Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account
Reviewed by David F. Wells, Systematic Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
This book is a small theology—a “mere evangelical theology”—that sets out the core, foundational convictions of evangelical faith. Hence it is also a “first theology.” The authors have gone back to foundational principles because the definition of evangelicalism is disputed today and the term itself has lost its “saltiness” (10). At the same time, this book is also a theological proposal. It is proposing that the theology it spells out is a solution to the growing factionalism and fragmentation in the evangelical world.
The first part of the book, which covers the formal and material principles of theology, is written with verve and imagination. The authors set forth as a unifying theology what is, in fact, its center. This center is Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself and acted in Christ. That act is now made known through the words of the biblical gospel. The object of this proclamation is union with Christ. It is about Christ that Scripture speaks, toward whom its revelation moves, and to whom the Spirit witnesses. This “mere evangelical theology,” then, is built on the three truths of “the immanent trinity (the who), the cross and resurrection of Christ (the what), and the union with Christ (the where)” (79). It is from the reciprocal connections between these three truths that its renewing power arises.
This is a theology that is catholic (meaning that which is true in all places, for all people, and in all times), but not Roman Catholic. This does lead to some interesting thoughts about how the principle of sola Scriptura actually works out. The problem that evangelicals face is that they are generating a plethora of biblical interpretations, but they have no magisterium “to declare what is essential” (47) or, for that matter, to say which interpretations are viable. Of what value, then, is it to assert the Bible’s full authority if there is such disagreement on what it actually says? The immediate answer the authors give has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church (though later they add a chapter on theological interpretation which, if practiced, would curtail some interpretative options).
They say that the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance “into all the truth” (John 16:13) was made to the church, rather than to the apostles who would write the New Testament. Church tradition “figures among the means the Spirit uses to minister this truth” (104). Exegesis, therefore, is not something for lone wolves to do, but is an exercise of the “gathered church” (111). When led by the Spirit in this way, the “church carries epistemic authority” (115).
This, though, sails rather close to the way that Catholicism has solved this problem. The Council of Trent posited that the Holy Spirit had actively been at work in the life of the Church inspiring both Scripture and tradition. These are the two founts of revelation. The Second Vatican Council tweaked this a bit and said that there is only one Word of God but that it flows down two channels, Scripture and tradition. What is proposed in this book does not go that far. It argues that there is Scripture that is inspired and then there is a Spirit-led reflection on Scripture that provides guidance on its meaning. But the fact that the authors then have to acknowledge that doctrines fall into one of three orders that are of diminishing certainty, from essential to non-essential, means that church tradition itself is no magisterium. Tradition, in fact, can only determine understanding where there is a magisterium to interpret the Church’s mind and then to enforce it. Evangelicals do not have such a magisterium. How, then, can tradition act as a check on the postmodern, autonomous self when it intrudes into church or academy? Can postmodern individualism be tamed and disciplined by this kind of mild appeal to tradition? That seems rather doubtful.
The second part of the book, the practice of this “mere evangelical theology,” attempts to show that (biblical) wisdom is how this theology gets grounded in life. This is a viable argument to make, but despite promising to offer “specific contours” (131), the proposal is developed in a curiously abstract way. It roots what is said in I Corinthians, but then it never makes its way into our own world, which is, after all, where this theology has to be practiced. Why are we not told what it means for evangelicals to live wisely in the midst of our postmodern culture with all of its spiritual yearning and collapsing values? Should we not have some specifics here? This is rather like Jane Austen who, in her novels, is much preoccupied with the mores of the landed gentry in England while at the same time ignoring entirely the Napoleonic wars that are devastating Europe and will threaten England.
Furthermore, we might expect to see something of this grounding being worked out at the place the authors say is one of great evangelical weakness, ecclesiology. The chapter that touches on ecclesiology uses I Corinthians as its framework. But it reads like someone flying high above the earth and describing the view from up there rather than explaining what life looks like, ecclesiastically, at ground level.
Today evangelicalism is a vast, spreading entity that is rife with untamed diversity, sliced through by deep fissures, and often adrift on cultural currents that are neither understood nor feared. Will this book help? There is a premise to the book that is actually not stated. It is that the post-War coalition that grew up under the leadership of people like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, John Stott, and Francis Schaeffer is worth preserving and that it can, in fact, be preserved. What will resuscitate it, it is assumed, is a deeper, more God-centered, more coherent theology, one that is biblically anchored and Spirit-led. Indeed! If the evangelical world did share such a theology, it would become healthier, more cohesive, clearer in its mission, and more vibrant in its life. But will this happen?
That seems unlikely. The theology that is proposed here, contrary to what the authors suppose, is actually quite abbreviated. The reason, of course, is that a theology that is wider ranging and has more specific substance would attract fewer adherents. This dynamic is always at work among evangelicals. There are always pressures to reduce any core to its most minimal, to make it simple, and to limit its reach. That is because what remains of this post-War coalition is, as the authors seem to acknowledge, getting ever wider and more far-flung. The larger any required core is, the fewer its adherents become. Can such an abbreviated theology, then, actually tame this untamed diversity? Can it succeed when that diversity has now been institutionalized and when it has already segregated itself into multiple, disconnected, and smaller constituencies, each living in its own private neighborhood? And given the fact that evangelical theology has “no doctrinal backbone” (46), how likely is it that a book about doctrine, and one that is calling for some backbone, will actually be able to rectify what has gone wrong?
It may be that trying to reconstitute the post-War evangelical coalition is now a doomed enterprise. The future may instead see the replacement of the grand, all-embracing coalition by more numerous and smaller coalitions of the like-minded. But that is also how renewal has often happened in the past. It has begun with the very few, such as the Reformers, and then eventually spread to the many. These authors. though, are to be commended for their concern. If their hoped-for renewal does not happen, it will not be because the theology is wrong, but because evangelicalism is no longer reformable.