Posted by: Alex | June 8, 2012

Historical Prelude, Part 2: Competing Impulses, Doctrine of Scripture, and the Rise of 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?



  1. well inspiration and sola scriptora didn’t start with the reformation, many of the early church applied this literally to the septugaint, and then to the latin vulgate in the 4th and 5th century…

  2. […] 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: […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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