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Reforming or Conforming?

  • Gary L. W. Johnson Editor
  • Published Oct 27, 2008
Reforming or Conforming?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from
 Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church by Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason, editors (Crossway).

By Gary L. W. Johnson

Evangelicalism, in the assessment of Carl Raschle, is in a state of crisis because it is being confronted with “an intellectual challenge of a magnitude it has never before confronted.”1 And just what is this foreboding thing? Simply put (but difficult to define precisely) it is “postmodernity.” Raschle, as the title of his book makes clear, contends that the church at large must embrace this state of affairs.

But this kind of “Chicken Little” response to the changing tides engulfing our culture is nothing new. A similar alarm was sounded at the turn of the eighteenth century by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Sinclair Ferguson recently observed along these lines that, “in his own way, Schleiermacher had patented and branded a ‘seeker sensitive’ theology that (he certainly believed) made the gospel relevant to his contemporaries—‘the cultured despisers of religion’ who, under the spell of the Enlightenment had given up on the possibility that Christian doctrine could be true. For them the knowledge of God was no longer attainable. Kant’s critique of reason had limited it to the knowledge of the phenomenal realm; access to the noumenal was barred. Schleiermacher, refusing to believe that all was lost, turned things on their head, stressing that the essence of true Christian faith was the feeling or sense of absolute dependence upon God.”2 Despite the rasping protests of some post-conservatives, the parallels between what Schleiermacher was attempting to do in the early decades of the nineteenth century and the proposals of this group of evangelicals that fondly refers to themselves as “emergents” or “post-conservatives,” are striking.3

In a provocative essay that attempts to sanitize Schleiermacher for contemporary evangelicals, Nicola Hoggard Creegan rightly observes that Schleiermacher is the one voice from the past that speaks directly to our postmodern situation.4 How so? B. A. Gerrish pinpoints with this observation the similarities between the late Stanley Grenz and Schleiermacher:

“Grenz does not seem to recognize, or perhaps he prefers not to say, that his theological program for the twenty-first century is pretty much the program that the supposed arch-liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher proposed for the nineteenth century. Differences there may be. But the threefold emphasis on experience, community, and context was precisely Schleiermacher’s contribution to evangelical dogmatics. Successive waves of neoorthodox and postmodernist attacks on him have submerged his contribution beneath an ocean of misunderstandings. He never renounced his evangelical-pietistic experience: rather, his theology at its center was reflection upon this experience from within the believing community in its new situation. He was certain that his experience must point to something constant since the time of the apostles, yet always to be conveyed in language that is historically conditioned. No less a critic of his doctrines than Karl Barth correctly perceived in Schleiermacher’s faith ‘a personal relationship with Jesus that may well be called “love.”’”5

In both cases the attempt to contextualize the Christian faith in terms of the contemporary culture produces a syncretic grid that, in our times, in turn gives ultimate priority to our postmodern matrix.

Gerrish’s mentioning of Karl Barth is also significant, because there are those in the postmodern camp who claim Barth as their own. But, despite our own reservations about Barth, we think he would be flabbergasted by the attempt to enlist him as a spokesman for this crowd.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in his famous debate with his neoorthodox ally and onetime close friend Emil Brunner over the question of natural theology. Brunner came out in defense of it, and Barth responded with his thunderous Nein!

His opening remarks would make most postmoderns shudder:

“I should like nothing better than to walk together with him [Brunner] in concord, but in the Church we are concerned with truth, and today with an urgency such as probably has not been the case for centuries. And truth is not to be trifled with. If it divides the spirits, they are divided. To oppose this commandment for the sake of a general idea of “peace” and “unity” would be a greater disaster for all concerned than such division.”6

Oh, my, Barth is concerned with this thing called “truth.” Postmoderns will squirm at the thought. But this should come as no big surprise to those familiar with Barth, who viewed Schleiermacher and his enterprise with what borders on contempt.

Mark Patterson, in a perceptive article on how relevant Barth’s Nein! is today says:

“As much as Barth was adverse to controversy and disputes, he nevertheless believed that there were times when they were necessary. When the truth of the Gospel was at risk, when the church was in danger of losing the reason for her existence, it becomes not only important but necessary to boldly enter the fray and stand for the Gospel. As Barth wrote his response to Brunner, the church in Germany had almost completely succumbed to the populist theology of its day, a belief that was built not upon the unique revelation of God in Christ but a theology built upon human feelings, presuppositions, aspirations, and prejudices. In other words, a natural theology of the very type Brunner espoused. That is not to say it did not use the right words—Jesus, faith, grace, and all the others—or to say that they had flagrantly or openly rejected the church’s theology and historic perspectives. What they had done was turn to a new revelatory center, and from this center redefine classic words and reinterpret traditional perspectives. Barth watched in horror and grief as the church rejected its astonishingly unique message of God’s mercy, love, and grace in Christ, and replaced it instead with an all too common message that simply affirmed the biases and opinions of the culture. The populist ideas and values were given a theological vocabulary, dressed up as divine, priceless, and authoritative and presented to a people who had little interest or ability to discern the true and drastic changes that had occurred. Barth was astonished to find his friend and theological partner furthering it by defining grace as more a part of the natural order than a specific act of God uniquely tied to the person and work of Christ."7

This stands in sharp contrast to the proposals we are now hearing from those self-identified postmoderns who are part of the emergent conversation. One of the reasons Barth so disliked Schleiermacher and natural theology is that Schleiermacher collapsed natural revelation and special revelation, and then gave priority to the former over the latter. In particular, the cultural paradigm served as the grid through which theology was constructed. This was Schleiermacher’s approach and is now being duplicated by those wearing the post-conservative badge.

In a recent commentary commending a new book by two prominent voices in emergent circles (Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones), Fuller Seminary professor Barry Taylor gives us this Schleiermachian panegyric:

“What it means exactly when a person declares himself or herself to be “spiritual but not religious” is a matter of some debate. Some people find spiritual an irritating term that means nothing of any real substance, a marker for a sort of “wishy-washy” sentimentalism that passes itself off as real faith. Others have embraced it wholeheartedly, and the rise of spiritual language in sermons and discussions, as well as a growing interest in spiritual directors in many churches, point to an embrace of the term on some levels even amongst the ‘religious.’

“I don’t think there is one definition for the term or for its usage. Spirituality is an umbrella word, a catchall concept used to characterize a commitment to the sacred elements of life. It defies a singular definition, hence the fluidity of the usage of the word; it is also an evolving term rather than one of fixed determination.

“One thing that it does signify, almost universally, is the rejection of traditional faiths as a primary source of connection to the divine. I would argue that traditional faiths are no longer the first resource that people go to in order to develop and nurture their spiritual lives, but instead function more as secondary archives with which new spiritual permutations are created. Those who do choose to explore their spiritual quests within traditional faith environments do so with very different eyes and intentions than previous generations of seekers have. For me spirituality is the religion of the twenty-first century.

“This is a dramatic shift, and one that some might contest, but the momentum seems to be toward this perspective; it should come as no surprise to us that our understanding of religion is undergoing a transformation. In times of significant cultural change, all the ways in which we order ourselves socially are usually affected. For instance, religion as it was experienced in the post-Reformation period was quite unlike its pre-Reformation incarnation. That faith in the postmodern world is showing itself to be markedly different from faith in modernity only serves to underscore the significance of the cultural changes we are presently experiencing.

“If then we truly find ourselves in a new situation, one in which the old ways simply no longer suffice, what then of the future for Christian faith? I have already raised the notion that there may not be a future for “Christianity,” the religion of Christian faith. I mean no disrespect to historic Christianity when I make this comment, nor do I seek to simply dismiss centuries of faithful service, worship, and theology.

“I think that the Christian faith has been held captive to a “pseudoorthodoxy” for much of the late twentieth century. Christianity’s love affair with modernity and its universalizing tendencies created a climate in which the general assumption is a singular understanding of the faith. The easiest way to undermine different perspectives on issues like faith and practice during my lifetime has been to call someone’s commitment to orthodoxy into question. But Christian faith is open to discussion. Historically it always has been. It can be questioned and reinterpreted. In fact, I would argue that it is meant to be questioned and reinterpreted.

“Religion is always a cultural production, and sociocultural issues cannot be discounted from the ways in which we envision and understand faith. Issues and questions raised by our particular cultural situation not only inform but shape the various ways in which we interpret the gospel. If there ever was a time to question the status quo, it is now.”8

Barth would have been appalled and rightly so. Taylor, however, is right about one thing. We cannot escape the powerful undercurrents of postmodernity that course through the times we live in. The question that confronts us all is, how do we respond to such things? Since the apostle Paul tells in a very direct way—we are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:1–2)—exactly what do we do when we find ourselves being molded and shaped by the culture around us? Well, one thing is clear—we should not accommodate our theology to the cultural despisers of our times. But this has happened (in the case of Schleiermacher), and it is happening at an alarming rate today with those enamored with postmodernity. How did this come about?

The term “post-conservative” was first coined by erstwhile evangelical Arminian Roger Olson in the pages of The Christian Century.9 Critics like Millard Erickson described this as the new “Evangelical Left” and have taken umbrage with how Olson has responded to his critics.10 Olson, in mirroring the postliberal Yale School theologians like the late Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, wants very much for evangelicalism to escape what he calls the Old Princeton hegemony with its stifling scholastic methodology. In particular, Olson complains that the Old Princeton placed way too much emphasis on such doctrines as penal substitutionary atonement and biblical inerrancy. These supposedly distinctive trademarks of genuine evangelicalism need to be abandoned.11 As we shall see, this has struck a very responsive cord in what goes by the name “the emergent conversation.”

The late Robert Webber, one of the individuals who openly celebrated the developments identified with the “evangelical megashift” (that formally introduced us in the pages of Christianity Today to Open-view Theism12), sees the rise of the post-modern evangelicals as the next step in this megashift, calling it “a new evangelical awakening.”13 Another highly influential figure (also with direct links to the evangelical megashift) was the late Stanley Grenz. Grenz was, in many ways, the most prominent figure in the group, and his writings continue to provide the theological and philosophical identity for the movement. Grenz argued that the break between the modern and postmodern worlds may rival in historical significance the shift from the Middle Ages to modernity. “Fundamentally,” he argues, “post-modernism is an intellectual orientation that is critical and seeks to move beyond the philosophical tenets of the Enlightenment, which lie at the foundation of the now dying modern mindset.” As such, the new intellectual era calls for “nothing less than a rebirth of theological reflection among evangelicals.”14 Embedded in this quest for a rebirth of theological reflection is a disturbing tendency to discard core evangelical beliefs. The plot thickens as the pace picks up.

Amongst the leading advocates of this new breed of professing evangelicals is the group associated with the emergent church—a group that proudly identifies itself as postmodern.15 “For almost everyone within the movement,” observes Carson, “this works out in an emphasis on feelings and affections over against linear thought and rationality; on experience over against truth; on inclusion over against exclusion; on participation over against individualism and the heroic loner. For some, this means a move from the absolute to the authentic. It means taking into account contemporary emphasis on tolerance; it means not telling others they are wrong.”16 Although the emergent church folk like to consider themselves culturally sophisticated and theologically on the cutting edge of all things new and up-to-date, they are just as culturally conditioned as they claim their evangelical forebears were! In the case of the emergent evangelicals they want desperately to be perceived as “relevant” to our postmodern society. I cannot help but notice that whenever evangelicals become consumed with being culturally relevant they almost always end up adopting a very pragmatic approach in the process, with historic evangelical theology being the first thing that gets compromised. Os Guinness, a very perceptive observer of evangelicalism writes, “Christians are always more culturally short-sighted than they realize. They are often unable to tell, for instance, where their Christian principles leave off and their cultural perspectives begin. What many of them fail to ask themselves is ‘where are we coming from and what is our own context?’”17

Regrettably, in the hands of these emergent evangelicals it is not postmodernism that is poured through the sifter of historic orthodox Christianity—but just the opposite. As a result, what comes out bears hardly any resemblance to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. As I alluded to earlier, Robert Webber celebrated the evangelical megashift and its association with Open-view Theism. Following Olson in his disdain for the Old Princeton hegemony, Brian McLaren, who is considered the leading voice in emergent circles, throws disdain on the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and penal substitutionary atonement. McLaren, in Fuller seminary’s Theology, Notes, and News, penned a piece entitled, “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy” where, in reference to Mark Baker, Joel Green,18 and N. T. Wright, he declared,

“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

Briggs grew to dislike what he called “the scholastic” element in Reformed theology. He wrote:

“The scholastic spirit seeks union and communion with God by means of well-ordered forms. It searches the Bible for well-defined systems of law and doctrine by which to rule the Church and control the world. It arises from an intellectual nature, and grows into a more or less acute logical sense, and a taste for systems of order. This spirit exists in all ages and in most religions, but it was especially dominant in the middle age of the Church and in Latin Christianity. It is distinguished by an intense legality and by too exclusive attention to the works of the law, and a disproportionate consideration of the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the satisfaction to be rendered to God for sin. In biblical studies it is distinguished by the legal, analytic method of interpretation, carried on at times with such hair-splitting distinction and subtlety of reasoning that Holy Scripture becomes, as it were, a magician’s book. Through the device of the manifold sense the Bible is made as effectual to the purpose of the dogmatician for proof texts as are the sacraments to the priests in their magical operation. The doctrinal element prevails over the religious and ethical. Dogma and institution alike work ex opera operato.”28

Briggs may have lost the battle with Warfield and Old Princeton, but in the space of a generation his theological distinctives gained ascendancy in the Presbyterian church when the Auburn Affirmation ratified his views in 1924, especially on the doctrine of inerrancy:

“There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept “from error.” The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not to be found in the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any of the great Reformation confessions. The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ. We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and movie the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,” spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith. We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” (Conf. I, ii)

Not content to stop there, it went on to make the following assertion:

“Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our everliving Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost. Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.” (conf. IV, ii)29

This sounds remarkably like the things that having been coming from those involved in the emergent conversation. Some seventy years ago, Gordon Clark’s response sounded as if he were writing in light of the post-conservative proposals:

Now kindly note this strange fact. The Auburn Affirmation states that to believe the Bible is true impairs its authority and weakens the testimony of the Church. Or, in other words, in order for the Bible to be authoritative, it must contain error; and, no doubt, the more erroneous it is, the more authoritative it can be.

But what does the Confession say? In Chapter I, Section 4, you may read: “The authority of the Holy Scriptures, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth—wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”

Study also Chapter XIV, Section 2. “By this (saving) faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein. . . .”

The Auburn Affirmation says it is wrong and harmful to believe true whatsoever is revealed. Thus the signers of the Auburn Affirmation are seen to be antagonistic to the very basis of Christian faith. In denying the truth of the Bible, they repudiate their own Confession, and so have no rightful place in the Presbyterian ministry. Do they perchance reply that they agree with the Confession that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and that they deny only that the Scriptures are inerrant? God forbid that they make that reply. For if they say that they believe the Bible is the Word of God, and at the same time claim that the Bible contains error, it follows, does it not, that they call God a liar, since He has spoken falsely? Either they have openly repudiated the Confession or else they have called God a liar. In either case they have no rightful place in the Presbyterian ministry.30

Under the guise of our postmodern context, post-conservatives are moving in the same direction as Schleiermacher and Briggs. Despite their protests to the contrary, they have already begun to go down this same path. There is such a thing as unintended consequences. The more things change, the more they stay the same, or to quote that great Yankee philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”


1. Carl Raschle, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 1. Perhaps more difficult to define than “postmodern” is the equally confusing term “evangelical.” I discuss this in my chapter, “The Reformation, Today’s Evangelicals, and Mormons” in G. L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters, ed., By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2006).

2. Sinclair Ferguson in Justified in Christ, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 1X.

3. Cf. Roger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). Olson repeatedly denies that there is any valid correlation, but does reluctantly concede that a formal similarity exists, but it is purely coincidental (62).

4. Nicola Hoggard Creegan, “Schleiermacher as Apologist: Reclaiming the Father of Modern Theology” in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. T. R. Phillips and D. L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 59–74.

5. B. A. Gerrish, “The New Evangelical Theology and the Old: An Opportunity for the Next Century?” as cited in Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, ed. M. J. Erickson, P. K. Helseth, and J. Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 240n101.

6. German for “no.” As cited by Mark R. Patterson, “Nein! A Response to Progressives,” Theology Matters 13, no. 2 (2007): 2 (emphasis added). Originally published as Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner (Zurich: #eologischer Verlag, 1935). An English translation of Brunner’s work and Barth’s response may be found in Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel, with introduction by John Baillie, “Natural Theology: Comprising ‘Nature and Grace’ by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply ‘No!’ by Dr. Karl Barth” (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002).

7. Patterson, “Nein! A Response to Progressives,” 2.

8. Barry Taylor, “Goodbye Religion, Hello Spirituality: Is there a place for the Christian ‘religion’ in the 21st Century?”

9. Roger Olson, “Post-conservatives Greet the Postmodern Age,” The Christian Century 112 (May 3, 1995). Cf. Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming, 84. Olson proudly flies his post-conservative colors in this book, as the title makes clear. Prior to this, however, Olson claimed otherwise. In his exchange with Mike Horton, Olson declared that he never claimed that he was a “post-conservative” evangelical, saying, “I did not ‘spearhead’ postconservative evangelicalism, nor did I announce it as a ‘program.’ In my descriptive article in Christian Century where I coined that term (‘postconservative evangelicalism’) I merely set out to describe a new mood among certain evangelicals. I said that it is not a movement (let alone a ‘program’). And nowhere did I identify myself as postconservative; in fact I included some cautionary notes at the end of the article. I gladly admit that I have some sympathies with this new mood of evangelical theology that is dissatisfied with maintenance of the status quo as evangelicalism theology’s main task. But I have not promoted any ‘postconservative evangelical program.’ I have simply sought to bring this new mood to public attention and gain some understanding for it. When I wrote that postconservative evangelicals are not necessarily committed to the Chalcedonian formula of Christology I did not mean that they have anything less than a high Christology of Christ as human and divine; I only meant that they are not necessarily committed to the technical language and concepts of the doctrine of the hypostatic union. There are other ways to express a high Christology and some postconservative theologians have attempted to do it without in any way denying Christ’s full and true deity and humanity.” See “The Nature and Future of Evangelicalism: A Dialogue; between Michael Horton & Roger Olson,” Modern Reformation 12, no. 2 (2003),

10. M. Erickson, The Evangelical Left (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), and his chapter “On Flying in Theological Fog” in Erickson, Helseth, and Taylor, Reclaiming the Center.

11. Olson has displayed an intense dislike for Reformed theology in general and Old Princeton in particular. In one of his most recent books, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), Olson takes umbrage with Warfield’s review of his contemporary, the noted Methodist theologian John Miley, which appears in the Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield II, ed. J. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 308–20. Olson calls this “a lengthy attack” (26) and elsewhere a “caustic attack” (278), declaring that Warfield’s criticisms “were stated in such an extreme way as to raise questions about Warfield’s own generosity of interpretation and treatment of fellow Christians. Many twentieth-century Calvinists know little about Arminianism except what they read in nineteenth-century Calvinist theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. Both were vitriolic critics who could not bring themselves to see any good in Arminianism. And they blamed it for every possible evil consequence they could see it possibly having” (26). He continues this same diatribe in his recent Reformed and Always Reforming, 44. Cf. my review of Olson, “Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian,”

12. Cf. Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May Not Have Heard about Wrath, Sin and Hell Recently,” Christianity Today, February 19, 1990.

13. Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 5. His earlier work Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), serves as a primer for many postmodern evangelicals.

14. As cited in The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, ed. D. S. Dockery (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 78.

15. F. W. Bave has wilily pointed out, “Consider it axiomatic that when church leaders finally catch on to a trend, it’s over. The Counterculture movement of the Sixties ended at Kent State, yet trendy campus pastors were still doing bad folk masses with out-of-tune guitars way into the Seventies and Eighties. So it is today with Postmodernism. The buzzword is on everyone’s lips in church circles, while in university English departments where the whole Pomo (Postmodern) thing began, other theories like New Historicism have taken over. I contend that Postmodernism is now fading away and is rapidly being supplanted by other cultural forces” (F. W. Bave, The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism? [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001], 15). More recently, James Parker III made these pertinent observations: “Postmodernism is highly overrated. While one theologian after another is rushing to turn out books and articles about some aspect or implication concerning the end of modernism or about the implications of postmodernism, it can be plausibly argued that postmodernism is overrated and that it will come to a certain (and perhaps soon) demise—or at least will be relegated to the realm of the curious but passé. . . . Most simply stated, postmodernism is guilty of being self-referentially absurd. When postmodernists give up the idea of objective truth, there is no reason whatsoever to take what they say as true—particularly since they have conceded up front that nothing is genuinely true.” Cf. Parker’s “A Requiem for Postmodernism—Whither Now?” in Erickson, Helseth, and Taylor, Reclaiming the Center, 307–8. We gratefully acknowledge that we, in our book, are indebted to this important book.

16. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 29.

17. O. Guinness, The Gravedigger File (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 42.

18. Mark Baker and Joel Green co-authored the book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), which constituted a frontal assault on any concept of penal substitutionary atonement.

19. Brian McLaren, “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy,” Theology, News, & Notes (Fall 2004), 6.

20. James E. Bradley, “Evangelical—A Most Abused Word!” and Seyoon Kim, “The Atoning Death of Christ on the Cross,” Theology, News & Notes (Winter 2008), 4–10, 14–20. A number of books have recently appeared to defend the doctrine of penal substitution. Chief among them are Paul Wells, Crosswords: The Biblical Doctrine of the Atonement (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2006); e Glory of the Atonement: Essays in Honor of Roger Nicole, ed. C. E. Hill and F. A. James III (Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press, 2004); and especially Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Recovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2007). N. T. Wright took umbrage with this book and with the people who endorsed it. Cf.

21. Among the most vocal are Carlos R. Bovell, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007); Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); and A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives (Great Britain: Apollos, 2007). Sparks in particular paints contemporary defenders of inerrancy in very unflattering colors. Old Testament scholars such as R. K. Harrison, Gleason Archer, and E. J. Young are accused of sticking their heads in the sand to avoid dealing with the real issues raised by critical Old Testament scholars (133ff ) while New Testament scholars such as D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo are said to be guilty of deliberately dodging the issues of New Testament critics (167). Even greater disdain is heaped on Carl Henry, who had the misfortune of simply being a theologian and not a biblical scholar (138). However, the most reprehensible aspect of Sparks’s work is the facile labeling of all defenders of inerrancy as Cartesian foundationalists. Sparks declares Cornelius Van Til, and his presuppositional apologetics, to be Cartesian because Van Til underscored the importance of certainty, which to Sparks’s way of thinking automatically makes one a Cartesian (45). If that is the case, then we must place not only the Reformers and the church fathers in that category, but Christ and the apostles as well! Van Til was no Cartesian. His apologetical approach was rooted in classic Reformed theology, especially in the Dutch tradition of Kuyper and Bavinck, stretching back to the noted Dutch Protestant scholastic Peter Van Mastricht (1630–1706), who was an outspoken critic of all things Cartesian. As Richard Muller notes, “Mastricht’s consequent stress on the necessity of revelation for Christian theology (theology defined as ‘living before God in and through Christ’ or as the wisdom leading to that end) led to an adamant resistance to Cartesian thought with its method of radical doubt and its insistence on the primacy of autonomy of the mind in all matters of judgment.” Richard Muller, “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28 ( June 1985), 185.

22. Attesting to this is the work by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisc Harper & Row, 1979). Roger Olson, who has been beating this drum for some time now, openly dismisses the doctrine; see his “Why ‘Inerrancy’ Doesn’t Matter,” The Baptist Standard (March 26, 2006): 1–2. Dave Tomlinson, in a book that is popular in what is called “the emergent church,” offers a section titled “Inerrancy? A Monumental Waste of Time.” Tomlinson goes on to declare, “I have no intention of arguing against this doctrine; I simply marvel that anyone should think it plausible or necessary to believe in such a thing” (Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical [London: Triangle, 1995], 105). Finally, James D. G. Dunn, a leading scholar for the so-called New Perspective on Paul, echoes Briggs’s assessment by declaring inerrancy “exegetically improbable, hermeneutically defective, theologically dangerous, and educationally disastrous” ( James D. G. Dunn, e Living Word [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988], 107).

23. See Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), and the book he coauthored with John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001). It was disappointing to see Grenz relying so heavily on the work of Rogers and McKim in assessing Warfield, and this despite the fact that Grenz alludes to the work of John Woodbridge and his devastating work Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).

24. Grenz, Renewing the Center, 84.

25. Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 70. D. A. Carson correctly observes, “This is, to say the least, decidedly un helpful. Quite apart from the extraordinary complexities of linking Scripture and tradition in this way, the addition of culture is astonishing. One might hazard a guess that Grenz has read enough to recognize that the interpreter cannot escape his or her own culture, and therefore has put down culture as a norm or source of theology, without recognizing the minefield he has created for himself. . . . His openness to Tillich’s method of correlation is not reassuring. With the best will in the world, I cannot see how Grenz’s approach to Scripture can be called ‘evangelical’ in any useful sense” (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 481).

26. Charles A. Briggs, The Bible, the Church, and the Reason (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892).

27. Charles A. Briggs, Church Unity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 244.

28. Charles A. Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 570. I have developed this in greater detail in my chapter, “Warfield and C. A. Briggs: Their Polemics and Legacy” in B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, ed. G. L. W. Johnson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 195–240.

29. The entire Auburn Affirmation document is online at

30. This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1946, issue of The Southern Presbyterian Journal. It was subsequently reproduced in tract form and went through at least three printings in that form. The original Journal article and a collection of Dr. Clark’s papers can be found at the PCA Historical Center’s Web site,

Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church 

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