity.” He claims that most of the leading American theologians today are engaged in this task.

These theologians are not neglecting the contemporary situation as much classical theology does, but rather losing continuity with Scripture and tradition. The modern spirit is exalted alongside God’s Word in the form of a rival commitment. The use of an outside criterion by which to understand the kerygma appears to allow the Gospel itself to come under alien control. Instead of Scripture being the norm, theology is governed by the nineteenth or twentieth century cultural ego.

Evangelical Theology—Conservative And Contemporary

What I seek is a theology that maintains a proper balance of newness and oldness, which does justice both to the authoritative Scriptures and to the needs of the contemporary hearers. After all, the Christian message, as John said, is old and getting older, and yet, paradoxically, is ever new (1 John 2:7). My vision is for a theology that is faithful to what God has said, and responsible to the people who hear it. How can this balance be achieved and maintained?

First, consider the conservative side of theology—the issue of fidelity and continuity with the faith once delivered. As in classical theology, I believe we all ought to stand underneath God’s defining revelation, within the framework of covenantal truth deposited in Scripture. After all, we are not free-thinkers, but those who confess the lordship of Jesus and who are sent out under his authority with his message. Divinely inspired Scripture is and has always been the creative and life-giving source for theology. There are many New Testament texts to guide us here. The central theme of Second Timothy, for example, is one of guarding and continuing in the Gospel (1:13–14, 3:14). To that end Paul urges Timothy to treat the message with utmost respect, and to ensure that it is passed down to the next generation intact (2:1–2, 4:1–5). Its terms are authoritatively set forth in the God-breathed Scriptures, and in the apostle’s own writings and teachings (3:14–17). Timothy needs to be watchful because there is a real danger that the sacred truth deposit will be manipulated and distorted (3:1–9). It is as if Paul were speaking directly to the liberal experiment, and issuing a note of extreme caution.

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Another relevant image of Paul’s, which applies here, is that of a stewardship of the Gospel. He regards himself as a faithful steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1–2). As such, he will not consider tampering in any way with the message (2 Cor. 4:2). The trustee or steward does not add or subtract from the lord’s commission, but faithfully preserves and presents it—it is his authority, as well as his glory. Paul proclaimed the Gospel as boldly as he did because he believed it to be founded upon what God had said. There are many texts in the New Testament that command us to stand firm in the truth, to pay close attention to what we have heard, to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (2 Thess. 2:15; Gal. 1:8–9; Heb. 2:1; Jude 3). We live in a generation that is suspicious of the old and confident in the new. The oldness of the faith is a stumbling block to many people, but it cannot be otherwise. What God has said in the Gospel and in the Scripture is final and definitive. We have a solemn duty to preach it and pass it along. Christian truth does not need to be brought into line with modern thought, but modern man, who needs to be intellectually and spiritually converted to the Gospel message.

The most objectionable feature of the liberal experiment is the way in which it places human wisdom on a par with the Word of God. What possible justification could there be, in view of the New Testament teaching about wisdom in the old age outside of Christ, for using modern man’s understanding of reality as a critical instrument for judging Scripture (1 Cor. 1:18–31; 3:18–23)? By all means let us seek to be relevant—but not at any price. The function of God’s Word is to shatter man’s twisted illusions, not to sanctify them. To modernize, enculturate, or secularize the Gospel is a treasonable act, on a par with Israel’s repeated efforts to join Baal and Yahweh worship.

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Paul warns us to beware of philosophy, that is, to guard against being captured by a man-made system of religious speculations that would rival the truth of the Gospel. Today there are themes in culture that call for vigilance and resistance from Christian people. While seeking to respond creatively to our time, we must also exert counter-pressures upon our environment, and avoid capitulating to error. We have a responsibility to expose non-Christian assumptions in the dominant culture. Although this is sometimes done from within the liberal experiment, it is not done consistently or thoroughly. Humanism and secularism are seldom challenged and refuted at basic levels. What excuse can be offered for the persistent tendency to chip away at biblical supernaturalism instead of calling into question modern antisupernaturalism? Why is Bultmann so much admired when he states explicitly that what motivates his proposal to demythologize is his pseudo-scientific conviction of a closed continuum of cause and effect, which renders God’s mighty acts impossible? And why do we give so much attention to such biblical criticism as takes its departure from this kind of secularism? Surely James D. Smart is correct in blaming the tragic silence of the Bible in the modern church with all its disastrous effects on criticism of this kind. No wonder modern preachers schooled in a sub-Christian approach to the biblical documents find themselves robbed of definite convictions and a clear, forceful message. Conversely, it is no accident or secret that the churches that are growing in North America are those in which solid biblical convictions are maintained and proclaimed with no uncertain sound.

Second, consider the contemporary side of theology—the issue of responsibility and authenticity. Earlier I indicted conservative theology for its relative neglect of the contemporary situation. It would be a sad picture if Scripture were seen to be a limit and restriction, without any room left for freedom and creativity. Indeed there is a liberating factor, the reality of the living God who leads and guides his people who are involved in struggles and changes. We have hope in the Spirit of God who abides with the church, and leads us deeper into all truth. Scripture is normative, but it always needs to be read afresh and applied in new ways. And because it is God’s Word, it is new in each situation and fresh to every person. In Wesley, and Carey, and Booth we see Christian leaders convinced of the permanent power of the Gospel, refusing to be shackled by churchly traditions, and willing to break out in new patterns, yet remaining faithful and true to the scriptural revelation. In C.S. Lewis, a man whose influence appears to be still growing, we see one who was able to create a highly original statement of wholly unoriginal doctrine. Faithfulness and creativity can be done!

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I am not advocating static conservatism. Fidelity does not consist in simply repeating old formulas drafted in an earlier time. It includes the creative thinking required to make the old message fresh and new. In Christology, for example, we must of course preserve the great truth of the Incarnation over against efforts to demythologize it, but it is also possible to be sensitive to the desire of our generation to be in touch with Jesus’ humanity. In the doctrine of God, we must preserve the truth of God as creator, ruler, and Lord over all. At the same time, why shouldn’t we emphasize the dynamism of the biblical portrait of God? In the doctrine of Scripture, we must certainly uphold the classical confidence, documented in the Bible itself, in God speaking truthfully and authoritatively in all the canonical text. But we can also make a greater effort to be honest and observant in regard to the human side of Scripture as well. I see a kind of theological synthesis possible in which the Bible remains normative, but in which it is read afresh under the illumination of the Spirit who makes it live for us.

I long to see an evangelical theology that is conservative in its guarding of the biblical revelation and contemporary in the task of its application to our generation in the power of the Spirit. It would keep a proper balance of oldness and newness, and be marked by an ability to maintain the classical truth of the Gospel and communicate it without compromise in fresh and creative ways. It is a better dialectic of Word and Spirit that I seek. To achieve this, we need to attend to the Holy Spirit, in whose power the undiluted Word of God reaches sinners. Without that, the bi-polar method cannot succeed. As Ramm puts it, “The evangelical believes that the real touchstone of a theology is its spiritual power, not necessarily its intellectual shrewdness or sophistication or learning” (The Evangelical Heritage, Word, 1973, p. 146).

Clark H. Pinnock is associate professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

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