By Rogier Bos
[This article is partly a book
review of 'The Evangelical
Left', by Millard Erickson]
For some time now I have been becoming increasingly concerned
about my own theology. Having grown up in an evangelical home, and having attended a very
conservative seminary, I always thought of myself as an evangelical, and a slightly
conservative one at that.
Now I am finding that my increased exposure to postmodern thinking
is playing tricks with my theology. In the past years I have struggled with questions
about such issues as truth, faith, the nature of the church, conversion, and discipleship.
Because I live in an increasingly postmodern world I find my theology being challenged
Why is it that I find myself becoming uneasy when I listen to the radio-show of a popular
Christian radio-host who seems to have all the answers to all the questions we could ever
have about the Bible? What has happened that makes me so weary of the political efforts of
the Religious Right? Why do I get so frustrated when yet another Christian preacher needs
to pronounce on national television that homosexuality is a grave sin?
Perhaps that it is possible, theoretically speaking, to stoically
hold to a conservative evangelical worldview and theology, no matter what experiences we
go through. But the truth is that the Christian faith very much proclaims to being a real
faith. Somewhere there should be a level of interaction between faith and my experience.
And it is at that point that I have started wondering about how my experience is affecting
my faith, and to what extent I really want to go down the path this seems to be leading
Because of my concern for my personal
theology I started looking for a book that could help me understand some of these
developments. I realized that I was not the only one noticing these changes, for I saw
them in many people. Thats when I came across Millard J. Ericksons The
Evangelical Left. Erickson is of course not unfamiliar to the evangelical community.
His Christian Theology is well known, and has become the text book of choice for
Systematic Theology classes in many seminaries. It is marked by balance, dialogue with
other types of theology, and a down-to-earth yet reverent style.
The Evangelical Left is written pretty much the same way.
In this book Erickson describes well the changes that have been taking place in
evangelicalism, and the emergence of what he calls post-conservative evangelical
One of the issues I wrestled with, was the question if one could
make the changes in ones theology I felt I was making, and still call
Erickson answers that by pointing out a steady stream of people has left so-called
conservative evangelical theology, in favour of what he calls post-conservative
evangelical theology. Two things are clear:
Erickson is quite clear in suggesting that post-conservatives are
really on the edge of what can be called evangelicalism, if not on the other side of it.
Erickson lumps a variety of positions together and calls them
post-conservative. That term is somewhat misleading, for it suggests that
there is a specific post-conservative theology, a group of theologians that
have all banded together. There isnt, and it seems that there may in fact be very
little agreement between these post-conservatives. Just as a ship can
leave the harbour and
sail north, east, west, or south, calling someone post-conservative says very little of
where that person is actually headed. There is much diversity between these
Erickson remedies that situation by listing characteristics of
post-conservative theology. Heres a a check-list for your personal evaluation.
Post-conservatives are characterized by
- Eagerness to engage in dialogue with nonevangelical theologians.
Indeed, "they seek opportunities to converse with those whom conservative
evangelicals would probably consider enemies." In particular Erickson refers to
liberal and catholic theologians.
- Concern with theology's domination by white males and Eurocentrism.
Recognizing the influence of social location on theological work,
to include women, persons of color, and Third World Christians in theological scholarship.
- Broadening of the sources used in theology. This frequently
includes an emphasis on "narrative-shaped experience" rather than
"propositional truths enshrined in doctrines." The sources may include, in
addition to the Bible, Christian tradition, culture, and contemporary Christian
- A discontent with the traditional ties of evangelical theology to
the "evangelical Enlightenment," especially cornmon sense realism.
- Rejection of the "wooden" approach to Scripture, in favor
of regarding it as "Spirit-inspired realistic narrative."
- An open view of God, in which God limits himself and enters into
relationships of genuine response to humans, taking their pain and suffering into himself.
God is a risk-taker, not one who controls everything so that nothing contrary to his
desires can occur.
- An acceptance, rather than a rejection, of the realm of nature.
Nature, although fallen, is never abandoned by grace, which then pervades it.
- A hope for a near-universal salvation. God has not left himself
without a witness in all cultures, sufficient to bring people to salvation if they
earnestly seek it.
- An emphasis in Christology on the humanity of Jesus. While
retaining belief in the divinity of Christ, this is thought of more in relational than in
substance and person categories.
- A more synergistic understanding of salvation. These theologians
are, overall, more Arminian than Calvinistic.
- A rejection of triumphalism with respect to theological
truth-claims. Postconservatives are critical of belief in epistemological certainty and
Are you wondering about your theology? Heres a suggestion:
use these characteristics to score just how post-censervative you really are.
A couple of comments. While Erickson lists a variety of
authors/theologians he considers post-conservative, the one author he seems to go back to
consistently is Clark Pinnock. It may be that Erickson, who no doubt is more of an expert
than me, sees many post-conservatives who are led and inspired by Pinnock. But the fact of
the matter is that Pinnock does not speak for me, and also not for many postmodern
Christians I am in contact with. Pinnocks strong Arminian tendencies and near
universalistic beliefs are not shared by me or many of my peers. In choosing someone as
different as Pinnock as a spokesperson for post-conservative evangelicals, Erickson makes
the distance between conservatives and post-conservatives seem larger than it really is.
The second issue is this. Erickson seems unable to hold two views
that seem mutually exclusive in tension. His solution seems to be that one truth can only
be true to the extent the other isnt. Sort of a 60-40, or 70-30 division. But a
postmodern person is able to hold truths like that in tension, and believe that both can
be a 100% true. Where a modern person could only believe in human freewill to the extent
that God wasnt sovereign, a postmodern person can believe in both total sovereignty
and total freewill.
The third comment is that Erickson discusses our theology of the
scripture, of God, and of salvation, but he does not discuss our theology of the church,
our ecclesiology. And it is precisely there that I see so many people change their
theology! Many of us are allowing ourselves to rethink our theology, precisely because of
our ministry, and it is there that we need the greatest help.
Am I still an Evangelical?
I started to read Ericksons book in the hope of identifying
the nature of, and changes in my own theology. Am I still an evangelical? Do I want to be
an evangelical? Are the changes in my theology moving me beyond the boundaries of
Erickson quotes D.A. Carson, who wonders how Stanley Grenzs
theology could ever be called evangelical. I know this; if Stanley Grenz is not
evangelical, then neither am I. Erickson goes on to say that perhaps we are seeing a
hybrid emerge, and then wonders of the hybrid can really be called the name of the
original phenomenon. At which point does the hybrid assume its own identity?
These questions make it clear to me that there is today a move
beyond what can in all fairness be called evangelicalism. It consists of
genuine believers who are attempting to give an adequate response to the postmodern world.
Just as evangelicalism sought to answer the challenges posed by the Modern world, so these
believers are seeking to engage the postmodern world, becoming all things to all men, in
the hope they might save some.
The road ahead
Is this road perilous? Erickson thinks so. For my part I do not
share his fear. After reading The Evangelical Left, it is clear to me:
yesterdays theology is not adequate for todays challenges. It has no answers
for it, and no relevance to it. Fortunately, scripture does, and ours is the exciting
journey of finding what God has to say to the postmodern world.
Also read: Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing