Protestant theological method

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Protestant theology reacted to liberal theological programs. The controversy became known as the fundamentalistmodernist debate. Fundamentalists held onto the absolute trustworthiness and reliability of Scripture as the source of theology. Modernists followed higher critics to refute claims about the inerrancy of Scripture and relegated Scripture to one of many sources of theology. Modernist tendencies produced the liberal theological tradition. Fundamentalism sub-divided into historic fundamentalism and neoorthodoxy, which came to be regarded as forerunners of contemporary evangelicalism (see for instance, George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, Eerdmans, 1990). Other observers, such as Harriet A. Harris, in Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (Oxford University Press, 2008), analyzed that despite the quarrels between fundamentals and evangelicals, both camps have more in common than either would willingly acknowledge.

Depending on the era in which one expresses one’s theological orientation, the measure for who is a Protestant, an Evangelical, and/or a theological conservative and/or a theological progressive, and what each would stand for might vary,

Introducing theological prolegomena 13 particularly if one is to trace the history of the movement from the Pietists to the post American Awakening eras. As debates in North America often take sides between non-evangelical approaches versus evangelical approaches, with the public perceiving evangelicals negatively for their religious, theological, and political conservativism, 1 have decided to quickly take readers through the heart of evangelicalism (cf. W.R. Ward’s Early Evangelicalism since 1670 (Cambridge University Press, 2006) IVP Academic’s multi-volume series on the History of Evangelicalism: David W. Bebbington’s The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 2005; John Wolffe’s The Expansion of Evangelicalism, 2007; Mark A. Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism, 2010; Brian Stanley’s The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism, 2013). Scholars and practitioners have often referred to David W. Bebbington’s classic, fourfold definition that introduces the twentieth century and contemporary global evangelicalism in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, rev. edn (Routledge, 1989) and Derek Tidball’s fivefold treatment of Who Is An Evangelical (Marshall Pickering, 1994) as authoritative in determining who are the evangelicals. Evangelicals are said to hold dearly to biblicism, christocentrism (especially the finished work of Christ on the cross), necessity of a born-again experience, social gospel witness, and biblical eschatology.

From conservative J.I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Eerdmans, 1958) to John D. Woodbridge and Kenneth S. Kantzer’s Biblical Authority (Zondervan, 1982) to conservative-revisionist Donald Bloesch’s A Theology of Word and Spirit (IVP Academic, 2005), revisionist Baptist James McClendon Jr.’s Systematic Theology, 3 vols (Abingdon, 1994—2002; especially, Vol. 1, Ethics, Chapter 1, Vol. 2, Doctrine, Chapter 1), and Pentecostal-Evangelical Amos Yong’s Spirit-Word-Community (Ashgate, 2002), evangelical explorations on theological prolegomenon are now wide-ranging. No longer may anyone claim that all evangelicals today would subscribe to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which was signed by 334 leaders. In the 1978 documents, evangelical leaders responded to the assault against biblical authority by refuting theological liberals who urged the need to subject the Bible to truth claims in sciences, psychology, and other fields of learning. Today, however, evangelicals hold various views of scripture’s infallibility, depending on which stream of contemporary evangelicalism they belong to. That said, evangelicals today would still accept scripture as the “norming norm” amid willingness to draw from a multilateral set of extra-biblical resources for theology. We will return to some of these discussions and locate methodologically the evangelical theological polarities amid other Christian traditions’ theological polarities in the concluding chapter on centers and peripherals of theological tradition and traditioning.

Required readings

Consider two opposite spectrums on evangelical theological method. What do you make of their trajectories? In what ways are they similar and dissimilar?

Read Alister McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method: The State of the Art,” John G. Stackhouse, ed., Evangelical Futures (Baker Books, 2000), 15-38.

Read also James McClendon Jr., “What is Doctrine?” in Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Doctrine (Abingdon, 1994), 21-63.

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