Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation In Postmodern Times

Article by   July 2005

The theologian is often caught between a rock and a hard place, between the truth he holds dear and the society he loves and longs to see transformed by the gospel. This tension, though never easy, is right and good. It displays both a passionate commitment to the truth and a genuine concern for people and culture. However, the balancing of these two loves is precarious, fraught with pressures and temptations on two equal opposite fronts. First, and possibly more prevalent in our own time, is the pressure to adapt theology in accordance with the tastes and trends of the time. Such a platform, though admirable for its earnest desire to see lives changed, inevitably compromises the gospel, sacrificing the truth of God on the altar of relevancy. But second, and equally damaging I might add, is the resistance to any new theological overture, simply because "...it is not the way we've done it in the past." Such a position, though admirable for its holding fast to history and tradition, inevitably dies for its refusal to grasp and live out the clarion call of the Reformation, semper reformanda.

In a stirring and provocative collection of essays, the contributors of Reclaiming the Center attempt to avoid such extremes by confronting the growing trend of postmodern accommodation in the fields of philosophy, theology, and historiography. While, at the same time, advancing a "modest," distinctively Biblical alternative-one that transcends both modern and postmodern ideologies and returns to the doctrinal and experiential center of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Each contributor to this volume shares a common concern for the historic understanding of evangelical doctrine, such as: the authority and reliability of the Scripture, the doctrine of the trinity, the second coming of Christ, the necessity of evangelism, a conversion experience, and a life of devoted discipleship to God. And yet, within such commonality, the backgrounds and traditions of these contributors are as wide and varied as evangelicalism itself. This diverse unity provides us as readers with a kind-of evangelical consensus of the postconservative movement.

The book begins with a brief but thorough overview of postconservatism's short history by Justin Taylor. He surveys the background and early development of the movement, highlighting the academics, pastors, and publicists who have played key roles in the shape and advancement of postconservatism. Taylor's introduction serves as a backdrop for the rest of the book and sets the stage for D.A. Carson's review of the most important academic proposal of postconservatism,  Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.

Carson begins his review by providing a detailed examination of the content of the book, noting sympathies and points of agreement between postconservatism and classic evangelicalism. At the end of the chapter, however, he offers a number of significant critiques, paying closest attention to the assertions that, in his mind, undermine the heart of evangelicalism. Carson's chapter is the basis on which the rest of the book is written. He identifies the points of continuity and contention between classic evangelicalism and postconservativism, points that are then taken up and discussed at length by the remaining contributors.

The second section of the book provides an analysis of the postconservative position on the nature of truth, foundationalism, and language. Douglas Goothuis, J.P. Moreland, Garrett DeWeese and R. Scott Smith tackle these philosophical subjects by first assessing and then analyzing the postconservative's accommodation to certain modern truth theories, their widespread assumption of foundationalism's demise, and their use of language theory in theological knowledge.

The authors conclude that coherence, pragmatic, and other non-correspondence truth theories fall short of a Biblical view of truth, for they do not (indeed, cannot) correspond to reality. Thus, in an attempt to bypass the postconservative error, they set forth a "modest foundationalism," arguing for "direct epistemic access to reality."

In the third section, A.B. Canaday, Stephen Wellum, and Kwabena Donkor address the difficult subject of theological method. Canaday speaks to the postconservative's exchange of propositions for narrative, their support of Wittgenstein "language games," their understanding of doctrine as little more than rules of discourse, and their defense of communitarian theology.

Stephen Wellum builds on the work of Canaday in his evaluation and critique of the postconservatives' combination of experience, community, and Scripture in their so-called "Christian interpretive framework." He shows how this "framework" is a deviation from the historic evangelical position of Scripture as the "first-order" for all theology and practice. Then, despite the advances of the postconservative, he upholds the full authority of Scripture as the "revelational foundation" for theology and life. In addition to this, Wellum emphasizes the important role of "biblical theology" in theological proposal and the necessity of evangelical theology to read and apply Scripture to all of life.

Lastly, in this section, Kwabena Donkor argues that this "generous orthodoxy" of the postconservative is in conflict with classic evangelicalism in presupposition, goal, and activity (intellect). He asserts that the communitarian foundation of Grenz's "belief mosaic" is a prescription for the advancement of pluralism and a removal of the necessary foundations for evangelization of the third world, particularly Africa.

In the fourth section, Paul Kjoss Helseth, William G. Travis, and Chad Owen Brand broach the postconservative's revising of evangelical historiography, namely, their endorsement of historiographical consensus. Helseth provides contrary evidence to the postconservative's caricature of Old Princeton as scholastic rationalists, and shows how the subjectivity of the communitarian interpretive framework actually undermines the exclusivity of Christianity with regard to other world religions.

Following Helseth, Travis provides a comprehensive scope of the various and sundry strains of Pietism. And in contrast to the postconservative assessment, Travis holds together the Pietists' practical emphases and their theological commitments, asserting that the combination of faith and life was the central shaping influence of evangelicalism.

Brand picks up the last discussion in this section proposing a modest definition of evangelicalism, a definition which maintains (even celebrates!) the essential doctrinal quality of evangelicalism with its unique diversity of tradition. He defends his definition historically by revisiting the roots of evangelicalism, tracing its history from the Great Awakening through the rise of liberalism to fundamentalism.
In the fifth and final section, James Parker III and Millard Erickson look beyond postmodernism and the present proposals of postconservative accommodation to the next cultural shift, "post-postmodernism." Parker argues that the death of postmodernism is now, and that a new "transmodern period" is coming and even underway.

This so-called "transmodern" period, language Parker borrowed from psychologist Paul Vitz, transcends the unfounded claims of modernism and the nihilism of postmodernism, while recognizing and appreciating the advances of both. Though this transmodern period is far from an organized movement, Parker gives impressions of its spirit by surveying recent trends in music, the visual arts, architecture, poetry, cinema, ethics, and socio-political philosophy.

Erickson concludes this volume with a proposal that is sensitive to postmodernism and the glimmers of this new "transmodern" period without being held captive by either. Erickson suggests some tools, which also serve as guides, in the development of theology in our era and in the one(s) to come.

He argues for a globally inclusive theology, that is, one that takes into account the changing center of evangelicalism, particularly third-world voices and female theologians. He argues for a modestly objective theology, that is, an approach founded on a correspondence theory of truth, which is both neo-foundational and post-newhistorist. He argues for a practical and accessible theology, that is, a theology that is lived and experienced, available to the average human and his condition. He argues for a postcommunal theology, that is, to establish points of contact between the message and the culture, in a way the truth of the gospel can be upheld and properly contextualized. He argues for a metanarratival theology, that is, a reasonable reliance on inclusive stories. He argues for a dialogical theology, that is, an interactive theology, one that considers thoughtfully the proposals of others and advances our own position with Scripture and reasoned argumentation. And finally, he argues for a futuristic theology, that is, learning to anticipate and prepare for what's ahead, contextualizing the message of the gospel for the given place and time.

Unlike any other book on the market today, Reclaiming the Center poses a sober warning to those who are being swept away in the rising tide of postconservatism, who have possibly failed to see the troubling consequences of "domesticating the gospel." Where possible, the contributors of this volume have given credit where it is due. As these contributors recognize, the postconservatives have challenged evangelicalism's past accommodation to modernism, and rightfully so. But as Reclaiming the Center proves, these "younger evangelicals" have swung to the other side of the pendulum, perilously subsuming evangelical theology to the categories and assumptions of postmodernism. And thus, in a strange irony, commit the same error of the modernist. Only this time, instead of the over-confident assertions of modernism, truth is bound to the foundation-less presuppositions of postmodernism.

This is why the editors and contributors of Reclaiming the Center deem this new re-visioning of evangelicalism as a step in the wrong direction, an undoing of historic evangelical beliefs, convictions, and formulations. In their mind, if this recasting is accepted and this "renewed center" affirmed then evangelicalism itself hangs in the balance.

Thus, by way of response, the contributors of Reclaiming the Center have provided a Biblically grounded proposal. A proposal that attempts-as evangelicals have done for decades-to understand what God has first said in the Scripture, allowing His Word to take root in our minds and hearts, and then humbly proceed in the science and art of theology.

So, to all who are looking for an even-handed, academically rigorous, evangelically committed, pastorally sensitive, culturally engaged treatment of the postconservative platform, you have found it. But more than that, you have found a proposal with an unchanging center, an immovable core, a place of genuine permanence. And for those of us who engage in a world without a center, that is a welcomed refuge indeed.

 

Edited by Millard Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor
Reviewed by Nate Shurden

Published by Crossway Books, 2004


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