The Evangelical Left:
Encountering Post-Conservative Evangelical Theology
by Millard Erickson
Book Review by by Noel Edwardes
Interact Magazine 1999
Volume 10 Number 1
This is a ‘must read’ for all serious students of Scripture wanting further understanding of postmodernity. Millard Erickson takes a somewhat different approach to the current discussion on it. He reviews and then evaluates the thinking of some prominent evangelical scholars and their involvement in what he calls the postmodern movement. It is Erickson’s belief that there is a definite movement away from what we could call ‘the fundamentals of the Christian faith’. I doubt whether anyone would debate his point that the Christian landscape is certainly changing and often not for the better.
Limiting his discussion to four key areas, Erickson addresses the task and method of theology, the doctrine of Scripture, God and salvation, and concludes with some suggestions of the way forward. He quotes a number of writers, their particular perspectives and then engages in an analysis of their understanding and conclusions. The theologians Erickson critiques are Bernard Ramm, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz and James McClendon, who Erickson believes represent what he calls the ‘post-conservative movement’.
In discussing their theological method he notes, among other things, that ‘there is a multiple-source approach to methodology’ (p.53), rather than restricting theology to the use of one source, the Bible. Other aspects of their methodology include ‘a stronger reliance on experience than in earlier evangelicalism’. ‘Propositional theology is regarded as producing a distortion of the true evangelical theological method. Narrative theology is believed to be closer to the nature of the biblical revelation itself, and to facilitate the actual application of theology by the reader’ (p.55).
Chapter 3 deals with the doctrine of Scripture. It is here that Erickson considers that the departure from the established evangelical position first began. Reviewing the debate on inerrancy, the author traces the consequences of, and a number of significant scholars’ part in, redefining what inerrancy means. ‘In the debate between Warfield and Smith, a difference of approach and method appeared that was to be very influential in years to come. Warfield maintained that the formulation of one’s doctrine of Scripture was to be based on the Bible’s didactic passages regarding its own nature. Smith’s was based on the phenomenon of scripture, that is, the actual nature of scripture as the product of that process of inspiration’ (p.69). Again and again the author contrasts the historic evangelical approach with the post-conservative movement. The issue of inerrancy is defined in a limited fashion. Personal experience has become the criterion for establishing the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Objectivity has been replaced by subjectivity in the debate on inerrancy.
In chapter 4 there is the analysis of the doctrine of God. The classical view of God is described, noting that this doctrine was one of the first to be ‘worked out and is basic to the whole theological system’ (p.87). This is followed by a description of ‘the process view of God’. The teaching and expression of biblical concepts in this post-modern movement, in this case the doctrine of God, to my mind has reduced the Almighty to someone who has been defined in human terms. On a number of occasions I was left with the impression that the Creator was being manipulated by the created. One cannot deny the humanity of God, but to emphasise it over and above the deity is very dangerous. Throughout church history the debate concerning one’s freedom has raged and no doubt it will always be a source of controversy. The efforts made to ‘explain’ God changing His mind and His fore-knowledge I did not find helpful or in any way reassuring. In fact their discussion in the realm of human freedom created more problems when attempts were made to answer the problem of evil. The same can be said about their teaching on prayer.
I was taught that the gospel is to be preached and the hearers are to respond in faith to that glorious message, that there is only one way to God and that is through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In chapter 5, the chapter on the doctrine of salvation, these fundamentals are today being challenged. I would sympathise with Erickson when he says, ‘These theologians have displayed a genuine concern about humans and their fate. Theology at its best is not merely a theoretical matter, a sort of intellectual game, but touches real life, involving the emotions and having definite implications for ministry applications’ (p.127-128). However, this deep concern should not result in ‘reading into the text’ what we would like to see happen. The author reveals the movement’s emphasis on general revelation at the expense of special revelation. These theologians are quick to reject universalism, and it would be unfair to identify them with that belief. However, they continue to refer to Scriptures that are used by universalists to support their position, and interpret them in similar ways. I found these two chapters on the doctrine of God and of salvation particularly disturbing.
At the end of each chapter Erickson honestly categorises his evaluation into positive and negative points which I found most helpful. Throughout the book he is careful to recognise the valued contribution each theologian has made to our theological understanding. I did not find him condemning or judgemental. Rather he has discerned a definite moving away from the historical and ‘conservative’ evangelical approach to the Scriptures. This has caused him a great deal of concern and brought about this particular volume.
The awareness of the spirit of our age and the need to respond to the contemporary cultural pressure could be what is driving this movement. If that is indeed the case, we must be very wary of it, for any and every culture must be placed under the scrutiny of Scripture and not the other way round. Erickson’s challenge is to be aware of these shifts in hermeneutics and their conclusions. Perhaps what Erickson has written reveals not so much change as a whole new order. It makes one wonder what the next change will be and how soon it will be upon us. Surely we have a relevant revelation from our God who does not change (Nu.23:19, Mal.3:6, James 1:17)!
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the author, the book certainly should be read. Being true to the current trend demands that the book must be read, otherwise the very premise of the more ‘progressive’ thinkers of our day is being ignored ie that we are to engage ourselves with modern scholarship.
Noel Edwardes is the Senior Pastor of Windsor Baptist Church, NSW.
© Rev Noel Edwardes (1 March 1999)