Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accomodation in Postmodern Times

By Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor, eds.
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2004). 365 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 239-240

According to Justin Taylor, who writes “An Introduction to Postconservative Evangelicalism and the Rest of This Book,” advocates of a postconservative evangelical theology have surfaced under various names: postconservatives, reformists, the emerging church, younger evangelicals, postfundamentalists, postfoundationalists, postpropositionalists, and postevangelicals (17-18). Such people are self-professed evangelicals whose purpose is to revise the theology, renew the center, and transform the worshiping community of evangelicalism because of the postmodern global context of the present day (18). Taylor suggests Stanley Grenz as postconservativism’s Professor, Brian McLaren as its Pastor, and Roger Olson and Robert Webber as its Publicists (18).

The book’s contributors include Chad Owen Brand, A. B. Caneday, D. A. Carson, Garrett DeWeese, Kwabena Donkor, Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Douglas R. Groothuis, J. P. Moreland, James Parker III, R. Scott Smith, Justin Taylor, William G. Travis, and Stephen J. Wellum. This group defends foundationalism-type teaching of Christian doctrine against the postconservatives who advocate more of a community-determined use of Scripture in the present postmodern culture. The postconservatives contend that the Carl Henry-type doctrinal position is out of date in the today’s world. They prefer a “generous orthodoxy” that is somewhere between conservative traditionalism and liberal-progressivism.

In his chapter, “Is Theological Truth Functional or Propositional? Postconservatism’s Use of Language Games,” Caneday notes that a favorite device of Grenz and his fellow postconservative John R. Franke goes by the name of speech-act theory. They see the primary purpose of Scripture as functional as the Spirit speaks to the church in a postmodern, postfoundationalist context. They criticize the Princeton theologians such as Charles Hodge for viewing the doctrine of Scripture as foundational to all Christian theology. They point to the Spirit’s subjective speech-acts as He uses Scripture within the community of believers. “Their appropriation of speech-act theory, then, is to move beyond what the Scripture says and means (textually accessible) to God’s acts and speech today (textually inaccessible)” (155). For them, many and varied applications of the text replace the time-honored hermeneutical principle that the text has one and only one meaning. That use of speech-act theory opens wide the door to using the text to support various mutually exclusive meanings, a great concession to postmodernism.

Erickson in his chapter, “On Flying in Theological Fog,” critiques postconservatism’s effort to adjust to a postmodern culture. He writes, “One of the criticisms of postconservative evangelicalism in this volume is that it is too focused on the present, or in some cases, on the past, which it thinks to be the present. It also sometimes looks at the present and describes it as the future.” His point is that trying to adjust Christian theology to a changing secular culture is a hopeless task because no one knows what direction that culture will take in the future.

As seen by Taylor, postconservatives have acknowledged their own set of debilitating dichotomies: “focus on the center versus preoccupation with boundaries; convertive piety versus correct doctrine; appropriation of postmodernism versus stagnant traditionalism” (32).

This reviewer certainly agrees with the tone of the essays in this book. Postconservatism is a current danger to evangelicalism. The essays are a timely warning to all evangelicals. Yet he is disappointed at the dominant philosophical treatment of the dangers that contributors have authored. A scanty one and one-half page “Scripture Index” at the end of a book of this length reflects how rarely contributors have referred to the Bible in support of this warning. Those desiring a more biblical response to postconservatism must look elsewhere to find it.