The Biggest Theological Debate of the Next Twenty Years
Much modern discussion about hell isn’t really about what specific texts say, but how (or even if) we should form our theology of judgment, or God, from them. Much modern discussion about the roles of men and women isn’t really about what specific texts say, but about whether or not the situation in which they were written was different enough from ours to allow us (or compel us) to apply them differently today. As such, although the debates seem to be about one thing – hell, gender roles, gay bishops, the atonement, or whatever – they are actually about something else: how we understand and apply these ancient texts in the modern world.
It used to be easy to tell the goodies from the baddies. From the 1950s to the 1980s, you had evangelicals (hooray): strong, thoughtful, humble and godly people who preached the gospel and believed the Bible was God’s true and inspired word (John Stott, Billy Graham, Carl Henry, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and JI Packer). And then you had liberals (boo, hiss): weak, fluffy, compromising dilettantes who didn’t believe the Bible, didn’t believe the virgin birth, didn’t believe the resurrection, didn’t believe anything (Rudolf Bultmann, JAT Robinson, David Jenkins and John Shelby Spong). Forgive the caricature, but if you affirmed the resurrection, you affirmed the Bible and everything in it; if you rejected it, you rejected the Bible and everything in it. Simple.
Not any more. For many leaders and theologians today, not to mention ordinary Christians, there is not one danger to be warded off, but two: liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism is still at one extreme, but now fundamentalism is at the other, and evangelicals are increasingly self-identifying as those who sit in between those two positions. So, whereas fifty years ago a critique of liberalism would mark you out as a good evangelical, these days it might suggest you had drifted from the vitally important middle ground, and were in fact a fundamentalist in disguise – and this causes some influencers to avoid critiquing liberalism without critiquing fundamentalism as well (like Tim Keller, Tom Wright, Ben Witherington and many others), and others to devote far more time and energy to debunking fundies than liberals (like Rob Bell, Brian Maclaren, Scot McKnight and many others). Those who operate within the 1950s framework, and who speak in terms of those who submit to the Bible and those who don’t, are regarded by many as naïve bumpkins, divisive antagonists or worse (like Wayne Grudem, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler and many others).
This adjustment in the theological spectrum has a number of implications, some of them simple, some of them more complex. To start with four simple ones: (1) Conservative evangelicals have become more marginalised within the Christian mainstream (oxymoronic though that term may seem). Lots of self-identifying evangelicals disagree with their positions, which erodes the consensus on their biblical arguments; consequently, they have increasingly been accused of prooftexting and arguing based on their (conservative) cultural preferences. Sometimes these charges have been fair, and sometimes not.
(2) One flashpoint issue can quickly become a Shibboleth to establish someone’s evangelical credentials. This is clearest in the USA, where theistic evolution is probably the most obvious one: for some, belief in theistic evolution proves someone’s liberalism, while for others, rejection of it proves someone’s fundamentalism. There are a number of possible British equivalents – sexuality, theistic evolution, hell, gender roles, justification, and so on – and I remember Tom Wright saying of the penal substitution debate: ‘It’s become a sort of witch-hunt. Hands up everyone who agrees with Steve Chalke? Right, now we know who the bad guys are.’ I think he was right, and it is obviously worth those of us in the UK working hard to maintain open dialogue about all of these issues to avoid ideological entrenchment and division.
(3) Splitting people into teams has become much harder, and this is a good thing. So: is Tom Wright a good evangelical, for defending the historical Jesus and his bodily resurrection, or a liberal scallywag, for denying imputed righteousness? Is Tim Keller the next CS Lewis (hooray), for his brilliant apologetics and credibility with the world, or is he the next CS Lewis (boo), for fudging hell, baptism, church government and evolution? And when I’m caught up in a debate between paedobaptist complementarians and credobaptist egalitarians, whose team am I on: the papists or the feminists? Both, and neither. Which is just as it should be.
(4) Loving and mutually encouraging relationships can make up for enormous differences in theology. I can’t speak for the convenors of The Gospel Coalition, but my guess is one reason that they can happily disagree with each other on baptism, but make gender roles a deal-breaker – even though, you would think, how somebody becomes part of God’s people is more important than who gets to speak in a church meeting – is that DA Carson (credobaptist) really likes Tim Keller (paedobaptist), and Justin Taylor really likes Kevin DeYoung. When you love people, you see them as fellow believers before you see them as theological opponents, and that really helps.
So far, so good. But there are three further questions raised by all this, and in particular by some of those who believe fundamentalism is at least as big a danger to the modern church as liberalism, which require more thoughtful responses.
(5) Do we believe in the clarity of Scripture, and if so, what do we mean by it? If the disagreements within the evangelical community are anything to go by, the texts of Scripture appear to be far from clear on all sorts of issues that (you would think) are fairly important, and would certainly fall under the category of instruction, reproof, correction and training so that we may be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). How do we respond to that?
(6) What sort of hermeneutic is appropriate to the Bible? Even when agreement on the meaning of a specific text is achievable, its application today can be hotly contested, because of different views of the narrative shape of the scriptures. What do we do with passages about slavery, circumcision, mildew, silence in churches, eating blood, head coverings, the Sabbath and brotherly kissing? We will generally justify each decision with reference to the narrative shape of the whole Bible, but what is this narrative shape? Do we read the Bible dispensationally (like Charles Ryrie), covenant-theologically (like Michael Horton), with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic (like Bill Webb), or as a five-act play (like Tom Wright)? Why?
(7) What is the relationship between reason and Scripture? To rely on human reason without reference to Scripture is classic liberalism, but what about relying on Scripture without reference to reason? Is this desirable, or even possible? What do we do when human reason appears to conflict with Scripture, whether on trivia (like the identity of ‘the smallest of all seeds’, or the age of the earth) or on theology (like an all-loving God ordaining that some go to hell)? How should reason and scripture interact?
God willing, I’m planning to do a few posts on these big questions over the next few Wednesdays. If I’m still alive after all that, I might even consider (8) whether ‘inerrancy’ is a useful word or not. Let’s keep thinking, and keep talking.
This is Part 1 of a series on The Biggest Theological Debate Of The Next Twenty Years By Andrew Wilson