An Evangelical Systematic Theology

Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1: God, Authority and Salvation, by Donald G. Bloesch (Harper & Row, 265 pp., $12.95), is reviewed by Paul D. Feinberg, associate professor of philosophy of religion and systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

In his many writings, Donald Bloesch has distinguished himself as a leading spokesman for evangelical theology. Thus, it is with no small interest that his two-volume theology is received. Essentials of Evangelical Theology is precisely what the title implies: a survey of the central questions in evangelical theology, with no effort to deal exhaustively with any one subject of theology. In volume 1 the areas of God, authority, and salvation are treated.

Bloesch dismisses certain stereotypes or misconceptions that outsiders may have of evangelicals, then attempts to specify very clearly the roots of his theology. He affirms the primacy of the biblical norm, but makes it clear that his understanding of theology is within the Reformed tradition and heavily dependent upon certain thinkers within the Catholic tradition—a point which may surprise some readers. He often calls his theology an evangelical catholic theology.

The doctrine of God is dealt with under the general rubric of the sovereignty of God, and such traditional topics as the attributes of God, the decree, and trinitarianism are all discussed. This section closes with an excellent treatment of the erosion of the biblical view of God. Bloesch shows how philosophy—process philosophy in particular—and secularism have combined to leave our culture with an emasculated view of God.

In a chapter entitled “The Primacy of Scripture,” Bloesch affirms the divine origin and authority of the Bible. He also gives his views on the difficult questions of inerrancy and hermeneutics.

In the final five chapters, comprising approximately the last two-thirds of this volume, there is an examination of themes that bear on the doctrine of salvation, including sin, man’s state in sin, and the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The nature of sin, its effect upon Adam’s posterity, the relationship of the two natures in Christ, and his self-emptying are all treated here. Bloesch then turns to more properly soteriological questions such as the meaning and extent of the atonement, the nature and extent of election, as well as the relationship between faith and works in salvation.

I note a number of strengths in this theology. It is, first of all, not merely a rehash of standard fare found in other theologies; Bloesch achieves a highly creative and original treatment of the topics under discussion. He is aware of issues within their current theological milieu and, given his understanding of the biblical norm, is not afraid to correct his tradition when he thinks it has gone astray.

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Second, the breadth of knowledge Bloesch brings to the theological task is impressive. Besides an understanding of basic biblical data, there are references to the fathers, important figures in medieval theology, the Reformers, and contemporary theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the theology of Karl Barth particularly prominent.

Third, in general the work is nicely balanced. In his discussion of the biblical view of God, for example, he steers a nice course between the static, immobile deity of Greek philosophy and the wholly dynamic and process god of modern philosophy.

Yet, I perceive that some of the strengths lie at the root of the book’s weaknesses. Creativity, originality, and a synoptic vision can be a two-edged sword, and this is evident in at least four ways. First, the previously mentioned strengths lead Bloesch to positions that, to me, appear inadequate if not erroneous. God’s omnipresence is not to be understood as spacelessness. Rather, he is “not confined or contained in any place.” Moreover, “it does not mean that his being literally permeates all matter but that everything is included in his overall vision.” “Everything is immediately accessible to him.…” While Bloesch’s cautions are correct, his positive statements do not say enough. God is personally present to every point in space. To say that nothing escapes God’s vision merely combines omnipresence with omniscience. Nor is it sufficient to claim that every place is accessible to God, for it at least opens the possibility that, while God could be at some point in space, he is not.

Second, while at some points Bloesch retains important theological terminology, he so radically redefines terms that at worst they are self-contradictory and at best lack much relationship to their historical usages. To give two illustrations, Bloesch argues that an evangelical theology must affirm both the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. These, however, must be qualified in light of what Scripture says about itself. According to Bloesch, this does not leave us with a “totally inerrant” Bible. “We cannot affirm with some of our evangelical brethren that an unbiased investigation will disclose that the Bible does not err.” Inerrancy can only be disclosed to and by faith. Bloesch is surely headed in the right direction. But I find it difficult to see how the Bible can be inerrant and yet err.

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As further illustration, Bloesch’s treatment of irresistible grace contains the same perplexity. He believes the idea of irresistible grace is theologically correct, yet goes on to qualify the concept. Although grace is given to all and not to just a select group of the elect, this does not mean that all are saved. Grace is seen as triumphing even in the unsaved “in the form of wrath and judgment.” Is God then drawing them irresistibly to wrath and judgment? Clearly, Bloesch wants to say no, but it is not easy to see how he can.

In the third place, Bloesch’s position is not clear at times. In dealing with the nature of corruption that man under sin possesses, he rejects both a societal and an ontological interpretation. His claim that man’s “being in the world is corrupted” is not clear to me.

Finally, some of the solutions Bloesch suggests to problems appear more verbal than real. In discussing the substitutionary atonement of Christ he says that “the deepest meaning of substitutionary atonement is that God takes upon himself his own wrath out of his boundless love. This has already been accomplished in the preexistent Jesus Christ, but it needs to be demonstrated, revealed, and fulfilled in an atonement within history” (italics mine). One can see Bloesch struggle with the common objection to Barth’s view of the atonement, namely there is no genuine change from wrath to grace in history. In other words, the atonement is de-historicized, and its historical demonstration, revelation, and other aspects are superfluous to God’s action. Although Bloesch is clearly trying to avoid this objection, I doubt that he has.

While it is difficult to agree totally with any statement of Christian theology, disagreement, fortunately, does not preclude profit; it may rather enhance it. I think this book represents just such a case.

A Good Evangelical Novel

The Last Year of the War, by Shirley Nelson (Harper & Row, 255 pp., $9.95), is reviewed by Harold Fickett III, lecturer in writing, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

The evangelical world remains uncharted territory for the novelist. Though it contains and accounts for the way of life of many Americans, writers have rarely tried to describe this form of faith or its subcultures. Those writers who have talked about evangelicals (i.e. Sinclair Lewis and Flannery O’Connor among others) have done so from a distance; they have produced a literature in which there is tremendous psychic distance between the author and his subject, a literature of satire or the grotesque. But Shirley Nelson in The Last Year of the War writes out of sympathy for the evangelical world. She tries to capture the heart and mind of this world and produces a testament to the quirky yet rich life evangelicals lead.

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The Last Year of the War narrates the life of a young woman, Jo, during the last year of World War II while she attends Calvary Bible Institute of Chicago. (All those who approach fiction with gossipy instincts will immediately wonder if Calvary Bible Institute is a pseudonym for Moody Bible Institute. It must be, but that makes no difference to the story.) Jo spends her time attending classes, participating in Bible studies, prayer meetings, and a gospel team outreach group to the skid row of Chicago. She studies when she has time; she sleeps on rare occasions. Anyone who knows this scene will be constantly delighted by moments of recognition: the verisimilitude here is outstanding. It is also treacherous. For every such time as the reader recalls how he, too, stood in chapel service and sang “Showers of Blessing,” there are other times—as when Jo has been called in to see the women’s dean or heard her classmates surreptitiously praying for her—that the reader must acknowledge that witch-hunting persists and seems inherent to that part of him that remains puritan.

Much of the narrative recounts Jo’s relationship with a troubled outcast, Clyde MacQuade, who also attends Calvary. Clyde epitomizes the way the great paradoxes of Christianity (i.e., if you would save your life, you must lose it) can be transformed into principles of self-destruction by pathological fanaticism. Jo’s involvement with Clyde is also meant to dramatize the extremely vulnerable and guilt-ridden position of young women who try to be kin to their unlovable brothers in Christ. Unfortunately, and this is my major reservation about the novel, Jo seems too much a cipher in her account of Clyde’s story. The reader is uninvolved because Jo is not sufficiently present as a character for him to feel with her. And so, Clyde’s story remains in part a short story that is not completely integrated into the novel’s structure.

The real dialectic of the novel, or the engine that makes the narrative run, consists in Jo’s mental shuttling between the world of Calvary Bible Institute and the world of her family. Calvary is presumably a sacred world and her family secular, if not profane. Certainly, Jo’s father does his best—in his classically liberal, “nondirective” way—to convince his daughter to see her revival meeting conversion as a sublimated sexual experience. He wants her to face the “real world” with objective, scientific eyes. Though Jo cares about her father and his doubts, going so far as to consult one of her teachers, Dr. Peckham (the most credible and likeable holy man to appear in a book in a long time), the real test of her faith comes from her brother, Loring.

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Significantly, Jo never tells anyone at Calvary that Loring was reported missing in action after a bombing raid over Europe. While Jo does not tell the reader, he concludes that she believes those at Calvary—the world of Calvary—cannot understand this tragedy. Loring represents all that is good and natural in life, seeming to need no religious justification, no sanctifying. Calvary cannot understand about Loring because its categories leave Loring out; he is neither sacred nor profane. But in the book’s denouement, Jo undergoes a religious crisis that skillfully associates Loring’s death with the real Calvary, Golgotha, and Christ’s resurrection. Her religious crisis results in a final conversion of her imagination; she sees how Calvary and the Resurrection provide psychic access to the horror of death and thereby grant passage through that horror to the greater reality of Life and Love. Jo’s Christianity escapes the boundaries of Calvary Bible Institute to embrace all of life. The denouement may leave theologians scratching their heads, trying to decide if Jo’s concept of the Resurrection is in a theological sense “adequate.” But that is not the point. The book’s dialectic demands an imaginative synthesis, and Shirley Nelson achieves it.

Anyone interested in imaginative literature about the evangelical world ought to read this book. It is fine, honest work.

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