The State of Health of Theological Evangelicalism

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 10:2 (Summer 1992)

The State of Health of Theological Evangelicalism

Evangel 10:2 (Summer 1992)

Diagnosis

There is always a value in periodic self-examination provided that such does not become unduly introspective. Such exercises can alert us, for example, to half-hidden failures and to areas of weakness as well as offer encouragements as we relive or recognise blessings and progress. Sometimes such exercises can alert us to dangers on the horizon which we do well to prepare for or seek to avoid.

  Such reflection is not, however, something that should be restricted to individual lives. Churches do well to sit back and ask, once in a while, where God is leading them.
 
  However, the purpose of the comments here is to examine British evangelical theological endeavour. Where have we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going?

Retrospect

In the sixties theological evangelicalism was in a ghetto. Little was ventured or achieved. The primary focus of any endeavour was defence. It was not the time for breaking out along new paths when base camp was under fierce attack. Theological literature during the period thus produced little of great originality, though it did generate some major (and lasting) works which eloquently argued the reasonable basis of evangelicalism. One has in mind, for example, the great introductory works on Old and New Testament introduction by R. K. Harrison and D. Guthrie. Evangelical theologians, if they proceeded to research at all, tended to slip into historical theological projects where their evangelicalism was unlikely to be a major stumbling block to academic progress.

  There was, however, a cloud the size of a man’s hand on the horizon. . . or, perhaps, there was more than one! The UCCF (then the IVF) was developing the Theological Students Fellowship to the point that it was no mere cinderella; Tyndale Press began to produce quality scholarly and evangelical works and Tyndale House in Cambridge came to assume an increasingly important role. It became possible (though still difficult!) to hold one’s head up high as an evangelical while undertaking theological studies. Increasingly liberal scholarship was forced to at least recognise another viewpoint than its own. Significant biblical studies began to emerge from evangelicals and they began to take up posts in university theological departments which would have been formerly closed to them. The Cambridge faculty, for
example, appointed men such as Hugh Williamson and Robert Gordon.

Growth and Decline

Growing confidence among evangelicals led to a willingness to experiment and explore fresh avenues. The results have been spectacular! Modern studies have, for example, shown a freshness in the approach to hermeneutics. Fee and Stuart’s ‘How to Study the Bible for all its worth’ written by American authors but reflecting a corresponding growth in British evangelicalism, shows this. Progress in Old and New Testament studies is reflected in the stream of quality monographs and commentaries that the Inter-Varsity Press have produced, many of which far excel previous works.

  At the same time, however, interest in dogmatics seemed to be in continued decline except in more traditionally reformed circles. There theological endeavour seldom progressed beyond a repetition of the past and the republication of old (and worthy) volumes. More recently, there is evidence of a change. Rutherford House in Edinburgh and the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology have, self-consciously, sought to encourage scholarly endeavour in the realm of systematic theology. In popular evangelicalism there seems an increasing awareness that doctrine is important. Nevertheless, dogmatics is still a minority pursuit among evangelical theologians.

Significant Trends

Behind all this there has been another frend; that towards specialisation. To some extent this is inevitable and welcome. It is difficult to be a master of all and the days of the universal scholar have long since passed. However, within evangelical theology this specialisation has created problems as yet scarcely recognised, but nevertheless there! It is increasingly difficult to advance an integrated evangelical theology or theological methodology. All too often studies are undertaken by theological students (especially biblical scholars) without much of an attempt to assess the consequences of methodologies and conclusions upon the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Too often today ‘evangelical’ scholars are producing works of considerable academic standing which, however, superficially at least, blow the evangelical doctrine of Scripture to pieces! Dangerous and unnecessary concessions seem to be made without any concern or (sometimes) awareness of what is happening.

  There are many reasons that can he advanced for such phenomena. A analysis of such lie, however, beyond the scope of our comments here. Rather our concern is to encourage dogmaticians and biblical scholars to interact with one another.


Theological Evangelicalism

A complete evangelical theological methodology places at the centre the text of Scripture. Exposition of the text holds a primary position for the evangelical. Exposition feeds into dogmatics (which itself is also fed into by historical theology) which then reflects back upon exposition and ensures a harmony between biblical and theological studies and preserves the unity (within diversity) of the biblical message. Such an approach will sometimes challenge dogmatics (‘Where do you find that idea in the Bible?‘) and, at others, biblical studies (‘How does that fit with what God has revealed elsewhere?‘). However, such will do justice to both the humanity (emphasised by the biblical student) and the ‘deity’ of scripture (which the evangelical dogmatics student rightly cherishes). It will ensure that the word of God, so differently presented to us in Scriptures, speaks with one voice. At present, however, it is sadly true that evangelicalism rarely speaks with a clear voice. Biblical and hermeneutical studies, in particular, often offer observations totally unregulated by the Scripture’s own view of itself.

  Sadly, it seems as if British evangelicalism has lost its nerve at the point of victory. Liberalism is crumbling and the loud shouts are seldom anything more than the last cries of a dying man. The work of men like Stott, Packer, Motyer, Guthrie, Kidner, Packer et al. and their disciples has shaken the foundations of old liberalism to the point of utter collapse. What a tragedy then, if, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, evangelicalism is sufficiently sloppy and lacking a clear methodology so as to allow a new liberalism to arise from within! We must awake.
 
  Theologically we have so much to thank God for in British evangelicalism. We must welcome and cherish such blessings. We must beware, however, of that which will slip in unwares and may destroy all that God has achieved.

This particular issue of Evangel is devoted to the area of ‘the last things’. It is an area of debate within evangelicalism. Various views are expressed here. It is our desire to provoke fresh thought and interaction so that the evangelical church might truly discover anew and afresh the word of God by applying the sort of methodology outlined here.

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