Getting into week two with campers and the camp schedule is in full swing which means I’m working basically 8am-10pm most days of the week.  Its a crazy, busy, hectic life, but its also great fun and immensely rewarding.  Finding time to read and write in the midst of it all is a tad bit difficult, but we are still making progress!

Today we are shifting gears a bit.  We have finished the historical section of Grenz’s Renewing the Center and are now getting into the main theological argument.  Grenz wants to argue that the shift in philosophy to post-modernism provides new opportunities for evangelical theology to continue to reform and move away from its fundamentalist phase and back toward something akin to the synthesis of classical evangelicalism in terms of emphasizing both the experience of faith and engagement with the culture of the day.

Before launching into a description of what such a theology might look like, Grenz wants to give a philosophical description of post-modernism and then discuss some ways in which post-modernism will impact theological method.  In his description of post-modernism, Grenz emphasizes two things:  first, the rejection of “meta-narratives” and second, the demise of “foundationalism.”  By “meta-narrative” Grenz means a systematic “myth” or story that organizes the way a society understands the world and its place in it.  So for instance, the meta-narrative of modernism is commonly understood as the narrative of the progress of human knowledge and technology to explain and control the natural world.  Post-modernism, Grenz believes, involves the total rejection of such narratives:

The post-modern condition is not merely marked by the loss of the particular myths of modernity.  Rather, the postmodern ethos entails the end of the appeal to any central legitimating myth whatsoever.  Not only have all the reigning metanarratives lost their credibility, the idea of a grand narrative is itself no longer credible.”  (181)

Grenz goes on toe describe the effect of this move by post-modernism:

Nevertheless, narratives still function in the postmodern world.  But the narratives postmoderns tell are “local” rather than universal.  Postmoderns continue to construct models (or “paradigms”) to illumine their experience.  And because they perceive life itself as a drama or narrative lived out within a socially constructed world, they engage in the process of fabricating stories that can define personal identity and give purpose and shape to social existence.  In this process, however, postmoderns remain dispossessed of the modernist illusion.  They realize that rather than representing reality all such models are “useful fictions.”  (182)

The result is the proliferation of local and even personal narratives which are considered “true” for a particular individual or community and are celebrated as marks of diversity in postmodernism.  Grenz sees great opportunity here for evangelical theology, which he sees as fundamentally local because of the structure of evangelical communities and the evangelical experience (189).

The second major feature of post-modernism as Grenz understands it is the demise of “foundationalism.”  By foundationalism, Grenz means an epistemological project aimed at discovering first a bedrock, certain “foundation” for all other knowledge and then constructing a system of belief from that foundation.  The most famous example of this in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ project, which begins with the bedrock foundation of the Cogito:  I think, therefore I am.  From this certain starting point, the acknowledgement of our own existence as a thinking being, Descartes then sets out to build a system of knowledge including proof of an external world, the existence of other people, and God.  Grenz understands post-modernism to entail the demise of this kind of project and its replacement with projects aimed at discovering systems of knowledge which, though not endowed with the kind of certainty that comes from such a foundational starting point, are secured by “coherence” or a robust notion of “pragmatism.”  The major consequence of this movement by post-moderns is that knowledge becomes in many ways connected to language and its function in various contexts.  This in many ways reinforces the “local” nature of narratives noted above:  if knowledge is rooted in contextual, linguistic understandings based on the coherence of certain ideas or their functionality in particular contexts, then knowledge will effectively be localized.  What this means for theology is that theology must also be “contextualized” or local,  theology must seek to operate in a way that is fluid and appropriate for its particular context or local situation.

The most immediate problem that I see for Grenz is that Grenz’s description of post-modernism as the rejection of meta-narratives is itself a meta-narrative.  In other words, it seems to me that Grenz’s portrayal of post-modernism is one of the rejection of a particular meta-narrative for another.  The post-modern meta-narrative is one that sees the modern project as misguided and arrogant and believes that society must reject endeavors at definitively discovering objective truth and instead embrace a multitude of diverse viewpoints and local “useful fictions.”  I think this portrayal of post-modernism is a problem for Grenz because his project goes beyond the post-modern rejection of the modern meta-narrative and attempts to construct a new meta-narrative for the Christian (and specifically evangelical) community while simultaneously maintaining that the concept of meta-narratives has lost its credibility.  Grenz does not end with the claim that theology must be local and contextualized.  He wants to be “prescriptive” (211), describing what a Christian, and specifically, what an evangelical theology look like in the post-modern ethos.  To be prescriptive, he claims, theology must be apologetic (213).  The problem for Grenz as I see it is that it is unclear how one can be “apologetic” and “prescriptive,” aiming to describe what the Church should believe and defend such belief, without crafting a meta-narrative with universal claims.

This is further complicated by some major considerations Grenz makes.  Grenz concludes chapter six of the book by arguing that any properly Christian theology must include three elements:  it must be Trinitarian, it must arise from the life of the community, and it must be oriented toward the eschatological, redemptive work of God.  This gives us a glimpse of the meta-narrative Grenz would construct in his prescriptive project, but it also seems to act as a sort of foundation for his theological project.  Grenz in fact describes all three of these elements as in some sense “basic” or “foundational” (220, 222, 224).  Thus, it seems to me that while Grenz finds the post-modern ethos very useful as a critical tool of other theological projects, his own project is still in many ways a meta-narrative which utilizes some form of foundationalism and thus does not exhibit the post-modern ethos he claims Christianity must utilize in the present age.

To be fair, it should be said that Grenz is certainly post-modern in a certain sense, which is that he has rejected the modern meta-narrative.  He also uses much post-modern terminology, discussing language games, contextualization, local “styles” of theology, the coherence and pragmatism of truth claims, etc.  However, since Grenz is attempting to construct a prescriptive and apologetic theology for evangelicalism, he is inherently going beyond what he understands to be the post-modern ethos of rejecting all meta-narratives and embracing a diversity of local stories by attempting to construct a new meta-narrative of his own.  While I find the content of his theological project in many ways compelling or at the very least intriguing, I’m not sure his argument for the project is adequate.  Grenz never, to my reading, provides us a way out of the localized post-modern ethos that would allow a new meta-narrative like the one he proposes to be formed.  Without that grounding, I’m not sure his project can ultimately succeed even if its content is very compelling.

To be clear about what my critique is here, let me summarize it.  I find many things about Grenz’s theological project compelling and interesting.  I think his three essential elements are all crucial pieces of Christian theology.  I think there is something to be said for the claim that evangelical theology is in some respects by its very nature grounded in the localized experience of God at work in an individual or community.  In all these ways I find myself in agreement with Grenz.  Where I am frustrated with Grenz is his attempt to claim the mantle of “post-modern” for these claims while simultaneously understanding post-modernism as the rejection of meta-narratives and the demise of foundationalism.  What it seems to me that Grenz is actually doing is rejecting a particular set of meta-narratives and a particular foundation while embracing a new meta-narrative relying on a new set of foundational concerns.  The reason I find this frustrating is that I think by basing his argument on such gestures toward post-modernism Grenz is opening himself up to two dangers:  first, he is in danger of being inconsistent; second, he is danger of not having adequate grounding for his theological project because he does not provide a way to move from the localized stories of post-modernism to a meta-narrative such as the one he is constructing.

What do you think?  Is Grenz consistent?  Do you agree with him that theology must be local and contextual?  What do you make of his three essential elements to Christian theology?

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The camp schedule is getting busy, but still making progress with the reading and (more slowly) the writing for our summer project.  Today we are wrapping up our consideration of Grenz’s historical prelude in Renewing the Center, looking briefly at his summary of developments within neo-evangelicalism from its inception till about the turn of the new millennium.  To summarize what we have seen of Grenz’s account in our two previous posts, Grenz sees classical evangelicalism as the synthesis of two movements in the early 18th century: Pietism and Puritanism.  The movement was characterized by a strong sense of reform which refocused attention away from doctrinal issues to issues of the individual person’s standing with God resulting in an emphasis on personal conversion and assurance of salvation.  In many respects this reflected engagement with the philosophy of the day and many of the key leaders of evangelicalism were noted scholars and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley.  In its initial stages this movement emphasized that God worked through the scriptures, and thus gave great reverence to scripture, but did not have a particularly systematic or dogmatic understanding of scripture or scripture’s function.  However, as the movement progressed the importance of scripture became more and more emphasized and the understanding of scripture more and more rigid, resulting in the Princeton doctrine of inerrancy.  This development was at odds with the growing liberal theology of the 19th century and by around the turn of the 20th century had resulted in the fundamentalist withdrawal from engagement with the wider world and especially its academic scholarship regarding philosophy and religion.  Neo-evangelicalism represents a reversal of this withdrawal, an attempt at re-engagement, but at least at its inception Grenz seems to think that it is plagued by too much emphasis on doctrine and a continued reliance on the fundamentalist conception of inerrancy.

Grenz wishes to make two key points in chapters 3, 4, and the first half of chapter 5 in which he discusses developments within neo-evangelicalism after its inception in the middle of the 20th century.  First, he wants to re-emphasize that neo-evangelicalism represents a movement or shift away from the mentality of fundamentalism and toward a mentality of engagement with modern culture, philosophy, and science.  Second, Grenz wants to emphasize that there is great diversity within evangelical thought and thus are multiple ways of doing theology within neo-evangelicalism.

To make these two points, Grenz draws out two major strands of evangelical thought, each represented by three major figures (associated with three different “generations” of neo-evangelicals).  The first strand begins with Carl FH Henry, continues with Millard Erickson, and Grenz suggests has been passed on to Wayne Grudem.  The second strand begins with Bernard Ramm, continues with Clark Pinnock, and it is suggested has been passed on to John Sanders.

The Henry-Erickson-Grudem strand is quite readily identified as the more conservative of the two streams of thought.  For example, Grenz writes of Henry that:

Doctrinally, Henry remained a fundamentalist.  In fact, a decade after publishing his critique of the movement, he affirmed once again his adherence to the “fundamentals.”  Rather than reforming fundamentalism doctrinally, Henry sought to rid it of the “harsh temperament,” the “spirit of lovelessness and strife” he saw displayed by many of its mid-century leaders.  (95)

Similarly, Grenz writes of Erickson’s growing concern about a “shift to the left” (138) in evangelical theology.  Yet interestingly it may actually be Grudem who represents the most conservative voice of these three.  Grenz quotes Grudem from the introduction to his Systematic Theology to provide an example both of his conservatism and his skepticism about engagement with more liberal points of view:

I think someone needs to say that it is doubtful that liberal theologians have given us any significant insights into the doctrinal teachings of Scripture that are not already to be found in evangelical writers.  (166)

Grenz goes on to say that Grudem seems to represent a significant “shift to the right” in evangelical theology (167), and notes I. Howard Marshall’s description of Grudem as a current day fundamentalist (167).

It is actually quite interesting to me to see these three names together because I have met Erickson and Grudem, have heard Erickson in person critique Grudem’s theology for being in some respects too driven by a particular conservative ideology and, from reading Grudem, know that he would think Erickson far too liberal on several issues.  Grenz to a certain extent points this out, noting for example that while Erickson takes an egalitarian position with regard to gender roles in church leadership, Grudem is one of the founding thinkers behind the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which advocates “traditional” gender roles in the church (163).  There are two ways, I think, we can interpret Grenz’s classification of these three together.  The first is to say that the classification Grenz has provided is inadequate, lumping together thinkers who are too different from one another and thus mischaracterizing a significant part of the evangelical movement.  The second is to suggest that there is indeed a lineage between these three thinkers but that Grudem represents a significant shift back toward fundamentalism which has occurred in recent evangelical thought.  I tend to find the second more likely, but would love to hear what others think.

The Ramm-Pinnock-Sanders strand is much less conservative and much more prone to rethinking and challenging traditional doctrines.  So for instance, Grenz describes Ramm’s critique of fundamentalism, which is markedly different from that of Henry:

His interpretation of the Reformation understanding [of scripture] led Ramm to reject both liberalism and fundamentalism, but the latter was the special target of his critique.  In his estimation, fundamentalists had become so concerned to defend the inspiration of Scripture that they had lost track of the more comprehensive Reformation doctrine of revelation and thereby failed to understand that “inspiration lives on revelation and not vice versa.”  (116)

This doctrine of revelation centered the word of God, Ramm argued, in the person of Christ (115), a position that made him very open to theological dialogue with Karl Barth (119-21).  This kind of thinking would lead Ramm to more open engagement with the philosophy and science of his day, thus allowing him to arrive at such non-traditional (for evangelicalism) positions as theistic evolution (114)  and a denial that the historical dimensions of the Christian faith can be known with certainty (118).

Pinnock continues the trend of challenging what might be considered traditional evangelical doctrines.  For instances, Pinnock rethinks what it means for scripture to be the word of God in a similar manner to Ramm:

Pinnock argues that in the Bible divine revelation comes in human form, God accommodates his Word to human modes of thought and expression as well as to human modes of literary and historical composition.  On this basis, Pinnock, walking the same pathway that Ramm had charted earlier, suggests the possibility that Scripture may include such features as sagalike story, legend, and hero narrative.  (151)

What Pinnock is perhaps more famous for, however, is his rethinking of many traditional understandings of God:

In an essay addressing the “classical synthesis” of revelation and rationalism, Pinnock insisted that classical theism, infused as it was with Greek philosophical ideas, ought not to be equated with biblical theism.  Biblical theism is characterized by a dynamic ontology, he asserted, which invariably clashes with the static ontology of Greek thinkers.  For this reason, Pinnock declared, problems arise whenever theologians attempt to interpret the biblical message “which is historical and personal at its core” by means of Greek metaphysical categories that at their core are “ahistorical and impersonal.”  (153)

The results of Pinnock’s own attempts to undo this synthesis and get at a truly biblical theism has most famously resulted in the Open Theism movement in evangelical theology, a movement which remains controversial and which leads us to our next figure, John Sanders, who has become a leading advocate of Open Theism.

In discussing Sanders, Grenz makes perhaps the most interesting move of this section of the book.  Recalling the two impulses we discussed in our last post, Grenz has thus far characterized the Ramm-Pinnock-Sanders strand of thought as much more reflective of the Reforming impulse than the Scholastic one.  However, Grenz writes of Sanders that:

Sanders’s work risks replacing one neo-evangelical sectarianism with another.  And it comes dangerously close to the typical evangelical temptation to claim to be able to jump directly form the text to the contemporary situation.  (170)

This suggests that Sanders, who is largely building on the theological work of Pinnock, is in danger of falling prey to the Scholastic impulse and leaving behind the impulse toward continual reform.  By making this final move, Grenz sets up what he wants to do with the rest of the book, which is analyze how an evangelical theology might continue to reform in light of a new context: post-modernism.

What do you think?  What do you make of Grenz’s portrayal of developments in neo-evangelicalism to the present day?  Is Grenz presenting a good description of the diversity within the movement?  Do you agree with his characterizations of the two strands of thought in neo-evangelicalism?

This is our first post from my new home (for the summer) in New Hampshire where I am working as the Worship Coordinator of a summer camp run by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

View From our Office

Continuing with the historical background found in the first few chapters of Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz, I want to look today at chapter 2 where we can begin to see some of how Grenz’s argument will, I think, shape up.  In the previous chapter, as we noted in our last post, Grenz argues that classical evangelicalism emerged from the combination of two streams of thought during the Great Awakening of the early 18th century.  In this chapter, Grenz will argue that the development of evangelicalism exhibits a pattern in the development of protestant thought in general which alternates between what we might call the “Reforming” impulse and what we might refer to as the “Orthodox” or “Scholastic” impulse.

These two impulses are reflected in a variety of ways throughout protestant and evangelical history, but Grenz is especially interested in noting how they relate to one particular doctrine, namely the doctrine of scripture in protestant thought.

We begin with the Reformers and the doctrine of sola scriptura.  Grenz first notes that Luther does not equate the Word of God with scripture:

Understood strictly, the Word of God is the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ and the justification available through Christ.  For Luther, the Bible is valuable, in turn, because it is God’s chosen instrument for bringing the gospel to sinful humans.  (66)

In the context of more recent theological discussions, we should note that this Lutheran position is quite close to Karl Barth’s view of scripture.  Closer still to Barth’s position is Grenz’s description of Calvin’s understanding of the Word of God:

Ultimately for Calvin of course, Christ is the Word of God.  Yet Calvin also spoke of the Bible as the Word, in that it is God’s testament, or witness to us, and the content of divine revelation is Christ himself.  As the Word of God, Scripture does not derive its authority from the church.  Rather, the church is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles and this foundation is now found in Scripture.  (67)

Grenz goes on to elaborate on Calvin’s view of biblical authority by noting how Calvin connects the authority of the scriptures with the workings of the Holy Spirit:

Calvin was uncompromising in his elevation of biblical authority.  Yet for him the authority of the Bible does not emerge sui generis, but arises from God, or more specifically, from the fact that God in person speaks in it.  Hence, rather than depending on philosophical argumentation to support this claim, Calvin viewed the authority of the Bible as in a certain sense self-authenticating.  That is, the believer’s assurance of the authority of the Scriptures is connected to the internal testimony of the Spirit within their hearts.  (67)

The significance of this rapid-fire survey of the Reformer’s understanding of scripture is to point out that for them the significance of scripture was not primarily doctrinal but lay instead with the way in which scripture testified to the activity of God.

In stark contrast to this is how Grenz describes the treatment of scripture in Lutheran Orthodoxy:

Aristotle’s distinction between matter and form gave the Lutheran scholastics the tools necessary to differentiate between the biblical text itself and the Word of God, understood as the message that God wishes to communicate through the text, while maintaining that the two are so bound together as to be inseparable in actual practice.  However, in their attempts to contend for the faith of the Reformation, Lutheran scholastics increasingly elevated the divine origin of Scripture above its human authorship.  Many came to treat Scripture as precisely accurate in every detail, a storehouse of revealed propositions… In so doing, these Lutheran thinkers transformed the doctrine of Scripture from an article of faith into the foundation of the entire systematic-theological program.  (75)

Grenz will make very similar statements about how scripture is understood in Reformed Orthodoxy with the point being that while lip-service is given to the distinction made by the Reformers between the living Word or activity of God and the texts of scripture which testify to such Word or activity, as the scholastic impulse settles in on Protestantism the authority of scripture became of more central and dogmatic importance as the foundation for a system of orthodoxy.  Thus, we can see our two impulses at work:  the Reforming impulse which tends to undercut the authority of “orthodox” systems in favor of an emphasis on the living, active work of God v. the Orthodox or Scholastic impulse to forge a systematic theological structure and thus (in its Protestant variety) have a more rigid view of scripture as the foundation on which such a project can be built.

Turning to the Puritan and Pietist forebears of evangelicalism, we can see elements of both impulses at work.  The Puritans, though themselves a Reforming movement within the Church of England, were also to some extent interested in a kind of Orthodoxy, namely the establishment of a “scriptural church” (68).  In their quest to purify the church (see our comments in the last post), the Puritans borrowed from Calvin’s connection of the Word with the Spirit and then expanded it a step farther:

While following the basic Reformation line of sola scriptura, at one point the Westminster divines seemed to take the teaching of their mentors a step farther.  The Puritans placed themselves squarely against the widespread teaching of their day that argued from the clarity of the Bible to the conclusion that even unregenerate persons could understand Scripture correctly.  In contrast to this apparent epistemological Pelagianism, the Puritans were convinced that the true significance of Scripture could be understood only by those whose minds were enlightened by the Spirit… Maintaining this position, however, required that the Puritans differentiate between two levels of meaning in the text: the grammatical and the spiritual.  (69)

Here we can see the element of Orthodoxy sneaking into the Puritan understanding of scripture as they make clear, dogmatic demarcations between those who can and those who cannot understand its true meaning (and then, consequently, how we should understand the true meaning).  This alone is not a full-fledged Scholastic system, but it shows some movement in the direction of that impulse.

Grenz’s understanding of the Pietist notion of scripture is very similar to that of the Puritans minus one crucial difference in emphasis (brought out by Grenz in this discussion of the Pietist leader Spener):

In contrast to the orthodox theologians, Spener claimed that a believer studies the Scriptures “to discover the will of God in the Bible rather than to prove the authority of a confession of faith.”  Hence, the Pietists believed that scripture was not so much a source of doctrine as a devotional resource and guide to life.  According to Spener, the goal of exegesis was practical, namely, “to bring abundantly the Word of God among us.”  (70)

Here we can see a bit more clearly the Reforming impulse to focus on the activity of God, but like the Puritans it leads to the belief that only the “regenerate” can fully understand (note: understanding for the Pietists has a more active connotation, denoting feeling the full affect of scripture working within the individual) scripture and consequently that there are two levels of understanding.  These movements toward Orthodoxy in both Puritanism and Pietism are easily understandable as part of their context:  Pietism is itself trying to reform Lutheran Orthodoxy (but has, naturally enough, absorbed some of the orthodox impulse) while Puritanism is a Reforming movement that is being led by second and third generation students of the Reformation who are beginning to feel the impulse toward Orthodoxy.

The Pietist and Puritan movements combined in the revivals of the 18th century to form classical evangelicalism Grenz argued in chapter one (see our previous post).  These revivals were themselves largely Reforming movements in existing church structures Grenz argues, as seen in his characterization of their view of scripture:

As Puritan and Pietist renewal converged in the eighteenth century, they gave birth to an evangelicalism that looked to Scripture as the vehicle through which the Spirit worked the miracles of salvation and sanctification. Sparked by their experience of the nurturing work of the Spirit through the pages of the Bible, evangelicals’ overriding aim was to allow the message of the Bible to penetrate into human hearts and to encourage the devotional use of the Bible.  (72-73)

This view of scripture in classical evangelicalism is very important to keep in mind as we move from this classical period toward the present day.  Grenz draws out one crucial point which will be the main point of contrast with the later progress of the movement:

The evangelicals who emerged from the awakenings exhibited little interest prior to the 1820s in elaboration precise theories about biblical infallibility or inerrancy.  Rather than constructing theories about the Bible, awakening evangelicals were content simply to cherish the Scriptures.  (73)

As Grenz sees it, from the classical period onward evangelicalism has been largely dominated by the impulse toward Orthodoxy or Scholasticism.  The first major focal point of this came from the Princeton theologians and their quest for a “scientific theology”:

The quest for scientific theology required an unassailable foundation, one that could endow the theological construction with epistemological certitude when subjected to the canons of empirical science.  The Princeton theologians believed that this sure foundation lay in an error-free Bible.  (80)

Similar to what happened in Protestant Orthodoxy, as noted above, the Princeton theologians have moved the authority of scripture from the place of a medium through which God actively communicates to a rigid, error-free foundation on which theological propositions can be built.

One of the primary motivations for such a movement was a defense against liberalism, and in particular historical-critical evaluation of the Bible which was deemed a threat to its authority.  As this perceived threat became more heightened, controversy and eventually all-out war between liberals and conservatives broke out in Christian communities and theological discussions.  The result was the emergence of fundamentalism, which further strengthened the Orthodox/Scholastic impulse in evangelicalism, especially in regards to the doctrine of scripture:

Fundamentalism was characterized by a belief that the only sure antidote for the ills of liberalism lay in an uncompromising loyalty to Scripture arising out of a high view of biblical authority.  Liberalism, with its attack on the Bible, the fundamentalists believed, could only be combatted through a vigorous defense that included a clear statement of the divine inspiration of the Bible.  (87)

Fundamentalism made inerrancy and a strong view of biblical authority “essential doctrines” necessary for inclusion in the Christian community, clearly demonstrating the impulse toward systematic Orthodoxy or Scholasticism within evangelicalism.

However, the fundamentalist project to drive liberalism out of Protestantism, ultimately failed.  This resulted in the emergence of a new movement, neo-evangelicalism:

When the controversies subsided, the fundamentalists found themselves divested of control of most major Protestant denominations, which had defected to “modernism.”  In response, many of the remnants of the older fundamentalist coalition retreated from theological engagement with the mainline churches– choosing to practice “second-order separation”– and retreated from engagement with the wider culture as well.  In the 1940’s, however, a new coalition coalesced out of fundamentalism which, thanks to one of its guiding lights, Harold Ockenga, came to be known as “the new evangelicalism” or neo-evangelicalism, a designation that was then simplified to “evangelicalism.”  The new evangelicalism began as a protest by several younger fundamentalists against the internal division, anti-intellectualism, departmentalization of life, and social irrelevance that come to characterize the older movement… The architects of the new coalition saw their role as that of standing between liberalism and fundamentalism.  They desired to remain true to the basic doctrines of Christian orthodoxy in the face of the accommodationist tendencies of theological liberalism… But to a greater extent than their fundamentalist co-religionists, the new evangelicals desired to be open to engagement with the world and to dialogue with other viewpoints.  (89-90)

While this description on a whole seems to portray neo-evangelicalism as a movement dominated by the Reforming impulse, Grenz seems to strongly suggest that the movement is still (at least at its inception) dominated by the fundamentalist understanding of Orthodoxy:

Nowhere is neo-evangelicalism’s genesis in fundamentalism more evident than in its theology.  The fundamentalist acceptance of the Princeton understanding of inspiration, especially Warfield’s formulation of inerrancy, gave a particular nineteenth-century cast to neo-evangelicalism’s emphasis on biblical authority.  Equally significant for the fledgling new evangelicalism was their acceptance of fundamentalism’s tendency to reduce essential Christianity to adherence to basic doctrines.  (91)

Thus Grenz writes as he wraps up the chapter that:

By perpetuating the fundamentalist struggle against liberalism as waged on the terms set out by the Princeton theology, the new evangelical theology oriented itself to questions of propositional truth, in contrast to the issue of one’s relationship with God characteristic of classical evangelicalism.  (92)

Seemingly this indicates that as Grenz understands neo-evangelicalism at its inception, it was still too dominated by the impulse toward Orthodoxy or Scholasticism and not opened up enough to the Reforming impulse.

What do you think?  Is Grenz’s portrayal of these two impulses fair?  Does Grenz give too negative an evaluation of the Orthodox or Scholastic impulse and movements dominated by it?  Does Grenz give too positive an evaluation of the Reforming impulse and movements dominated by it?  How else might we understand these impulses/movements?  What do you make of Grenz’s characterization of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism?

Continuing with our discussion of Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  In the introduction Grenz set up a critical question for us:  What is evangelicalism?  As we saw, Grenz believes (and I tend to agree) that this question must be answered at least partially from a historical lens, but must also include a focus on particular theological issues which lie at the center of evangelicalism.  The first of these issues Grenz wishes to consider is the understanding of the gospel found in evangelicalism.  Grenz sees this is as the primary issue which gave rise to what he calls “classical evangelicalism,” which emerged following the revivals in Britain and America in the early 18th century.

To get to this “classical evangelicalism” Grenz will trace two different streams which feed into the evangelical movement.  Both streams begin at the Reformation with Luther and Calvin.  Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness formed the basic Reformation starting point for understanding the gospel, but as Grenz notes Luther’s tendency to ignore any notion of actual righteousness (whether through sanctification or otherwise) has generally not been carried through in evangelicalism.  Rather, evangelicalism has tended to also borrow from Calvin’s take on sanctification as a distinct but necessary consequence of justification by grace.  In this sense, evangelicalism is part of the broad tradition of Reformed theology.

Within this broad tradition, Grenz argues that two competing streams come together to form “classical evangelicalism” and shape its particular understanding of the gospel and its effects.

The first of these stems from the influence of Puritanism.  The Puritans found themselves in a unique situation:  part of a Church that was at least nominally protestant (after the Church of England broke away from Rome under Henry VIII and again under Elizabeth I) but which, in their estimation, maintained many elements which were far too Roman to consider the Church truly reformed.  Thus, the Puritans found themselves struggling to purge “impure” elements from their Church.  This resulted is a change in emphasis from the original Reformation’s goal of recovering the true gospel to a new goal of creating a “truly constituted church”:

The quest for a truly constituted church led many members of the puritan party to adopt what has come to be known as the pure church ideal… The goal of the gospel, the Puritans concluded, is to gather out of the world “pure” churches, that is, congregations that contain only, or consist solely of, the elect of God. (44)

The Puritan notion of a Church that only consisted of the elect is not only a shift in emphasis from that of the original Reformation, it is also, I would argue, a significant break with much of the Christian tradition on at least one key point.  Grenz does not spell this out, but he hints at a concern I would raise (for both the Puritans and those in contemporary evangelicalism who make similar claims):

Their commitment to the pure church ideal motivated the Puritans’ strident critique of the church in England.  In their estimation, rather than striving to be a church of the regenerate, the English church was content to remain a “mixed assembly” that refused to distinguish between the saints of God and the unregenerate.  (44)

The term “mixed assembly” is a loaded term in the history of Christianity because of the legacy of Augustine in dealing with the Donatist controversy.  The Donatists were a group of separatists in North Africa who believed themselves to reflect the “pure” Church, those who had not succumbed to persecution and thus revoked their status as true Christians.  The Donatists argued that any church which accepted the impure into their assembly, and especially any church which accepted them into the ranks of the clergy, was not a valid church and could not administer valid sacraments.  Against this group, Augustine argued that the church is always a “mixed assembly” of both sinners and saints in both the laity and the clergy.  Further, he argued, it is not the priest who makes the sacrament efficacious but God.  Under Augustine’s influence the notion of the Church as a mixed assembly relying on the grace of God became a standard part of the Christian tradition.  Luther took this Augustinian position a step farther, arguing that every individual is simultaneously a sinner and a saint and therefore reliant on the grace of God.  It seems to me that the Puritan endeavor of creating a church that consists only in the elect implies a degree of confidence in their ability to distinguish the true church from the “mixed assembly” which no major voice in the Christian tradition had ever claimed prior to this movement.  The break with earlier teaching this represents is one that, I readily admit, I am quite suspicious of, but I’m eager to hear any defense that might be offered of it.

The sucess of such a goal to create pure churches depends on the ability to identify the elect, and this in turn raises a new soteriological issue, the question of “assurance” of salvation.  Grenz argues that the Puritans approached these questions, following the footsteps of Calvin but modifying him slightly, through the idea of sanctification:

The Puritans came to base one’s personal sense of election on the believer’s own piety.  Or, stated theologically, they grounded assurance in sanctification. (47)

This focus on sanctification as a measure of assurance likely results in the many stereotypes we have now of the Puritans as austere, rigid, and legalistic.  It also contributed, however, to a movement toward individualized religious experience which will be very important to evangelicalism.

The second tributary flowing into classical evangelicalism is the influence of the Pietist movement.  Like the Puritans, the Pietists began as a movement of Reform within a larger, state church.  However, their method was markedly different from that of the Puritans.  Grenz explains:

Unlike the Puritans, in calling for church reform the early Pietists did not elevate to center stage the question of the status of the Lutheran church as a true church of Jesus Christ and hence the propriety of withdrawing from the larger, state church.  Rather, their intent was to reform the church solely from within.  To this end they were content to form… what became characterized as ecclesiolae in ecclesia.  The goal of these churches within the church was not to separate “true” Christians from the unregenerate, but to be agencies for bringing the church to reflect once again the image of the early Christian community.  (49)

What the Pietists are known for, which drove their efforts at reform and became their major contribution to evangelicalism, is a degree of emotional fervor attached to their conception of faith.  The result was a movement toward a more subjective understanding of salvation, as Grenz explains:

The older Protestant theology had generally spoken of salvation as an objective given [What God does for people, centered on the moment of justification at baptism]… The Pietists, in contrast, highlighted the subjective, the inner nature of salvation.  Salvation is what God does within people.  As a consequence, the locus of true Christianity shifted from baptism to personal conversion.  (50-51)

Thus, Pietism also results in a movement toward an individualized experience of religion, though for very different reasons than those found in Puritanism.  For Pietism the elevation of the individual experience occurs because this is the level on which subjective, emotional experiences of conversion are felt, whereas for the Puritans this occurred because in their efforts to create a pure church individual sanctification became the benchmark for assurance of one’s status as a part of the elect.

The result of the combination of these two streams, which occurred during the Great Awakening in the early 18th century, is the emergence of what Grenz calls “classical evangelicalism.”  Its understanding of the gospel contained two critical components:  an emphasis on the experience of conversion and the elevation of this experience of conversion to the status of the benchmark for assurance.  As should be apparent, Grenz’s understanding of “classical evangelicalism” seems more heavily weighted toward the Pietists than the Puritans, but there are certainly traces of the influence of both in this synthesis.  In describing the character of the evangelicalism which emerged from this synthesis, Grenz further argues that a part of “classical evangelicalism” was  an active engagement with the science and philosophy of the day, a point that will become very important when Grenz shifts gears from discussing history to evaluating the current state of evangelicalism.  He holds up as examples of this kind of evangelicalism at its best two prominent theologians: Jonathan Edwards (who, I have just recently been admonished to remind everyone, was a congregationalist and not a presbyterian) and John Wesley.

I’ve alluded to some suspicions about the Puritan side of the evangelical synthesis that Grenz has described here.  Though I am more comfortable with the Pietist side of the synthesis, I’m sure it is not immune to criticism, either.  I also wonder if there is an inherent problem in the strong sense of individualization expressed in both these movements and fully realized in the evangelical synthesis.  What do you think?  Which stream are you more sympathetic to and why?  Is evangelicalism inherently too individualistic?  What do you make of Grenz’s description of “classical evangelicalism”?

Posted by: Alex | June 1, 2012

Introducing Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz

Today we are beginning to work through the first book of this year’s summer reading project, Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  The book is an argument for the theological method of the emerging movement by one of its main theological voices.  In the introduction to the book, Grenz poses the first, very important question which he wishes to consider: how to define evangelicalism.  This is a notoriously difficult task, and Grenz doesn’t offer a pat answer but instead explores several possibilities which I want to lay out here for our consideration.

The first is a sociological definition:

Perhaps the simplest method is to define the movement sociologically.  Viewed from this perspective, evangelicalism constitutes a loosely structured coalition of persons who share certain religious and cultural symbols, participate in a somewhat readily identifiable number of institutions, look to a changing yet discernible group of leaders, and through these associations gain a corporate self-consciousness as well as a sense of identity as belonging to a particular group.  (23)

There is not a lot of content to this definition (as its written its more or less a generic sociological definition for any religious movement), but that gives us some room for discussion.  What would the religious and cultural symbols of evangelicalism be?  What are the identifiable institutions?  Who are the discernible leaders of the current evangelical movement?  My sense is that its actually very hard to narrow down the answers to these questions to any sort of clear list.  In fact, I think attempting to identify these things actually highlights very quickly that evangelicalism is not a monolithic, united movement.  Perhaps others will be able to do more with this suggested definition than I have (so I am eager to hear what people may think), but I don’t think we can arrive at a satisfactory definition of evangelicalism by this approach.  Thankfully Grenz doesn’t stop here.

The second definition Grenz suggests is taken from David Bebbington’s study of evangelicalism in Britain from its genesis in the 18th century to its resurgence in the late 20th:

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism. (23)

I am not entirely clear what Bebbington means by “activism” but the others do seem fairly characteristic of evangelicalism as I have experienced it.  The question to ask, however, is are these characteristics sufficient to fully describe evangelicalism?  It seems to me these four characteristics do little more than describe some outwardly apparent commonalities of evangelicals.  What I want to know is if they tell us anything about what motivates the existence of an evangelical movement, where it comes from, who it is composed of?  I sense the answer is that this definition doesn’t give us the full story.  Now, I don’t want to be too critical, I genuinely like this description and think its fairly helpful at giving a glimpse of what evangelicalism looks like, but I’m not sure it really tells us who evangelicals are or what evangelicalism is.

To get the full story it seems as though there needs to be some sort of historical component.  Grenz next suggested definition gives us a bit of this:

The roots of contemporary evangelicalism lie in three concentric circles… [Quoting William J. Abraham] “the Reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, the evangelical revival of the 18th century as found, say, in Methodism, and modern conservative evangelicalism.”  (24)

Grenz goes on to explain the modern conservative evangelical movement as being rooted in the fundamentalist/liberal controversies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries but reflecting an attempt at re-engagement with the world (as opposed to fundamentalist isolationism).  This historical analysis provides a brief glimpse of the motivation of the evangelical movement and thereby helps to explain its primary concerns, but as Grenz notes, evangelicalism is not the only movement to have emerged from the Reformation or even from the 18th century revivals.  Grenz suggests that his own method is going to follow something of a historical approach but that there are two important theological claims that are central to evangelicalism which must be carefully considered:

I explore two central theological interests that lie at the heart of the contemporary evangelical ethos:  the maintaining of the true biblical gospel and upholding of the Bible as the inviolate theological authority.  (24-25)

While I think Grenz is moving in the right direction here, I’m wondering if at the end of the day this also doesn’t end up being a description and not an explanation of evangelicalism.  I’m also wondering if this is totally sufficient as a definition.  Are these the only theological concerns which could be said to “define” evangelicalism?  In fairness, these concerns are phrased in such a way as to be fairly broad and encompassing of many other issues, so these questions are largely hypothetical.  If you think there are issues that might be central to evangelicalism that don’t fit into Grenz suggested definition, I’m very eager to hear them.

How would you define evangelicalism?  Which of these definitions seems best to you?

Posted by: Alex | May 30, 2012

Summer Reading Project Returns!

Last summer we attempted a pretty ambitious reading project on major books reflecting both the “emerging” wing of evangelicalism and the “neo-reformed” wing.  As it turned out it was a bit too ambitious of a project while working full time as the worship coordinator of a busy summer camp.  So as I’m packing up to head back to camp, we are returning to the same theme but taking it a bit more slowly.  I have two books that I want to work through, and if time permits we’ll add a few more.  They are Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz and the response to it by Millard Erickson and others, Reclaiming the Center.  Grenz, before his untimely death in 2005, was considered one of the leading theological voices of the emerging movement and this book reflects a theological argument for its way of doing theology.  In contrast, Reclaiming the Center is a response by more conservative evangelicals to what they consider “accommodation” by Grenz to post-Modernism.  Both books should be interesting reading and provide lots of food for thought.  The goal is to have two posts out a week over the course of the summer as we work through the arguments presented by the various authors and hopefully stir up a little bit of discussion.

In this post I want to highlight a passage of the Foreward to Renewing the Center written by Brian McLaren for the 2006 re-print (after Grenz’s passing) that I think raises some interesting questions worth considering as we progress through yet another American election cycle this summer.  McLaren writes:

When any religious movement becomes a civil religion, it is significant.  When a relatively young religious movement becomes the undisputed civil religion of the richest country in the world, it is very important indeed.  But when a young religious movement without a strong sense of history, with a less than fully developed academy, and often armed with a rather bizarre eschatology becomes the civil religion of the most powerful nation with the most powerful weapons– including the most weapons of mass destruction– of any nation, not only in the world but in the history of the world, that is staggeringly important, breathtakingly important.  (11-12)

McLaren writes this in response to what he perceives to be the one major weakness of Grenz’s book: that it does not address the rise of evangelicalism as a political force, particularly, McLaren perceives, as a partner to the Republican party in American politics.  What I think is interesting is that taken out of its context, and dropping the line about weapons of mass destruction, I think the above statement could easily be made of the synthesis of power that happened when Constantine elevated Christianity in Ancient Rome.  I think McLaren raises, then, a few important questions:

First, is he correct in describing evangelicalism as the “civil religion” of America today?  Granted, McLaren wrote this seven years ago, but it is remarkable that now the leaders of the evangelical movement are rallying behind a Mormon politician (many even professing that they are confident in his salvation), something that I think would have been unheard of even four years ago.  Does that reflect a changing of the tide from how McLaren perceived the situation?

Second, is McLaren’s portrayal of evangelicalism as “young,” lacking a “strong sense of history,” and “armed with a rather bizarre eschatology” a fair characterization of the movement?  Certainly McLaren is speaking from his own perspective here, and these will be some of the issues that I suspect we will delve into more as we work through these two texts.  But just as an initial reaction, what do people make of this characterization?

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, what does/would it mean for evangelicalism to be America’s civil religion?  I noted above the similarity between McLaren’s description and how we might describe the ascendence of Christianity to political power in Ancient Rome.  Does evangelicalism’s place in American society signal a similar kind of “Christendom” forming which will shape the course of Christianity for the next several centuries?  If so, what does that “Christendom” look like?

Interested to hear what people have to think.  We’ll dive into the text of Renewing the Center in a few days!

Two of the big news stories of the past few weeks have  been President Obama’s announcement of support for same-sex marriage (on the heals of Vice-President Biden) and, a day before, the passing of a controversial amendment banning same-sex marriage or civil unions in North Carolina.  As I have watched, the reaction from various Christian communities has seemed mixed, whether it be from more conservative or more progressive ends of the spectrum.  From more progressive Christians I have seen a mixture of enthusiastic welcome for Obama’s announcement and disappointment (even anger, in some cases) at its timing in relation to the referendum in North Carolina.  From more conservative Christians I have seen reactions to Obama’s announcement ranging from anger or disgust to an utter lack of surprise and renewed calls to oust the president for someone more in line with “American values” (former governor of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts Mitt Romney??).  I’ve also seen conservative leaders tout North Carolina as the latest evidence that Americans on a whole still support “traditional marriage” (despite polls showing a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage being legally recognized).  It seems to me that on a whole the battle lines have continued to be drawn where they are with little movement on either end of the spectrum.

My experience has been that issues of sexuality (whether this be same-sex marriage, gender norms in the church, etc.) are among the most divisive issues facing Christianity today.  Denominations have split, and continue to split, over questions related to human sexuality.  Major scandals ensue whenever religious leaders say or do something related to sexuality which seems outside of the expectations of their particular community.  And no other set of issues seems to engage people on such a personal level (to a certain extent, that is obvious), often resulting in angry, or at least passionate, rhetoric from both sides of whichever of the numerous issues pertaining to sexuality is at stake in a particular conversation.

That seems to have hit an extreme with this clip from a sermon by Charles L. Worley, a North Carolina Pastor, which has gone viral.

I highly recommend reading this response to the video from a self-described evangelical.

My sense is that the divisiveness of this issue is damaging to Christianity, making it almost impossible to get conservative and progressive Christians to work together on any other issue.  But my sense also is that most of the more conservative Christians I know are just as horrified by the thought of rounding up members of the LGBTQ community and putting them into a Hitler-esque ghetto as I am.  Even assuming the conservative perspective on homosexuality, Worley seems to go too far (and I have noticed, in doing research for this post, that most of the major conservative/evangelical voices have effectively stopped talking about their opposition to same-sex marriage since this video surfaced).  Given that, I’m wondering if the common reaction to Worley from both sides of this debate can form a bit of common ground for a conversation that works towards healing division instead of generating it.

What I have in mind is something like this:

I first want to ask what it is about Worley’s proposal that is so upsetting or shocking?  For me, it is the idea of deliberately and blatantly subjecting other human beings to what is effectively torture with the intention of killing them.  This is the straight out slaughter of human beings because they are unwanted (at least in the eyes of some).  The complete lack of respect for the dignity of the life of these people (given in the same sentence as a demand for respect for the life of the unborn) is, I think, disgusting.

And there lies the next move, I think:  whatever we think about the moral status of homosexuality, in this discussion we are talking about people, and by virtue of that there is a certain level of dignity and respect for these people that must be maintained whether we support their lifestyle or not.

Finally, I think there is an important contribution to be made by recalling the doctrine of depravity in this discussion.  Though more progressive Christians often shy away from discussions of sin and depravity, I think this doctrine is an important equalizer that demands a certain amount of humility and openness from all of us.  Whatever we might say about the moral status of homosexuality, the doctrine of depravity says that all of us are sinful.  Even those of us who are “repentant,” Luther would remind us, are simultaneously sinners and saints, redeemed and yet still fallen.  This, in turn, leads I think to an extremely important question, at least for those on the conservative side of this debate:  even if we take homosexuality to be a sin, what right would we, as fellow sinners, have to exclude on this basis other people from the life and ministry of the Church (including such institutions as marriage)?  As the author of the response linked to above suggests, it seems that without an air-tight answer to that question the only option is to offer radical hospitality both in terms of our actions and our rhetoric.

I recognize that most of the people who will read and potentially respond to this post are on the more conservative side of this discussion, and so I have intentionally been more provocative toward that point of view.  My goal here, as always, is to garner a discussion, beginning with the first question posed above (Why is Worley upsetting?) and moving toward what relevant theological issues you see being at stake in this discussion.  Let me know what you think!

Posted by: Alex | March 7, 2012

A Point of Agreement and a Project

I recently wrote a post on the controversy over gender roles and sexuality happening in evangelicalism.  Then two weeks ago I saw a very thought provoking documentary called MissRepresentation which took a critical look at the way that women are portrayed in American media (whether it be in advertising, movies/television, or even the way women leaders are discussed in the news), a theme brought even more into the limelight by Rush Limbaugh’s most recent set of controversial remarks and the fallout that has resulted from them.  The film brought to light a number of really remarkable and alarming statistics and I highly recommend everyone watch the documentary (for a preview, see the trailer below).

Miss Representation 8 min. Trailer 8/23/11 from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

Now, I bring this up because I think that this film highlights a point at which those of both a conservative and a more progressive persuasion can find some significant agreement.  While they may reach this conclusion for very different reasons, I think both sides of the issue can agree that the way women are objectified and sexualized in American media is wrong.  So, despite the numerous other disagreements that surround the issue of women’s role in society, I think that we should do something productive with the area of agreement that does exist.

One of the overwhelming conclusions of both the documentary and the discussion that followed the screening of it that I attended was that a significant part of the reason women are portrayed as they are in American media is due to the influence of the advertising industry on other forms of media.  We have long heard the mantra that “sex sells.”  What we don’t realize quite as often is that advertisers don’t just apply this mantra to the ads that they create, they also apply pressure on television and movie producers to include the same kind of content in their products.  The stream of revenue from advertisers to producers plays a major role in driving the portrayal of women in all forms of media.  But what if that stream of revenue suddenly stopped?  What if sex no longer sold products?  If the effectiveness of sexualized advertising suddenly dropped off, I think there is reason to believe the media portrayal of women would be drastically altered for the better.

I find that there are compelling theological reasons for wanting to affect a change like this.  To try and keep them in very neutral language, if both men and women bear the image of God then it would seem both should be portrayed and treated with dignity.  Further, if the gospel contains an element of the restoration of humanity to its intended position of reflecting the image and glory of God (trying to blend Drs. Wright and Piper, here), then it would seem that the church should play a role in moving society toward a state where all people are treated with such dignity as they deserve.  Aside from these theological considerations, I think that on a practical level the church has a powerful voice (witness the current political controversy over birth control) that could be exercised for remarkable societal change on an issue like this.  The MissRepresentation team is already spearheading a project like this, but imagine if churches got on board and began to urge their members to not buy products which were advertised with explicitly sexual imagery.  What kind of an impact might be had if large-scale boycotts of this kind were organized?  How much do you think the advertising industry would notice?

I suspect some sort of organized movement like this could have quite an impact.  I’m interested to hear what others might think of such an action, what other considerations might need to be part of the discussion surrounding it, and ideas about how to mobilize people to be involved in something like this.

Two back to back controversies around a similar set of issues have caught my eye lately.  The first had to do with Mark and Grace Driscoll and their new book Real Marriage.  The book was immediately controversial for the way that it handles issues of sexuality, drawing criticism from both more conservative and more progressive wings of evangelicalism.  In particular, I address you to two reviews of the book:

The first review, which you can read here, is written by Tim Challies and represents a much more conservative approach to the book.  To give you an idea of how conservative a perspective Challies takes in this review, he states in one place that he would be afraid to let his wife read this book (I guess because of the impure ideas it might put in her head) and in another place criticizes Mark and Grace for claiming that divorce because of spousal abuse is justifiable (I gather Challies would say the abused spouse must stay in the relationship).  His primary criticism of the Driscolls seems to be that they are too frank, open, and perhaps even liberal in their treatment of issues of sexuality.

The second review comes from Relevant Magazine’s website, you can read it here.  The perspective taken here is very different from Challies approach.  JR Forastaros, the author of the review, actually praises the Driscolls for their openness and frankness in dealing with issues of sexuality, noting that such issues are being discussed in the wider culture and that it is a shortcoming of the church to not discuss them more openly.  Where he takes issue with Real Marriage is on its portrayal of gender roles.  In particular, he notes that Mark Driscoll emphasizes (as he has done many times in the past) a traditional notion of “masculinity” as the norm for men in general and for leadership in marriage in particular.  Mark goes so far, Forastaros claims, as to denigrate men who remain single, apparently ignoring the singleness of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament (we should note that in other places Mark has written that his motivation for his view of masculinity is largely a reaction to what he perceived as the weakness of celibate Catholic priests when he was younger).  Forastaros also notes the way in which Grace Driscoll treats the Esther story, chastising Vashti for “disrespecting” her husband by refusing to “do a strip-tease for him and all his drunken friends.”  I personally agree with Forastaros that such an argument by the Driscolls is “cringe-worthy” at best.

Just as the controversy over the Driscoll’s portrayal of a marriage dominated by Mark’s ideal of masculinity was beginning to move to the back-page, as it were, John Piper gave some comments at a pastor’s conference the other day in which he declared that God has given Christianity a “masculine feel.”  Not unexpectedly, that set off a firestorm of responses.  What might have been unexpected was how those responses materialized.  Prominent progressive evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, instead of writing a full response herself, asked for men to write responses to Piper on her behalf.  A week later over 150 responses came in.  You can read a synopsis of some of Rachel’s favorites here.

While not all of the responses might measure up to whatever preferred standard of “robust theological argumentation” we might hold to, on a whole I was impressed with the quality of the responses given to Piper.  At least on this issue the idea that progressive evangelicals are activists without a strong theology has been soundly shown to be a myth.  Others may argue with what these writers have to say, disagree with their exegesis, raise problems for their theologies, etc, but I don’t think it can be doubted that a serious effort to ground their beliefs in theology and biblical exegesis is being exhibited here.

I have not read all of the posts written, but one interesting angle to the question that I did not see mentioned in the ones that I have read has to do with the gospel writer’s portrayal of the disciples and various women who appear in the narratives.  Almost without exception in the gospels women are portrayed as having great understanding beyond what the disciples possess.  They are always quick to sit at Jesus feet and learn form him.  They are often praised for their great faith (on account of which Jesus does many miracles).  They are the brave ones who refuse to abandon Jesus at the hour of his death and are the first to discover the empty tomb on the morning of his resurrection.  In contrast, the disciples, and other male figures (think Nicodemus) are frequently portrayed as bumbling fools who just don’t understand what is going on.  Think of how many times Peter is rebuked for speaking without thinking.  How many times are the disciples criticized for their lack of faith?  And who is first to abandon and denounce Jesus when he is arrested?  I think this consistent characterization might have something to say about the adequacy of “gender norms.”  But maybe that’s just me…

I find it extremely interesting that both of these controversies have emerged at about the same time.  I think the reaction to both, and the level of controversy demonstrated, is at least some evidence that the tide is changing in how evangelicalism approaches issues of gender and sexuality.  Which, at least from my point of view, is a good thing.  If Piper’s “masculine Christianity” looks anything like Mark Driscoll’s “masculine Christianity” then I think its high time we left them both behind.

I know other contributors on this blog (and probably some readers of it) will strongly disagree with me, however.  I look forward to your thoughts!

Finally, as a shameless plug, the campus ministry I work for is hosting a theological coffeehouse discussion this Thursday on the question of “Religion and Sexuality.”  We will have Dale Martin, author of Sex and the Single Savior and professor of religious studies here at Yale as our guest speaker.  If you are in the New Haven area this week, come out and join us.

Posted by: Alex | February 3, 2012

Music Review: David Crowder Band, “Give Us Rest”

A quick note offering my strong recommendation that you check out the David Crowder Band’s newest (and last) CD “Give Us Rest.”  I have been extremely impressed with the music in listening to it for the last week or so, am already scheming how I can use some of this with the band at the camp I will be leading worship for this summer.  I have always been impressed with Crowder’s creativity as a musician.  This album showcases that wonderfully.  As an added bonus (to me at least) it also features a lot of awesome piano work, which I have not noticed as prominently in prior Crowder albums.

Check it out!

One reason I bring this up is that I was actually introduced to the album not by evangelical friends of mine but by mainline protestants who were attracted to the liturgical theme of the album (its built as if it were a requiem mass) and then thoroughly impressed by the music.  This is interesting to me because I think Crowder has done something remarkable here.  He seems to be bridging the gap a bit between liturgical and “evangelical” worship.  In most mainline traditions, at least as I have experienced or encountered them, the idea of having a rock-band leading worship is foreign and frightening.  Its what those radical evangelicals do.  It might be ok for a youth retreat or camp setting, but certainly it could never happen in church.  The interest Crowder seems to be generating among mainliners here, at least, makes me think there is a possibility this barrier will be rethought in the not too distant future and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

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