031 Evangelical Theology

David D. Wells, a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has launched a missile, a polemical manifesto, entitled No Place For Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1993), which has rightfully generated considerable discussion.

The book’s personal stance quickly appears as Wells laments the theological ignorance and indifference he encounters in many of his students whose sole goal in seminary is to learn the “tricks of the trade” and subsequently engage in “successful” ministry (i.e. growing a sizeable congregation). They usually want to learn how to “manage” a church–much as CEOs “manage” corporations. They want to become expert, quasi-certified “psychologists,” who effectively provide inexpensive therapeutic guidance for their parishioners. Or, to slip back a century, they rather identify with Washington Gladden, who urged, in The Christian Pastor and the Working Church, that pastors should lay down the onerous burden of finding and proclaiming the truth; just learn to smile and radiate good cheer and be a “friend of all” (p. 237).

Over the years Wells has “watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy” (p. 4), and he writes to warn us of its harmful potential. Things are so desperate, he thinks, that we need more than rekindled revivals or renewals. We need a reformation–a momentous spiritual upheaval akin to that launched by Luther in 1517.

In part, evangelical theology (along with other traditions such as self-sufficient farming, homemade clothing and classical learning) suffers from the ravages of “modernity.” Unfortunately, Wells argues, evangelicals are not sufficiently anti-modern. They have, erratically, assailed “secular humanism” or “worldly amusements,” but they’ve generally embraced with abandon the technological society’s primary dividends (self-reliance and ease) which inescapably undermine the integrity of their faith (which has always entailed self-surrender and discipline).

What we desperately need, Wells argues, is serious, unrelenting criticism of modernity’s myths. “It is not the Word of God but rather modernity that stands in need of being demythologized” (p. 100). We need is some real radicals who would join Wells in taking their stand, affirming: “I disbelieve in the modern world because I believe in God, in his truth, and in his Christ” (p. 285).

Had we more seriously considered Oswald Spengler’s diagnoses of Western Civilization we might have more cautiously embraced technology’s comforts. As WWI ended, Spengler’s The Decline of the West warned that our Faustian-fueled mechanized world would transform man’s mind and spirit as well as his physical existence. Wells would have us take Spengler seriously. He would have us re-read Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society if we want to understand why the Church seems enfeebled. What we’ve done is to support the very social forces which impoverish our spirits!

This impoverishment appears when we consider how much we’ve been reduced to passive consumers of manufactured goods, media messages, momentary “relationships.” With great insight, Reinhold Niebuhr said that in our century the typical man finds meaning only “by his dependence on the crowd. He feels at home only in the mass. He seeks out crowds which gather at athletic games and public spectacles with almost morbid eagerness. His escape is TV and movies” (p. 158; citing Reflections on the End of an Era, p. 104).

Consequently, “We are replacing the categories of good and evil with the pale absolutes that arise from the media world–entertainment and boredom. It is not by struggle, still less by grace, that we have eliminated the corruption from human nature of which the Reformers were so aware. We have done it simply by a fresh definition. Evil is boredom, and that is remedied with far greater ease than sin. It is remedied not by Christ but by a cable hookup” (p. 170). (Or, one must add, by sin-denying, cross-evading, Christ-ignoring, TV-talk-show self-massaging therapy sessions proffered under the guise of sermons in church!)

To illustrate his point, Wells notes the difference two centuries have made in Wenham, Massachusetts–what he calls “a delicious paradise lost.” As he evaluates what might be called “quality of life” factors (e.g. family stability; community cohesiveness; educational excellence; Christian commitment), Wells argues that life in Wenham was far better in 1800 than 1990.

Mainly, he says, Wenham residents once had a “sense of permanence,” giving them a sense of being-at-home which has been forever lost. “That was a tranquil world. To be sure, they had their tragedies and sorrows, but they did not have the world’s sorrow, from country after country, spilling nightly into their living rooms, their homes becoming places ‘where anguish comes by cable,’ to use W.H. Auden’s words. They were permanent residents” (p. 46). [Later on Wells cites a bit more of Auden’s poem: “anguish comes by cable,/ And the deadly sins can be bought in tins/ With instructions on the label” (p. 84)].

Well, two centuries ago Wenham folks enjoyed this sense of rootedness in place conjoined with an equally sound sense of rootedness in God. They felt secure because they had a solidly objective understanding of truth. Today, largely as a result of the triumph of subjectivism, filtered through the Liberalism of thinkers such as Adolf von Harnack (who coined the motto, “Life, not doctrine”), even Evangelicals seem more concerned with the “personal experience” or “feeling better” or “self-esteem” of the attenders than the creedal content of their faith.

Such concern, Wells says, “narrows the means of access to religion to the structures of the self, the tribe, or society, and this necessarily establishes twin biases–a bias in favor of the sort of classical Liberalism for which Friedrich Schleiermacher argued (seeking the disclosure of God within human experience) and a bias against classical orthodoxy (which builds on revelation the ultimate source of which is outside human experience)” (p. 126).

Careful contemporary studies show large numbers of Evangelicals immersed in a self-focused, self-affirming, self-authenticating “gospel” which has little to do with traditional orthodoxy (with its teachings about sin, crucifixion, and penitence) but lots to do with Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller.

According to John Davison Hunter, perhaps the finest sociologist studying evangelicalism, this nation abounds with preachers and people enamored with the “‘accentuation of subjectivity and the virtual veneration of the self, exhibited in deliberate efforts to achieve self-understanding, self-improvement, and self-fulfillment” (p. 176, citing Hunter’s Evangelicalism, p. 92).

Tragically, when you celebrate your self you discover something too small to be God! “The self,” Wells says, in a powerful passage, “is a canvas too narrow, too cramped, to contain the largeness of Christian truth. Where the self circumscribes the significance of Christian faith, good and evil are reduced to a sense of well-being or its absence, God’s place in the world is reduced to the domain of private consciousness, his eternal acts of redemption are trimmed to fit the experience of personal salvation, his providence in the world diminishes to whatever is necessary to ensure one’s having a good day, his Word becomes intuition, and conviction fades into evanescent opinion. Theology becomes therapy and all the telltale symptoms of the therapeutic model of faith begin to surface. The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one’s self” (p. 183).

Indeed, “the psychologizing of faith is destroying the Christian mind” (p. 183), a process Wells argues was encouraged in America by the forces of democracy and Arminianism. The fundamental belief that all men are created equal easily slipped into a fuzzy faith that all men’s theological notions are equal–so long as they “work” in some way. The Arminian emphasis on human freedom in response to God’s gracious works-for-us easily slipped into a reckless confidence in our works-for-Him, adding up to a righteousness which saves.

We Wesleyans will rankle a bit as Wells fires broadsides at Arminian theology! Folks like me who share America’s frontier faith in democratic processes will question some of the Reformed elitism which seeps through his critique. Readers will lay down the book wondering what its author suggests we do other than recover the courage to “dissent,” which he thinks Evangelicals lost. In fact the few constructive suggestions offered toward the end need considerable development (which Wells promises to do).

Yet for all its limitations–intrinsic to polemical treatises–the book establishes some substantial points, opens some vital vistas, and deserves widespread reading and discussion. It’s thoughtful, readable, quotable, and offers important correctives to some of the blandly “practical” proposals and models of church growth often set forth as healthy patterns for pastoral ministry.

* * * * *

More constructive in its endeavor is Stanley J. Grenz’s Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1993). Grenz teaches theology at Carey/Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., and writes out of the Baptist (Southern Baptist, if I read him rightly) tradition.

He joins David Wells, Tom Oden, Stanley Hauerwas, and others in declaring that the Enlightenment-engineered era often called “modernity” has passed. Its blissful optimism in human goodness and progress, its narrow rationalism (disguised as “reason” and long regnant in academia), increasingly appear as dead as dinosaurs.

We have entered a new epoch in history and need to cast loose any anchors we’ve had lodged in that distinctly anti-Christian mindset. “In fact,” he says, “we may be in the midst of a transition rivaling the intellectual and social changes that marked the birth of modernity out of the decay of the Middle Ages. The world appears to be entering a new phase of history, often designated–for lack of a better term–postmodernity” (p. 14).

What that means for evangelicals is this: we need a “rebirth of theological reflection” which “can lead to a renewal of our understanding of who we are as the people of God” (p. 17). To address that task Grenz has written this treatise, which begins with “revisioning evangelical identity.” Historically, “evangelicalism” emerged as a consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation (with its three solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide), refined in the 17th century by English Puritanism and German Pietism, finally forged by revivalism in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

That “convertive piety” which so largely shaped the United States has largely faded in the 20th century as Modernism and Fundamentalism buried it–though in radically different ways. Since WWII, however, a “New Evangelicalism,” evident in Billy Graham Crusades and Christianity Today, has rallied recruits and emerged as a powerful force in this nation’s religious life.

Beyond a revisioned identity, evangelicalism needs a revisioned “spirituality,” Grenz thinks, which is better attuned to its earlier Puritan and Pietist roots. As he defines it, such spirituality “is the quest, under the direction of the Holy Spirit but with the cooperation of the believer, for holiness. It is the pursuit of the life lived to the glory of God, in union with Christ and out of obedience to the Holy Spirit” (p. 42).

Authentic faith enkindles what Jonathan Edwards called the “religious affections.” Holy Love must enliven Christian experience. More than mere doctrinal affirmations make one a “believer,” for a heart-felt commitment to Jesus is at the heart of real faith. Personal response to God’s grace, commitment to His guidance, nurturing the inner life of the soul, all make one truly Christian in the Evangelical sense.

Still more: Evangelicals must “revision” theology. Here Grenz shares David Wells’ concern, though not his strongly Reformed criteria. Evangelical theology has, indeed, been strongly shaped by the biblically-based propositional thinking of theologians such as Francis Turretin, the 19th century Princeton faculty (Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield), and, more recently, Carl F.H. Henry.

Yet today we find a new breed of evangelical thinkers such as Clark Pinnock, who “rejects as inflexible and undynamic the ‘propositional theology that sees its function as imposing systematic rationality on everything it encounters'” (p. 71). Millard Erickson defines “theology as ‘that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life'” (p. 71). Such theologians, endorsed by Grenz, seek not to erect eternally exact doctrinal propositions demanding assent but to enable today’s confessing community to clearly declare that Jesus is Lord.

Part of “revisioning” theology means discerning real authorities. The Bible certainly remains central to any Evangelical theology, but Grenz finds “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” a healthy alternative to Fundamentalism’s biblicism, a rigidly narrowed understanding of sola scriptura. In Clark Pinnock’s understanding, the Quadrilateral provides us “‘a written form [of revelation] (Scripture), a remembering community (tradition), a process of subjective appropriation (experience), and testing for internal consistency (reason)'” (p. 91).

Pinnock and Grenz propose to develop ways of dialogue, both within the Christian community and with non-Christians, which tie the Faith to all of Reality, not simply to special Revelation. This certainly involves yet another “revisioning”–a revisioning of “biblical authority.” To many evangelicals, any honest commitment to biblical authority carried with it an avowal of inerrancy. In at least some of its forms, inerrancy made the Bible a singularly divine text, free of human dimensions.

Yet, just as the Incarnation gives us a fully human, fully divine Jesus Christ, so too a proper grasp of biblical inspiration gives us scriptures which are also fully human, fully divine. Thus we face a challenge, a task outlined by David Wright: “‘We have to work out what it means to be faithful at one and the same time both to the doctrinal approach to Scripture as the Word of God and to the historical treatment of Scripture as the words of men'” (p. 111). If only that task could be easily done once and for all! But it is, Grenz, argues, central to revisioning evangelical theology.

Some guidance in this endeavor can be found in evangelicalism’s pietistic roots. Pietists like Spener and Franke easily blended devotional and scholarly understandings of biblical texts. In this they shared (probably without knowing it) a more ancient tradition: Eastern Orthodoxy, which, Mary Ford says, insisted “‘one must live the Gospel commandments in order to truly understand the Gospel.'” Certainly one must read, or “hear,” the Word. But that means far more than academic sophistication or exegetical expertise.

Indeed, the holiness of the hearer is as important as the truth of the text! For “‘in Scripture, “hearing” is understood as living out–as an experience which must precede real understanding. When this is grasped, we can see why the holiness of the text demands a holiness of the interpreter to make possible a full and proper interpretation'” (p. 112).

Consequently, evangelicals can take seriously the “canonical approach” to Scripture espoused by scholars such as Brevard Childs. The Scripture was inspired by the same Spirit who illuminates the mind of the believing Church. Thus the Spirit Who enabled the Church to establish the canon of Scripture continues to establish the community of faith in biblical truth.

The theory of inspiration Grenz champions seems quite close if not identical to the Wesleyan commitment to plenary inspiration. This stance, he argues, provides a via media between various Christian denominations which might lead to a growing consensus on an issue which has often divided the body of Christ. Revealing a covenanting God, “The Bible provides insight into the process by which the biblical people, under the guidance of the Spirit, came to discover the practical implications of the divine holiness for their own vocation as God’s covenant partners” (p. 132).

Beyond “revisioning biblical authority,” Grenz challenges us to revision “theology’s integrative motif,” which he believes to be the Kingdom of God. After explaining, and rejecting, Liberalism’s distortions of the doctrine, Grenz insists evangelicals must recapture authentic Christianity’s concern for community.

Though we American evangelicals have often been irresponsibly individualistic, it’s now time to solidify a commitment to the common good, which involves responsible involvement in a local congregation (and its ordinances) as well as dedication to social justice! We must, as Grenz argues in his final chapter, revision the Church.

Across the denominational spectrum, it seems, evangelical churches are struggling to discern their identity. Once familiar patterns of worship, taken-for-granted traditional affirmations, comfortable and comforting religious language, have all been shaken as if by seismic shocks. Amidst the urgent cries for changes designed meet people where they seem most needy–matched by protests against innovations which lack substance–evangelicals desperately nned to find solid bases for building Christ’s Church!

Grenz seeks to carefully examine N.T. teachings concerning the ecclesia, “the called out ones,” who took the name Christian. He contends that the church is primarily a people who are called to serve as priests, as members of the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. True to his Baptist roots, Grenz sees the Church more as a decentralized movement of congregations than a centralized organization.

Grenz writes for a general audience, assuming all serious believers are in fact theologians. Rightly read, his treatise engages us in the process of responding to David Wells’ manifesto: thinking as evangelicals about the fundamental of our Faith and then relating it to our world.


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