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Prolegomena on Controversy in Evangelicalism and a Purpose-Directed Theology

An Appeal for Meta-Narrative, “Critical Realism” and a “Biblical Foundationalist” Approach

I am an exegete jumping into theological waters about evangelical direction and method in the midst of a world in a mess. I jump in because as an exegete I see many recent debates by systematicians and philosophers about method and prolegomena on theological method that do very little with Scripture itself. Unfortunately in this chapter, I will do the same. The reason is that how we approach Scripture impacts how we read it. The role we give it effects how we use it. So this chapter is a prolegomena, an introduction into how we think theologically and theologize.

I have layered the text, which means that more technical details within some discussions are placed in the body in smaller, indented type. These can be skipped by those who do not want all the detail and one can still follow my argument. However, I thought they were too important to relegate to the endnotes or for those who want to see examples of I consider some areas should engage.

I jump in because I hear charges and counter charges in the most recent debate on openness and on evangelical theological method in general that one side or another is being taken captive by some philosophical paramour, whether it be the old madam of Neo-Platonism and Greek philosophy, the middle aged seductress of modernism in the form of Princetonian theology, or the more glitzy, younger lady of the evening known as postmodernism or postmodernity. The debate naturally raises the question, where is evangelicalism going and where should we go, especially in evangelicalism?

Of course, we are dealing in part with the world of preunderstandings and philosophical roots. So relunctantly, but out of necessity, I go there initially in the next several chapters, seeking some philosophical, historical, and biblical perspective for how to approach questions of evangelical identity, purpose and direction. For details, I will have to beg your indulgence and ask you to follow the line of footnotes that accompany each section. In those notes one can find discussions and dialogues that evangelicals usually do not engage in but that we ignore to our peril if we are to appreciate how to converse with the world we live in and are called to serve. I can only outline the key issues in this work and lay out suggestions for roads we must consider travelling together in order more effectively to address that needy world, that also is God’s world and our world.

I start with postmodernism, which itself is a product of a world that has become more globalized and more diverse, at least in terms of our awareness of its complex composition. The easiest thing for people to do is to embrace diversity and leave each to his own choice and preference. This is to forsake serious dialogue and learning that emerges from engagement, especially at the level of differences in fundamental commitments and orientations. A purpose directed theology is committed to engaged and even challenging dialogue about God in the world. It does so recognizing a fundamental tension between a claim to speak for God and the knowledge that no human possesses perfect understanding. So how can we negotiate our way between an embrace of truth that brings life and a need to grow, learn and be continually transformed by that truth? How do we order our lives under God in relation to his world, his word and his community in such a way that we still learn while engaging him and his truth? This may be the greatest tension evangelicals face in their pursuit of divine calling. To pursue it in the midst of a world that has little patience for a goal that talks about truth and morality without embarrassment makes a tough calling, even harder, especially when evangelicals cannot even reach agreement about truth themselves.

I begin by recommending a compelling set of short essays on postmodernist issues describing what our current landscape looks like. They are Richard Mouw’s “Delete ‘Post’ from ‘Postconservative,’” in Books and Culture: A Christian Review (May/June, 2001): 21-22, Alan G. Padgett’s “Christianity and Postmodernity,” Christian Scholar’s Review 26.2 (Winter 1996): 129–32, which has a helpful typology of evangelical responses to postmodernism, and Merold Westphal’s “Postmodernism and the Gospel: Onto-theology, Metanarratives, and Perspectivism.” Perspectives 15 (April 2000): 6–10.1

Mouw’s title gives his thesis, In his view, the prefix is not helpful. Westfall discusses how Christians have overreacted in assessing postmodernism, just as most postmodernists have erroneously seen all expressions of Christianity as the object of rebuke in the teaching from what he refers to as “The Gang of Six”: Nietzsche, Heidegger; Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and Rorty. He discusses Heidegger’s critique of onto-ontology, Lyotard’s reaction against meta-narrative, and postmodernism’s affirmation of relativism and perspectivism as three examples worthy of more careful reflection. Westfall’s concerns in the midst of his embrace of postmodernity are also points to which “critical realists” are sensitive as will be shown below. Padgett’s piece faults an earlier work by Westfall. Padgett rejects Westfall’s two fold taxonomy while introducing an article by Gary Percesepe (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern”).2 Westfall’s introductory piece to which Padgett reacts is entitled, “The Ostrich and the Boogeyman: Placing Postmodernism.”3 Westfall argued that the two dominant Christian reactions to postmodernity are either as an “ostrich” (pretend it will go away) or to see it as a “boogeyman” (demonized as the product of atheistic, unbiblical thinkers). Padgett replies that there are two more options Westfall does not consider that better covers the options: “best buddy” (a too ready-acceptance of postmodernity) and as a “critical dialogue partner” (listen to the concerns of postmodernity and address ourselves to this audience in critical discussion). I am arguing here for this fourth option, while insisting that the biblical and christological roots of the Christian account are not to be compromised if theology is to remain Christian and evangelical. Padgett also questions whether we should speak of “postmodernism” at all. It is not a coherent enough articulated system to be an ism in his view. So he prefers to speak of a postmodern attitude or the postmodern, which “celebrates the demise of King Reason (including linear, “scientific” thinking), the Independent Ego, Absolute Truth and any unifying (or “totalizing”) meta-narratives”.4

I appreciate these discussions on method not only as an exegete, but as one who has taken on a responsibility at DTS over the last several years for reflecting on spiritual formation and culture at the Seminary’s Center of Christian Leadership. I also have read with interest Stanley Grenz’s Renewing the Center, whose provocative work has been at the center of evangelical proposals for where evangelicals should go.5 I find his embrace of so much post-modernism problematic, for it understates in my view the central role of Scripture as propositional revelation affirming truth and reality, however representationally its language does so. It also understates the roots of how we can know and how we can make discerning judgments theologically. It leaves too much to the community’s reading of the text at the expense of an express commitment to the parameters Scripture gives us in thinking christianly, especially in our assessment of culture and in its advocacy of “new paradigms” in doing theology. In sum, Scripture functions as a key check, holding us accountable from “going our own way” as we contemplate the things of God and attempt to live out the lives God calls us to experience.

My remarks here apply to the “agenda” laid forth in Renewing itself. Other works of Grenz may well touch more fully on this theme. But in Renewing, there is not enough specificity in how one works with Scripture and on how it plays a “norming” or central role.6 I do not want to be misunderstood in my critique of Grenz here. I am not saying that he lacks a high view of Scripture, nor that his approach overall is not worthy of serious reflection or is unevangelical. I am saying that his lack of discussion on the role of Scripture within that case is underdeveloped in Renewing. A clearer presentation of how Scripture fits as “norm” might help some evangelicals connect more readily with his model. Such a discussion appears in his work with John R. Franke, Beyond Fundamentalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context.7 Here Grenz stresses how Scripture functions as the means by which the Spirit speaks to the church, the “norming norm.” Although the function of Scripture is more developed here than in Recentering with his attention to the Word-Spirit doctrine, one still senses a hesitation to express the quality of the result of inscripturation itself clearly enough. It is as if the Word is nothing without the Spirit.

However, the fact that the Spirit inspires the Word and helped to create it suggests that the product and its narrative, propositions and promises possess authority not only in how the Spirit makes use of them but also in what they affirm. There is an authority in the text because it is Spirit induced whether or not that product is “deputized” or “appropriated.” In making this point I am not questioning his suggestion that is so valuable that part of what the Spirit does is to “project a way of being in the world” and that the Bible speaks beyond the context of the text’s original setting. I would simply contend that this way of being is formed in great part because of how the Sprit leads the community to see and understand the world God has made as well as the world that can be made in the Spirit. The Spirit is explaining through Scripture and in the use of specific contexts a divine way of seeing to help ground that account in concrete examples from real life. Thus, I would affirm with Grenz the key role of reading the narrative that emerges from the Bible as the center of the story, what he calls the primacy of the reading of the biblical text over our theological constructions. Here is why I speak, as I think he might, of a meta-narrative Christians affirm to the entire world. In addition, as Grenz argues, the Spirit is central in helping the reader reach the intended understanding. However my compliant about Grenz’s model is that the Bible still describes a divinely created and conceived reality whether the reader gets it or not. Judgment will come because the message not appreciated by some readers has been rejected even though that message has expressed a divine reality. People will be held accountable to God for this “suppression of the truth” as it has come in Jesus and the mediation of the message about Him in the Spirit through the Scripture (Romans 10). It is the status of Scripture for those who reject both it and the Spirit’s mediating work that also needs attention in how Scripture functions as authority. This accountability is a part of defining what Scripture actually is. What Scripture is in this “rejected” mode seems underdeveloped in Grenz. The result of this difference may be that systematics is more complicated than Grenz suggests and there is still value in pursuing the “construction” of doctrine, even though it requires the very kind of hermeneutical circle (or better, spiral) Grenz describes to get there. Both of us agree, however, that mere proof-texting risks reading the Scripture in too flat a manner.

So where should we go? I would commend a “critical realist” approach as much more satisfying biblically and philosophically. So I am more in line with Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism.8 Evangelicalism also needs to move into a new arena of engagement, with modern works coming from those scholars who examine our culture sociologically.9 This analysis is needed because in many ways these works represent the “theologies” of our day.

These works perform an invaluable diagnostic role in assessing what is going on in our culture and the historical, cultural, philosophical roots that stand behind such moves. They are the kinds of works most evangelicals unfortunately ignore. Toulmin (Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity) traces the history of modernity and explains how we have moved culturally into the third phase of modernity or into post-modernism. What is fascinating about all these books is that they in one way or another defend the value and cultural necessity of a vibrant life of the mind and a pursuit of truth in a culture that diminishes its value. Most seek roots in Enlightenment or humanist values rooted in a liberal arts educational model, a counter post-modernist movement. Toulmin is the exception, arguing for the newest phase third modern phase (or post-modern phase) positively. Berman’s book (The Twilight of American Culture, pp. 33-52) gives some frightening statistics of the state of literacy in America, students our seminaries are inheriting. What is also interesting is how many of these pleas have no “telos” for the effort other than the honor in the effort itself and its potential utility in preserving an ideal of the individual self, but one still detached from God and revelation (see Berman, pp. 182-83 or the ambivalence of the situation in 1900 described in Coles, The Secular Mind, p. 95). Here stands yet another reason why the Bible must be studied diligently to speak anew to our age. If a bridge should be built back to the eighteenth century, as one of Postman’s title argues (i.e., to the Enlightenment and the best of “modernism”), maybe a larger bridge needs careful and thoughtful building back to the roots of first century biblical faith (i.e., back to God and the recognition of the sinfulness of humanity that needs a submissive, individual and corporate redemption). While speaking about moral reasoning, Bork (Slouching towards Gomorrah, p. 278) says it well, “Only religion can accomplish for a modern society what tradition, reason and empirical observation cannot. Christianity and Judaism provide the major premises of moral reasoning by revelation and the stories in the Bible. There is no need to attempt the impossible task of reasoning your way to first principles. Those principles are accepted as given by God.” Bork then quotes a powerful citation from Ortega y Gassett on the value of religious moral imperatives that should be pondered by all.10 Ortega y Gassett says, “Decalogues retain from the time they were written on stone or bronze their heaviness… Lower ranks the world over are tired of being ordered and commanded, and with holiday air take advantage of a period freed from burdensome imperatives. But the holiday does not last long. Without commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our existence is that of the “unemployed.” This is the terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself today. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions, it feels itself empty… Before long there will be heard throughout the planet a formidable cry, rising like the howling of the stars, asking for someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty.” Bork then speaks of the rise of a politics of meaning. This is what Noble Prize winning economist Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism picks up in his study as well but taking it in a virtuous “postmodern” direction.11 Fogel’s proposal is so interesting in appealing to the “spiritual” that I will analyze it and its complexity later.

What I mean by “critical realism” is that there a reality external to us of which we have both awareness and knowledge so that our accounts of that reality correspond (at least roughly) with it (though, of course, we’re not infallible or exhaustive in this regard)12. It is our awareness of our own fallibility that makes us “critical” about the realism within the world. Thus, we must constantly examine and reexamine our understanding to check our penchant to understand incompletely, if not erroneously. Nancey Murphy, another proponent of the benefits of postmodern approaches, has called this critical realist approach “chastened modernism,” for she claims that it argues for an adapted form of foundationalism strongly tied to Scripture. I’d prefer to be called a “chastened foundationalist” or even better still, a “biblical foundationalist.” I might accept the idea as well that as a reader of Scripture I need to be chastened about how I read that text. Nevertheless, a biblical foundationalist position is the idea that Scripture as revelation has a primary and privileged claim on forming and shaping our understanding, even though we still must engage in the difficult task of reading and determining what it is that Scripture affirms. It is this understanding of the care and self-criticism we engage in as readers that makes biblical foundationalism an expression of critical realism. We live in a real world, but we must remain critical of ourselves as readers. I reject Murphy’s description, however, of such traditional theological positions as embracing philosophical foundationalism, because I do not wish to give reason a sovereign role in epistemology nor am I willing to endorse the agenda of modernism (i.e, enlightenment’s use of independent reason, autonomy, excessive individualism and a reliance on science as a solution to all human problems). I do not embrace philosophical foundationalism, by which I mean “knowledge of the world rests on a foundation of indubitable beliefs from which further suppositions can be inferred to produce a superstructure of known truths”13 I do not believe it is possible to build a well-ordered cognitive (or noetic) structure that has at its most fundamental level only beliefs which are indubitable or incorrigible.

I am a chastened, biblical foundationalist because I accept the presence of truth and meta-narrative as grounded in the thrust of Scripture’s account as a base for my worldview, even if I cannot comprehensively prove the viability of all aspects of that foundation with indubitable proofs.14 Critical realism also affirms that what is in Scripture comes from God in a variety of linguistic forms and expressions, while also distinguishing that my reading of that revelation is not automatically correct.15 In “critical realism” there is a reality out there, a creation, to discuss and describe. That creation is real and has attributes I can pursue, describe, and know, but such realism is “critical” in that I have to test the way in which I read that reality and how I read that authoritative text.16 Such critical realism needs to be wed to solid speech-act theory in order to overcome the epistemological issues raised within contemporary hermeneutics. Approaches like that of Kevin Vanhoozer have great promise here, but such work is just beginning.17 Evangelicals need to pay serious attention to what has caused this discussion to emerge as well as engage in the discussion itself.

I am using the term “foundationalist” in a very narrow sense here, not in its full philosophical sense. This is why I am applying the adjective “biblical” to the description. I am arguing that at the core of getting to the message that is both Christian and evangelical stands the Bible, its nature and authority as an inspired document. Here the “view from above” is expressed as a part of the Bible’s inspiration, although this knowledge is expressed within the limits of human language and the thought frames of the Bible’s human authors. This inspiration is why evangelicals speak ultimately of a meta-narrative that makes a claim on all human life. Thus, it is perhaps better to say one is a critical realist than a foundationalist, for one can be a critical realist without being fully committed to a philosophical foundationalist agenda. The expression “biblical foundationalist.” is an attempt to differentiate between the two positions. Such a position sees the Scripture as the most basic foundation for a belief system about theology, even while recognizing that how the Bible actually reads is a matter for discussion and engagement. It is both the Bible as an authority and as having primacy that is affirmed by such a view.

My plea is only that such a critical realist approach has rich potential for evangelicals. It needs our serious consideration as a hermeneutical model, provided it is wed to a sufficient respect for the nature and authority of Scripture, not in a reader-response emphasis as Van Huyssteen (Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology) seems to argue. However, such an approach also must be realistic about the obstacles to reading a text correctly and must have some degree of humility about how that is done. Critical realism is a way of seeing the world and creation God has made. I am arguing that for Christians Scripture has had a central and primary role because it has always been recognized by the believing community as the central and even defining means of understanding God and his creation through his core act in Christ. It is this quality and ability that makes the whole of Scripture “special” revelation. This role for Scripture is part of the claim of what it means to be Christian because through the Spirit’s work with Scripture in both its testaments comes an understanding and affirmation of what Christian experience is and what God has done through Jesus, the Christ. Whether such a critical realism is seen ultimately as foundationalist or not depends on how the term is defined and to what the concept of foundational is applied. The form of critical realism I contend for sees Scripture as having a central, defining role for theology and argues that this role has been Scripture’s historic position within the Christian community throughout its history. Again, this is a “theological” use of the term foundation as a metaphor, not a philosophical use of the term as meaning a foundation resting on a demonstrated proof of certitude. Anthony Thistleton argues for the term “basicality” to describe how certain themes function theologically. Perhaps this is a clearer term.18 It is in this affirmation about the nature of Scripture where the evangelical concern for “truth” also fits into our discussions. Evangelicals are not to abandon a pursuit of truth. A core commitment to Scripture keeps us focused on the pursuit and embrace of truth.

Discussions among evangelicals of the left, right and center on epistemology need to proceed. There is much in Murphy’s writings worth pondering. There is an important dialogue that can exist between her form of Anglo-American postmodernity and my form of critical realism, rooted as it is in Scripture. Her work is an important reminder that not all post-modernism is deconstructionism, a mistake many evangelicals make in assessing and summarizing postmodernity.19 Moreover postmodernity does have four important things to say to us.20 I make this point because post-modernity has become a whipping boy in many strands of evangelicalism that is all bad. This is too simplistic a view to take on such a complex phenomenon.

Here are some of the things postmodernism says that I think we must appreciate. (1) Interpretation is not as neutral nor objective as we often portray it to be. We all have preunderstanding that impacts how we read texts. The way we construct our perception of reality and have it bequeathed to us affects how we read that reality. This is all the more reason, however, to have Scripture and the God that stands behind it, challenge us with a perspective that is not rooted in our own context and culture. Here is why we need historically rooted exegesis and careful hermeneutical reflection on how we read. Before we are confident the text as truth says something, we must be careful to be sure we are reading it properly. (2) Communities matter in interpretation, not just individuals. However this observation also opens the door not only to being sensitive to readings from a particular community or from a particular time (i.e., our own time) but to considering readings that run throughout the church’s history and the communities it has possessed. One of the dangers of postmodernism is that it is only contemporary readings that tend to count. Communities from the past are largely excluded. But our solidarity with the body of Christ through time warms us not to be so temporally myopic. (3) There is value in examining a subject from different angles or layers simultaneously — each angle can be of value. This observation means that some discussions of topics are not uni-layered or monochronological. I will have more to say on this issue later as many of our current theological debates involves each side working only with one layer of the discussion and pitting it against another layer. In some cases, both layers being embraced are biblical so the issue is how to correlate with consistency the pieces each side is camping on. (4) Our own depravity and sheer human limits mean that not everything we see is all there is to see nor are our interpretations, however well intentioned and methodologically grounded, automatically correct. This is why interpretation needs testing and the interaction of communities, not to mention a need to give us pause before we “canonize” a particular expression of doctrine. Such a move, when necessary, and there are times when it is necessary, needs to be done with exceptional care and patience.

In my view, however, much of what Grenz argues in terms of engaging and keeping evangelicalism focused on a center also has merit. I prefer to call his “centered” set model a “prioritized” set. “Prioritized” means that these “hub” doctrines belong in the center of the faith as points of prioritized focus. They are the priority in terms of scriptural emphasis and form a core of truth that are the major themes of the faith. They represent what is emphasized in the theology of Scripture, even though other elements of that revelation are true and also of value. As prioritized truths, these core, emphasized elements form those parts of Christian faith about which the faith through its history has had less, internal debate.

Now Grentz’s view of a “generous orthodoxy” needs a hearing. My center is more christocentric, missional, and bibliologically grounded than his largely communal and Spirit driven approach. A christocentric, missional definition of the divine call for the community is biblically centered in the major themes of Scripture. In turn, critical realism philosophically challenges the relativism that post-modernism serves as a staple diet. Postmodernity’s menu, though a meta-narrative itself in denying meta-narratives, ultimately makes empty any Christian claims about Christ’s uniqueness, leading naturally into all types of universalism. His uniqueness is something on which God’s people can never compromise.

The inconsistency here within postmodernist claims is ironic, because to sustain its claims, it too has a foundation about there being no meta-narratives, even as it denies the existence of any foundation. Perhaps all of us are chastened foundationalists when it comes to directive stories. The issue may still be what foundation we regard as the hub for our preunderstandings. I am mixing web-foundation metaphors, which are the post-modernist-modernist metaphors respectively, on purpose.

If there is a center to our approach it must be rooted in the Christian claims of the Trinitarian view of God, especially as that story focuses on the Father’s unique work in the Son through the Spirit. That Trinitarian center is well articulated in the early classic creeds of the faith.21

It is unfortunate that evangelicalism emerged without a sufficient sensitivity to the value of these early creeds for self-definition. While wanting to reserve the right to assess such creeds at particular points against what Scripture teaches as an implication of sola Scriptura, we should recognize that the church gave much energy and effort long ago to express herself in these definitions of the core of our faith. The thrust of what they affirm about theology proper and christology deserves a benefit of the doubt in our communities unless a strong case can be made otherwise. If the ETS or evangelicalism were to seek a “doctrinal” base beyond Scripture and the Trinity, here would be where to look for it. This is a far better option in my view than trying to rewrite such creeds from scratch today, for it would affirm the unity of our community with those that went before us, an act that ultimately affirms the work of the Spirit in the community throughout her history.

We cannot get to that divinely active, tripartite story or help the believing community find its way in our world without Scripture serving as a defining hub and/or foundation whose message is to be fully embraced once properly understood.22 Any local churches built on postmodern premises will have to be careful not to let the centrality or knowledge of Scripture get lost in the pursuit of a message couched in technological or narratological relevance. If certain forms of postmodernity deem such exclusive claims about the center of our theology as arrogant, politically insensitive, or merely parochial – a meta-narrative for our community but not for others – then so be it.23 I believe the Jewish and Roman worlds made a similar “pre-modern” judgment about our Lord’s exclusive claims. This insistence on Jesus’ uniqueness is what bearing the cross in the present day means for evangelicals, especially academic evangelicals. The central element of reading Scripture and the biblical message is certainly the meta-narrative that surrounds Jesus as the promised one who sends the Spirit to indwell and transform forgiven sinners who acknowledge their need for God’s remedy. That relational story is rooted in the core of God’s written Word. The call of the church to is to tell that story — in whatever limits language imposes on us in terms of a redeeming expression of truth. That meta-narrative is something we embrace as true with our entry into communion and community with Him. God’s Word is also the expression of His mind and will, rooted in the inspiration of the Spirit and recorded throughout in words both essential and adequate for our spiritual understanding. This is why Scripture must always have a central role in how the church thinks, what the church believes, and in forming who we are to be as the people of God. For without the Scripture we do not have the divine story. In this story of the written word is also where Truth ultimately resides for the Christian, in the One called the Word. It is why evangelicals, in contending for the truth in a world that seems to have largely given up a belief in comprehensive truth, must always bring its story back to Him. I am arguing that Scripture is, as a divinely rooted text, a foundation for the church or its hub, depending on how one wishes the construct the epistemological metaphor. It gives ultimately “a view from above” expressed in language from below.

One more issue must be considered as I have outlined difficulties of reading a text evangelicals hold in unique regard and wish to embrace as authoritative. It is the claim that the Spirit instructing us will keep us from error and make the text’s meaning clear. Note the dilemma this claim leaves us in, regardless of which side in a debate makes it. If each side of the debate claims to have the clear insight of Scripture and yet they disagree we are left with only a few alternatives. One side is right (usually mine!) and another is wrong (usually yours!). Both are wrong. Or neither side has got it quite right. In other words, there is a need to see if a better synthesis of the biblical data is possible. We must always remain open to such a possibility in correlating the biblical data, while respecting the time and effort that has gone into previous attempts to correlate the text as we do so. Note also how individualized this doctrine of the Spirit risks being. I have read it right but you, also a member of the believing community, have read the text wrong. It is here that the corporateness of the Spirit’s work needs to be applied to this discussion. It is here that healthy dialogue need not be seen as a bad thing for evangelicals, provided we all agree that the text is the key arbiter in our discussion. An appreciation of the nature of the judgments we make as readers would also help us to be careful in claiming with certainly that our reading is the better one. In sum, evangelicals need a place like the ETS and other selected evangelical institutions, such as publishing houses and a few educational institutions, where we can have such discussions with the openness to explore how Scripture both could and should be read. There also is value in appreciating that most denominations are more confessional and need to be able to draw boundaries, provided they also have a historical sense of where the “core” of the faith lies. The mutual accountability such possible open discussion fosters is healthy for all of us, for the debate itself will foster a kind of accountability. If the debates take place prayerfully on solid scriptural grounds, those who embrace following Scripture should have little to fear, even as we recognize that we will never come to unanimity this side of glory. Only glory with its complete renewal will remove the blinders we all have.

Another important observation to make about the Spirit’s role is that His primary role is to help us embrace or receive the message, to discern it as from God. This is certainly the thrust of a text like 1 Corinthians 2:1-13. In other words, the Spirit is not a guarantor of the reader perceiving the content of Scripture precisely correctly as much as appreciating and embracing its authority from the heart. Let one illustration suffice here. The Jewish leadership got the content of Jesus’ claims right. They understood intellectually the content of Jesus’ claims. They never embraced those claims and thus were not Spirit taught, because they failed to embrace the claims’ significance and failed in discerning that this was truth spoke from God. I believe this is the major point of the Spirit’s work as outlined in texts like I Corinthians 1:18–2:16.

So I am arguing for the privileged place of Scripture in our theology, but also am pleading for some careful philosophical reflection as we think about how we engage our understanding of reality. Such careful philosophical work is a crying need in evangelicalism today. Even the exegete’s careful work on correlating biblical texts needs to proceed with a better appreciation of the larger hermeneutical, philosophical, theological debate about how texts are seen and combined. We need solidly grounded theologian-philosopher-exegetes in our day and in evangelicalism. Making too great a dichotomy between these roles will not help the church. It is too often the case in our curricula and in the modeling of the work we do in each of these disciplines that we make theology, philosophy and exegesis either so distinct that they have little contact with each other or we turn them into competitors for articulating theology. Not appreciating the core issues tied to method and theological decision making when entering into particular debates will make us poor dialogue partners.

Now similar tensions exist in harmonizing the biblical text and in constructing theological doctrines based on complex syntheses of biblical data. Even our frequent appeal to the analogy of faith as a way to bring seemingly competing texts into correlation is a complex subject. The rest of this book will seek to cover this question after engaging in some needed historical perspective on the roots of evangelicalism. For example, what the openness debates are teaching us is that the clear text which defines the more difficult one is often in the eye of the beholder. Each side lines up its scriptural support. Each side also may risk not developing clearly enough how the texts that seem to stand against their paradigm really fit into a consistent whole. We are learning that paramours, whether old, middle-aged, or young, are difficult to separate sometimes from the classy lady of divine wisdom. One theologian’s wisdom is another’s paramour. Only solid, dialogical community will save us from our own individual tendencies to be drawn in where we do not belong. What must be insisted upon in this legitimate pursuit of discernment and truth is that the major focus needs to be the Scripture, the whole of it, and not some other locus of authority, whether that be common sense, rationalism, feelings, experience, a commitment to diversity, philosophy, local culture, signed affirmations, or tradition— and that is quite a list to avoid! In sum, the centrality of Scripture is crucial to the well being of evangelicalism and to theological method in our changing times. It is why the ETS began with a focus on Scripture and why our society, as well as evangelicals as a whole, must keep its importance central.

The centrality of Scripture has always been the fundamental affirmation of the purpose driven ETS. It should remain at the core of evangelical theology. To this center I want to highlight the centrality of the core story about the Father, Son, and Spirit in mission, a story that emerges from Scripture as its point and that leads to the formation of a community that respects Him and His story while allowing Him to transform them and their view of life. This core should drive our work as we assess the importance of our respective debates. In my further study I will suggest how focus on this core will lead us into theological work that is driven by a prioritized center that will keep us focused on the central tasks of our calling. My remarks here intend only to provoke us to reflect on the importance of Scripture’s centrality. I hope to help us see that how I, either as an individual or as part of an isolated tradition, read the text may not equal or exhaust how we should read the text and discuss it.


1 My thanks goes to Steve Spencer of Wheaton College for these final two articles.

2 Christian Scholar’s Review 20 (1990): 118-35.

3 The Christian Scholar’s Review 20 (1990): 114-17

4 Padgett, “Christianity and Postmodernity,” The Christian Scholar’s Review 26 (1998): 129.

5 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).

6 See the discussion surrounding and in note 14 below as well as the small font discussion following that paragraph for my summary of what is important about the nature of Scripture here.

7 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 57-92.

8 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), esp. pp. 1-80; See also McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 1995) and his The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), esp. pp. 140-64, a chapter on “the Reality of the World” and critical realism; Millard Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

9 For a selection of recent monographs on our culture at large that represent a variety of positions and serve as an important sociological backdrop for our culture and her current debates, see among other studies, Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000); Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books, 1996), especially pp. 272-95; Robert Coles, The Secular Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. Reprint ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Random House, 1999); Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business ((New York: Viking, 1985); Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (New York: Random House, 1999); Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

10 Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1957), pp. 135-36.

11 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).

12 My thanks to Doug Blount of Southwestern Theological Seminary for his suggestion and interaction on this expression.

13 Oxford Companion to Philosophy, s.v. “foundationalism,” 289.

14 See remarks by Alister Mc Grath, “Reality, Symbol, and History: Theological Reflections on N.T. Wright’s Portrayal of Jesus,” in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, ed. Carey C. Newman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), pp. 162-68. See also the work by Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Can Belief in God Be Rational If It Has No Foundations?” in Faith and Rationality: Faith and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 175-181; and Wolterstorff’s Reason within the Bounds of Religion. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), where he argues that philosophical foundationalism is dead and beyond repair, a point that does seem correct. That critical realism and foundationalism do not necessarily belong together is argued by J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), esp. pp. 40-52, 73-90, where he critiques Nancey Murphy’s reaction against critical realism, and 124-61, where he argues for a biblical authority while defending a critical realist approach that understates in my mind the centrality of the role of scriptural affirmations in the process of doing theology. Van Huyssteen’s embrace of critical realism shows that it can also come in many forms as its relates to epistemology and bibliology. So again dialogue is required about how such a model precisely works.

15 Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion and Ethics (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1997), p. 41.

16 Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics (Collegeville, Minn: Michael Glazier, 1994); and his Critical Realism and the New Testament. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 17 (Allison Park, Penn: Pickwick Publications, 1989). Note especially the remarks of Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), esp. pp. 300-03. Also C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and The Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 201-30, treats the philosophical dimensions of this discussion as a part of what he describes as a “modified foundationalism.” For works in terms of theological method, Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) and Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity, 1995). For a discussion of how this approach relates to that of E. D. Hirsch, see Thorston Moritz, “Critical but Real: Reflecting on N. T. Wright’s Tools for the Task,Renewing Biblical Interpretation: Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, Volume 1, ed. by Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Möller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 172-97, esp. 174-84.

17 K. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Earlier work along a similar line is Anthony Thistleton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) and Thistleton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: the Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).

18 Anthony Thistleton, “Communicative Action and Promise in Interdisciplinary, Biblical, and Theological Hermeneutics,” in Roger Lundin, Clarence Walthout, and Anthony C. Thistleton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 209-14.

19 Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. (Valley Forge, Penn: Trinity Press International, 1996).

20 For an excellent introductory survey of postmodernity described from within sociological categories, David Lyon, Postmodernity. 2nd edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). My colleague, Jeff Bingham, observes perceptively that these four elements of postmodernity also were a part of premodern perspectives, clearly in the case of points 1, 2, and 4 in this paragraph, and possibly with perhaps some slight differences in point 3 as well. So in going forward into postmodernity, we may also be going back on some points being raised.

21 For an important discussion on the role of tradition in theological method and that sola scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the only authority we apply to the theological task, but serves rather as the final and certainly key authority, see Robert A. Pyne, and Stephen R. Spencer, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part Two,” Bib Sac 158 (2001), esp. pp. 387-396. They also make important points about the inadequacy of philosophical foundationalism and its roots in the Enlightenment (pp. 389-91).

22 Again the issue with Grenz here is not that he denies Scripture, for he certainly gives it an important place. However Scripture’s defining role for the community he makes so central is not as clearly articulated and emphasized as it should be in Renewing. See discussion above for an evaluation of his view of Scripture in his other works. The absence of such a discussion may show where postmodernist tendencies can take us in terms of the text.

23 My point here is not to preclude the possibility that certain Christian, post-modern efforts might avoid this danger so inherent within much postmodernity. It is only to warn that a tendency to do so exists in much postmodernity.