"The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology" by Millard J. Erickson

John R. Muether
Tuesday, August 28th 2007
Jan/Feb 1998

Evangelical presses continue to spill ink over postmodernism. Millard J. Erickson, Professor of Theology at Baylor University and Western Seminary in Portland, provides in this survey an otherwise undistinguished addition to that collection, were it not for one striking feature about it.

Erickson's focus is on the movement that is calling itself "post-conservative" evangelicalism. The term was coined by Roger Olson of Bethel College, who defines it as evangelicalism that is "shedding theological conservatism" in the face of the challenge of postmodernism. Erickson, however, offers little precision in defining the movement and its members. He has in mind a loose affiliation of thinkers such as Olson himself, Stanley Grenz, John Sanders, the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary, and especially, Clark Pinnock. The book might have been improved had Erickson restricted himself to an analysis of Pinnock; his best chapter, on salvation, is almost exclusively devoted to Pinnock. While he claims the movement is larger than one evangelical maverick, the contours of postconservatism elude Erickson's capacity to describe.

Erickson is equally vague in his defense of what it is that postconservatives seek to challenge. In his introductory chapter, he can do no better than to label it as an "older evangelicalism" or "established evangelicalism," that had come into its own by the late 1950s, through Fuller Seminary, the Evangelical Theological Society, and Christianity Today. With all these institutions up and running, "it appeared that all was well with the movement." Borrowing heavily from Marsden's history of Fuller Seminary, Erickson recounts the events that would unravel his Camelot. Ockenga refused to leave his Park Street Pulpit to preside over Fuller in residence. Carnell as his successor broadened the theological perspective, and Daniel Fuller returned from Switzerland, provoking the infamous "Black Saturday" that unleashed the doctrine of "limited inerrancy." Indeed, the reader may be encouraged to wonder, from Erickson's narrative, whether postconservatism owes its origins to Daniel Fuller's choice for doctoral study.

The chapters that follow cover the main areas of post-conservative migration, in theological method and the doctrines of Scripture, God, and salvation. Each chapter concludes with an evaluation that includes positive contributions of the new approaches (Erickson's charity is exemplary, even if it is frequently strained), followed by negative comments. In any summary, which Erickson's book is, the story must be truncated. He draws attention to some of the major controversies, such as the impassibility of God, postmortem salvation, and annihilationism. But he omits many of the major voices in the debate, and some of the players are awkwardly categorized. (For example, Erickson describes Alistair McGrath as an ex-liberal moving to the right. Ten pages later, McGrath is a "traditional evangelical.")

I suggested one noteworthy feature of this book, and it is this: one cannot read it without drawing parallels to J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923. Both are short books (less than 200 pages), intended for popular audiences. The format of each book is identical. Each begins with a description of a new theological development, continues by analyzing this trend in the categories of traditional dogmatic theology, and concludes with a where-to-from-here chapter. But there are differences from Machen's book, and in every way that Erickson is different his approach is inferior. Where Machen's analysis is direct, Erickson's is tentative. Throughout, he appears less than confident that he understands the postconservatives, with the recurrence of sentences that begin "It seems…," "There appears…," "It is not clear that…."

The differences are most apparent at the end. Machen's concluding where-to-from-here chapter is called "The Church," and rightly so, because Machen could not imagine another way to go. What was once said of Cyprian-regardless of where one begins, one always gets back to the church-could be said for Machen, and the Presbyterian confessionalism that he defended. From his ecclesial vantage point, Machen could predict the trajectory of liberalism. And on the sure footing of the church and its Confession as the guardian of orthodoxy, Machen also offers hope in the end. The church is the refuge from the strife, and "from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive a weary world."

Erickson, however, in good evangelical fashion, lacks an ecclesial framework. (Not surprisingly, he mentions the church only once, with reference to Catholic sacerdotalism [p. 110]. What he condemns as a Catholic formula-"outside the church, no salvation"-he fails to acknowledge as Reformation formula.) From his vantage point, Erickson is unable to predict the future. The best he can assert is that the coming generation of postconservatives will lack any "nostalgia" for his older evangelicalism. But will the generation that didn't know the pre-fallen Fuller move to the left or the right? Are these guys evangelical or not? What is an evangelical, after all? Erickson is left scratching his head. Somewhere, sometime, postconservatives may cross a boundary, but Erickson is unable to draw the line.

Tuesday, August 28th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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