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date: 16 February 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article discusses the meaning of the word “evangelical” and outlines evangelical theology's basic assumptions, while distinguishing it from other kinds of Christian theology. It also highlights the new approaches to evangelical theology, discusses the Bible and theological method as well as the theology of salvation, and makes a few projections about its future. There are six evangelical “fundamental convictions,” first proposed by Alister McGrath: the majesty of Jesus Christ; the lordship of the Holy Spirit; the supreme authority of Scripture; the need for personal conversion; commitment to evangelism and missions; the importance of religious community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth. Evangelicalism tends to use the principle of sola scriptura more radically than the Protestant traditions out of which it grew. As the mainline Protestant traditions become more of a sideline, and evangelicalism vies with Roman Catholicism for dominance in the Global South—the new center of gravity in world Christianity—evangelical theology may continue to be influenced by Catholic thought.

Keywords: Jesus Christ, sola scriptura, evangelical theology, Bible, salvation, evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Scripture, Christian theology

Evangelical theology has come of age. This is not surprising, given the explosion of the movement in recent decades, not only in England and America but especially the Global South. While evangelicals were confused with fundamentalists by most of the academy until recently (and still are by many), the rise to academic prominence of evangelical historians (such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Harry Stout), scripture scholars (the likes of N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham), philosophers (C. Stephen Evans and Keith Yandell, for example), ethicists (led by Richard Hays) and theologians (including Kevin Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf, and Alister McGrath) has demonstrated the growing maturity of this movement's intellectual leaders.

Evangelical theology has not reached the self-confidence of Roman-Catholic and post-liberal Protestant theology, and some of its strongest thinkers borrow from the two latter schools. But more of them are learning from their own tradition (for example, from Jonathan Edwards's mammoth philosophico-theological project and John Wesley's capacious if diffuse theology), and sounding distinctive voices in the world of Christian theology. The result has been a new profusion of evangelical theologies. Already, at the end of the 1990s, Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten was saying that “the initiative in the writing of dogmatics has been seized by evangelical theologians in America.…[M]ost mainline Protestant and progressive Catholic theology has landed in the graveyard of dogmatics, which is that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology.”1 Evangelicals, on the other hand, still believe theology is reflection on what comes from outside their experience as the Word of God. Perhaps for that reason, they have more to say—talking not just about themselves but about a transcendent God. In any event, they have been remarkably productive. In the first decade of this new century, the presses have groaned under the weight of books by evangelicals in systematic theology, historical theology, ethics, hermeneutics, biblical theology, philosophical theology, theology of culture, public theology, theology of science, and a host of other theological subdisciplines.

(p. 4) But this is not the evangelical theology of the 1970s. Back then, evangelical theology had little but contempt for the charismatic movement because of what seemed to be its loosey-goosey attitudes toward doctrine and serious thinking. Now some of the best-known evangelical theologians—Clark Pinnock and Amos Yong, for example—are charismatics and Pentecostals, and few theologians hold tightly to the old theory that charismatic gifts ceased after the apostolic age. In the 1970s, there was a sizable gulf between dispensational and Reformed theology, with neither side talking to the other. Now that respected scholars such as Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising have developed “progressive” dispensationalism, that gap has narrowed.

The questions have also changed. In 1976, which Newsweek magazine dubbed “The Year of the Evangelical,” evangelical theologians debated inerrancy of the Bible, the timing and existence of a millennium, Karl Barth's neo-orthodoxy, and the threat posed by abortion-on-demand. They agreed that liberal theology was bankrupt, tradition suspect, and universalism (the view that everyone will eventually be saved) impossible. Most evangelical writers were convinced that Roman Catholicism was a religion of works, and apologetics a useful way of showing that Christian faith is reasonable. Other religions were barely on the theological radar—except as proofs that only Christians would be saved.

Almost a half-century later, the assumptions and questions have shifted dramatically. Evangelical theology has accepted the collapse of foundationalism—the notion that there are, or should be, logical or rational grounds for belief. Although most still see a clear line separating Roman Catholic from evangelical theological method, and some still regard Catholicism as sub-Christian, many have learned from the Catholic theological tradition and agree with the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification (1999) that the Catholic tradition does not teach salvation by works. Basic theological differences between Calvinists and Arminians remain, but today's debates swirl around the role of women in the home and church, what it means to care for creation, whether justification was too narrowly defined by the Reformation, whether God knows our future choices, if non-Christians can be saved and learn religious truth through their traditions, if we need to change our thinking about homosexuality, and whether the damned are destroyed or eventually saved. All assume the Bible is final authority for Christians, but some are saying we ought to learn about the Bible from (mostly Catholic) tradition.

Theologians on both sides of the debate over tradition are divided over the basic task of theology—whether it is to reapply existing evangelical and orthodox tradition to new issues, or to rethink and possibly change the tradition as theologians gain “new light.” All evangelical thinkers recognize that revelation in Scripture contains propositions—ideas that can be expressed in words—as well as non-propositional elements such as stories and images that also reveal. Nearly all would agree that the Bible tells one grand story. But while some think revelation is God both acting and speaking so that doctrine and experience can never be separated, others say revelation is about God's acts rather than words and that the essence of (p. 5) faith is experience not doctrine.2 This Introduction will do three things. First, it will discuss the meaning of the word “evangelical” and outline evangelical theology's basic assumptions, while distinguishing it from other kinds of Christian theology. Second, it will highlight the new approaches to evangelical theology that we see in the following thirty-three chapters. Finally, I will make a few projections about the future of evangelical theology.

Definition, Assumptions and Differences

As Mark Noll explains in the next chapter, the word “evangelical” goes back to the Greek noun euangelion, which means “glad tidings,” “good news” or “gospel,” the last of which goes back to an Old English word for “God talk.” Three times the New Testament says that someone who proclaims the gospel of Christ dying for our sins is an euangelistes (evangelist).3 Evangelicalism has always proclaimed this salvation that comes from Christ's death with a peculiar intensity. Noll shows the origins of the movement in Pietism, the eighteenth-century awakenings, and the Enlightenment. He unpacks David Bebbington's widely accepted fourfold definition—a movement marked by conversionism, biblicism, activism, and cruci-centrism.

Evangelical theology, on the other hand, is something of a different animal. While evangelical theologians would not reject any of Bebbington's marks as inaccurate, they typically speak with more theological specificity. Most would endorse Karl Barth's definition of the word (though Barth was not an evangelical in the American or British sense of the word): “Evangelical means informed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, as heard afresh in the 16th-century Reformation by a direct return to Holy Scripture.” Some important evangelical thinkers such as N.T. Wright and Thomas Oden are now questioning the primacy of the Reformation. But all would agree with the following six evangelical “fundamental convictions,” first proposed by Alister McGrath: 1. The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as Savior of sinful humanity; 2. The lordship of the Holy Spirit, who is necessary for the application of the presence and work of Christ; 3. The supreme authority of Scripture, recognizing that the language of Scripture is culturally conditioned but that through it God has nevertheless conveyed the eternal, unconditioned Word. Scripture is to be interpreted with the help of reason and the best tools of scholarship, with attention to differing genres; 4. The need for personal conversion. This is not necessarily an emotional experience but at least involves personal repentance and trust in the person and work of Christ, not simply intellectual adherence to doctrine. 5. Commitment to evangelism and missions. 6. The importance of religious community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth.

Every one of the above six distinctives is shared by most other Christians. What makes this list evangelical, however, is the degree of emphasis which (p. 6) evangelical theology places on the six marks, and the forms which they take. For example, all Christians say evangelism is important at one level or another, but not all regard it with the urgency evangelicals often show. Some regard social service as evangelism, and others do not consider conversion to faith in Christ to be necessary. When Billy Graham conducted his first crusade in New York City, some Protestant mainline leaders ridiculed his efforts—not only because he did not emphasize structural social reform but also because theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr regarded personal evangelism as theologically wrong-headed. Some of those same churches today speak of personal evangelism as essential to the growth of the church in the world, but they send out fewer missionaries and do less to train their members for the task of evangelism than their evangelical counterparts typically do. While all Christians speak of the need to turn from the world to Christ, evangelicals have placed more emphasis on conversion because of the Puritan and Pietist legacies from which Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley learned.

Evangelical theology is often regarded, both by the media and much of the academy, as fundamentalism put into writing. But they are really two different ways of thinking, which can be identified in eight ways. Some evangelical theologians might hold some fundamentalist beliefs, and some fundamentalists might share evangelical attitudes. But most evangelical theologians would distinguish their outlook from fundamentalist perspectives in the following ways.

  1. 1. Interpretation of Scripture. Fundamentalists tend to read Scripture more literalistically, while evangelical theologians look more carefully at genre and literary and historical context. Another way of saying this is that fundamentalists tend to assume that the meaning of Scripture is obvious from a single reading, while evangelicals want to talk about layers of meaning. For example, more fundamentalists will understand the first three chapters of Genesis to contain, among other things, scientific statements about beginnings, while evangelicals will focus more on the theological character of those stories—that the author/editor was more interested in showing that the earth has a Creator, for example, than precisely how the earth was created.

  2. 2. Culture. Fundamentalists question the value of human culture that is not created by Christians or related to the Bible, whereas evangelicals see God's “common grace” working in and through all human culture. For evangelicals, Mozart may not have been an orthodox Christian and quite possibly was a moral failure as a human being, but his music is a priceless gift of God. Culture is tainted by sin, as are all other human productions, but it nevertheless can reflect God's glory.

  3. 3. Social action. There was a time when fundamentalists considered efforts to help the poor to be a sign of liberal theology, because proponents of the social gospel during the modernist controversy of the 1920s were theological liberals. Until recently many fundamentalists limited their view of Christian social action to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. Evangelicals have been more vocal in their declarations that the gospel also calls us to fight racism, sexism, and poverty.

  4. (p. 7)

    4. Separatism. For many decades in this century fundamentalists preached that Christians should separate themselves from liberal Christians (which sometimes meant evangelicals) and even from conservatives who fellowshipped with liberals. This is why some fundamentalists refused to support Billy Graham—Graham asked for help from mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, and sent his converts back to these churches for further nurture. Evangelical theology puts more emphasis on engagement with culture while aiming to transform it, and working with other Christians toward common religious and social goals.

  5. 5. Dialogue with liberals. Fundamentalists have tended in the past to believe that liberal Christians (those who doubted Jesus' bodily resurrection, the essential sinfulness of humanity, and the importance of blood atonement) were Christian in name only, that there was nothing to learn from them, and there was no use trying to talk to them once they refused to accept the fundamentalist version of the gospel. The evangelical approach has been to talk with those of more liberal persuasions in an effort to persuade and perhaps even learn. John Stott and Clark Pinnock have both engaged in book-length dialogues with liberal theologians.

  6. 6. The ethos of Christian faith. Although most fundamentalists preach salvation by grace, they also tend to focus so much on rules and restrictions (do's and don'ts) that their church members could get the impression that the heart of Christianity is law governing outward behavior. There is a similar danger in evangelical churches, but evangelical theology focuses more on the person and work of Christ, and personal engagement with that person and work, as the heart of the Christian faith.

  7. 7. Fissiparousness. Many evangelical groups have fractured and then broken again over what seems to later generations to have been minor issues. But the tendency seems worse among fundamentalists, for whom differences of doctrine, often on rather minor issues, are considered important enough to warrant starting a new congregation or even denomination. Because evangelical theology makes more of the distinction between essentials and non-essentials, evangelicals are more willing to remain in mainline Protestant churches and in evangelical churches whose members disagree on nonessentials.

  8. 8. Support for Israel. Fundamentalists tend to see the modern state of Israel as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and say God's blessing of America is contingent on its support for Israel. Evangelicals generally see the creation of Israel in 1948 as at least an indirect fulfillment of prophecy, lacking the complete fulfillment because there has not been the spiritual renewal that the prophets predicted. Evangelicals run the gamut in support for and opposition to Israeli policies. But while many other Christians see Israel as just another nation-state, fundamentalists and evangelicals typically think today's Israel has continuing theological significance.

If evangelical and fundamentalist ways of thinking differ on both content and practice, evangelical theology differs from classical Protestant orthodoxy more on method. Evangelicalism tends to use the principle of sola scriptura more radically than the Protestant traditions out of which it grew. That is, when it subscribes to the (p. 8) doctrines of the great creeds of the church (yet some evangelicals and their theologians don't, crying “No creed but the Bible!”), they do so not because the creeds teach the doctrines but because they believe the doctrines have biblical support. Evangelical theologians are not always averse to reading the great fathers and mothers of the church (such as Macrina, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and now Mother Teresa) or to learn from the historic confessions, but they typically insist that they do so with critical care. They want to reserve the right to use Scripture as a trump card over tradition when they see conflict between the two. Others, such as “post-conservative” Roger Olson, say they want to be open to further light breaking out from the Word that might compel either a reshaping of doctrine or new doctrine entirely.

Evangelical theologians say they reject liberalism's faith in human experience as a final norm for truth and morality. Against the homogenizing tendency of liberal theology, which would postulate an underlying religiosity common to all faiths, evangelical theology emphasizes the particularity of Christian revelation and the uniqueness of Christian spirituality. While liberals place a premium on personal autonomy and appeal to internal norms (conscience and religious experience), evangelicals have usually stressed human responsibility to God who has given us external norms in Jesus Christ and Scripture.

Some evangelical theologians have learned from the more recent “research program” called postliberalism, which has been inspired by Karl Barth, Hans Frei, and George Lindbeck. This method of theology highlights the primacy of narrative as an interpretive category for Scripture, asserts the hermeneutical primacy of the world created by the biblical narratives over the world of human experience, and claims the primacy of language over experience (the words we have been given about God shape our experience more than our experience shapes our words about God). Some evangelical theologians cheer postliberals' emphasis on the distinctiveness of Christianity, Scripture as the supreme source of ideas and values, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and its stress on Christian community.

But the problem with postliberalism for other evangelical theologians is that the former tends to reduce truth to a matter of internal consistency. Alister McGrath has argued that postliberals have a difficult time answering the question, Why be a Christian and not a Buddhist? Postliberals are also unclear on the nature of revelation. They deny that the Bible is an objective revelation from God, and say instead that the Bible can contain the Word when the Holy Spirit so moves. As a result, they do not clearly determine whether the gospel stories are fictional or real. McGrath and other evangelical theologians put more emphasis on the objective nature of the biblical revelation. With postliberals they emphasize the necessity of the Spirit's illumination to give true understanding of the Person featured in the biblical story, but they assert that the Spirit inspired the writing of the texts in such a way that makes the Bible the Word of God even if no one ever receives it as such. For these evangelicals, the gospels are not merely stories that help us “perform” a Christian life by portraying a Christ who may or may not have been Jesus of Nazareth, but show us the true Jesus who also was the Christ.

(p. 9) New Approaches in Evangelical Theology

This volume illustrates the new approaches which evangelical theologians are taking to a wide range of problems and doctrines. Mark Noll's introductory essay takes on the familiar complaint that evangelicalism is so diffuse as to be unrecognizable; he agrees with George Marsden that while it consists of a congeries of “constituencies,” they nevertheless are “overlapping” and share “history and convictions.” Those shared convictions can be seen in the Evangelical Alliance's commitments (1846) to the authority of Scripture, the right of private judgment, and belief in the following: Trinity, Fall, incarnation, salvation by the atonement of Christ, justification by faith, the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, resurrection of the dead and final judgment, and ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Noll also notes what will be a recurring theme in this volume: evangelicalism's “bias against inherited institutions.” In their hunger for spiritual authenticity, evangelicals have typically shown a certain wariness toward tradition.

The Bible and Theological Method

Kevin Vanhoozer takes a new approach to biblical hermeneutics. Unlike some “post-conservative” evangelicals, Vanhoozer wants to keep the term “inerrancy,” but without older presumptions attached to the term. His new, chastened inerrancy rejects the “wooden literalism” that assumed the Bible is a collection of facts and propositions, acknowledges diverse literary conventions used in the Bible, and interprets biblical historical accounts without modern demands for scientific precision. His portrayal of the Bible as “communicative action” by God tries to overcome the dichotomy between the ways propositionalists and pietists have read the text. Vanhoozer aims to recover the “literal” sense of the text, not to be confused with the literalistic or even (merely) literary sense. The Bible, which he says is “less a text than a [divine] vocal chord,” is the final but not exclusive authority for the church.

Jay Wood's essay on faith and reason reflects the collapse of classical foundationalism among evangelical thinkers. He rejects the Enlightenment presumption that all reason is of the same sort (he describes a wide range from apriori intuition and inferential reasoning to a body of knowledge) and its insistence that faith be based on certainty. He cites philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston, who have argued that belief in God is “properly basic,” which means that it is epistemically justified in the absence of argumentative support, just as we commonly accept belief in the world and other minds as so justified. Wood also delineates a range of meanings for “faith”—from Aquinas's assent to propositions about God based on reason and revelation, to Calvin's and Luther's fiducia or trust in God's promises.

For Oliver Crisp, faith implies experience for evangelicals, for at the heart of evangelical understanding is that faith must be “affective” to be genuine. It must have content, but it also must involve trust, which necessarily involves religious (p. 10) experience. The precise outworking of this has been seen differently by what we could call evangelicalism's two principal kinship groups—the Wesleyan-Arminian family's “synergism” and the evangelical-Reformed clan's “monergism.” Both camps see the writing of Scripture to have involved supernatural experience by its authors, and both agree that while God accommodated himself to speak in accessible ways to ancient cultures, the text is nevertheless God speaking. For liberals, in contrast, Scripture is merely the “codification of religious experience,” so that experience is more normative than Scripture itself. Evangelicals regard Scripture as more authoritative than creeds, and at the same time recognize development in interpretation of doctrine and Scripture.

Alister McGrath takes up what has for a long time been an evangelical shibboleth—tradition. He argues that tradition has been needed to interpret many issues in theology because of the church's changing interpretation of those issues, illustrated by debates over usury, the need for missions, the millennium, charismata, baptismal regeneration, and the Lord's Supper. Scripture is not self-interpreting on issues such as these. McGrath reviews three historic Christian approaches to tradition: Anabaptist rejection, the “single-source” theory held by Luther and Calvin that there is a mutual interplay between Scripture and tradition, and the “dual-source” theory promulgated at the Council of Trent (arguing for two independent sources of revelation) but mitigated at Vatican II. Within evangelical theology there is considerable debate between proponents of the first two views.

Theological Foundations

Robert Letham is an evangelical theologian of the Trinity who is sharply critical of evangelical theology's neglect of not only the Trinity but also theological tradition. First Letham reviews the history of differences between East and West on the Trinity, and suggests a way to resolve the divide by using Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. But then he argues that while the rest of the Church has usually found the Trinity to be central to its theological vision, evangelicals have shown little interest. He attributes this to evangelicalism's focus on the human agent in conversion, holiness, and mission. Evangelical theology's insistence on the right of private interpretation, Letham charges, ignores the churchly context of the creation of Scripture and the process of its interpretation. He warns that evangelical theologians should think long and hard before they place their interpretations before the historical consensus.

Loren Wilkinson sounds notes on creation that are not typically associated with evangelical theological tones. He observes an “emerging doctrine” among evangelical theologians that the original creation was amazing grace coming from a loving Triune God. Therefore there is new recognition that creation is beautiful though fallen, and every part of it participates in God's goodness. Against deistic notions of a creation once done and now over, Wilkinson argues that creation continues moment by moment, and that evolution might be a means by which God continually creates. He says Jesus' resurrection points to a future for all of creation.

(p. 11) Henri Blocher notes that while evangelicals have been criticized for being preoccupied with sin and guilt, this “preoccupation” has produced remarkable vitality in their movement. The subject itself distinguishes Christian faith from most other religions. Blocher takes a Barthian approach to knowledge of sin, arguing that we become aware of our sin most accurately by looking through the prism of gospel and not just law. He suggests sin is idolatry at its root—but warns that sin has no essence—and distinguishes between sin as condition and sins as variegated acts, with the sinful “disposition” mediating between the two. He also advises that the origin of sin is mysterious and we are wise not to speculate about it. But the Genesis 3 account is “vital,” and must be taken seriously as an account of an historical event—if not an historical account precisely—if sin is to be without excuse.

In his chapter on “Jesus Christ,” John Stackhouse observes that evangelicals have been recognized for their Christocentric piety and theology. Some (such as Paul Helm) are now suggesting, as have others in the “Great Tradition,” that Christ in his preexistence was also incarnate in some sense. Others have taken up Irenaeus's theory of recapitulation (Christ's “re-doing”) in which Christ divinizes members of his body by becoming their new head, replacing Adam. Stackhouse uses the kenotic tradition (Christ emptied himself of some of his divine prerogatives during his incarnation) to suggest modifications in philosophical understandings of divine immutability and impassibility. The incarnation suggests there is change in the life of God and that at least one of the three Persons suffers. While some have recently described satisfaction theories of the atonement as “divine child abuse,” Stackhouse reminds evangelicals that the doctrine of the Trinity shows us that “it is God as Son who hangs on the Cross, as God looks on as Father and Spirit in the added suffering of grief over the Beloved.”

Craig Keener suggests that the Christocentric focus of the evangelical movement is a result of the Holy Spirit, whose work is to reveal Jesus. Keener notes the new dominance of Pentecostal and charismatic movements within global evangelicalism (and antipodal anti-supernaturalism in Western philosophy), and intimates that there are biblical reasons for this. Among others, he points to New Testament emphasis on the Spirit as agent of conversion and moral transformation. Luke-Acts sees the Spirit as power for cross-cultural mission. All this means that for evangelical theology doctrine is necessary but not sufficient. Keener argues that cessationist arguments (against the continuing reality of charismata) are weak, but also advises Pentecostals that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is used in the New Testament not only for conversion but also for subsequent experiences. He also warns that evangelical stress on conversion has obscured the Spirit's transformation of character.

Theology of Salvation

Rikk Watts tackles the oft-controverted relationship between Israel and the church in the question of salvation. After describing the many different ways in which supercessionism (the church superceding Israel) and anti-supercessionism have been understood, he calls for both discontinuity and continuity. On the one hand, he argues that (p. 12) the NT authors see Jesus' atoning work transcending the Temple sacrifices and Jesus himself as the new temple, fulfilling all of Israel's feasts. But he also says Torah and Jesus are not in simple opposition in the NT, and that Jesus' “(re-)new(-ed)” covenant fulfills and transforms the Abrahamic covenant. If God can add Torah without replacing the Abrahamic covenant, then he can change the role of Torah without replacing it. Watts' final estimation is that Jesus does not replace but fulfills all the OT covenants. There was no transfer of privileges from Israel to the church because Jesus and his Jewish followers were a reconstitution of true servant Israel.

Scot McKnight says the gospel is the story of God finding completion in the story of Messiah Jesus. It summons listeners to repentance, faith and baptism. This story is what gave birth to the canonical gospels, Eucharist and baptism, creeds, and the church calendar. He advises that the gospel is not only truthful but transforming, is concerned with justification and (social) justice, and in the first century was an implicit protest to empire. He faults evangelical understandings of the gospel that focus largely on conversion and restrict justification to forensic imputation, as is sometimes the case at “seeker-sensitive” churches. They tend to produce Lone Ranger Christians and superficial theology.

Evangelical understanding of conversion itself has undergone a “sea change,” according to Gordon Smith. Because recent evangelical theologians are severing their ties with revivalism, they have come to view conversion as a complex process rather than a point in time. They present it no longer as a result of technique or formula (which was the impression given in parts of the revival tradition) but as an encounter with the Risen Christ—not simply with principles or laws (as in Campus Crusade's “Four Spiritual Laws”). Smith wants evangelicals to recall that conversion takes place and develops within community, and that its direction is “missional”—to reach the world.

Donald Bloesch outlines an evangelical understanding of justification along the lines of sola fide, solus Christus, and sola gratia. Faith is not the ground of justification but the means by which we receive the gift of salvation. Faith is also both sign of being justified and an encounter with the Justifier. Works are illustrative of faith but do not contribute to salvation. Bloesch commends the Christus Victor theory of the atonement as a balance to other theories, but adds that most evangelicals have adopted the Latin juridical model (from Augustine and Anselm) of penal redemption and legal satisfaction. He suggests that evangelicals consider themselves not simply as sinners saved by grace but also as priests and kings working together with Christ for a new world.

Dallas Willard considers what a theology of salvation means for discipleship. He thinks the evangelical slogan that “Christians are not perfect just forgiven” is symptomatic of a wider problem. That conversion is meant to engender transformation, albeit slowly, was assumed in the eighteenth-century awakenings, but was lost in twentieth-century evangelicalism's concern for proper doctrine. Willard blames the “Christian psychology” movement of the 1960s and the charismatic movement's inattention to holiness. He calls for a new theology of discipleship based on rabbi Jesus' training of his disciples.

(p. 13) Simon Chan urges a return to the “ancient wisdom” of spiritual practices. He asserts that worship is what makes church church, and therefore alerts evangelicals to the importance of liturgy. Chan registers increasing evangelical openness to Roman Catholic use of sacraments, liturgy, silence, and retreats. The result is a new ecumenism among evangelicals who have found greater commonality with Catholics than with liberal Protestants.

Trevor Hart unveils a new approach to eschatology. He reminds evangelicals of the imaginative (not literal) nature of eschatological language in Scripture. The New Earth to come will be a redemption not replacement of this world, and the final judgment will have less to do with vengeance than certification of appropriateness for entry into eternity. His chapter's more dramatic features include consideration of annihilationism (the destruction of the wicked) and universal restoration (the salvation of all). The last proposal has never before been seriously considered by mainstream evangelical theology, and Hart reminds readers that ever since the condemnation of Origenism in 553 the universal church has always taught two distinct destinies for human beings.

Theology of Church

The Achilles' heel of evangelicalism is its ecclesiology. Its “ecclesial atomism” (Ephraim Radner) has produced more splits than unions from the eighteenth century to this day. Radner maintains that the history of evangelicalism has been dominated by a view of the church as a free-will association of like-minded believers. This view resists the sense of the Great Tradition that the church is a living body spanning place and time, to which all believers are connected whether they choose or not. Radner thinks the only hope is “common martyrdom” in which members of the persecuted church see one another across ecclesial lines to recognize the objective and material true Church of Christ.

William Abraham reflects further on evangelicalism's “ecclesial ambivalence,” and claims that agreement on sola scriptura, often thought to be the only source of unity in the movement, has actually multiplied disputes because it spawns differing interpretations. Abraham shows that evangelicals, despite these differences, have ironically played a pivotal role in the history of ecumenism. He makes the intriguing suggestion that orthodox theology's search for agreement on authority and epistemology has been misdirected, and that in fact the early churches reached agreement on theological essentials without agreement on either authority or epistemology.

If unity has been elusive among evangelicals, John Witvliet insists that evangelicals have generally shared a deep resistance to ritualism and ceremonialism in worship, because of their demand for heartfelt ardor. According to Witvliet, evangelical worship has highlighted preaching, congregational singing, classical evangelical hymns, and personal and family devotions. Evangelicals are divided between memorial and participationist views of the Lord's Supper, with similar differences in their attitudes toward baptism. Recently, Witvliet says, some strains of evangelical worship have yielded to sentimentalist and consumerist temptations.

(p. 14) The explosive growth of Pentecostalism and charismatic churches has caused evangelicals to recognize the practical role of all the spiritual gifts (not just the charismatic ones) in the life of a healthy church. So says Howard Snyder. The three lists of gifts in the New Testament, he avers, are illustrative, not comprehensive. Their intent is to suggest a diversity of gifts and the call for every member of the church to engage in ministry. There are no distinctions in gender, social status, or ethnicity for the distribution or use of these gifts. Snyder concludes that fresh outpouring of the gifts has often come during times of church renewal.

Theology of Mission

Michael McClymond provides a historical overview of the confluence of evangelism, revival, and missions. He notes the curious fact that the word “missions” acquired its modern meaning from the sixteenth-century Jesuits, Catholics whom most evangelicals have thought to be indifferent to missions. At the same time that the World Council of Churches was calling for a moratorium on missions (in the 1970s), John Wimber led huge numbers of evangelicals into “power evangelism.” Yet an ecumenical paradigm for missions has emerged nonetheless, according to McClymond. It is Trinitarian (God gives of himself through the Son and Spirit), Christological (the cross and resurrection are key), eschatological (mission is the universal culmination of God's promises to Israel), pneumatological (empowered by the Spirit), and ecclesiological (the church is church only when it is on mission). McClymond also describes four patterns of mission—Roman Catholic, charismatic, socio-ethical, and evangelistic.

Sung Wook Chung takes up the question of mission to other religions and their adherents. He explains the recently dominant typology of exclusivism (other religions are demonic and idolatrous through and through), inclusivism (there is overlap of revelation between Christian faith and other faiths), and pluralism (all religions have equal access to Truth). Evangelicals have opted for the first two types, with inclusivists split between those who insist that knowledge of Jesus is necessary for salvation and those who do not. Chung recommends a “missional” approach that sees mission as not merely a function but the essence of the church, and employs points of contact from general revelation for apologetic and missional endeavors. He uses this approach on both Islam and Buddhism, arguing that there are concepts which each religion shares with Christianity, but at the same time important doctrinal differences. At the end of the chapter he considers different ways that evangelicals have understood the fate of the unevangelized.

Theological Approaches to Contemporary Life

Darrell Bock and Daniel Carroll illustrate the new sophistication of evangelical ethics. Their essay on the Bible and ethics points out that the Bible contains both moral teaching and ethical reflection, that evangelicals need to discern which of four levels of moral discourse a passage or story entails, and that this will help them (p. 15) distinguish between the ethics of the Bible and ethical instruction from the Bible. They would urge readers to see that the ethical move from the Bible to our world is not always direct or simple because of ethical diversity in the Bible (on gender and the role of the state, for example) and the difference in context. They contend that there is tension between absolute (such as the mandate to protect the vulnerable) and progressive (on women and slavery, for example) revelation on ethical issues, as well as consistency across the testaments on certain question (for instance, homosexual practice).

Eric Gregory laments that despite numerous calls for a distinctively evangelical approach to politics, “what curiously unites [evangelical] internal debates over politics is the absence of theology.” He recommends an evangelical political theology that discusses shared concepts between political philosophy and theology proper, such as community, obligation, law, virtue, and human nature. He commends reading in Augustine, whose theology “is saturated with politics and its deep undercurrents,” and learning from Oliver O'Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, and Abraham Kuyper's “Christian pluralism.” Finally, Gregory suggests evangelicals make their distinctive contribution to political theology by thinking through ecclesiology, Israel and Judaism, Roman Catholic discussions of politics, and the ways character can be formed by civic engagement.

Like Bock and Carrol (above), John Lunn finds problematic a direct move from biblical injunctions, but this time about poverty and wealth to modern contexts. He urges evangelicals to understand the differences between the economy of ancient Israel and Palestine (with a zero-sum mentality) and the modern market system. In these ancient worlds, the “wealthy” were exploiters by definition, in part because the economy was based on personal relationships, and “poor” was a designation more social than economic. Lunn goes on to explain what makes countries poor, how Christians in rich countries should think about poverty, and how the law of unexpected consequences affects such things as the minimum wage.

Roger Lundin surveys the history of Christian engagement with the arts, noting that the Reformation and Romantic movements, which encouraged inwardness and freedom as opposed to the new science of impersonal laws of nature, scuttled medieval contemplation, which had enabled art as mimesis of an enchanted cosmos. Modernists and fundamentalists in the twentieth century ironically shared a common aversion to nature and culture, positing a Manichean divide between the material and spiritual worlds. In the mid-twentieth century, evangelicals began to call for reengagement with culture, but with the exception of Dutch Calvinists were handicapped by shallow theology and limited cultural understanding. Lundin suggests that black church music has been evangelicalism's greatest contribution to the arts, and highlights contemporary evangelical thinkers such as Wolterstorff, Begbie, and Vanhoozer, who in their different ways see art as useful action.

Alister McGrath laments the recent evangelical ambivalence toward science, which he suggests has resulted from the modernist controversy of the 1920s and the culture wars and new atheist challenges of the last two decades. Often the flashpoint has been evolution. But McGrath, who has an Oxford D.Phil. in molecular biology, (p. 16) argues that opposition to evolution is neither essential nor typical of evangelicalism. In the first fifty years of Darwinism, he points out, evangelical theologians such as B. B. Warfield and James Orr were theistic evolutionists, conceding the possibility that God might have created through the mechanism of natural selection. McGrath cites Wesley's teaching that Scripture is not a science text but a disclosure of God's nature and intentions.

Recent ecclesiological conflicts have raged over sexuality, and evangelicals have played no small role. In his attempt to limn a theology of sexuality, Robert Gagnon proposes that Jesus privileged a creation-based ethic to override Mosaic permissiveness and inequity toward women, a strong interior component to sexual ethics, a loving and forgiving approach to sexual violators, marriage's purpose as a school for holiness, and the penultimate significance of sex and marriage. Jesus also emphasized male-female sexual difference as theologically significant, and therefore rejected homosexual practice. Gagnon holds that Scripture indicts all same-sex practice even if in committed relationships, and that the best analogies to the biblical treatment of homosexuality are not Scripture's treatment of women and slavery but its portrayal of incest and polygamy.

Timothy Tseng reports that Christian theological engagements with race have been chequered. For the most part, Christians in history have accommodated the dominant views of human nature, whether the Great Chain of Being rooted in Aristotelian thought or the emancipated self rooted in the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the church's core affirmations about the imago dei, “one blood” origins of humanity, the universality of sin, the universal availability of salvation through Jesus Christ, and eschatological vision of the nations before the throne of God often challenged the racism that accompanied European expansionism. Tseng notes that while evangelical theology did little or nothing to engage race and racism in previous centuries, evangelical awakenings and the Pentecostal movement helped the Church see with greater clarity the transracial implications of the gospel, and helped dispel the mythical character of “race.” He urges evangelicals to examine hidden assumptions, use ethnic studies and critical race theory, speak prophetically against racism, and pay attention not only to multiracial but also ethnic congregations.

Ben Mitchell documents evangelical concern for the vulnerable. Although evangelical biblicism and revivalism for some decades minimized attention to social issues, that same biblicism found a scriptural premium placed on human life at every stage and thereby helped make abortion a galvanizing issue for the evangelical movement. Mitchell highlights biblical texts about the imago dei, and points to a consensus among the Fathers and the Reformers on abortion. He also asserts that Scripture makes frequent reference to people with disabilities, causing the early church to champion their rights against Greco-Roman contempt for the physically impaired. Mitchell warns of new threats to an evangelical culture of life: assisted suicide, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research.

Finally, Cherith Nordling takes on the question of gender. She suggests that God's self-giving generosity in Christ challenges evangelical traditions and theologies where oppositional dualisms run deep. Authority, hierarchy, and headship (p. 17) have been interpreted, she holds, through assumptions that prioritize men's being and function over that of women. Nordling does not discount sexual differences, but believes gender is more social than natural. She argues for complementarity without hierarchy. Her reasoning rests on her sense of the biblical narrative of God's original and final intention—that the sexes complement each other to remind us that men and women are incomplete without each other. Christ the incarnate Word has reordered things in his emerging kingdom, where no division is to be based on difference, and equal participation in the gospel is based on self-giving love and service.

The Future of Evangelical Theology

Some years ago, evangelical historian Nathan Hatch said “there's no such thing as evangelicalism.” By that he probably meant that evangelicalism and its attendant theologies constitute a many-headed monster that regularly transforms itself into new shapes. But historic evangelicalism does have a recognizable character, as this volume will repeatedly demonstrate. William Abraham warns in his essay on ecumenism that “it would be a mistake…to dismiss evangelicalism as a useless category for understanding Christianity; without it we would have to invent a functional equivalent immediately.” For it represents a network of Christians “bound together by a loose but identifiable cluster of convictions and practices that have been and continue to be a potent religious force.”

But what will be the future shape of evangelicalism? And what of evangelical theology? The recent explosion of evangelicalism in the Global South means that future evangelical theology, which is already beginning to come from Asia and Africa and Latin America, will give more attention to the reality of spiritual powers in history and manifestations of the supernatural such as dreams, visions, healing, and direct messages from the Spirit. Because of the tendency of majority-world Christians to take the Old Testament more seriously, evangelical theology will have more of a Jewish flavor and be less inclined to spiritualize prophetic promises of land and kingdom. It will be far less ready to sever the connection between moral and dogmatic theology, as Northern theologies have done. Therefore future evangelical theology will be less tempted to relax traditional understandings of the meaning of sex and marriage. But it will also deal with new issues, says Mark Noll, such as the destiny of ancestors and what it means for families and large groups to convert en masse.

There will no doubt be more debate over the role of tradition. Historically, evangelicals have prided themselves on the “Scripture principle,” whereby they subjected received traditions and creeds to their sense of what Scripture teaches. But more and more evangelical theologians have begun to see that sola scriptura in fact has caused more division than unity, and that beyond the central issues of salvation (p. 18) Scripture is not self-interpreting. These theologians have called for more serious attention to what they call the “Great Tradition,” a broad ecumenical consensus around the historic creeds. They urge their fellow theologians to be wary of replacing biblical interpretations found in this consensus with their own private interpretations.

As the mainline Protestant traditions become more of a sideline, and evangelicalism vies with Roman Catholicism for dominance in the Global South—the new center of gravity in world Christianity—evangelical theology may continue to be influenced by Catholic thought. Rivals often come to resemble each other. Catholics and evangelicals have fought abortion together. Evangelical theologians increasingly draw sustenance from Catholic moral and historical theology. Catholics have launched a new evangelization in partial response to evangelical gains in Latin America, and Catholic theology has reshaped its formulation of justification as a result of evangelical and other Protestant theological dialogues. Evangelicals will continue to believe that Catholics submit themselves to a human magisterium rather than the divine Word, and this will be sounded with more vigor in Global South churches. But just as sixteenth-century Protestant and Catholic theology reacted against each other and thereby influenced each other, twenty-first-century evangelical theology may unwittingly find itself to be not only a leavening agent in the broader church catholic but also shaped in part by its principal challenger.


(1.) Carl E. Braaten, “A Harvest of Evangelical Theology,” First Things 61 (March 1996), 45–48.

(2.) Of course this begs the question of whether this “faith” is the existential act of believing or the content of what is believed. But while the orthodox tradition has regarded the two as interconnected and generally has not wanted to prioritize experience over doctrine, or vice versa, the group I call “Meliorists” tends to separate the two and favor one over the other.

(3.) Ac. 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5.