Thanks for your letter. [I posted this letter about ten days back.] Your letter boils down to one basic question: Are the days of a moderate but robust evangelicalism, seen in such leaders as John Stott and Mark Noll, coming to an end?
To answer your question I read Harriet Harris’ lengthy, overcooked, but often enough insightful study Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Oxford, 1998). Her book sets out a major idea we need to consider to help us all think about how to move forward in this highly-polarized environment. She builds on the provocative accusations way back in 1979 by James Barr (Fundamentalism), augmented later in his own book of 1984 (Escaping from Fundamentalism), to contend that there is such a thing as a “fundamentalist mentality.” She sees at least four elements in a fundamentalist mentality that begins with a “high view” of Scripture, that is, with inerrancy as the linchpin doctrine of the Christian faith:
1. A priori reasoning: God inspires Scriptures; therefore there can be no errors.
2. A stubborn to prove the Bible is true and inspired by using empirical arguments.
3. Shifting from either element — a priori reasoning and empirically proving Scripture as true and inspired — leads to far too many concessions to modern, liberal scholarship.
4. Such concessions threaten the foundations of the Christian faith.
Harris is more right than she is wrong about this. There is a renewal of the fundamentalist mentality among evangelicals. What we have, then, is a renewed “Battle for the Bible.” In 1976, Harold Lindsell blew the whistle on Fuller seminary and any evangelical who didn’t realize that giving in one inch on inerrancy — no matter if he had to contend there were six denials of Jesus by Peter — would inevitably lead to the collapse of the Christian faith.
So, Trevor, what you are seeing is not these particular issues that have unnerved you but an underlying mentality that knows at a deep level that if one gives in on evolution or women’s ordination or the historical veracity of the patriarchal narratives or the archaeological record it will lead to the deep chasm of liberalism, denial of the gospel, and finally to some kind of heresy. So, you can expect that the defenders of some of these ideas will fight like a Cairn Terrier because they think permission of one such idea will lead to a host of invaders to overtake the land. The first thing we have to admit is that this is the situation. The reason for this situation is well-grounded — historians of the Church know that diminishment of gospel truths leads to a collapse of the gospel itself. And we are always responsible to maintain an utter clarity about the gospel. If you don’t respect the Cairn Terrier, you make a mistake. There is a reason for the way it is. Casual dismissal is disrespectul and unhistorical. We begin with this point: defense of the gospel is important. Now, to your question…
Is there a way that remains genuinely evangelical and willingly engages the demands of the current generation when it comes to theological views it finds questionable and worthy of reconsidering?
I’ll give you my opinion which is also my hope: Yes. A big “Yes.” Why say it this way? When I see the kinds of books that move the current emerging generation, when I see the levels of commitment to the fullness of the gospel, when I see the willingness to do some hard thinking, when I see a profound awareness of the hermeneutics of claiming truth — that we are limited, that our claims our limited, that all of this has to be done by faith, etc.. — and when I see the kinds of theologians who are now on the horizon and leading the discussions, I say “Yes, there is a way forward, a third way, and there are plenty who are exploring it with integrity, holiness, love, justice, peace, and joy.” Some are off-base of course. There are always some misguided enthusiasts.
The theologians leading this third way, to one degree or another — some more conservative than others, some more exploratory and experimental and therefore not always right — are Miroslav Volf, Kevin Vanhoozer, F. LeRon Shults, Robert Webber, John Franke, Bruce Benson … I could go on … are not only bright lights on the horizon but there are so many young Christians reading them and digesting them and seeing the implications and forging new emerging Christian thinktanks and churches and conferences. It’s fun, really.
But, I get discouraged too. When we see folks lift up complementarianism as a central Christian doctrine we all suffer setbacks. But, believe me brother, there are new voices on the platform. Listen, you’ll hear them and you’ll learn that you are in a big company of saints who know that we are on the threshold of a new day and it summons us to a new way.