The Remaking of Evangelical Theology

Written by Gary Dorrien Reviewed By Harriet A. Harris

Dorrien is an Anglican social gospeller and dialectical theologian (11) aiming to incorporate evangelical thought into the map of modern theological developments. He writes on evangelical theology as an outsider (a rarity in itself), and does so sympathetically and constructively (rarer still). Both tasks he manages very well. He focuses on the last 100 years, and hence on fundamentalist and post-fundamentalist developments, and attends almost exclusively to North America.

In order to set the scene, Dorrien traces evangelicalism back to its roots in the Reformation (he does not go back beyond that), and notes its classical, pietistic and fundamentalist expressions. He also proposes a fourth category, which is generally familiar by now: that of the progressive or post-conservative evangelical who has postmodern leanings. He recognises that fundamentalist evangelicals have dominated evangelical thought throughout the century, but quite rightly looks to the post-conservatives for signs of health and vitality in contemporary evangelicalism (11).

Dorrien tells the story of early fundamentalism and new evangelical divergence, including a moving account of Edward Carnell’s personal torments as he internalised contradictions within the evangelicalism of his day. He picks out Carl Henry, Clark Pinnock and Bernard Ramm as landmark figures: in challenging evidentialist apologetics, relaxing over inerrancy and welcoming Barthian insights. Commendably, he draws attention to Arminian evangelicals, including radical campaigners such as Jim Wallis, Ron Sider and Nancy Hardesty, who are easily overlooked because of scholarly and media preoccupation with the Reformed heritage and with the New Christian Right. Turning to consider the situation at the end of our century, he finds John Stott doing nothing theologically to overcome the impasse between evangelicals and liberals. In addition he sees attempts to recover the classic evangelical heritage, notably by Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre. Alister McGrath, and Thomas Oden, as too stodgy and conservative for the multiperspectival spirit of postmodern times (186–93).

In recounting evangelicalism’s recent history, his sympathies lie with whoever is not fundamentalistic: those in the Reformed tradition who see Calvinism as antithetical to attempts to prove Christianity by rational or historical means (110); Wesleyan evangelicals who combine Spirit-filled personal religion with respect for tradition (163); and the Chicago Callers who attempted to promote a catholic evangelicalism conscious of Christianity’s historic traditions. But his real interest is with the progressives who are revitalising evangelical theology with postmodern insights, such as come through post-liberal and narrative theology. These thinkers operate in a post-conservative mode, working positively with philosophical challenges to objectivity and certainty, and hence to biblical foundationalism, so as to find ways of expressing truly Christ-centred faith. Dorrien mentions such names as William Abraham, Stanley Grenz, Nancey Murphy, J. Richard Middleton, Brian Walsh and Miroslav Volf, and well he might. All these figures have become players in the theological world (major players in the case of Murphy and Volf), influencing thinkers beyond the evangelical fold in ways that new- and open-evangelicals have failed to do. Henry and Pinnock may receive attention in a journalistic kind of way, from people interested in what evangelicals are up to, but Murphy and Volf are shakers and movers. Conservative evangelicals have long been lamenting their poor track record in academic theology. Let us hope that they will commend the impact being made by their post-conservative heirs.

Harriet A. Harris

Exeter University