A CENTER WITHOUT A CIRCUMFERENCE
By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Reform has always been central to the self-understanding of American
evangelicalism. Ambition to reform American Protestantism was the energizing
dynamic and motivating cause for the emergence of the so-called “new
evangelicalism” as it burst upon the national scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. Outraged
by the encroachments of liberalism, evangelicals sought to salvage the mainline
denominations. At the same time, however, the evangelicals were frustrated with
their own historical roots in fundamentalism.
As the title of George Marsden’s history of Fuller Theological Seminary suggest, a
central aim of the evangelicals was Reforming Fundamentalism.1 These early
evangelicals wanted to forge a new evangelical identity and tradition, leaving behind
the vestiges of the older fundamentalism. Now, as a new century begins, some
evangelicals seek to reform evangelical theology in the same manner. These
“reformist evangelicals” are seeking nothing less than a total realignment of
evangelical theology in a direction more in keeping with postmodern thought. Their
success or failure will determine the future of evangelicalism as a movement—and
may mean the end of the evangelical movement altogether.
The history of American evangelicalism is one long narrative of a search for
identity. It seems that every decade or so evangelicals involve themselves in a new
fit of identity crisis. In the early days, pioneering founders such as Harold John
Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry established the identity of evangelicalism. This early
understanding of evangelicalism rooted its identity in orthodox Protestantism
without separatistic fundamentalism. The founders conceptualized this movement,
known as the “new evangelicalism,” with a focus on both the center and the
boundaries of the incipient movement. The structures of this essay takes as a
foundational understanding a mathematical model of “set theory” which identifies
several different types of sets. Some sets are bounded, that is, they are identified
by the definitional issues at the boundary—who is in and who is out. Other sets are
defined as “centered sets,” and take their definition from core commitments. Some
sets are both centered and boundaried. Then there is the “fuzzy set,” which
mathematicians describe as the set not well identified either at the center or the
The early evangelicals in the movement suggested that fundamentalists had made
three critical mistakes that these new evangelicals would correct. The first mistake
was withdrawal, represented by the fundamentalist doctrine of separatism.
Fundamentalist separatism, a quite interesting phenomenon, is still with us in some
forms. For instance, some fundamentalist manuals on separation offer a series of
test questions on the topic. Some of these questions—such as, “Is it allowable for
you to ride with a Southern Baptist pastor to a Bill Gothard seminar?”—are
discovered to be trick questions for, as it turns out, one should neither be going to
a Bill Gothard seminar nor be in the car with a Southern Baptist!
The mistake of withdrawal was accompanied by a second mistake, the restriction
of theological concern. In the view of the new evangelicals, the fundamentalists had
severely restricted their theological vision. The evangelicals joined the
fundamentalists in their advocacy of biblical inerrancy, Chalcedonian Christology,
and substitutionary atonement. Nevertheless, in the view of the evangelicals, the
fundamentalists were missing some of the most significant theological battles of
The third fundamentalist mistake was the elevation of secondary matters to an
unwarranted primacy, illustrated most centrally in the elevation of dispensational
eschatology to a place of first-order significance. The evangelicals were determined
neither to divide nor to dissipate their theological energy over such issues.
The early evangelicals were at pains to define their differences with fundamentalism
without conceding the high ground of biblical authority and theological integrity. The
question was how inclusive this movement should be. This was an early concern,
and it endures. One way of understanding how the founders handled this issue is to
look at the history of Christianity Today under its founding editor Carl F. H. Henry.
One of the early debates on the board of Christianity Today came at Hendry’s
insistence that scholars such as F. F. Bruce and G. K. Berkouwer be included on the
contributing board of the magazine. Neither of these figures affirmed biblical
inerrancy, and yet Henry argued that both were basically cobelligerents on the
conservative side of the great theological battle.2
Henry’s goal was to rally “an international, multi-denominational corps of scholars
articulating conservative theology.”3 The objective of these founders was to
establish a firm center, and yet the boundaries were kept less clear. The pressing
energies of a fight against liberalism and the hope for a larger culture-shaping
coalition formed and forged these early evangelical leaders in such a way that they
put a primary emphasis upon the center while acknowledging the task of
boundary-making. But they were never quite clear about where the boundaries
should lie. As a result they achieved the coalition, and over the next twenty-five
years what George Marsden calls an “evangelical denomination” came together.4
This evangelical empire, centered first in Wheaton, Illinois, then in Colorado Springs,
and now perhaps in Orlando, is seen in its institutional embodiment in such
organizations as the National Association of Evangelicals, the virtual empire of
publishing houses, journals, magazines, schools, colleges, and seminaries, and an
entire universe of parachurch ministries.
Coalition always come at a price. In this case, the price was a loss of theological
precision and unity. One of the early and urgently publicized themes of the new
evangelicalism was its diversity. Looking back at the primary sources, an observer
is struck again and again by how diversity was trumpeted as one of the hallmarks
of the evangelical movement.
Behind all of this was the desire to build a great evangelical coalition. In 1967,
Henry warned that if evangelicals did not settle the identity issue and, in doing so,
coalesce, “They may well become by the year 2000 a wilderness cult in a secular
society with no more public significance than the ancient Essenes in their Dead Sea
By the 1960s, this awkward but growing coalition was showing signs of strain. This
led in the ‘70s to fissures that openly threatened the survival of the movement. A
younger generation of evangelicals shaped by the cultural context of the ‘60s
pushed for a new evangelical direction. At the same time, the evangelical coalition
seemed to be missing some important partners. Carl Henry lamented the Southern
Baptist failure to join the National Association of Evangelicals.6 At the same time,
the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was becoming a flash point. In the Southern
Baptist Convention and among other evangelicals, inerrancy itself was never a
naked issue.7 It always represented something far larger in scope as well as
significance. The foundational issue is, and ever will be, the nature of truth—the
understanding of divine revelation.
As this fissure became ever more open, and as the flash point grew to the point of
explosion, the issue of inerrancy became a virtual crusade, a very important
defining issue. In this controversy, Francis Schaeffer became the pamphleteer,
Harold Lindsell became the pathologist, and Carl Henry served as the professor.
They sought to bring evangelicalism back to a clear affirmation of biblical inerrancy.
In hindsight the effort came too late to salvage the evangelical coalition on a unified
understanding of Scripture. The movement would not be saved from itself and
reclaim the high ground of the total truthfulness of Scripture.
In Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority, his massive magnum opus, the professor
sought to lay it all out in a magisterial form.8 Even so, the result was not to bring
evangelicals together in a unified affirmation of biblical inerrancy. The differences
were already too dramatic. William Abraham, for instance, responded to God,
Revelation and Authority by saying that it was not the wave of the future, but
“3,000 pages of turgid scholasticism.”9
In the 1970s, Fuller Theological Seminary rewrote its confession of faith,
eliminating an affirmation of biblical inerrancy. Christianity Today moved ever
further to the left, simultaneously shifting from a more scholarly perspective to a
kind of middlebrow view (and now to a popular perspective) with pragmatic
psychotherapeutic concerns gaining primacy.10 Like wise, many of the colleges and
seminaries of the evangelical denominations and coalition continued to move
toward theological accommodation with modernity.
By the 1980s, James Davison Hunter could trace the pattern of “cognitive
bargaining” among the rising generation of evangelicals, suggesting that this
generation was both making and justifying theological concessions in light of the
demands of modernity.11 Again, while the inerrancy controversy itself was a flash
point, it was hardly a conclusive battle. Interestingly enough, the inerrancy
controversy produced significant victories in only two denominations, neither
closely identified with the National Association of Evangelicals: the Lutheran
Church—Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Hunter identified three primary areas of doctrinal decline or accommodation: the
doctrine of revelation, the entire structure of supernaturalism, and the integrity of
the gospel. The most crucial issue was the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Clearly, both the center and the boundaries were growing fuzzy and imprecise.
Hunter, reflecting a sociological perspective, explained that evangelicals are
constantly “re-drawing the boundaries of faith.”12 Looking at evangelicalism in the
1970s and ‘80s, Martin Marty, an outside observer, suggested that this is the
natural quandary for any system of orthodoxy placed within the cultural context of
conflicting orthodoxies and cultural pluralism.13
With the center and the boundaries both growing more fuzzy and imprecise, the
call came to define evangelicalism to an even greater degree in terms of its
diversity at the expense of its unity. The metaphors used by many of the historians
of evangelicalism indicate just how this came to pass. Timothy Smith began talking
about the “evangelical mosaic,” and then came to see the mosaic metaphor as too
fixed and shifted to the metaphor of an “evangelical kaleidoscope,” not only infinite
in its variety but with permutations and changes ever occurring.14 Robert K.
Johnston said that evangelicalism could be defined only in terms of “family
resemblance.”15 Nathan Hatch argued that there is no such thing as evangelicalism
anymore.16 Donald Dayton and others suggested that the term “evangelical” was
such an essentially contested concept that it was of no further use. Insofar as
there was any use to the category, Dayton contended, it should be defined by its
pluralism and not by its unity.17
Even more significantly, this period saw open calls for the reorientation of
evangelical theology as well as for the reformulation of evangelical identity. In his
pivotal book Beyond Fundamentalism, theologian Bernard Ramm suggested such a
shift from a traditional Reformation model of theology, with its understanding of
propositional truth, to a more Barthian model.18 Ramm’s work, with its incipient
postmodernism throughout, became a manifesto that is even now celebrated by
those who consider themselves reformist evangelicals.
The period of the 1980s found evangelicals engaged in another feverish fit of self-examination. Again, the issue was as basic as evangelical identity. If one looks back
to the 1980s, especially the period from 1985 to 1990, one cannot help but notice
all the books, articles, and conferences published on this subject, along with
colloquia, gathered papers, sections of the American Association of Religion, and
peripheral discussions in the Evangelical Theological Society. And yet, all this came
to an end without any greater theological clarity.
Coming behind Bernard Ramm was a growing reformist movement that included
four different groups or forces. First were evangelical historians, arguing that
evangelical theologians, chafing at confessional limitations and embarrassed by
evangelicalism’s historic cognitive claims. Third were evangelical college and
seminary administrators, convinced that holding to evangelical distinctives would
doom their institutions to an academic ghetto. Fourth were evangelical pragmatists
and parachurch organizations, determined not to let theological convictions get in
the way of growth and perceived cultural influence. Of course, behind all of these
were larger shifts in the socio-cultural context.
By the late 1980s, some of the still-living founders called for a conclusive and
determinative answer to the question of evangelical identity. The most significant
event representing this impulse was the “Evangelical Affirmations” convocation held
at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in May 1989. Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer,
two former editors of Christianity Today, called together a group of evangelicals to
settle once and for all what evangelicals believe. The fifth paragraph of an invitation
letter from Henry and Kantzer is quite illuminating:
The objective is not to formulate a new creed, but to voice consensus
on doctrinal priorities of special contemporary importance in view of
both religious and cultural trends. These include the full reliability and
inerrancy of Scripture, doctrines of creation, redemption and
judgment, the person and work of Jesus Christ and other cardinal
theological emphases that shed light on contemporary thought and
life. We wish to call the Christian churches to a virile alternative to the
cognitive and moral relativism of our time.19
As the conference came to order, Carl Henry addressed the gathered evangelicals
with this challenge:
The term “evangelical” has taken on conflicting nuances in the
twentieth century. Wittingly or unwittingly evangelical constituencies,
no less than their critics, have contributed to this confusion and
misunderstanding. Nothing could be more timely, therefore, than to
define what is primary and what is secondary in personifying an
The meeting failed to produce what Henry had envisioned. The conference adopted
a statement known as the “Evangelical Affirmations,” which located the central
theological threat to evangelicalism outside and not inside the coalition. The
statement claimed that evangelicals are united on such issues as Chalcedonian
Christology, the exclusivity of the gospel, the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible,
and the historicity of such biblical events as the Adamic Fall. Nevertheless,
significant compromises of these basic doctrines were already apparent.
The document centered evangelical identity in the historical tradition of the
Apostles’ Creed. Looking back at the conference, Kenneth Kantzer explained, “The
future of evangelicalism we can safely leave in the hands of God. Our concern at
the ‘Convocation on Evangelical Affirmations’ was of a different order. We sought
first to determine what we mean by ‘evangelical.’ What are its boundaries? Who
are in and who are out? Is there any consensus as to what constitutes an
The answer given by the convocation, though impressive, was hardly the last word
on the matter. So far as those who would become known as reformist
evangelicals were concerned, it was indeed not the last gasp of a disappearing and
outdated evangelical paradigm. It is clear in retrospect that those who framed the
conference and who wrote the affirmations did not fully understand that the threat
was within evangelicalism as well as without.
In a most timely fashion, a bombshell appeared in the pages of Christianity Today
just one year after the “Evangelical Affirmations” conference. Robert Brow, in an
article entitled “The Evangelical Megashift,” suggested a fundamental reorientation
of evangelical theology.22 Aptly named, the article presented a bold proposal,
indeed a complete shift of evangelical theology away from an Augustinian-Reformation foundation and toward a postmodernized, Arminianized, synthetic
new model. Declared obsolete were doctrines such as substitutionary atonement,
the penal understanding of the Cross, forensic justification, alien or imputed
righteousness, the doctrine of hell, a dual destiny in eternity, the exclusivity of the
gospel, and the classical doctrine of God.
Such doctrines as God’s omnipotence, omniscience, sovereignty, and holiness
were now, Grow said, all to be redefined in terms congenial to the contemporary
worldview. We can see now in retrospect the incredible bravado with which Brow
penned this article. He was quite certain that his proposals were the wave of the
future, since “a whole generation of young people has breathed this air.”23
There is no question, of course, that an entire generation of persons, both young
and old, has indeed “breathed this air.” The question is whether the air is
breathable. Brow’s article uncorked a bottle that is not easily sealed. This
movement came to be represented by an impressive array of theologians and
philosophers such as Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger,
and perhaps significantly, Clark Pinnock.
Pinnock, former student of Francis Schaeffer, former Southern Baptist, former
Calvinist, and former defender of classical orthodoxy, has undergone a progression
of serial permutations in his theology.24 He now champions what he calls the
“openness of God,” a radical reconstruction of theism much like that called for by
Brow. As a matter of fact, Pinnock was later to cite Brow’s article as the catalyst
for the publication of his volume, The Openness of God, which Pinnock cowrote
with several other authors.25
This radical reconceptualization of theism involves a rejection of virtually everything
in classical theism with a declaration that classical theism is based on an unbiblical
understanding of God derived largely from Greek philosophy. Taking the form of a
broadside that would make Adolf Harnack blush, Pinnock’s proposals sought to
dehellenize the doctrine of God. He rejected God’s foreknowledge and
omnipotence, while redefining his sovereignty in terms of partnership with creation.
Pinnock explicitly said that God’s sovereignty is an ad hoc sovereignty. God is
“endlessly resourceful” and he is always ready with plan B if plan A fails.26 In
Pinnock’s “creative love theism,” the historic doctrine of the Trinity is tossed aside
in favor of a social understanding of the Trinity.27 The ontological Trinity is
In terms of the doctrine of providence, all that is left is a process model, regardless
of the protestations otherwise of Pinnock and his coauthors. God’s will is effective,
Pinnock contends, only insofar as he is able “to anticipate the obstructions the
creatures can throw in His way and respond to each new challenge in an effective
manner.”28 So, rather than having a sovereign God, we have an “effective” God
whose sovereignty demonstrates his effectiveness at being able to anticipate the
obstructions creatures will throw in his way.29
Pinnock called also for a reconceptualization of the gospel, rejecting what he called
the “fewness doctrine” of salvation and replacing it with what he preferred to call a
“wideness in God’s mercy.”30 This new “wider hope” theology is, unfortunately, far
wider than Scripture allows. The adoption of inclusivism is tied to an embrace of the
historic heresy of annihilationism, in which Pinnock is joined by other well-known
evangelicals, including John Wenham and John Stott.31
Some years earlier, Pinnock had redefined his understanding of Scripture. Theology
professors have a good number of choices of Pinnock material to use in teaching
the doctrine of Scripture. These include one volume that serves as a wonderful
defense of biblical inerrancy (still in print) along with another volume that virtually
takes everything back.32
According to Pinnock’s new understanding of biblical inspiration,
Divine inspiration should not be over-supernaturalized. There is no
reason to deny that inspiration is at least in part a perfectly natural
response to the need to perpetuate revelation, and that many of the
people involved in writing Scripture depended upon the familiar
Charisms enjoyed in the believing community even today. I think we
have exaggerated the supernaturalness of inspiration.33
Where does this leave Clark Pinnock? Too evangelical for the liberal mainline and
too liberal for confessional evangelicals, Pinnock bemoans his consignment to a
theological “no man’s land,” while beckoning both sides to join him in what he
considers to be the middle ground.
Another reformist evangelical of significance is Stanley Grenz, professor of
theology at Carey Hall, Regent College. Grenz argues that evangelicals must claim
the postmodern moment as an opportunity for evangelical advance. He celebrates
what he calls the “post-fundamentalist shift,” not only in the culture but also in
evangelicalism itself. He is a leading proponent of a revised evangelical theology,
leaving behind the creed-based paradigm and moving to what he calls a “spirituality
based” model of systematic theology.34
Behind Grenz is George Lindbeck’s “New Yale School” theology, which argues that
truth is located essentially within a cultural-linguistic system.35 “Theology,” Grenz
says in agreement with Lindbeck, “is a second-order enterprise.”36 The Bible draws
its authority essentially from the community of faith rather than vice versa. Like
Schleiermacher, Grenz suggests that culture itself is an important source of
theology. “Theology,” he says, “is a practical discipline, not a system of
propositional truth.”37 Of the doctrine of Scripture, Grenz writes, “Sufficient for the
launching of the systematic theological enterprise is the nature of theology itself as
reflection on community faith. And sufficient for the employment of the Bible in this
task is its status as the book of the community.”38 This means that theology is no
longer based on a claim of infallible divine revelation but on the self-conscious
reflections of the believing community. The Bible is not defended as inerrant or
even inspired, but is granted a privileged position because it is the “church’s book.”
In this shift, the authority is found in the congregation rather than in the Scriptures.
Roger Olson of Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary has
emerged as another of the most vigorous proponents of reformist evangelicalism.
A former colleague and writing partner of Grenz, Olson offered a significant
manifesto for a new evangelical consensus in an article appearing in (where else?)
Christianity Today.39 Olson laments that the familial and familiar unity evangelicals
knew in the 1960s and ‘70s has been breaking up ever since. And yet, Olson
maintains, all the theological debates within evangelicalism over the past two
decades do not really amount to much. “The various positions in these evangelical
debates do not themselves call into question our core commitments, but the
rhetoric of the debates often implies that they do,” he writes.40
Olson is precisely wrong. It is indeed the core commitments that are at stake.
Olson laments what he sees as a two-party system in evangelicalism.
Traditionalists see evangelicalism in terms of its boundaries, he suggests, whereas
the reformists see evangelicalism more as a “centered” set. The traditionalists see
the need for firm confessional boundaries, while the reformists intentionally will
seek to draw no such boundaries. The reformists are willing to risk “ambiguity
about boundaries, who is in, and who is out—they insist on keeping the boundaries
open and relatively undefined.”41
Beneath all of this is a postmodern conception of truth, which is inevitably
relativistic. Olson acknowledges a different understanding of doctrine—a different
understanding of doctrinal progress—than that held by traditional evangelicals. He
argues that for traditionalists doctrinal progress represents digging deeper into the
historic sources, and bringing out their contemporary relevance, while for the
reformists, doctrinal progress is discovering new light breaking forth from God’s
Word. Olson casts his lot with the proponents of the openness of God—at least in
moral support if not in absolute agreement.
Olson makes some astounding statements. “The reformist idea that doctrinal
affirmation is second-order language is simply true,” he contends. “No doctrinal
formula or theological system is identical with divine revelation itself.”42 He also
mischaracterizes the traditionalist affirmation of doctrinal continuity: “Some
theological formulations are so closely tied with the church’s understanding of what
God has revealed that they function as being equivalent to divine revelation.”43 This
clearly violates the principle of sola scriptura and cannot be affirmed by
Olson suggests three individual affirmations as central to evangelical identity:
1. The trustworthiness of Scripture.
2. The deity of Jesus Christ.
3. The necessity of grace for salvation.44
Olson argues that no one who denies any of these points can be an authentic
evangelical, but he offers no specificity as to what any one of these may mean.
Indeed, Olson would reject any attempt to offer such specificity. Most mainline
liberals would affirm these three points, at least in some nuanced form.
Olson calls for a careful distinction between core affirmations and secondary
doctrines. But here again, his “core affirmations” are undercut by his relegation of
doctrinal clarity as a purely secondary matter. An example offered by Olson is the
doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He suggests that the core affirmations is God’s
ultimate ability to intervene in and control nature and history. Then he goes on to
say, “It will not matter—as a test of fellowship—whether he or she believes in
God’s meticulous control of all events or opts for a broader understanding such
that God is ‘in charge, but not always in control.’”45
He passes along a sympathetic reference to Paul Tillich, suggesting that reformists
live by the motto “that all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found.”46 But this is a
disingenuous statement if left unclarified. By what standard is a claim judged to be
true? Olson offers no answer. This is in the context of postmodernism—a new
context he celebrates.47
I am firmly convinced that postmodernism is basically the new disguise of
modernity, perhaps the end state of modernity.48 Therefore, I fail to see with great
hopefulness the opportunity that Olson here champions. If indeed the core of the
postmodern understanding is the “death of the metanarrative,” or if, as the French
post-structuralist Jean-Francois Lyotard said, “the incredulity of the post-modern
mind of meta-narratives” leaves recourse only to petit-narratives, then it is quite
difficult to see how we are on the verge of a bold new opportunity for the Christian
Olson warns of an impending civil war among evangelicals, and he suggests that to
overcome or avoid this fate we must establish a restated center. While listing three
affirmations elsewhere in the article, he also offers four unifying themes of
1. Scripture as the highest authority for faith and practice.
2. The supernatural involvement of a personal God in nature and history.
3. The experience of conversion by God’s Spirit through Jesus Christ as the
gateway into authentic Christian existence.
4. The primary task of theology as serving the church in mission and service.50
Again, this set is so reductionistic that it could encompass most sectors of
Protestant liberalism. In a very significant article published in The Christian Century,
Olson explains to mainline Protestants what postconservative evangelicals really
believe.51 Olson seems to agree with postliberals that the biblical narrative is
“history-like” rather than history.52 He rejects what he calls a “wooden approach”
to Scripture, “preferring to treat it as a Spirit-inspired realistic narrative.”53 Olson
explains that postconservative evangelicals reject the exclusiveness of the gospel
and embrace inclusivism. It is possible, he says, that many who never heard the
gospel will be saved.54
Interestingly, and very urgently, the reformists also reconstrue Jesus’ divinity in
relational terms. “Most post-conservatives feel free to move away from the
language and concepts of Chalcedon while preserving its central intent,” he
writes.55 This contrasts markedly with the Evangelical Affirmations conference,
where the statement adopted (with only two dissenting votes, according to
Kantzer) contended that all evangelicals would affirm without question the
Christological formulations of Chalcedon and Nicea.56
Reformist evangelicals champion an intentional alliance with postliberals, claiming
that both have overcome the oppressive legacy of the Enlightenment by breathing
the new air of postmodernity. Olson has issued repeated calls for a coalition of
postconservatives and postliberals. “I believe we need each other to begin to forge
a broad, inclusive ecumenical and evangelical theology that will deserve the
attention and respect of both Christians and secularists in American society,” he
asserts.57 He declares that a potential new middle ground is opening up. The
question must be asked, however, why we should give our attention to a
theological system that would deserve the attention and respect of both Christians
and secularists. True secularists will not respect any theological system that seeks
We must remember Clark Pinnock’s longstanding hope for evangelicals and liberals
to come to consensus in the middle. Such an alliance between postconservative
evangelicals and postliberals was represented in the 1995 Wheaton Theology
conference. From this conference came The Nature of Confession, a book that
included such authors as postliberals George Lindbeck and George Hunsinger.58
InterVarsity Press, which published the volume, has become a major vehicle for the
It is fully apparent that the middle position called for by both Olson and Pinnock
now exists and is attracting many evangelicals. For years observers have identified
a two-party system in American Protestantism: conservatives and liberals, or
evangelicals and mainline Protestants.59 This two-party system is now eclipsed by
a three-party system that acknowledges this mediating position. Conservative
evangelicalism, on one side, and liberal Protestantism, on the other, are now joined
by this middle ground of postconservative evangelicals and postliberals coming
together in an awkward coalition.
Our main concern should not be to demonstrate that those in this middle position
do not measure up to the standards of evangelical identity. Though they do fall
short, this is an outdated debate. We should instead try to seek to make clear that
their system falls far short of biblical orthodoxy. Our concern must not be the
perpetuation of a movement but the purity of the church.
In 1987, two years before the Evangelical Affirmations conference, Kenneth
Evangelicalism, as in the past, will present a cacophony of many
voices. During the battles against liberalism, a common enemy held
dissonant factions together. Yet this uneasy alliance seems unlikely to
endure. Evangelicals will drift apart into two broad ethics, will seek
rapprochement with the near-evangelicals so widely represented
today in the top leadership of mainline denominations. The larger
group, encompassing conservative evangelicals, both in and out of the
mainline denominations, will join forces with the less truculent of the
fundamentalists. On each side and in the middle, will fall significant
groups that for one reason or another cannot quite stomach either
Kantzer was precisely right and wrong. He was right that evangelicals would split
into two different parties. It is not at all certain that he was right, however, in the
numerical distinctions he made between the smaller and the larger party. It may
well be that the reformists will outnumber the orthodox evangelicals.
Evangelical theologians such as Millard Erickson now acknowledge the emergence
of this “middle position.”61 But again, concern for the perpetuation of a movement
is a failed project. Instead, our concern must be for the truth of the gospel.
Admittedly this is an argument that will be most unwelcome in many evangelical
circles, if indeed “evangelicalism” still exists.
In terms of the model of set theory, a centered set without definable boundaries is
doomed to fall by the death of a thousand qualifications. Simply look at some of
the language of the postconservative evangelicals—the reformist evangelicals. The
biblical narrative, they say, is “history-like.” The biblical narrative is “realistic.” God’s
sovereignty is “real,” but it is not monarchical. Pinnock and others argue that God
knows all things, except those things he cannot know. And so it goes.
A boundaried set without a center is also meaningless—and will fall by the death of
spiritual collapse. Any genuine evangelicalism must be centered on the formal and
material principles of evangelical faith—principles championed by the Reformers. But
these very principles establish boundaries. They constitute not only a center but,
rightly understood, they also establish boundaries. Faithfulness and integrity
demand constant attention to the circumference as well as to the center.
Otherwise, there is no set. There is no circle.
A word that can mean anything means nothing. If “evangelical identity” means
drawing no boundaries, then we really have no center, no matter what we may
claim. The fundamental issue is truth, and though the modernist may call us wrong
and the postmodernist may call us naïve, there is nowhere else for us to stand.
There are lessons abundant. The failure of the postwar evangelical coalition was
not rooted in its failure to draw from sufficiently diverse constituencies but in its
failure to hold any confident or adequate understanding of evangelical identity.
The failure to draw the boundaries and to give attention to the circumference
meant that the movement’s center was itself lost. The same fate can befall the
contemporary evangelical movement. We must respectfully respect and
understand the logic of the postwar evangelical coalition and yet we must give
primary attention to our confessional communities. We must ensure that our
confessions are faithful to Scripture, which after all is the norma normans non
This means that we can and should celebrate our common commitments to the
formal and material principles of the Reformation: sola scriptura and sola fide. This
means that as we represent diverse confessional communities, united by those
two principles, we must hold each other accountable to them.
But it also means that we must honestly contend with each other concerning those
doctrines on which we fail yet to agree—and seek to understand what God has
revealed in his perfect Word and to make certain that our confessions are
genuinely biblical. This is the great hope for the ongoing Reformation of the church
by the Holy Spirit, through the Holy Scriptures, to the greater glory of God.
1. George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).
2. Carl F. H. Henry, Conversations with Carl Henry: Christianity for Today (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin
Mellen Press, 1986), 24.
3. Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1986), 384.
4. George Marsden, “The Evangelical Denomination,” in George Marsden, ed., Evangelicalism and
Modern America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), vii-xix.
5. Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1967), 111.
6. Ibid., 107-109. At that time in the 1960s, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention
thought the National Association of Churches too conservative. Now the leadership of the SBC
would see the NAE as too hopelessly theologically mixed.
7. For a discussion of the inerrancy controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention, see Roison
B. James and David S. Dockery, Beyond the Impasse? Scripture, Interpretation, and Theology in
Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman, 1992); Nancy T. Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change
and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers
University Press, 1990); and L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible (Nashville:
Broadman and Holman, 1999).
8. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (reprint, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999).
9. William J. Abraham, The Coming Great Revival: Recovering the Full Evangelical Tradition (San
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), 37.
10. For an analysis of the downgrade of Christianity Today, see David F. Wells, No Place for Truth,
or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 207-211.
11. James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of
Modernity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), and Evangelicalism: The
Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
12. Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, 19-156.
13. Martin Marty, “The Years of the Evangelicals,” Christian Century (February 1989), 171-174.
14. Timothy L. Smith, “The Evangelical Kaleidoscope and the Call to Unity,” Christian Scholar’s
Review 15 (1986): 125-140.
15. Robert K. Johnston, “American Evangelicalism: An Extended Family,” in Donald W. Dayton and
Robert K. Johnston, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, Ill.:
InterVarsity, 1991), 252-272.
16. Nathan Hatch, “Response to Carl F. H. Henry,” in Evangelical Affirmations, Kenneth S. Kantzer
and Carl F. H. Henry, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), 97-98.
17. Donald W. Dayton, “Some Doubts About the Usefulness of the Category ‘Evangelical’,” in The
Variety of American Evangelicalism, 245-251.
18. Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco:
Harper and Row, 1983).
19. Letter to evangelical leaders from cochairmen Carl F. H. Henry and Kenneth S. Kantzer,
announcing the May 14-17, 1989, “Convocation on Evangelical Affirmation” at Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
20. Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmation, 17.
21. Kenneth S. Kantzer, “Afterward: Where Do We Go From Here?” in Evangelical Affirmations, 513.
22. Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift,” Christianity Today (Feb. 19, 1990), 12-14.
23. Ibid., 12.
24. For an autobiographical sketch of his theological metamorphoses, see Clark H. Pinnock, “From
Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology,” in Clark H. Pinnock, ed., The Grace of God and
the Will of Man (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1995), 15-30.
25. Clark Pinnock, et al, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge of the Traditional Understanding of
God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994).
26. Ibid, 113.
27. Ibid., 107-109.
28. Clark H. Pinnock, “God Limits His Knowledge,” in David Basinger and Randall Basinger, eds.,
Predestination and Free Will (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986), 146.
29. For a critique of the theological innovations of Pinnock and the other openness theists, see R.
Albert Mohler, Jr., “the Eclipse of God at Century’s End: Evangelicals Attempt Theology Without
Theism,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 6-15.
30. Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989).
31. John R. W. Stott, “The Logic of Hell: A Brief Rejoinder,” Evangelical Review of Theology 18
32. For his earlier view, see Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of Christian
Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1971; reprint, Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985);
for his later view, see The Scripture Principle (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984).
33. Clark H. Pinnock, Tracking the Maze: Finding Our Way Through Modern Theology from an
Evangelical Perspective (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 175.
34. Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the Twenty-first Century
(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), and Theology for the Community of God (Nashville:
Broadman and Holman, 1994).
35. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia:
36. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 78.
37. Ibid., 79.
38. Ibid., 94.
39. Roger E. Olson, “The Future of Evangelical Theology,” Christianity Today (Feb. 9, 1998), 40-48.
40. Ibid., 40.
41. Ibid., 42.
42. Ibid., 47.
47. Ibid., 48. “Much to the chagrin of most evangelical traditionalists,” Olson writes, reformist
evangelicals “find something of value in postmodern culture and philosophy and interpret it as
an ally of Christian thought insofar as it rejects the modern project of elevating autonomous
human reason above revelation and faith.”
48. For a more detailed consideration of these issues, see R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Integrity of
the Evangelical Tradition and the Challenge of the Postmodern Paradigm,” in David S. Dockery,
ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1995), 67-88.
49. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi, vol. 10 of Theory and History of Literature (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
50. Olson, “The Future of Evangelical Theology,” 40.
51. Roger E. Olson, “Postconservative Evangelicals Greet the Postmodern Age,” Christian Century
(May 3, 1995), 480-483.
52. See Olson’s analysis of the Postliberal view of Scripture in his “Back to the Bible (Almost): Why
Yale’s Postliberal Theologians Deserve an Evangelical Hearing,” Christianity Today (May 20,
53. Olson, “Postconservative Evangelicals.” 481.
54. Ibid., 482.
56. Evangelical Affirmations, 30.
57. Roger E. Olson, “Whales and Elephants: Both God’s Creatures But Can They Meet?” Pro
Ecclesia 4, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 169.
58. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and
Postliberals in Conversation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996).
59. For a discussion of this two-party dynamic, see R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “A Call for Baptist
Evangelicals and Evangelical Baptists: Communities of Faith and a Common Quest for
Identity,” in David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The
Conversation Continues (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993), 224-239.
60. Kenneth Kantzer, “American Evangelicalism: What Does the Future Hold?” United Evangelical
Action (May-June 1987), 7.
61. Millard J. Erickson, The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1997), and Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the
Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998).
Taken from A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times, edited by Michael S. Horton, Ph.D,
Copyright © 2000. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers,
Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for
personal use only.
Faith and Reason Forum