Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Leftward to Scofield: The Eclipse of the Kingdom in Post-Conservative Evangelical Theology

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Leftward to Scofield: The Eclipse of the Kingdom in Post-Conservative Evangelical Theology

Article excerpt

The protagonist of Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer would salve his depression by reading the liberal and conservative magazines in his neighborhood New Orleans library. The ideological conflicts in the pages were, to him, a "sign of life" in an otherwise lonely and impersonal cosmos.1 For some, the ongoing skirmishes between traditionalists and reformists over evangelical boundaries might seem to be a sign of life in a movement questing for an identity after Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. For both sides of the divide, however, the issues raised by "post-conservative" proposals represent a challenge to the uneasy consensus of the postwar movement. For reformists, the post-conservative proposals are true to the heritage of evangelical theology as a movement initiated for the reformation of American fundamentalism. And yet, recent developments reveal that the evangelical left may be pushing evangelical theology away from the theological consensus around the centrality of the Kingdom of God that the founders of evangelicalism sought to establish and saw developed into a full-blown consensus by the end of the century. And, in so doing, post-conservative proposals represent an ironic regression to the doctrinal reductionism of twentieth-century fundamentalism.

I. POST-CONSERVATIVE PROPOSALS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY

Like evangelicalism itself, the "post-conservative" or "reformist" strands within the movement are difficult to define with precision. This is because reformist evangelicalism is less a "party" than a constellation of proposals seeking to reform various aspects of traditional evangelical theology. Both sides would recognize these reform efforts to include open theist critiques of the classical doctrine of God, postmodern and narrative revisions of the doctrines of revelation and biblical authority, evangelical feminist advocacy for an egalitarian model of gender roles, and inclusivist proposals on the salvation of those apart from conscious faith in Christ.2 These various reform efforts do not necessarily overlap completely in every case. There are, for instance, many evangelical feminists who would embrace an otherwise thoroughly traditionalist framework of evangelical theology.3 Nonetheless, there is unanimity among reformists that the "rigid" conservatism of the evangelical movement should be replaced by a broader understanding of what it means to be an evangelical Protestant at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

To understand the project of "post-conservative" theology, one must examine the context of the emergence of the postwar evangelical movement as a theological enterprise. One of the few matters of evangelical historiography that all sides of the evangelical debates can agree on is the role of Carl Henry's 1947 manifesto The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, in shaping the theological definition of the founding era. For Henry and his co-belligerents, the problem with American fundamentalism was not simply cultural and political isolation. This was a symptom, not a cause, of a larger theological problem. The evangelicalism proposed by Henry would seek to reform fundamentalism by developing a coherent theology of the Kingdom that could unite evangelicals doctrinally and inform an evangelical theology of Christ, the church, and salvation, thus transcending the divide between dispensationalist and covenantal conservatives.

Henry's problem with fundamentalism was not that it was too theologically rigorous, but that is was not theological enough. Henry and his fellow evangelicals commended fundamentalism for the defense of the "five points" of the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the rest. But they lamented that conservative Protestantism was only defined by reaction to liberal theology.4 They further warned that complacency with the "fragmented doctrines" of fundamentalism would never move conservatism beyond doctrinal reductionism and toward a "united evangelical action. …

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