In the last several decades, there has been a whirlwind of attempts to define evangelicalism and who is an evangelical, or who is not an evangelical, as the case may be. Others have refused to define such a complex and varied theological and sociological group, or have attempted to deconstruct the notion of evangelicalism until it turns to dust. But when such a hefty book such as The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology comes out, it's hard to doubt that such a thing as evangelicalism and evangelical theology exists. In his introductory essay, Mark Noll wisely offers a minimalist definition of `evangelical,' very similar to the definition offered by Timothy Larsen in the opening essay of The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Indeed, there are notable similarities between these two volumes, but the Oxford Handbook (OH) far exceeds the range of the Cambridge Companion (CC). They both contain essays on the major theological themes: triune God, Scripture, Jesus, Holy Spirit, church, conversion and justification. But the OH also includes essays on creation, sin, the gospel, discipleship, eschatology, ecumenism, mission, worship and spiritual gifts. In addition, both volumes contain essays on evangelical approaches to race, gender, and other religions, but the OH far exceeds the CC by offering evangelical perspectives on the arts, politics, economics, science, and the vulnerable in society. Remarkably, these two tomes on evangelical theology only share three authors (Vanhoozer, Nordling, and Chan), and even comparing the backgrounds and affiliations of the authors is a fascinating study in the diversity of evangelicals.
So, what are the best and worst features of the OH in particular? In my opinion, the best essays are those that are not just descriptive of evangelical practice but daring enough to be prescriptive for how to move evangelical theology forward. I'm thinking of Trevor Hart's essay on eschatology and his emphasis on imagination, or Kevin Vanhoozer's articulation of the internal challenges pertaining to Scripture and hermeneutics and indicating a fitting solution. The OH is certainly not a riveting read at all times, but creative prescriptions such as these kept me turning pages. I also appreciated the inclusion of what has been neglected aspects of the evangelical theological tradition, like Roger Lundin's essay on the arts. Lundin explains the resurgence of evangelical engagement with the arts with remarkable clarify, and gives a clarion call not just for engagement, but innovative artistic production.
Sometimes I found myself wondering if particular essays were presenting a characteristically evangelical presentation to a particular topic, or if the essays were included just because the scholar is evangelical. For example, I'm not sure what is particularly evangelical about John Lunn's essay on economics, as I can think of plenty of non-evangelicals who would agree with his perspectives. Then there are the OH's omissions. In my opinion, there was a paucity of reflection on global evangelicalism, which by contrast was nicely covered in the CC. Maybe this is precisely why the OH decided to omit more global reflections, but the result is that readers are left feeling that evangelicalism is a mostly Northern and Western phenomenon, which we all know is not true. But of course, any handbook on anything cannot cover all the angles, so we can just be glad the CC covered this ground. The OH really does cover a lot of ground, and it may have been helpful to indicate this in the title, since the OH deals with a lot more than theology proper. Perhaps `Evangelical Theology and Practice' would have been a better title, and could have even sold more copies.
Overall, if you are an evangelical, I think the OH will make you proud. It may bore you at times or leave you desiring more, but it shows that evangelical theology is a vast and rich resource, and handbooks like these have only begun to plumb the depths.