The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology by Millard J. Erickson, (Baker, 1997), 157 pp. Reviewed by Mark Dever
This brief volume would be a good read for any pastor. Millard Erickson, professor of theology at Truett and Western Seminaries, is best known for his Christian Theology of ten years ago. As the author of what was the first new American conservative evangelical systematic theology in years, Erickson came to be known widely. He has not, however, been associated much in the public mind with theological controversy, but rather with careful compilation and helpful organizing of fairly conservative evangelical thought. So much the more surprise and delight, then, that this volume should come from his pen. And so much the more weight should be given to his cautions to contemporary evangelicals.
Erickson raises cautions about the theology of the postconservatives (a designation similar to the political neo-conservatives who are known as post-liberals, a supposedly more enlightened conservatism because it has walked in the moccasins of the political system it now opposes). He specifically examines some of the writings of Bernard Ramm, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz and James McClendon. The book is clearly organized with a chapter first which sets out something of the historical and theological context for the present discussion, followed by a chapter then focusing in on formal theological questions of task and method. The theological heart of the book are chapters three through five, in which the doctrines of Scripture, God and Salvation are, in turn, examined. Erickson then concludes with a chapter of slight prognostication, wondering how much longer postconservatism can in any sense be called evangelical. Erickson’s tone throughout is not, as he puts it alarmist but rather a more measured alertist, (9). His concerns in some ways seem to be practically motivated, in that conservative churches grow and liberal ones do not. He notes the changes that have occurred in Protestant (and Roman Catholic) theology, with a particular focus on the history of evangelicalism. From beginning to end, the reader is helped by a judicious use of footnotes, neither the over-plentiful ones which leave only a few lines of text above enough citations to scare a doctoral student on the one hand, nor the irritating slight and contentless end-notes of so many Christian books today. If you want to know more about Erickson’s comments, simply look through his footnotes for historical and theological understanding, and resources for further study.
One of the most admirable parts of Erickson’s treatment is the way in which he concludes each chapter with an evaluative section. In these, Erickson first gives positive insights of the postconservatives in the area under consideration, and only then turns to expressing his more negative criticisms or concerns. The openness of this exercise lends credibility to his analysis.
For all his moderation of style, Erickson is not slow to criticize organizations by name. InterVarsity Press and Christianity Today both are identified as main outlets for the work of postconservative authors. Erickson is critical of the changes at Fuller in the 1960s, clearly suggesting that the faculty came to be composed of less orthodox individuals, (26). He sees evangelicals adopting what earlier Protestants and contemporary Roman Catholics have done, the practice of retaining a theological term and changing its content, (28). Rather like a sophisticated documentary at points, Erickson lets the postconservatives (such a long name, should we simply refer to them as the pcs?) say some truly amazing things in their own words. The Olson quotation on page 29 is provocative.
The chapter on “The Task and Method of Theology” is probably the least accessible and yet most incisive for summarizing Erickson’s readings of the movement and its main theological proponents. The formal doctrine of Scripture is considered in Chapter 3, with the Rogers and McKim controversy rehearsed, along with other twentieth-century contests over the nature of Scripture. The inductive approach of Wesleyan scholar Dewey Beegle is presented (sounding finally pretty compatible with a Roman Catholic understanding). Erickson uses Paul Jewett’s Man as Male and Female as an example of early postconservative evangelical exegesis. George Ladd’s shift in his view of Scripture is noted (on page 78). Throughout the volume, Clark Pinnock comes in for special consideration, though older theologians like Donald Bloesch are not excluded. Among all of these pc theologians, Erickson notes the Barthian prejudice against considering revelation propositional. Particularly helpful are the critical comments about Stanley Grenz’s very popular mix of communitarianism and evangelicalism which, as Erickson rightly says, leaves no distinction between the source and the norm of theology, (86)–a problem evident in Grenz’s more recent works, indicating a movement which may only be able to find its final development in the community of the Roman church.
In the chapter on the doctrine of God, Erickson looks at some of the most disturbing theological moves of the pc theologians. They are headed to a process, open view of God, in which His initiative is replaced by response, His omnipotence by selected inabilities. Erickson does an admirable job of revealing some simple missteps on the part of the open theologians, and the chapter concludes with fairly slight appreciations and heavy, accurate criticisms.
In the chapter on Salvation, Erickson considers the universalist/inclusivist/exclusivist debate. He rightly points out that there have long been evangelical inclusivists (those who think that though salvation only comes through the work of Christ, one may not need to be consciously believing in Christ in order to savingly benefit from His work). He mentions A. H. Strong and the late Sir Norman Anderson among them, along with Clark Pinnock and Dale Moody. The purely emotive of this aspect of theological discussion is evident, even in the language used. Once again, however, when it comes time for evaluation, Erickson, rightly, is much more critical than appreciative of the pcs.
In his concluding chapter, Erickson posits a continuing move on the part of these theologians to be even more thoroughly anthropocentric, even while they retain a more traditional devotion and piety. Some of this shift Erickson discerns as a normal cyclical move in theology (though his comparison of this with the economy on page 134 is strange). He notes that there are those, like Alister McGrath and Tom Oden who have come the other way. On the whole, however, the movement seems to be to narrative over propositional, to James McClendon rather than Carl Henry. On the whole, Erickson suggests that the pc movement is a relativizing one, like earlier liberalism, and that, unchecked, the same fate awaits it. There are little added carefulnesses which would have benefited the book.
On page 88, Erickson presents the classical view of God as one in which God is not affected by anything. That’s not so much the case, however, as that God is not necessarily affected by anything. He can and did enter our story, and took on the effects of our sins, but He need not have done it. He is not (in a modern sense) impassive. But He has not been affected because He was constrained to, but only because He so chose to be. But such faults are few. And the overview given to the reader in the short compass of the book makes it well worth reading for the pastor who stares at the theology section of the local bookstore, uncertain of what positions the various authors represent. For such confused clerics, or puzzled pastors, Erickson’s volume should be just what the doctor ordered. Read it and weep. Better yet, read it and pray and preach, and buy another copy for a young friend.