Is there really such a thing as evangelicalism?" I had heard the question posed too many times. This time I heard myself responding, "There had better be! That's my family!" My passionate response surprised both me and my conversation partner.
Evangelical is not just a label for many of us. It is an emotive word that evokes powerful memories and deep-seated feelings of sawdust floors in open-sided tent meetings, moments with God and his people around altars and bonfires, sanctuaries and classrooms with preachers and teachers steeped in Scripture and soaked in the Spirit, and participation in Billy Graham crusades, Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade for Christ, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. This is our story. This is our song. This is our family.
But does it exist? Do I really have such a family, or is it merely a figment of my imagination—like the idealized tv families of 1950s sitcoms? And even if evangelicalism does exist, does it have a future?
I believe that evangelicalism does indeed exist, though what holds it together is sometimes hard to discern (much like the work of the Holy Spirit who animates the movement). I want to argue that evangelicalism is primarily a theological movement that has the following four minimum characteristics:
—It looks to the Bible as the supreme norm of truth for Christian belief and practice—the biblical message enshrined in its narratives and its interpretations of those narratives;
—It holds a supernatural world-view that is centered in a transcendent, personal God who interacts with, and intervenes in, creation;
—It focuses on the forgiving and transforming grace of God through Jesus Christ in the experience called conversion as the center of authentic Christian experience;
—And it believes that the primary task of Christian theology is to serve the church's mission of bringing God's grace to the whole world through proclamation and service.
These four characteristics form the evangelical theological consensus, the core of authentic evangelical theology. Others would add features to this basic list, but no self-identified evangelical theologian—conservative or progressive—would take from it.
While I believe this familial consensus exists, I am anxious about its future. Since at least the mid-1970s, this glue has been gradually losing its binding power. Debates over the exact nature of Scripture's authority, the origins of humanity and creation itself, appropriate roles of men and women in church and society, and divine sovereignty in nature and history have manifested rather than caused a growing rift between evangelical theologians. The various positions in these evangelical debates do not themselves call into question our core commitments, but the rhetoric of the debates often imply that they do.
Powerful leaders within evangelical theological professional societies have threatened to leave and create rival societies unless other evangelical theologians and scholars are expelled. Books and articles decrying either too much revision and innovation or too little vitality and fresh rethinking of evangelical thought have poured forth from evangelical publishing houses in recent years. The compilation The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press, 1996) and Millard Erickson's The Evangelical Left (Baker, 1997) warn of creeping liberalism in the camp while Stanley Grenz's Revisioning Evangelical Theology (InterVarsity, 1993) and William J. Abraham's The Coming Great Revival: Recovering the Full Evangelical Tradition (Harper & Row, 1984) call for reconsideration of traditional evangelical ways of thinking about matters dear to evangelical hearts and minds.
This crisis has been building for at least two decades, and whatever the next century holds for evangelical theology depends to a great extent on how it is handled and resolved. Failure to resolve it may mean the dissolution of the shaky unity that has marked evangelical theology since its emergence as a distinct movement during this century. My hope, however, is that the successful resolution of this debate may energize evangelical theology and be a catalyst for greater creativity and influence in the twenty-first century.
At the risk of gross oversimplification, I will delineate two emerging parties, or loose coalitions, within North American evangelical theology. One party may be described as traditionalist and the other as reformist. Their differences lie in divergent mindsets toward a variety of fundamental issues, including theological boundaries, the nature of doctrine, progress in theology, and relating to nonevangelical theologies and culture in general. I would like to emphasize, however, that both groups passionately embrace the basic evangelical paradigm and work out of it.
Labels all too often are perceived as libels. Jarislov Pelikan has defined traditionalism as "the dead faith of the living" and contrasted it with tradition as the "living faith of the dead." I do not use the label traditionalist in any negative sense. It simply means a mindset that values traditional interpretations and formulations as binding and normative and looks with suspicion upon doctrinal revisions and new proposals arising out of theological reflection.
Similarly, reformist is a label sometimes associated with idealism and progressive social and political agendas and activism. Here it simply describes a mindset that values the continuing process of constructive theology seeking new light breaking forth from God's Word. Neither label is used pejoratively.
My goal in describing these two mindsets is for evangelical traditionalists and evangelical reformists to begin to dialogue with each other for the greater good of the entire evangelical community. I believe they need to understand better one another's strengths, learn to challenge each other in love, and to work together for the strength and vitality of future evangelical fellowship and witness.
Church as bounded set. Traditionalists tend to specify who is "in" and who is "out" of the community. They see evangelicalism as a "bounded set" category. The only way to avoid the slide into debilitating relativism and pluralism—a disease that has virtually destroyed "mainline" Christian denominations—is to recognize firm boundaries. It must be possible to decide, by paying close attention, which theologians and movements are within the circle or—to use a common evangelical metaphor—under the tent.
One way of achieving the traditionalists' goal is to look to the past and acknowledge some outstanding signposts and landmarks in the history of Christian theology as irreversible and unquestionable achievements in interpreting Scripture. Traditionalists enshrine certain works of the past in a way analogous to landmark court precedents.
Evangelical traditionalism has a decidedly confessionalist cast, the acceptance of certain historical doctrinal confessions as absolute boundaries that put flesh on the skeleton of the basic evangelical paradigm. What good is it to affirm Scripture as supreme source and norm for faith and practice if one can draw all the wrong conclusions from it? Even cultists often affirm the supremacy of Scripture and claim to be "born again."
For at least the last 15 years, various evangelical thinkers have warned against "the goddess of novelty" and spurious innovation in theology, calling evangelicals back to the sources of the faith. Thomas C. Oden of Drew University, who represents a moderate and irenic traditionalism within the Arminian wing of evangelicalism, argues for a new appreciation of the early church fathers and the Great Tradition of Christian thought that preceded the denominationalism of Christianity. Oden likes to quote the criterion of Christian truth suggested by early theologian Vincent of Lérins: "What has always been believed by all Christians everywhere." Oden believes that the Great Tradition should be held up as a norm for Christian thought without denying the need for occasional, moderate reformulation of that tradition.
Other evangelical traditionalists emphasize the magisterial Reformation of the sixteenth century—Luther, Calvin, and the great Protestant confessions of faith stemming from their reforming theologies—as the touchstone of doctrinal truth for authentic evangelicalism. Certain evangelical thinkers have come together as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) to call evangelicals back to our roots in the magisterial Reformation. Some within this group and its sympathizers look to Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor David Wells as the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness of current evangelical enthusiasm for therapeutic preaching and market-driven ecclesiology. Wells's books No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993) and God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) are regarded by them as clarion calls back to the solid ground of tradition and away from the precipice of evangelical decline into cultural accommodation.
Whether they sympathize with Oden's focus on the early church or Wells's emphasis on the magisterial Reformation and Puritan theology, all evangelical traditionalists see the need for firm confessional boundaries around the evangelical community. It is not enough to proclaim "The Bible only!" and leave open its interpretation to anything and everything that can possibly be justified by appeal to it. That would be like declaring allegiance to the Constitution while rejecting landmark Supreme Court decisions or even the authority of the Court itself.
Church as centered set. Reformist evangelicals, on the other hand, prefer to see evangelical Christianity as a centered-set category rather than a bounded-set one. Risking ambiguity about boundaries—who is "in" and who is "out"—they insist on keeping the boundaries open and relatively undefined. Thinkers, books, groups can be "more or less" evangelical. When it becomes necessary—as sometimes is the case—to decide whether a particular theologian or movement is truly evangelical or not, reformists look to the center—the unchanging constellation of four evangelical commitments that makes up its paradigm.
To reformists, the traditionalists' emphasis on clear boundaries verges on obsessiveness with order and manifests an "us/them" mentality. Their questions to evangelical traditionalists would be "whose creeds and confessions?" Those who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith cannot affirm all of Wesley's articles of religion or Pentecostal statements of faith. To reformists, the traditionalists' respect for past affirmations is laudable, but their tendency to treat detailed doctrinal statements—however hoary—as virtual additions to Scripture undermines not only theological progress but prophetic correction by Word and Spirit.
While resisting doctrinal relativism and pluralism, reformists wish to remain open to prophetic voices from the "fringes" that may not have been heard as authentically evangelical before. The boundaries may remain relatively open and undefined so long as the center remains strong.
Reformist evangelical thinkers look to scholars such as Clark H. Pinnock and Stanley J. Grenz as pioneers of cautious, biblically committed evangelical reformism. Pinnock's Tracking the Maze (Harper & Row, 1990) and Flame of Love (InterVarsity Press, 1996) and Grenz's Revisioning Evangelical Theology (InterVarsity, 1993) and Theology for the Community of God (Broadman & Holman, 1994) are models of the centered-set concept of evangelicalism. While respectful of the Great Tradition of Christian theology and especially of the Reformers' work in the sixteenth century, they recognize the fallibility of every human tradition and the need for ongoing reformulation of human perceptions of truth. Rather than look to the past for unchangeable landmarks and confessional standards, they look to the future and seek change within continuity for the sake of continuing evangelical vitality and viability.
Prescription. For evangelical theology to have a vibrant future it needs to have flexible boundaries with a strengthened center. Reformists are right to emphasize the center as the unifying force—the church is always strongest when it is emphasizing what it affirms—but they are wrong to emphasize inclusion without right affirmation. Reformists need to include in the center a cognitive content of core beliefs that are transcultural and translinguistic.
The cognitive content of the evangelical core identity need not be the jots and tittles of a full-blown systematic theology or any particular creed, confession, or catechism, but it must use the spirit of these formulations to point to the foundational experience of being transformed by God's spirit into Christlikeness and a confession of Jesus as God and Savior. The core of belief at the center will also include the unique inspiration of Scripture and salvation by Jesus Christ alone through God's grace alone.
One of the tasks of theology will be to make this center so strong and attractive that many will move toward it into the "big tent" of evangelical Christianity and out of the night of heresy and doctrinal confusion. Still, it must be remembered that it is the experience of God's transforming Spirit through encounter with Jesus Christ in conversion that best guarantees authentic Christianity—including orthodox belief.
Traditionalists need to recognize that affirmation of truth may take different forms. One is not necessarily or automatically pronouncing heresy just because the expected shibboleth comes out wrongly. G. K. Chesterton is supposed to have warned against liberal distortions of Christian truth by saying that if one wishes to draw a giraffe one can draw it many ways, but it has to have a long neck. A moment of genuine enlightenment occurred for me when I repeated this aphorism to a colleague who replied: "Unless one is viewing the giraffe from above." Before condemning a Christian thinker for not drawing the giraffe correctly, it is worthwhile to inquire into his or her perspective. Traditionalists are right to affirm that Christianity —and especially evangelical Christianity—cannot be made compatible with any and every cognitive content. On the other hand, they need to recognize that viewpoints may give equally correct affirmations diverse forms.
The future of evangelical theology will be a "big tent" with definite but sometimes uncertain boundaries and a strong center stage. Exactly who is under the tent is not always easy to tell, but we should embrace and attempt to include those whose faces are turned toward the center and invite them to come forward. This is the positive mission of our theological leaders.
Nature and Progress of Doctrine
Another reason for this unfortunate rift is difference of understanding about the nature of, and progress in, doctrine and theology. Traditionalists stress the close identification of formulations of core doctrines with what is directly taught in Scripture and so see doctrine as lying at the center of Christianity's enduring essence. For them, traditional theological formulations are a first-order language of revelation. God revealed doctrines.
Reformists, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the human instrumentality in articulating doctrine, seeing it as a second-order language—in other words, as a human interpretion of divine revelation. Reformists, then, see doctrinal and theological progress as discovering "new light" breaking forth from God's Word.
Doctrine as revelation. What is it that makes Christianity identifiable across time and space and from culture to culture? For traditionalists, it is not so much experience or liturgy or forms of community but belief in a set of doctrinal affirmations that can be translated without substantial loss across cultures and languages throughout the centuries and across continents.
Because of heretical challenges to these doctrinal affirmations, the church has found it necessary at times to enshrine them in creeds, confessions of faith, and catechisms. They are the timeless truths that arise directly out of any correct reading of Scripture itself and define Christianity over against all false gospels. The affirmation that Jesus Christ is one person in two natures, for example, is since the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) as much a part of authentic Christianity as the affirmation that "Jesus is Lord!"
In his widely used Christian Theology, Millard Erickson embodies this traditionalist mindset when he affirms doctrine as the "enduring essence" of Christianity. Experience is subjective and unable to provide the firm foundation for a community of faith. To be "evangelical," he argues, is to affirm certain beliefs about Scripture and God that are not open to revision or change in content. Only the forms in which they are expressed may change from culture to culture and time to time. In a recently published critique of The Evangelical Left, Erickson warns against what he sees as a growing tendency among some evangelical theologians to downplay and demote enduring, unchanging doctrinal commitments.
By defining doctrine as a first-order language of divine revelation, traditionalists naturally understand "progress" in evangelical thought as digging deeper into the historic sources and translating them for contemporary people. In other words, progress is effective spelling out of past achievements in theology.
Some traditionalists look back to an almost edenic period of theological reflection from the 1740s to the 1880s, with the works of Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge as its stalwart bookends, where Reformed theology clarified and solidified its basic confessional stance within the modern world, completing this constructive task of theology. The theologian's job today, then, is to carry forward the same basic methodology and guiding impulses by translating Edwards's and Hodge's doctrine of divine sovereignty, for example, within the conceptual and linguistic world of contemporary society.
Doctrine as interpretation. Evangelical reformists, on the other hand, tend to make a sharp distinction between doctrinal formulas and scriptural language itself. Theological constructions are the church's later interpretations of the stories and teachings of canonical Scripture and so are subject to judgment from Scripture and must constantly be held more lightly than the first-order language of the Bible and worship (e.g., "Jesus is Lord!").
For reformist evangelicals, the enduring essence of Christianity is a work of God in the life of the human person, variously called conversion, regeneration, or being born again. Doctrine serves the experience, not vice versa. This supernatural experience of conversion brings with it the conviction of the truth of Scripture and commitment to mission and service. Doctrines, then, are attempts to express faithfully and relevantly the implications of this experience. As authoritative as they may be, doctrines are never as central as the experience of meeting God.
A recent expression of this evangelical mindset is Grenz's Revisioning Evangelical Theology. Grenz calls for a recognition of the experience of conversion and conversional piety as the true enduring essence of evangelicalism, with doctrine as important—even essential—but secondary and revisable.
For example, says Grenz, whether one is premillennial or postmillennial or amillennial was once a major issue among evangelical Christians and divided the family into factions. But many evangelicals who once insisted on the enduring truth of premillennial doctrine as defining what it is to be evangelical now recognize ambiguity in Scripture on the meaning of the millennium (Rev. 20). Some premillennialists have even shifted toward amillennialism without in any way defecting from authentic evangelical Christian theology. According to Grenz and other reformist evangelical thinkers, we must remain open to such future shifts and changes in human interpretations and formulations of the meaning of God's inspired Word. What endures through change is commitment to the center—Jesus Christ and loyalty to him through the work of the Spirit called "conversion."
Reformists see doctrinal and theological progress as discovering "new light" breaking forth from God's Word. Through earnestly going back to the beginning and reflecting anew on the meanings of original revelation in the light of contemporary problems, theology can discover new solutions that may have even seemed heretical to earlier generations steeped in philosophies and cultures alien to the biblical thought world. Reformists want to clear away what they see as the tangled underbrush of human traditions in order to solve theological puzzles and conundrums.
Even "new solutions," however, would to reformists be at best temporary settlements—open to further reconsideration and possible revision as required by the biblical message, illumination from the Holy Spirit, and contemporary culture. For reformists, theology's constructive task is always incomplete this side of the kingdom.
A recent flash point of controversy arising out of these two distinct mindsets is the debate over the so-called openness of God proposal. Pinnock and others have suggested that the God of the Bible is obscured by such traditional attributes as simplicity, impassibility, and even immutability. In The Openness of God (InterVarsity, 1994), Pinnock and four other evangelical thinkers argued for reforming the classical doctrine of God in light of a fresh reading of the biblical narratives of God's interaction with people.
Many traditionalists see this as a clear-cut case of violating established tradition—especially when the reformists go so far as to suggest that God may not already know every future free decision yet to be made by every person. The Christian theological tradition, they argue, has settled that issue in favor of God's exhaustive and certain knowledge (if not foreordination) of every event past, present, and future.
Even reformists who do not agree with Pinnock and his cohorts on this particular issue, like Stanley Grenz, support re-examining assumed doctrinal formulas from time to time. That is part of theology's task. What makes reformist theology "evangelical" is that it is firmly committed to, and guided by, Word and Spirit in this process and is not seeking merely to accommodate to cultural standards of "truth" when it adjusts a part of the doctrinal heritage of the churches.
Traditionalists like Erickson look at their reformist counterparts within the evangelical family and warn of the dangers of subjectivism, pluralism, and even theological liberalism. After all, didn't the father of modern liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, also place experience rather than doctrine at the center and redefine doctrine as merely attempts to bring religious experience to speech?
Reformists look over at their traditionalist counterparts and warn of the dangers of dead orthodoxy and theologismus—confusing doctrinal correctness with being transformed by encounter with God. Reformists point to some traditionalists' strange bedfellows; even some who reject such a traditional evangelical practice as solicitation of faith (witnessing) are considered allies by some traditionalists so long as they are theologically correct and appropriately committed to the doctrines of the magisterial Reformation.
Traditionalists accuse reformists of hobnobbing with liberals and postmodernists of various kinds. Gradually, the threat of internecine warfare looms as a real and very serious danger as these two evangelical parties—marked by their own distinctive mindsets—pull apart and fall away from brotherly dialogue into harsh polemics.
Prescription. The reformist idea that doctrinal affirmation is second-order language is simply true. No doctrinal formula or theological system is identical with divine revelation itself. And yet the traditionalist idea that some doctrinal affirmations are part of the permanent and essential core of evangelical Christianity is also true. Some theological formulations are so closely tied with the church's understanding of what God has revealed that they function as being equivalent to divine revelation.
Anyone who seriously denies the trustworthiness of Scripture or the deity of Jesus Christ or the necessity of grace for salvation must be considered other than truly and authentically evangelical, even though these doctrines have been developed by humans on the basis of divine revelation rather than directly revealed. Even if they are not "revealed truths," they are "truths of revelation."
These careful distinctions between core affirmations and secondary and tertiary doctrines that mark denominational distinctives are extremely important to keep in mind. Modern debates within the church often treat disputes over secondary doctrines as if core doctrines were at stake. This skews the discussion.
On many matters, there is no one "traditional" evangelical view. Take the differing evangelical views of divine sovereignty as an example. So long as one affirms God's ultimate ability to intervene and control nature and history (core affirmation) it should not matter whether one affirms that God does or does not limit himself in order to allow for free human participation and partnership in partially determining them (secondary doctrines). It will not matter—as a test of fellowship—whether he or she believes in God's meticulous control of all events or opts for a broader understanding such that God is "in charge but not always in control."
As for the prospect of progress in doctrine, reformists' search for new light can and must be correlated with traditionalists' strong respect for formative periods of past theological creativity and the settlements that arose out of them. We must remain open to the possibility that the Spirit of God may lead contemporary, God-honoring thinkers into deeper insights into God's Word while still honoring and learning from what the same Spirit has done in the past. Neither kneejerk rejection nor gullible embrace is the way forward.
Engaging the Rest of the World
Finally, these two evangelical camps have different mindsets with regard to interacting with nonevangelical theologies and culture in general. Because traditionalists see their doctrinal formulations as communicating the essence of the faith, they tend to view nonevangelical theologies and belief systems as false and as objects of critical examination and exposure. For traditionalists, then, a major task of evangelical theology is the discovery and exposure of heresy.
Reformists tend to look upon nonevangelical theologies and non-Christian culture as ambiguous and flawed quests for truth. At worst, these belief systems raise appropriate questions without providing any sound answers; at best, they can stimulate fresh thinking on the part of evangelicals. Even such a clearly nonevangelical thinker as Paul Tillich, for instance, can be seen by reformists as Luther's proverbial "crooked stick" with which God can strike a "heavy blow." Reformists live by the motto that "all truth is God's truth—wherever it is found" and attempt to remain open to the contributions of any and all serious thinkers who seek honestly after truth. They emphasize dialogue, rather than polemics, as the proper approach to nonevangelical theologians and philosophers.
To many traditionalists, reformists' openness to influence from nonevangelical theological sources is a further sign of doctrinal compromise. While one can study and talk to nonevangelicals, "dialogue" implies that you are willing to modify your positions, which traditionalists are unwilling to do. To reformists, the traditionalists' mindset smacks of triumphalism, elitism, and separatism, which is the hallmark of fundamentalism. Reformists also claim that the traditionalist stance calls into question the reality of common grace—God's sustaining power and light in the whole world that may break forth anywhere at any time.
Postmodernism as the enemy. One illustration of this divergence in mindset is their radically differing responses to the new cultural condition known as postmodernity. Traditionalists focus on postmodernism's sometimes subtle but definite denial of absolute truth. To them, theology's task is to expose this new philosophy in all its forms and manifestation as antithetical to belief in truth and certainty. They argue that the heart of postmodernism is deconstructionism—the philosophy that all claims to truth are but masks for will to power. Traditionalists rightly criticize this denial of meaning and truth and call for other evangelicals to condemn it.
This traditionalist rejection of virtually everything "postmodern" is embodied in Gene Edward Veith's volume Postmodern Times (Crossway, 1994). According to Veith, while the Christian tradition affirms and is based on absolute truth, postmodernism denies absolute truth in favor of cognitive nihilism—a free-for-all, pragmatic chaos in which "truth" is merely what works and is viable within a particular context. The paradigm postmodern thinker in this evangelical estimation is philosopher Richard Rorty, a relativist who rejects any absolute truth in favor of truth defined pragmatically.
Postmodernism as dialogue partner. Reformists find postmodernity to be much broader than deconstructionism or even relativism. These, to them, are merely manifestations of postmodernity that evangelicals, of course, cannot endorse uncritically. But they see postmodernity in general as a new emphasis on holism in life and thought—a rejection of modernity's obsession with analysis and rationality as the summit of methods of discovery. They applaud postmodernism's recognition that something like faith is involved in all human thinking and see some benefits to postmodernism's discarding of the rationalistic mindset of the Enlightenment and modern secularism in favor of community-shaped perspective as a necessary ingredient in all knowledge. The paradigm postmodern thinker in this evangelical estimation is Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, second ed.) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
Reformist evangelical thinkers who cautiously value and exploit some aspects and types of postmodernity are Grenz, author of A Primer on Postmodernism (Eerdmans, 1996), Fuller Seminary professor Nancey Murphy, author of Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Trinity Press, 1996), and Canadian evangelical theologians Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton, who coauthored Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (InterVarsity Press, 1995). Much to the chagrin of most evangelical traditionalists, these evangelical theologians find something of value in postmodern culture and philosophy and interpret it as an ally of Christian thought insofar as it rejects the modern project of elevating autonomous human reason above revelation and faith.
Prescription. Genuine dialogue involves sharing one's commitments, not shelving them in order to achieve meaningless agreement. Evangelical theology that is strong, mature, and unified can risk dialogue with nonevangelical theologies. Merely because an evangelical thinker goes into a setting of mostly liberal theologians to engage with them in earnest discussion does not mean he or she is compromising truth. Reformists are certainly right that such dialogue can produce benefits for both and all sides. Traditionalists are right, however, to warn of the dangers of dialogue that forbids tough-minded disagreement. An element of debate will always and inevitably mark evangelical encounters with nonevangelical thinkers.
The evangelical theology of the future will not look like a mere hybrid or synthesis of present-day traditionalism and reformism, in spite of how the foregoing vision may appear. Both parties must be willing to sacrifice vested interests and move toward the other with trust and openness. Each side will be transformed in the process as extremes are sloughed off and middle ground is explored and cleared away for new settlement.
Civil Divide or Civil War
Some will no doubt wonder how two such diverse mindsets can both be considered "evangelical." Some in both parties wonder the same and question the authenticity of the other party's evangelical credentials. This civil divide is gradually building up to uncivil war within the household of evangelical theology, and many civilians and a few evangelical theologians are caught in the middle, unsure which side to join or even if one must take sides at all. No doubt many readers of this article see themselves as "betwixt and between"—able to side neither with the Scylla of traditionalism nor the Charybdis of reformism.
The future of evangelical theology lies in calming these troubled waters through a peaceful settlement. There are genuine signs of hope for such a rapprochement. On the traditionalist side, Oden expresses cautious approval and support for moderate reformist theology so long as it remains faithful to the basic contours of the Great Tradition of Christian thought. On the reformist side, Grenz expresses respect for the Christian heritage of thought as a source and norm for the ongoing reforming of evangelical thought in new cultural situations. Irenic traditionalism and moderate reformism can be seen as allies in the task of revitalizing and renewing evangelical theology for the twenty-first century.
To close the divide more completely, evangelical thinkers on both sides will need to reaffirm, with clarity and resolve, their strong commitments to the four major unifying themes of evangelical Christianity: Scripture as the highest authority for faith and practice, the supernatural involvement of a personal God in nature and history, the experience of conversion by God's Spirit through Jesus Christ as the gateway into authentic Christian existence, and the proper task of theology as serving the church in its mission and service. Without these four pillars clearly and unambiguously affirmed, evangelical theology has no future.
But even more is required. For evangelical theology to rise above these current challenges, it must also refocus on lost dimensions of Christian truth. The main one that I propose is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Future evangelical theology must take its cue from the dynamic movements of God's Holy Spirit among charismatic evangelicals of all kinds around the world and begin to explore the unpredictable sovereignty of the third person of the triune God and his transforming power.
Future evangelical theology, in my view, must plumb the depths and mine the riches of the Holy Spirit's work in Scripture (beyond past inspiration and into present and future illumination) and in community (beyond fellowship and into signs and wonders of God's reign). The true transformation that awaits evangelical theology in the twenty-first century lies in following the Spirit's lead and tracing his footsteps in the multifaceted worldwide revival that is energizing Christians in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Without in any way abandoning the authority of Scripture or the centrality of Jesus Christ, evangelical theology must find ways to open itself to the dynamism of the Spirit who makes all things new.
A Spirit-energized evangelical theology will be less obsessed with theological correctness and uniformity and more focused on spiritual transformation. Without denying past accomplishments and glories, Spirit-led theology will look for new ways to serve the church's mission by reflecting on the liberating aspects of ministry, worship, proclamation, and service.
What exactly will this look like? My guess (only a guess) is as follows. Fewer systematic theologies will flow from great evangelical intellects and more integrative and multidisciplinary works will come forth from evangelical thinkers' pens. Theological reflection will bring the Spirit's past transforming power and activity to bear on present problems of spirituality, ecology, community, wealth, and power. Fewer articles of doctrinal polemics will appear from great evangelical minds, and more prophetic tracts and monographs will be published and disseminated that promote the Spirit's work on behalf of marginalized portions of God's creation. Above all, and most noticeably, future evangelical theology will speak in new and different "tongues" as the Spirit of God gives utterance. Voices will rise and be heard speaking out of cultures and from a gender that have traditionally been largely silent within the evangelical academy.
What will evangelical theology look like in the next century? Only God knows for sure. But there is a great and glorious future for it if two things happen soon: first, the almost-warring parties of traditionalists and reformists must lay down their polemical weapons and enter into constructive dialogue toward a new, unified, and energized evangelical academy; second, evangelical theology must throw open the stained-glass windows of the academy to let the Holy Spirit blow in and across its dusty desks and volume-lined shelves with new life and unexpected freshness.
Roger E. Olson is professor of theology, Bethel College and Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota, editor of Christian Scholar's Review and author of a forthcoming book tentatively titled Church Fathers and Reformers: The Story of Christian Theology (InterVarsity Press).
SIDEBARS FOR THIS ARTICLE
Pilgrim on the Way
For me, theology is like a rich feast, with many dishes to enjoy and delicacies to taste.
Clark H. Pinnock
The Real Reformers are Traditionalists
If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy.
Thomas C. Oden
A Theology to Die For
Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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