Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Stuggle for the Soul of Evangelicalism Visible in Two Recent Conferences

Two weeks ago there were two highly significant conferences held in Wheaton and Louisville that represent two related but significantly different movements that aspire to provide the intellectual center of gravity for contemporary Evangelicalism.

The Wheaton Theology Conference, which featured a conversation with N. T. Wright on Jesus and Paul, usually draws 300 registrants but was capped this year at 1100. The Together for the Gospel Conference, held in Louisville was also sold out and featured speakers like Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, John Piper and Al Mohler.

T4G is just one of a number of contemporary organizations that are attempting to renew the reformed center of Evangelicalism. When (as it was then called) "Neo-Evangelicalism" got off the ground in the late 1940's, it was an attempt to be Fundamentalist without the separatism, anti-intellectualism, legalism and sectarianism into which the Fundamentalist movement had fallen during its bruising battle with Modernism during the first half of the 20th century.

Neo-Evangelicalism was led intellectually by Westminster Theological Seminary and the newly formed Fuller Evangelical Seminary and was overwhelmingly Reformed in its theology, yet with an emphasis on evangelism Billy Graham style and missions that appealed to non-Reformed Evangelicals. The leaders skillfully brokered a potentially fractious coalition of Reformed, Arminian and Pentecostal groups into something that came to be known as Evangelicalism and which has become the most vibrant religious group in the world in the past half century.

But as the movement grew and matured, the Wesleyan, Anabaptist and Pentecostal and other Arminian theological groups, as well as the Dispensational groups, began to challenge the Reformed theological center. There have always been dissenters from the Reformed orthodoxy looking for alternatives as potential centers for Evangelical theology. See, for example, this article by a professor at the Charismatic Regent University entitled "The Westminster Captivity of the Church."

This is where N. T. Wright comes in. Evangelicals are making something of a rock star out of him, even though he is ambivalent at best to their ecclesiology, their evangelistic and missionary emphasis and their traditional devotion to personal piety and conversionism.

Groups like T4G, the Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, 9 Marks and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals are attempting to call Evangelicalism back to its historic center and to define the center in Neo-Reformed terms as a way of stemming the seemingly endless diversification of Evangelicalism into whatever anyone wants it to be. I think many will agree that a movement that allows Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren and Robert Schuller to be identified as within its boundaries could use a little stricter definition. But rather than policing the boundaries, as Fundamentalism tried to do, the Neo-Reformed strategy is not to focus on the boundaries, but on the center.

The goal is to define the center in ways that make it continuous with the theology of the 16th century Reformers and the post-Reformation Puritan and Pietist movements, the revivalism of the Wesleys, Whitefield and Edwards and Protestant confessional orthodoxy. To the extent they are successful, then, the essence of the best of Protestantism will be preserved within the contemporary Evangelical movement even as the liberal Protestant denominations die out.

So is N. T. Wright an ally or a rival to the Neo-Reformed movement? That question sparks lively debates today and is a pressing question for Evangelicals to get sorted out. Brett McCracken has an interesting article in Christianity Today in which he describes his experience of attending both conferences: "Wrightians and the Neo-Reformed: All One in Jesus Christ." He also blogs about it here. William B. Evans has a very good report on the Wheaton Conference at Reformation 21 here. His last two paragraphs are worth quoting because they sum up the ambivalence with which Evangelicals hold N. T. Wright.
. . . I suspect that no sentient being could come away from the conference without an appreciation for Wright's rhetorical gifts and power. I had heard Wright speak in other contexts but had never heard him preach until Friday morning, when he preached to the students in the college chapel service. His sermon, in which there was nary a pause or break, consisted of a thirty-five minute guided tour of the book of Ephesians with application. I came away from that service with a sense of just how relentlessly verbal Wright can be, and of how he has been able to churn out some many books of such consistent quality. I also came away sensing that the Wheaton invitation was not a misstep and that Wright is a man of authentic evangelical (small "e") piety even if, in my judgment, he is not "right" on everything--in short, he really does love the Lord and genuinely strives to be biblical.

But there are also, in my opinion, at least three significant dangers lurking in his theology. First, without a deeper appreciation for the role of faith commitments in historical scholarship, Wright's historical endeavors run the risk of lapsing back into the historicism he so abhors. Second, his nearly constant preference for corporate inclusion over against the individual's experience of forensic justification risks a tragic obscuring of essential Reformational insights. Finally, his apparent distaste for the church's confessional tradition is unlikely to serve the church well in the long run and is, in fact, likely to undercut his ecclesiology.
I think these three dangers in Wright's theology go to the heart of the matter. While I agree with Evans that Wright is an Evangelical who is trying to be biblical, it is somewhat ironic that an Anglican of all people should, in the end, have his high ecclesiology undercut by, of all things, that old Evangelical habit of biblicism. In the end, Wright may be a temptation for Evangelicals precisely because they recognize a kindred spirit at this very point. And that, it seems to me, is where the historically-oriented confessionalism of the Neo-Reformed becomes absolutely necessary if we are going to be faithful to the biblical Gospel.

No comments: