The Evangelical Left Paperback – 1 Mar 1998
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As Distinguished Professor of Theology at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and as author of nearly twenty books, including perhaps the most widely-used basic theology textbook among Baptists. Millard Erickson is well-positioned to offer a thoughtful analysis of this movement. More alertist than alarmist, Erickson offers a balanced critique of a trend which concerns him greatly. In the opening chapter Erickson succinctly traces the history of evangelicalism, ably guiding the reader through the usual highlights: Edwards and the Calvinist Great Awakening, Finney and the Arminian Second Great Awakening, the publication of The Fundamentals, the Scopes monkey business, the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary, the founding of Fuller Seminary and the rise of Neo-Evangelicalism. Most recently there has emerged what UVA sociologist James Davison Hunetr describes as "a brand of theology that for generations had been considered 'modernistic' being advocated by theologians who vigorously defend their right to use the name evangelical." Erickson contends that this new brand of 'postconservative evangelicalism" is a movement that had been developing for some time rather silently, but that has only recently emerged publicly.
Prominent evangelical teachers such as Roger Olson, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, and John Sanders are openly "shedding theological conservativism" (p. 29), while continuing to lead the evangelical movement. Erickson offers a list of brief bullet points in order to idnetify the main characteristics of his subject: an eagerness to engage non-evangelicals to the left (accompanied by a disdain for those to the right), a recognition of the influence of social location on theology and the need to seek out multi-cultural voices, a broadening of teh souurces of theology from Scripture alone to include experinece, an emphasis on narrative over propositions, a process theology-influenced conception of God (as a vulnerable and limited risk-taker rather than sovereign controller), a greater stress on teh concern for nature, a belief in universal salvation, a rejection of classical theories of biblical inspiration, an emphasis in Christology on the humanity of Jesus, and a renewed Arminianism.
In four tightly-fashioned chapters, Erickson proceeds to illustrate these features from the works of prominent contemporary evangelicals. Chapter two examines the task and method of the Evangelical Left via Pinnock, Grenz, Bernard Ramm, and James McClendon. Chapter three examines the doctrines of Scripture from the vantage point of Jack Rogers, Donald McKim, Robert Gundry, Paul Jewett, including the famous "Black Saturday" incident at Fuller Sem. Erickson's chapter on the doctrine of God features the warm endorsements of certain elements of Charles Hartshorne and Process Theology by such evangelicals as Gregory Boyd, Stephen Franklin, and Richard Rice. The doctrine of salvation chapter provides a solid summary of the arguments of the so-called 'open' view of salvation, variants of universalism, and annihilationism, with Pinnock again garnering the most attention. Each of these chapters concludes with Erickson's summary evaluations, concisely listing positive and negative aspects of the teaching in question. Lucid, pointed, and accessible, these chapters would prove exceedingly rewarding reading for any undergraduate or seminary course concered with contemporary evangelicism.
In his final chapter, Erickson attempts to forecast the future of the Evanglical Left, and in the process he is compelled to sacrifice some of his focus. For example, his momentary excursion into psychoanalysis is highly stimulating, but jeopardizes his credibility with some readers. He postulates that for many post-conservatives, having jettisoned nearly all epistemological anchors, sentimental atachments to traditional practices serve as the only deterrent to a much further leftward drift. Erickson ponders what will become of the next generation who "will have not had the experience associated with the older theology" (p. 133). Moving still further afield, Erickson vaguely repeats the tantalizing observation of the Barthian theologian Wm. Hordern that those moving directly from a conservative theology to neo-orthodoxy, without ever having been convinced liberals, "lack something" (p. 135).