Sunday, April 24, 2016

In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective A Review

Much appreciation to Al Scopino, Jr, an American religious historian,for his review of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center. (GD).  The review can also be accessed here:

Focusing on the fractured state of current American Protestantism, George Demetrion’s study, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, provides an antidote for greater cohesiveness. The author’s message is directed to both moderate conservatives and post-liberal believers. Demetrion insists that a centrist position must maintain the tradition of orthodoxy. In this, Demetrion builds on the centrist theology of Gabriel Fackre, whose work he explores in depth in Chapter 5. And while this position appears at first reading to be contradictory, Demetrion assists readers in navigating through theological complexities via the works of theologians whose writings provide hope, intellectual verve, and creative imagination as means to avoiding polarization and mistrust.

Analyzing the works of conservative theologians J.I. Packer, Donald Bloesch, and Richard Lints, as well as post-liberal scholars Walter Brueggemann, Gary Dorrien and Douglas J. Hall, Demetrion locates theological openings and nuances in accord with Biblical principles to provide the grounding for his argument. All, in different ways, provide guideposts for future progress. Going beyond the fundamentalist-modernist divide that was set in history with the Scopes Trial of 1925, Demetrion has called on both conservative and liberal thinkers to seek higher, common ground by reaching consensus on shared religious principles. Unlike conservative spokespersons of the past, Demetrion’s orthodox models have championed reason, employed current knowledge, challenged Biblical literalism, exercised imagination in their analyses, promoted ecumenicalism, acknowledged the contributions of women, and advocated the Kingdom of God on earth. All of these qualities, Demetrion contends, would revitalize the Protestant center and provide space for meaningful dialogue, greater understanding, and fruitful cooperation. For post- liberals who have spiraled into the nether regions of relativism and for conservatives who have built fortresses to stem the tide of intellectual curiosity, Demetrion has reopened a bridge that has long been closed.

While the book offers high expectations for clergy and laity alike, several components must be considered. First, the work is designed for moderate post-liberals and conservatives and it is they who would reap the benefits of an energized vital center through free and open exchange. Yet, how this new thinking is to reach and impact the greater laity and those religiously disaffected is more problematic. Second, while the author refers to the angst of mainline Protestantism’s supposed marginality, it should be noted that despite staggering membership losses, the mainline continues to retain cultural currency in greater American society. Third, for a vast number of Americans who have become comfortable without any religious identity, to impose or suggest any theological prerequisites, such as the primacy of the Bible and the focal point of Jesus Christ, would more than likely engender a chilly reception. In this all-too-real possibility, Barth’s call to embrace “the strange new world of the Bible” might simply fail to resonate within a population uncomfortable with absolutes, especially religious absolutes. One recalls Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger reminding clergy in the 1950s that what preachers proclaimed on Sunday held little impact on the daily activities of parishioners on Monday or the days that followed.

Demetrion has provided much to challenge and encourage clergy and laity in closing the Protestant divide. For too long, conservatives and liberals have turned inward for sustenance. Perhaps it is time for American Protestants to turn outward and embrace those on the other side of the religious spectrum. In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center complements Douglas Jacobsoen’s and William Vance Trollinger’s Re-Forming the Center: American Protestantism, 1900 to the Present (1998), which challenged the thesis of two opposing Protestant camps. Demetrion has moved the debate further along by examining the theological commonalities and perplexities of Protestantism and is required reading for theological students, particularly those devoted to greater inter-faith understanding and ecumenical efforts.

A. J. Scopino, Jr.

Central Connecticut State University

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