The Post Evangelical
By Dave Tomlinson
Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 130-132
Dave Tomlinson is not happy with mainline evangelicalism— not because it is moving too close to liberalism, but because it is much too conservative. Tomlinson is the vicar of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in North London and the former leader of Holy Joe’s, an unconventional church group that meets in a London pub. He believes that post-evangelicalism is the best position for ministry in a postmodern age. The book is written in a popular style with side-bar observations from seven other commentators. It is a new American edition of a book previously written for the United Kingdom.
To begin with, the doctrinal position of post-evangelicalism has been changed from evangelicalism and fundamentalism. As far as the Bible is concerned, the doctrine of inerrancy is a “pointless diversion” because “none of the original autographs exist” and “the Bible makes no such claim for itself” (110). The author repeats the tired old accusation that inerrancy is a modern (as opposed to postmodern) rationalist response to unbelieving rationalism (110). He believes that the proper way to approach Scripture is not to take it literally, but to dialogue with the Bible. Revelation, he says, is primarily personal rather than propositional. Since the entire Bible is “human word, subject to the strains, weaknesses, and errors of any human product” (113), Bible students should understand that the Bible is only the word of God “in that it is the symbolic location of divine revelation” (114). Obviously, post-evangelical bibliology is nothing new, but simply Barthianism dressed up in evangelical clothes.
Post-evangelicals still believe that people are saved through the cross of Christ. But wait—it is not that Christ died in the sinner’s place. The doctrine of the substitutionary atonement “makes God seem fickle, vengeful, and morally underhanded” (101). So Tomlinson suggests that Christ’s death on the cross demonstrated “God’s love, which always forgives, rather than through a once-for-all event of forgiveness. What is changed, then, is not God’s attitude toward us, but our attitude toward him” (101).
Of course, this is not a new theory of the atonement. Horace Bushnell, one of the leading American liberals of the nineteenth century, taught the moral influence theory, as did nineteenth-century German liberals such as Schleiermacher and Ritschl. The Princeton theologians—Charles Hodge and his colleagues—opposed this view with great vigor. Scripture rejects the moral influence theory in such passages as John 3:36; Rom 1:18 and 3:23-25; Eph 5:2; Heb 9:14; and 1 John 4:10, to name a few.
In regard to truth, “Post-evangelicals have moved away from the certainty that characterizes evangelicalism to a more provisional symbolic understanding of truth” (93). They seek truth “in symbols, ambiguities, and situational judgments” (94). Ultimately, “our tentative and imperfect doctrinal deliverances matter little to God . . .” (69). Certainly our “creedal affirmations do not impress God” (70). One wonders what Athanasius would say to that.
And what impact does this have on how Christians are to live? Well, the chapter entitled “Positively Worldly” will give a hint. “Post-evangelicals also look at secular culture more positively as a place where God is also graciously at work. In part, this is because they have a more hopeful view of the human condition than most evangelicals” (124).
On the other hand, post-evangelicals believe that far too many American middle-class values are inherent in evangelicalism. So, for example, postevangelicals believe that a couple living together, as long as they have committed themselves to each other, need not go through a marriage ceremony. Living together without a marriage certificate “has become an accepted social norm.” After all, “Scripture nowhere insists on a specific ceremonial model for entering into marriage” (48). Post evangelicals also “have no reservations about ‘house husbands,’ if that’s what both partners agree upon, and they see no reason why men should be in charge. Family roles are negotiable” (52).
So, what can be said about this book? T here is nothing to learn theologically from it. Tomlinson says that while “post-evangelical does mean something different than evangelical, it does not mean liberal. I would deeply regret a postevangelical drift toward liberalism” (69). Yet his doctrinal views represent a liberal theory of the atonement and the neo-orthodox view of the Bible.
Positively, the book is helpful in understanding how postmodernism has impacted society in general and evangelicalism in particular. Tomlinson also rightly cautions evangelicals about exchanging biblical values for middle-class values. Moreover, he provides an occasional insight for evangelizing and ministering in the twenty-first century. Tomlinson clearly has a burden to minister to people.
Above all else, however, this book is valuable as a warning against what will happen to evangelicalism and fundamentalism if their adherents do not energetically, practically, accurately, and yes, sensitively, teach and preach true biblical doctrine.