Monday, August 2, 2010

A Response

Thank you Herb for your cogent summary and more fundamentally for your interest in reading the text and providing the commentary that you have.

The project started with an examination of what I posited as the evangelical/liberal split in 20th century US Protestantism which I linked to the Bible/Culture fissure in terms of where interpretive privilege resides (and as I would have it) should reside if any Reformed based polity and theology were ever to come to terms with its own foundations in the Protestant Reformation, to be sure in 20th-21st century garb. I linked this split in turn, to the enduring iconographical significance of the Scopes Trial and the continuous residue that has emerged from that as an unconscious culture lag, however much both serious evangelical and mainline Protestant circles have gravitated from the explicit force of that confict. In the process what has not been resolved, and little likelihood that it will, are some clear delineations on how the Bible/culture axis should be worked through.

To be sure, both Bloesch and Fackre in UCC circles have made substantial efforts, particularly Fackre in laying out a truly centrist perspective and in the process of bringing much light to solid evangelical and various liberal perspectives. His capacity for affirmation and admonition has worked as a substantial interpretative filter through which to creatively grapple with a great deal of the political/theological trajectory of contemporary Protestant thought including his placing of classical feminist theology in the intriguing role of critic as resident. His work has exhibited much bold thinking in his creative project of designing a comprehensive centrist vision, one which has the real potential of holding.

I personally do not think the center does hold, though I do believe it contains unfathomable heuristic capacity in opening up fresh space, particularly in enhancing various confessing movements in the mainline denominations with the hope and expectation, in turn of increasing broader influence within the mainline denominations. At the same time there is something enduringly persistent about the mainline vision with its subtle and at times not so subtle emphasis of placing culture first on the Christ/culture axis. This enduring reality speaks to the much explicit and implici; and sometimes unconscious manifestations.

This influential strain at the epicenter of mainline Protestantism is evident at the level of the pew and far from from missing with the ordained clergy as well. The need, in my view, is less that of absolute resolution, an impossible, and many would argue, a dangerous standard, than very sharp clarity on an assessment and analysis of the issues that do divide as well as potential near term resolutions in a manner that comes to terms with complexity without resort to caricature. These were the key assumptions that I had when I began the project in 2006 in which I viewed the Barthian turn to the strange new world of the Bible as highly compatible with serious evangelical theology and one which had potential pull in mainline circles as well as evident by Bloesch and Fackre's long term embrace of Barth.

I began to refine the argument as less a dialogue between evangelicalism and liberalism than a tighter probing between various post-liberal and serious evangelical perspectives. I hesitate to say post-evangelicalism because of a too readily reliance on "open theology" and the "emergent church, though I am much opposed to uncritical evangelical theology which refuses to take contemporary biblical scholarship seriously and one which is overly dependent on the doctrine of inerrancy which is only essential if one associates a serious turn to the Bible with the claim that it is historically reliable in all of its main particulars. Frankly, I don't think that necessity is essential. Its insistence, moreover, can have serious unintended negative consequences requiring either an uncritical, and in some way unreal embrace on the one hand, or an outright rejection of the core foundations of faith on the other hand.

Neither of these is necessary with an acceptance of 2 Corinthians 5: 19 as a theological stance grounded in "God in Christ reconciling the world" can, in principle, substantially resolve these dilemmas which underlie the apprehensions of those claiming biblical inerrancy, while being utterly biblical in the process. And with that, having the capacity and desire to embrace an utterly biblical theology and all the pietististic and ecclesial implications of what this implies. Some such resolution of this Christ/culture tension, is in my view, absolutely indispensable if a serious and comprehensive Reformed vision is ever to attain a widespread acceptance within contemporary Protestantism.

Thus, in refining my argument I turned to Timothy .R. Philips & Dennis L. Okholm (Eds.), The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation Essays by George Lindbeck, Alister McGrath, George Hunsinger, Gabriel Fackre and Others (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996) as a better organizing synthesis to my book. With this construction I was able to place Packer, Bloesch and Fackre in the evangelical camps; clearly the later as an evangelical, broadly and Jurgen Moltmann as representative a post-liberal perspective.

Throughout this book I drew on Karl Barth as metaphor or signifier, particularly his emphasis on the centrality of the biblical turn and its significance for 20th century theology. I had a vague sense that something was still missing. It was not, however, until encountering Douglas J. Hall's short gem, Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) that a fresh idea began to gel in which my own reclamation of the neo-orthodox legacy was the essential third voice for that turn.

In this final chapter I appropriated both something of Hall's and Gary Dorrien's dialectical post-liberal theology and sifted it through my own evangelical prism in arguing that the ontological claims of truth (John 14:6) need to be embraced in faith, without equivocation, in which dialectics, while important, would need to be, in the final analysis, subordinate. That chapter, the one under review here, contains a good deal of discussion on Barth, especially his critical dialogues with Bultmann and Tillich, which I attempt to both lay out fairly, as well as providing a very strong Barthian rejoinder. It is only after all that that I begin to discuss Bonhoeffer and the Niebuhr brothers, teasing out something of the implications of their central arguments, and in the process putting my own "serious" evangelical spin on the interpretation.

The chapter largely closes in bringing up the argument to date through a comparison/contrast between Hall's dialectical theology and Richard Lints' effort to expand evangelical theology almost, in his words, to the breaking point while holding firm to his own identity in evangelical theology. Throughout the entire book, I seek to develop a dynamic encounter between key evangelical, post-liberal and neo-orthodox perspectives in allowing various perspectives to arise that typically do not have much visible contact with each other.

In a nutshell this would be some of my response to your question on why I think this approach is critical. That is, there needs to be some rigorous delineations of these matters, particularly of the biblical and theological issues that do divide, especially over the underlying Christ/culture tensions,as part of the very process of exploring various convergences among these three critical schools of thought; evangelical, post-liberal, and neo-orthodox. I maintain that this is essential work as a basis ultimately of widening the theological circle if the latter ever does become more feasible, but even if not in weaving a thick orthodox strand within some of the core epicenters of contemporary Protestant theology.

For the project I have not sought to go beyond a Protestant construction even as I embrace aspects of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sensibilities in my own life, of which, over time I would like to be open to in a more enriching way. Rigor first, however, that is what I am sensing in listening to the small still voice of faith in our times--the kairos on my most fallible and heart-felt interpretation through what is intended as a richly constructed Protestant orthodox position grounded firmly in the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Bible.

I realize my reach extends a great deal further than my grasp. The attempt itself, so I maintain is an essential aspect of working through the issues which contains its own power in opening up new space that which would have existed without the effort.

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