Theology that is both Christian and evangelical arises out of the wonder and terror of having been confronted with the living God. It issues in confession, thanksgiving, and praise. As Martin Luther declared: "It is not by reading, writing, or speculation that one becomes a theologian. Nay, rather, it is living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian."
What I find most missing in Roger Olson's analysis of evangelical theology is this note of passion. He depicts the contemporary landscape as a kind of range war between the settlers and the explorers. As in the old Zane Grey novels, of course, there is a little drama: fences to mend, turf to protect, a gunslinger on the loose, and maybe a shootout at the OK Corral. But for what? Where is the sense that anything of ultimate importance is at stake in these squabbles? Who is willing to die for a postmodern paradigm?
When Harvey Cox was a student minister in Berlin in 1962, one year after the erection of the Wall, he was able to travel back and forth between East and West because he held an American passport. He thus became a courier for pastors and Christian laypeople on both sides of that divide and was sometimes able to smuggle theological books into the East. What the people wanted most were copies of Barth's Church Dogmatics. "To carry in something by Bultmann would have been a wasted risk," Cox said. "Let the bourgeois preachers in West Germany agonize about the disappearance of the three-decker universe and existentialism. We had weightier matters to confront." This is a parable for us today. A theology more enamored with novelty than fidelity is not worth smuggling, for it will not nourish the mission of the church nor build up the people of God.
I agree with Olson that there is an inner cleavage in contemporary theology, but the basic difference is not between forward-looking "reformists" and backward-looking "traditionalists." The more important distinction is between those who see theology connected intrinsically to the life of the church, and those who see theology as an academic discipline whose basic norms and values come from the secularized academy. The question is not whether a theologian is personally pious and attends church on Sunday, nor whether one teaches in a theological seminary or a university-based divinity school. The question is: What is the spiritual foundation and ecclesial identity of one who is called to be a theologian? Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith that they, like pastors, are charged with passing on intact to the rising generation. In the pluralistic culture of the academy, evangelicals must become subversives or else lose their souls.
The utter impossibility of Christian theology as a detached, theoretical discipline was driven home to me when I entered Harvard Divinity School in 1972. I found myself in a systematic theology class team-taught by two remarkable professors, Gordon Kaufman and the late Arthur McGill. Among other things, I was struck by how fiercely my teachers could disagree with one another in class and then go out together for a friendly cup of coffee. I learned it is possible to engage in vigorous theological argument without resorting to personal attack. Among the students, the turf was divided rather evenly between the Kaufmanians and the McGillites. Kaufman had just published God the Problem, where he insisted that the object of theology was not the "real God" who remained impenetrable and unknown but rather the "available God," an imaginative construct and symbol of religious self-consciousness.
This was heady, academic stuff, but McGill would have none of it. He insisted that the God with whom we had to do was not a God we could discuss or argue about, much less "construct" by means of our meager theological musings. He liked to quote Luther's dictum that the most important organs for a theologian are his ears! Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Theology possesses no independent knowledge. It lives by what it has been told. Thus the first task of theology is to listen—to listen to the Word of God revealed—incarnate in Jesus Christ, recorded indelibly in inspired Scriptures, and witnessed to through the faithful proclamation of the church. In retrospect, I can now see that McGill was deconstructing the myths of modernity and what we were just then beginning to call postmodernity, with a little help from Augustine, Anselm, Luther, and Pascal.
SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT
When the history of evangelical theology in the last half of the twentieth century is written, the intellectual biographies of Clark Pinnock and Tom Oden will loom large. Like two ships passing in the night, they have crisscrossed the theological landscape with abandon, Oden, a Methodist, coming from the wasteland of liberalism, heresy, and doctrinal confusion into the embrace of paleo-orthodoxy, Pinnock from the tutelage of Francis Schaeffer and F. F. Bruce into the open future of theological innovation.
Pinnock presents himself as a wayfarer at a theological smorgasbord, a theologian of potluck. Although he does not mention it here, he was once an advocate of the "paleo-Calvinism" he now eschews. As a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1960s, he also played a key role in the early stages of the conservative resurgence in the SBC. In 1970, he published one of the best books on biblical inerrancy written in this century. I hope that he may yet return, chastened and wiser for the journey perhaps, to the recognition that some of his former thoughts are better than his latter.
I am one of those who criticized The Openness of God project as a misguided, though well-meant, effort to construct a user-friendly God for a North American elite. I still stand by that assessment. The legitimate questions posed by these scholars—how the sovereign Lord can hear and answer prayer or interact meaningfully with the world in nature and history—have been fully considered and answered by orthodox theologians from the Cappadocians through Wesley without recourse to semiprocess theism. While it is always appropriate to question received formulations in the light of the Bible, the classical Christian doctrine of God shouldn't be dismantled without weighing it far more seriously than this proposal does.
Still, I find it hard to believe that R. C. Sproul would declare Pinnock not to be a Christian—especially "no longer" a Christian! From the Reformed perspective, if he were ever truly a Christian, he is surely still one now. For those of us who believe in divine sovereignty, such discernments are better left to God. I choose to believe that either Sproul misspoke or Pinnock misheard this remark.
From my perspective, Oden's pilgrimage is more encouraging for the future of evangelical theology. Oden's vision of a theological renaissance based on a sustained engagement with historic Christian orthodoxy can help to liberate evangelicalism from its myopic self-preoccupations. Oden's burden for a return to the sources is evident in one of the most promising publishing ventures in evangelical scholarship, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.
In the history of the church, theological renewal has frequently involved the recovery of a forgotten past. Spurgeon fell in love with the Puritans, Wesley drank deeply from the Fathers of the East, Luther and Calvin were Augustinians with a passion, and the Doctor of Grace himself recovered an authentic Paulinism for his own day. None of these were mere repeaters of the past. No, they looked to the past in order to find the answer to the question, "What will be?" This is also the task of faithful evangelical theology today: it anticipates and illuminates the future while remaining faithful to the scriptural pattern of divine truth.
A robust evangelical theology can transcend the polarities Olson has identified if we begin with an enriched core of evangelical essentials. The four minimalist affirmations Olson offers can be read in an orthodox way, and this is doubtless how he intends them. But they could also be affirmed in good conscience by Arius, Pelagius, Socinus and, perhaps with a gloss on the word supernatural, even Bishop John Shelby Spong! Such a porous core will not support a very stable tent however far we may try to stretch it. The evangelical faith is rooted in the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church and includes the Reformation doctrines of sola scriptura and justification by faith alone.
The way to evangelical unity is not to define the smallest number of doctrines possible and hold them as lightly as one can. Evangelicals are not sectarians. We belong to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and are called to "a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and persevering" (Luther) in the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Within this core identity, there is much room for variety and charity in our fellowship with one another. Absolute agreement in every detail of faith and life is only an eschatological possibility, as anyone who has attended a church business meeting knows. As a Reformed Baptist, I agree with much that the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals stands for, and I welcome their call for theological consistency based on the doctrines of grace. But I also share fellowship with many other Bible-believing evangelicals, including five-point Arminians, Bible-church dispensationalists, and charismatic Pentecostals. We try to speak the truth to one another in love, neither homogenizing our differences nor minimizing our core beliefs.
Also, evangelicals have no need to fear the development of doctrine, for this is how the Holy Spirit has led the church into all truth, as Jesus promised (John 16:13). When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he was, Jesus did not say, "Go back and tell John: I am God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father." But the doctrine of the Trinity in its classic expression "developed" out of the stubborn intention of the church to remain faithful to the New Testament teaching about Jesus Christ.
This is why creeds and confessions are so important in evangelical theology: they are trademarks of biblical faith through the ages. But unlike Roman Catholics, we do not hold Scripture and tradition with equal reverence. We subject all of our confessions and theologies to the Bible and hold them revisable in the light of its teaching. We need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to discern the difference between development and deviation. Not just "anything goes" in theology! Every theology that claims to be evangelical—from Pinnock to Sproul —must be judged in the light of its faithfulness to the total witness of Scripture.
Finally, it is naïve to think that polemics can be divorced from dogmatics, for at the heart of biblical faith is the single-minded pursuit of truth, which becomes clear only in confrontation with competing loyalties and affirmations. But this is not a damper to dialogue. The apostles and early missionaries went everywhere, from the marketplace to Mars Hill, talking with everyone they met about Jesus and the Resurrection. In the sixteenth century, Calvin, Bucer, and Melanchthon met with Roman Catholic theologians to discuss the great doctrines of the Reformation. We do not risk the loss of conviction when we enter into dialogue with those with whom we differ so long as our confidence is not in ourselves but in the God of the gospel who alone makes us "sufficient" for such a task.
Theology used to be called the "gay" science before that word was highjacked by gender babblers. My hope is that evangelical theology in the future will become gay again, in the good, old-fashioned sense of the word: exuberant, bright, lively, cheerful, happy, filled with joy. For only this kind of theology, born in prayer and nourished in worship, can be truly evangelical.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and senior adviser for CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
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