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Dale Coulter is a fine historical theologian. His recent article at this space (“ Two Wings of Evangelicalism ”) helpfully provides perspective on the divide in evangelical theology. But it does not get at the root problems.

Coulter rightly explains that the “confessionalist” end of the Evangelical movement (Westminster-led Presbyterians, some Southern Baptists, some Lutherans, many Anglicans) uses creeds to help interpret the Bible, while the “revivalist” camps (Asbury Seminary-like Methodists, Nazarene and other holiness churches, Pentecostals, some Baptists, and all charismatics) focus on spirituality. The confessionalists are devoted to “the rational exposition of the faith,” while the revivalists pursue “the mystical ascent of faith.”

While this typology does show the extraordinary diversity within Evangelicalism, in some respects it is drawn too tightly. It suggests that the revivalists have little or no interest in creeds or doctrines, and that confessionalists don’t think spirituality is important.

The two most seminal Evangelical theologians—John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards—were noted for both piety and keen intellect. Edwards, who is prized by most of Coulter’s confessionalists, was arguably the greatest theologian of revival in the history of Christianity. Wesley, who preached his own revivals, went to the creeds to explain basic Christian belief. Hence the two greatest luminaries in Evangelical theology could be said to be both revivalists and confessionalists.

Coulter correctly faults me for suggesting that penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has always been central to Evangelicalism. Wesley rejected the substitutionary character of the atonement because he thought it would lead to antinomianism. Yet Wesley preached that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God. Thomas Oden, a contemporary Evangelical Methodist theologian, defends propitiation and satisfaction and substitution in his Systematic Theology. Just before his recent death, Donald Bloesch contended that “penal” and “substitutionary” were necessary elements in atonement theory, and were “embraced by most evangelicals today.”

My point is that while PSA has not been held by all Evangelicals, the basic elements of Reformation satisfaction theory have indeed been central to Evangelical understandings of the atonement. So when some Evangelicals now say that PSA is essentially pagan and suggest that the atonement has nothing to do with satisfying God’s justice, then it is not too much to say that Evangelical theology is going in new directions.

Coulter raises the question of how Chalcedon can be normative when so many churches of the East broke from it. There is not space here to discuss this problem adequately, but it is worth recalling that, as Ben Green puts it, “Today the ‘Nestorian’ (Assyrian) Church and three major ‘Monophysite’ Churches (Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox) have signed declarations with Rome agreeing that they share a common Christological faith, though expressed in some terms that differ from Chalcedon.”

But even if Chalcedon is not as problematic as some think, the break in atonement theory is suggestive of other problems in Evangelical theology. The biggest problem is method: sola scriptura becomes solo or nuda scriptura , in which the autonomous ego interprets the Bible without regard for the Great Tradition. If that ego concludes that the Bible seems to conflict with the Great Tradition, so much the worse for the Great Tradition. It was precisely this method that led Evangelicals at the end of the nineteenth century in America to become liberal Protestants.

Coulter’s image of two wings by which the soul flies to God is a good one. But Evangelical theology needs to remember, as Coulter implies, that neither can fly without the other. The temptation of revivalists is to think that all that matters is the experience of a personal relationship with Jesus. The temptation of confessionalists is to imagine that we are saved by our theology.

Both temptations are examples of minimalism, which is a besetting sin of Evangelicals. Christian faith is reduced to a certain experience or correct doctrine. But true faith is a maximal thing: It is a matter of seeing the beauty of God in Christ, as taught in Scripture, summarized by the creeds, enacted in liturgy, developed by the great theologians, displayed in the saints, and beheld in icons. This total package, as it were, can be received only by the mutual interplay of Scripture and the Great Tradition.

Articles by Gerald McDermott

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