By Donald G. Bloesch
InterVarsity Press, 384 pages, $24
.99Theology for the Community of God
By Stanley J. Grenz
Broadman & Holman, 890 pages, $39.99 Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine
By Wayne Grudem
Zondervan, 1,264 pages, $39.99 Systematic Theology: Doctrine. Volume II
By James William McClendon Jr.
Abingdon Press, 536 pages, $19.95
Christian Theology: An Introduction
By Alister E. McGrath
Blackwell, 510 pages, $20.95 paper Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief
By Christopher Morse
Trinity Press International, 417 pages, $22
Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) announced: “Dogmatics is a discipline that exists today only in the narrowest of theological circles, and even there it languishes.” The announcement was hardly out of his mouth before Karl Barth pioneered a remarkable renewal of the dogmatic enterprise. And Barth was by no means alone. Consider the remarkable outpouring of dogmatics in Germany during most of the twentieth century, beginning with Barth and up through, most recently, Wolfhart Pannenberg’s three-volume systematics. Among other producers of weighty systematics in this century are, inter alia, Emil Brunner, Karl Heim, Franz Pieper, Michael Schmaus, Paul Althaus, Otto Weber, Heinrich Vogel, Fritz Buri, Paul Tillich, Edmund Schlink, and Gerhard Ebeling. That circle is not narrow; it includes theologians from liberal Protestant, Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions.
Now, it seems, the initiative in the writing of dogmatics has been seized by evangelical theologians in America. No doubt, German professors will continue to publish their summas to cap off their careers. But after Pannenberg, the interest in Germany theology would seem to be on the wane. Most of what is being written there has the feel of having been recycled once too often. And in the United States, most mainline Protestant and progressive Catholic theology has landed in the graveyard of dogmatics, which is that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls “experiential expressivism.” Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology. J. C. K. von Hofmann described the approach: “As a Christian I am myself the object of my thinking as a theologian.” The result can be interesting spiritual autobiography, but it is not theology. It is certainly not dogmatic theology.
It would be hard to deny that the reduction of theology to experience is closely connected to the collapse of biblical authority in Protestant thought and to dissent from the Church’s teaching office among Roman Catholics. The six volumes that prompt this reflection are all written by evangelical Protestants, which means they come from communities that have placed a high premium on religious experience. I expect all the authors would agree with Luther’s dictum, “It is the heart that makes the theologian” (theologia pectoralis) . One can agree with that dictum, however, without making experience the source and norm of theology. In a day when much that passes for Christian theology begins and ends with slight reference to the apostolic tradition that is the core of the faith, one welcomes these works, all published in the past two years and all focused on what is of first importance: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. These theologians know that the gospel can only be given to experience, and can never arise out of experience. God, not religious experience, is the fons et origo .
In April 1991, Gabriel Fackre, an evangelical Protestant, gave his presidential address to the American Theological Society, “The State of Systematics: Research and Commentary.” There he challenged the common opinion that dogmatics is dead or dying, and called attention to a new generation of evangelical systematicians. This came as something of a surprise to his audience, mainly composed of theologians to whom the evangelical world has been terra incognita. Evangelicalism, in their view, was chiefly associated with Billy Graham and “born again” enthusiasms. It is not the world in which one would expect to find a keen interest in dogmatics, where the emphasis is on thinking and thinking rightly about the faith in continuity with the dogmas of the ancient church. Yet these books testify to the fact that the energy devoted to dogmatics by evangelicals today is far greater than among liberal or liberationist Protestants and Catholics.
There is no firm agreement on what is meant by “evangelical” today, and that diversity is reflected in these books. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Seminary has written extensively, and critically, on the state of evangelical theology. He has opined that “what is now primary is not what is evangelical but what is adjectivally distinctive, whether Catholic, liberationalist, feminist, ecumenist, young, orthodox, radical, liberal, or charismatic.” Evangelicalism, he says, has become “a family of hybrids . . . . It is, I believe, the dark prelude to death, when parasites have finally succeeded in bringing down their host. Amid the clamor of all these new models of evangelical faith there is the sound of a death rattle.”
Wells acknowledges that there may be something of a renaissance of theological writing among evangelicals, but he doubts such writing makes much of a difference. Who buys these tomes? Who reads them? Who cares? Wells and others claim to see happening today in evangelicalism what many of us witnessed in mainline Protestantism: the theological center does not hold. Theology today looks for novelty, for green grass at the edges of the Christian faith. It concocts “creative” substitutes for traditional language and liturgy, and thus makes itself increasingly alien to the lived experience of the Church. When this happens, a vacuum is created that invites the idols of modernity. Wells writes, “I do not believe in modernity at all. Most evangelicals, however, are mild, closet believers, and to the extent that this is true, their internal life will tend to tilt away from belief in God and His truth and toward modernity.”
These six books, however, do not support that doleful assessment. They are deeply anchored in the scriptural sources and exemplify the traditional evangelical principle of the primacy of the Word. They mediate and moderate the classical debates in the history of doctrine; for example, between Arius and Athanasius, Pelagius and Augustine, Luther and Rome, Arminianism and Calvinism. There are also curious features that these books have in common. Though Luther is often and for the most part favorably quoted, there is an almost eerie silence on Luther’s debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam, as though this were tangential to the theology of the Reformer. Also Zwingli and Arminius get only bit parts, although these authors generally tilt leftward”as the sixteenth century defined left and right”on questions of sacraments and free will.
This, too, points up the diversity within the community of those called evangelicals. On divine providence and human action, some are closer to Calvin, others to Arminius. The Zwinglians and Calvinists divide on the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. Some evangelicals are Anabaptists, while others line up with Calvin and Luther on baptismal regeneration. And so forth. Evangelicals are by no means agreed on the true line of succession in Protestantism. For most of these writers, the sixteenth-century issues remain unresolved. With exceptions, evangelical theologians and their communities have not been part of the ecumenical dialogues of the last quarter century between Protestant traditions and between Protestants and Roman Catholics. In these dialogues focused on the disputes of the sixteenth century, Pelagianism, Zwinglianism, and Arminianism are brought into the sunlight for critical examination, whereas for theologians who have not participated in the dialogues they tend to fester beneath the surface.
There are exceptions, of course. When pressed to choose, Alister McGrath and Donald Bloesch, for example, opt for Calvin over the Anabaptists, and for Protestant orthodoxy over pietism. When trying to sort out evangelicals and evangelicalisms, denominational identity no longer serves. The authors of these texts are Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Reformed, but you cannot reliably tell their theology by where they hang their hat, so to speak. Moreover, they all want to maintain continuity with historic Protestant orthodoxy, but it is by no means clear what that means. Is there now or has there ever been a common structure of doctrines that holds the evangelical world together?
Protestantism was born in controversy over what constitutes the theological center, and history has not given it a moment’s respite from internal discords. The notion that, once upon a time, there was an orthodox Protestant consensus to which evangelicals could appeal is a myth. The differences among Protestants proved to be as great and as basic as their differences with Rome. Then and now, it is not possible to construct a common Protestant orthodoxy from disagreements so deep as those between, for example, Luther, Calvin, and Muentzer. The whole history subsequent to the sixteenth century was one of deepening these disagreements. This is the problem facing those who want to set forth what is simply called “evangelical” theology. The adjectives”feminist, liberationist, charismatic, et al.”become necessary to indicate what kind of theology one is writing. While a death rattle does not sound from these books, a crisis is evident enough; and the crisis is that the connection between theology and the Church has become elusive and problematic.
Ours is an ecumenical age in which councils and churches have engaged in an intensive quest for the true identity and integrity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. These evangelical authors are fully committed to the proposition that theology exists for the Church. Stanley Grenz titles his enterprise Theology for the Community of God . “Theology,” he writes, “is the task of the faith community; it is a community act.” The question is: which church? And what makes that church participant in the Church? David Wells says the crisis in evangelicalism is theological, the marginalization of theology per se, leading inexorably to an embrace of modernity and secularization. An alternative analysis suggests itself. Evangelicalism, like other forms of Protestantism, may now be facing the ecclesiological crisis that ecumenism has brought home to us.
These texts, I believe, are not sufficiently alert to the scandal of the divided Church and the way this calls into question the dogmatics written by a single author for any particular voluntary association calling itself church. In a pre-ecumenical age, a dogmatician could write a system of doctrine for the training of clergy and the edification of members of the particular community to which he belonged”Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, or whatever. Such a parochial approach will no longer do when one is held to the higher criterion of teaching in accord with the apostolic faith confessed in the catholic creeds. These creeds express the chief dogmas defined by church authority as being true to God’s revelation in Scripture. To cream off the creeds and dogmas of the ancient Church, while ignoring the ecclesial structures that authorized them as God-given truth, is not very convincing.
How can one separate the authority of what is said from who said it? Evangelical Protestants appeal to Scripture as the sole authority, but the canon of Scripture is itself one of those decisions”along with the trinitarian and Christological dogmas”that call for confidence in the trustworthiness of the Church and the authority of the Church. A purely biblical dogmatics that claims to go straight to Scripture”bypassing the question of the Church’s authority in exegeting, interpreting, and transmitting the beliefs of the community for which this book and none other is Holy Writ”is surely self-deluded.
Yet this seems to be what is going on in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine . His method is captive to the fundamentalist notion that the canon of biblical texts and their interpretation can be detached from the community that determined canonicity in the first place. The other books give some sign of an awakening to the intrinsic place of the Church and its authority in a hermeneutic of dogmatic inquiry. As this awakening grows, we might expect that evangelical theology will seek to reconnect more believably with the more catholic streams of church tradition. That there are individuals and even entire congregations of evangelicals now converting to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism is evidence of a hunger not only for the gospel but for the Church to which God has entrusted its proclamation.
These six texts also reflect a divided mind about the connection between the Enlightenment and modern theology. Grudem completely ignores the post-Enlightenment traditions of modern Protestant theology. Apparently it all came to a screeching halt with Schleiermacher (1768–1834). Grudem’s aim is to repristinate only conservative renderings of biblical doctrine, almost exclusively from the Reformed heritage. He piles up biblical proof-texts in blithe indifference to critical scholarship.
Bloesch, on the other hand, represents the neo-orthodox side of evangelicalism, reflecting the struggles within Protestant theology for a post-critical doctrine of Scripture that steers between fundamentalism and modernism. He says, “I wish to defend the orthodox evangelical faith”from its friends as well as from its enemies.” He tends to agree with Karl Barth’s critique of liberal theology, but he is no less critical of fundamentalism for its bondage to a rationalistic epistemology and concept of truth. Bloesch fails to note, however, that the battle between modernism and fundamentalism is a feud within the same family. They are in fact twins, since both approach Scripture with a method and mindset that ignore the Church.
Grenz, McGrath, James McClendon, and Christopher Morse take full cognizance of the contributions of the leading modern theologians. Grenz has leaned heavily on the thought of Pannenberg, whom he names as his mentor. But he is also and very self-consciously faithful to his own pietist Baptist roots. He unabashedly defends the hallmarks of that tradition, especially with respect to the nature of the Church as a covenant community, congregationalist polity, believers’ baptism, and a symbolic (Zwinglian) view of the Lord’s Supper.
McGrath has written an introductory textbook that attempts to bring together the history of doctrine and systematic theology in one volume. One can easily predict that it will be widely used as a textbook, for he lets the Church and its classic traditions speak for themselves, rather than expostulating on his own arguments and opinions. His own constructive work takes the form of addressing, in light of Scripture and tradition, some of the burning issues in the Church today. The happy result is that the shape of the questions is contemporary, while the substance of the answers is deeply traditional.
The books by McClendon and Morse are the most original in style and substance. McClendon’s is the second volume of his systematics trilogy. The first was titled Ethics , and the third will be an apologia for his way of doing theology, more or less in line with William Placher’s concept of “unapologetic theology.” McClendon treats the whole of the Christian faith from the perspective of one who affirms the “radical reformation.” Taking a cue from Jurgen Moltmann, he begins from the end”that is, he begins with eschatology. This is rooted in the Baptist experience of church as a Spirit-filled, mission-driven community of eschatological expectation. This approach, he says, is underrepresented in recent theology, and his aim is to rectify the deficit. The debate in ecclesiology is thus not merely two-sided”between Protestants and Catholics”but three-sided, with Baptists representing a distinctly third type, neither Protestant nor Catholic. This is not without its problems. Thinking in terms of historic types that deserve to be represented may suffice for determining who should attend an ecumenical theology conference. All voices have a right to be heard, but that does not make them right, dogmatically speaking. The truth we seek in dogmatic inquiry cannot be determined by assuring a fair representation of preferences.
Furthermore, McClendon’s typology does not include Eastern Orthodoxy, an ecclesiological tradition even more underrepresented than the Baptist/Pentecostal type in modern theology. And one must ask whether it would not be more useful in an ecumenical age to reinterpret the Baptist communities that trace their lineage back to the radical reformation. They might be seen as valid representatives of a spiritual movement within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, rather than, as the radical reformers claimed, a rebirth of the church of the New Testament. Such a move might parallel the reassessment of Luther’s magisterial reformation as a confessing movement within the one Church of the West, rather than as the intentional creation of a new and independent church.
McClendon’s book reinforces our thesis that the crisis in evangelical theology is an ecclesiological crisis. Admittedly, facing this crisis in a straightforward way raises the question of the ecclesial identity and permanent legitimacy of Protestantism and its multiple subtypes. We cannot expect evangelical theologians to resolve the ecclesiological problems that have preoccupied so many in this century. But it is discouraging that they shy away from even addressing the challenges that might throw into question their too comfortable ecclesial identities.
Morse’s Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief is a fascinating work that deserves more attention than can be given it here. It belongs in the class of “evangelical theology” only in the most general sense. Conservative evangelical authors are not mentioned nor is their agenda pursued. Its sights line up with the towering figures in the classical stream of Christian thought: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg. Morse can be placed toward the liberal end of the neo-orthodox spectrum of Protestant theology. His argument is that Christian truths can be illuminated by reference to their negations. If we believe X, what is it then that we do not believe? “Entailed in the faith that Jesus was Lord was the disbelief of Caesar as Lord,” Morse writes. The insight is not new to historical scholarship; the creeds and confessions of the Church frequently linked their affirmations to condemnations. But I can think of no system of dogmatics that ever adopted it as the key principle of interpretation.
Given that principle, it is the more disappointing that Not Every Spirit is marred by a “politically correct” tendency to accommodate the prevailing zeitgeist in liberal Protestant churches and seminaries. Morse’s catalogue of disbeliefs does not extend to the popular feminist belief that the triune name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sexist and reflects gender bias; he endorses the gay/lesbian belief that the practice of homosexuality is compatible with biblical faith; he accepts the pluralist hypothesis that “one may confess the reality of Jesus Christ without ever having heard or ever being aware of the words Jesus Christ,’ or intending a Christian’ witness.” The book would be much the stronger if, on these and other questions, Morse extended his catalogue of disbeliefs in a more courageous”dare I say dogmatic”manner.
Our survey confirms the observation that evangelicals come in quite different versions. There are evangelical fundamentalists (Wayne Grudem), evangelical pietists (Stanley Grenz), evangelical pentecostals (James McClendon), evangelical neo-orthodox (Donald Bloesch), evangelical Anglicans (Alister McGrath), and evangelical liberals (Christopher Morse). And that list does not exhaust the variety by any means. Evangelicals revel in Protestant freedom, but keep up the fight against the doctrinal anarchy it spawns in their midst; they share the inner turmoil of evangelicalism, but offer few pointers to a way forward; they diligently mine the sources of the great tradition, but betray a consistent antipathy to the ecclesiastical authority by which that tradition is defined. These books reflect what is called, perhaps euphemistically, the creative flux within American evangelicalism, and there is no denying that the work represented by these writers has an important bearing on the future of the Christian reality in this country and elsewhere. Like many others, I will continue to watch with sympathetic interest. But I hope I will not be misunderstood if I say that I think I’ve read enough evangelical dogmatics to last for a while.
Carl E. Braaten , a Lutheran dogmatician, is Executive Director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology in Northfield, Minn.
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