Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Thematic and Historical Overview of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective

In 2014 I published In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, which I briefly summarize below. Additional information is available through the publisher, Wipf & Stock http://wipfandstock.com/in-quest-of-a-vital-protestant-center.html and through Amazon http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00TUJLCAY/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1.  Comments and/or questions welcomed.

Summary Overview

In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center probes into the relationship between Scripture and culture in twentieth-century US theology and biblical studies. It points to the necessity of turning to what Karl Barth has referred to as “the strange new world within the Bible” for any revitalization of mainline Protestantism in the tradition of the Protestant Reformers in critical dialogue with serious evangelical theology. The study includes a historical overview underlying what the author refers to as the “fundamentalist/modernist great divide,” which continues to resonate powerfully in contemporary US Protestant thought and culture. The book offers an in-depth exploration of four representative twentieth-century Protestant theologians and biblical scholars, spanning from the conservative evangelical theology J. I. Packer to the postliberal dialectical theology of Walter Brueggemann. It also includes substantial discussions on the theological perspectives of Lesslie Newbigin, Richard Lints and J. Douglas Hall.

The book addresses two consequential issues facing contemporary U.S. Protestantism: acceptance of the Bible in its canonical integration as the primary source of Christian revelation and the viability of creating a durable centrist position between traditional and postconservative evangelical and postliberal, predominantly mainline theological perspectives. The convergence I seek is based on a common acceptance of the historic Reformation tradition on the sovereignty of God, the incarnation, the Trinity, the atonement, and scriptural revelation, which Donald Bloesch and others refer to as the Great Tradition. My aim in this book is “the recovery of a centrist position standing thoroughly in the tradition of orthodoxy but not averse to articulating the faith in new ways that relate creatively to the contemporary situation.” (Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit, 31). The challenge of doing so is underlined by the persistence of the modernist/fundamentalist divide on the interpretation and role of the Bible—an issue that came to symbolic climax with the Scopes Trial of 1925. Mediating theologies in both evangelical and mainline camps have moved well beyond the intense polarization unleashed on both sides of this crucial divide. Still, its enduring influence persists into the current era as a continuous strain adversely impacting more comprehensive efforts toward the construction of a vital theological center. That is one challenge.

This book builds on the current dialogue between evangelical and postliberal theology as depicted in the collection of essays titled The Nature of Confession, edited by Philips and Okholm (1993). By incorporating the neo-orthodox perspective, it provides an additional resource in the construction of a centrist theological project that builds on the triple pillars of canonical scriptural integrity, theological acuity, and ecumenical comprehensiveness. The book is written in the spirit of two short books by Andover Newton Professor emeritus, Gabriel Fackre (Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective; Restoring the Center). It is resonant in content with Fackre’s more extensive theological work, as discussed in Chapter 5.

Given their respective impact across the theological landscape of contemporary Protestant thought and culture and the relative dearth of secondary work on the four main writers I focus on—J. I. Packer, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, and Walter Brueggemann—the profiles in themselves help fill an important gap. Placing their work on an evangelical to postliberal mainline continuum provides critical insight for drawing out and working through the prospects and the challenges of establishing a centrist Protestant culture through a comprehensive Protestant sensibility on the centrality of the Bible in its critical role of encountering the culture.      

The book includes a chapter on the neo-orthodox legacy as a mediating resource in bringing evangelical and postliberal theology into dialogue with the core issues of theology, biblical hermeneutics, and religious culture. As a summary reprise of the argument carried throughout the book, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center concludes with a critically empathetic review of the postliberal dialectical theology of Douglas J. Hall and the redemptive-historical evangelical narrative theology of Richard Lints. In linking evangelical, postliberal, and neo-orthodox theology to a common search for a vital Protestant center, this book facilitates fruitful dialogue among divergent schools of Protestant thought both in seminary circles and among theologically discerning clergy and lay practitioners. In so doing, the book probes for current and potential commonalities as well as areas of persisting differences. It also points to areas for ongoing research in the quest for an invigorating Protestant presence in the midst of a culture commonly depicted as postmodern, global, and highly secularized that in surface and not so surface ways conflicts with the predominant presuppositions.

Additional Comments

Throughout the course of the forty-one years since my conversion to Christianity, I have studied many academic and lay-oriented religious texts on a wide assortment of themes. Much of this reading has played out at the critical intersection between a sharply-attuned critical evangelical sensibility and a more open-ended mainline Protestant identity, largely within various Assemblies of God, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church settings. It is within these denominational contexts—in the realm of church affiliation, personal faith formation, small group study, and in my stint as a campus ministry associate as a graduate student in a state college—that I have placed theological exploration and searching biblical discernment at the center of an ongoing faith formation process. This book represents an imaginative integration of this process in search of an invigorating theological center—a critical center which spoke to me early on through Horace Bushnell’s 1847 essay, “Christian Comprehensiveness,”—to which I have always been called.

Throughout this book I have taken the position that any substantial revitalization of a theology rooted in the tradition of the Protestant Reformers within mainline and evangelical theological camps will require a substantial embrace of Barth’s biblical turn as the primary theological source for interpreting the culture. However problematic the Barthian turn may be, I maintain that the alternative of positing some aspect of culture in the more privileged position than the Bible is even more so. To do so would undercut the potential depth of what a theologically sophisticated and ecumenically grounded faith commitment could come to mean for a contemporary Protestant identity that seeks to be faithful to the core kerygma in a manner that also has the capacity to be profoundly culturally relevant. I view this latter objective as a critically important secondary concern. 

The critical issue for contemporary Protestant life and identity formation remains the basic one on whether the culture, in all that that implies, becomes the source for interpreting the Bible or whether Scripture, in all that that implies, becomes the basis for interpreting the culture. This is a matter that has attendant implications for theology, congregational life, ethics, and personal piety. For all of the complexity and nuance in the relationship between contemporary culture and theological discourse, what cannot be avoided is that of prioritizing centers of value. It is this realization—and the identification of radical monotheism as the ultimate center of value underpinning all of creation as an uncompromising ontological assumption—that requires sustaining epistemological assent in the embrace in faith of whatever grace is given. It is this assumption that opens the biblical text as the most singular viable entry point to the strange new world of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who in faith, is “the exact representation of his [God’s] being” (Heb 1:3). 

This core summary statement provides a compressed overview of the topics and these discussed in much detail in my book In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective is about.

Chapter Headings

Chapter One    In Search of a Vital Protestant Center
Chapter Two   Theological, Historical, and Autobiographical Explorations of Twentieth-Century Protestant Thought and Culture
Chapter Three Defending the Fundamentals of Historical Evangelicalism: J. I. Packer and the Written Word of God
Chapter Four   The Mediating Theology of Donald Bloesch: Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical
Chapter Five   Restoring the Center: Gabriel Fackre’s Evangelical Ecumenism
Chapter Six     Reading Walter Brueggemann through a Fluidly Canonical Lens: Texts That Linger in a Fragile World
Chapter Seven Re-Envisioning the Neo Orthodox Legacy
Chapter Eight  Postliberal Dialectical and Evangelical Narrative Theology in Critical Juxtaposition

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