Reforming or Conforming?
- Thursday, November 06, 2008
“Bona fide evangelicals are suggesting that the gospel is not atonement-centered, or, at least, not penal-substitutionary-atonement-centered. . . . This suggestion represents a Copernican revolution for Western Christianity, in both its conservative Catholic and Protestant forms. It may be judged erroneous—and likely will be judged so by many readers of this paper—but even those who dismiss it would be wise to consider the possibility that there is at least some small grain of truth to these ruminations on the nature and center of the gospel. A lot is at stake either way. . . . For reasons I have detailed elsewhere, I have put my eggs in the basket that suggests we need to rethink our understanding of the gospel—both for the sake of faithfulness to Holy Scripture, and for the sake of mission in the emerging postmodern culture.”19
The fact that McLaren’s remarks appeared in a publication from Fuller Theological Seminary does not automatically imply the seminary’s endorsement. Following on the heels of this came the impressive contributions from two Fuller professors, James E. Bradley, professor of church history, and Seyoon Kim, professor of New Testament. Both weighed in and argued that this doctrine is at the heart of the nature of the atonement and certainly was not the private opinion of the Old Princeton Theology.20 Not surprisingly, and right on cue, McLaren has gone on record denying biblical inerrancy, especially as it was framed by Old Princeton.
Like the doctrine of penal substitution, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is also the object of this group’s billingsgate. Under the banner of postmodernism with its new and improved way of doing theology, a growing number of professing evangelicals now confidently proclaim that the doctrine has long since outlived its usefulness and must be discarded lest we incur the contempt of thoughtful people everywhere.21
As striking as are the parallels between the post-conservatives/emergents to Shleiermacher, an even more compelling counterpart is apparent in the nineteenth-century Old Testament scholar and critic of Old Princeton, Charles A. Briggs. Like Olson, Briggs complained of the pervasive hegemony that Old Princeton exercised over conservative Presbyterianism. To begin with the most obvious, Briggs’s overt rejection of the Old Princeton understanding of inerrancy has a wide following among professed evangelicals today. One might even suggest that it is the majority view.22 But there are other areas where Briggs’s perspective would find safe haven as well. The late Stanley Grenz is a prime example. Grenz specifically contrasted his view of Scripture with that of Warfield,23 and blamed the Old Princeton theology for making propositional truth the touchstone for theology as over against pietism’s (Grenz called it “classic evangelicalism”) emphasis on having a relationship with God.24 Grenz also made a very Briggs-like shift by following the lead of Schleiermacher in positing three sources or norms for theology: Scripture, tradition, and culture.25 Briggs so firmly endorsed this idea that he devoted a book to the subject: The Bible, the Church, and the Reason.26 Elsewhere, Briggs wrote:
“Three fountains of divine authority are not and cannot be contradictory, because they are three different media for the same divine Being to make His authority known to mankind. We may compare them with the three great functions of government: the legislative, the executive and the judicial, which in the best modern governments conspire to express the authority of the nation. The Bible is the legislative principle of divine authority, for it is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Church is the executive principle of divine authority. It makes no rules save those which are executive interpretations and applications of the rules contained in apostolic teaching. The Reason is the judicial principle of divine authority to the individual man. The Reason, when it judges, must be followed at all costs. There is liability to mistake, in individuals and in ecclesiastical bodies, in interpreting the decisions that come through these three media. Two may usually be used for verification of any one of them.”27
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