Posted by: Alex | June 15, 2012

Historical Prelude, Part 3: Developments Within Neo-Evangelicalism

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?



  1. Not enough people understand were our modern evangelicalism came from. Thanks for your thoughts, I’m personally a big fan of the Grudem systematic.

  2. […] 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 […]

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