Generations of Evangelical Theology

Copyright 2002-2003, Telford Work

Draft: Please do not cite without permission.


Perusing the shelves of a theological bookstore one day, I happened upon a new volume offering a taxonomy of recent academic theology. It was another of a long series of now familiar roadmaps: Fundamentalism, Social Gospel liberalism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Neo-evangelicalism, liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, process theology, and so on. Yet as I flipped through its pages, I saw something else, a pattern both larger and smaller than the schools named in the chapter titles.

Both above and below the conventional roadmap is a very different one. Its camps fall into a typology of three rough categories. One type mainly defends prior positions, another mainly presents alternative positions, and a third mainly develops new positions.

These are types, but they are more. They are subcultures to which we theologians belong. They are methodological schools in which we are trained. They are temperments that suit our different personality types. They are ways of seeing and pursuing theology. And, at least in evangelical theology, they are generations. That aspect will become clearer as I describe each type.

Let me be clear from the outset: All three are good and important tasks that serve our traditions' teaching and research. At the end of the day, we are all players in the same league. Yet because of the nature of each, we naturally tend to favor one over the others, and that is sufficient justification for indulging in the old-fashioned rivalry and chauvinism that make life together such fun.

Through the Generations

First-generation (1G) theology defends a theological or denominational status quo. It looks back to a monument of the faith as normative. Thus it generally remains at the apologetic level. Its goal is to replicate itself in the minds of its audience.

Much popular level theology is 1G, because it is written by partisans for a particular school or denomination and aimed either at wavering parishioners, potential recruits, or theological foes. But 1G theology goes beyond popular audiences. When I was at Fuller Seminary, one of the texts in my systematic theology classes was Louis Berkhof's magisterial classic, Systematic Theology. Every one of its chapters presents a theological topic, for instance Church polity. After listing and criticizing the different positions of the major Christian traditions, it demonstrates why the Reformed evangelical position was the correct one.

First-generation theology presents a historical tradition with no fundamental continuing problems, even if the tradition itself has ceased to be popular or persuasive to more than a few readers. Young absolutists love 1G theology. However, it tends to polarize its audiences into a group of insiders (who may feel more intellectually and existentially secure from their exposure to the material), and groups of outsiders (who may feel alienated from the tradition, left without any position that is more secure, or cynical about the tradition's competence to teach so confidently).

The best creators of 1G theology have drunk deeply from rich historical traditions. They know their traditions inside and out, and can bring them to life again in new times to answer the questions of new occasions. They are an inspiring and intimidating lot, for they remind us of an age before church shopping, television channel surfing, and perpetually distracted "multitasking" turned the rest of us into mush. Back then giants walked the earth — the Greek and Latin Fathers, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin. Their intellectual descendants know and show how to draw from these deep reservoirs of timeless wisdom, producing grateful students who are well formed and equipped to keep the heritage alive.

Second-generation (2G) theology moves from the apologetic to the descriptive level. It looks sideways, as it were, to other monuments of the faith as normative. Its goal is to help an audience locate itself in a broader ecumenical tradition and deepen its awareness of others.

Much introductory classroom theology is 2G, especially lectures and overview texts. It is written by experts for groups of students who have grown up unfamiliar with the theological landscape outside their own traditions. However, 2G theology can take a variety of forms. One of the texts in my systematics class at Fuller was Thomas C. Oden's The Living God, whose annotated florilegium of texts from approved ancient, medieval, and Reformation Church Fathers qualifies as 2G. Stanley Grenz's The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options is 2G in treating evangelicalism's historical eschatologies as "options," none of which compromises the good news of Jesus Christ (even if all cannot be right). InterVarsity Press has an ongoing series in which several views on a particular theological topic are presented and brought into conversation. Each view is considered orthodox among at least one core constituency of IVP's broadly evangelical readership. The writers themselves may be 1G theologians, but each volume's editor, as well as the editor of the series, is effectively 2G.

Especially in the experience of students (and their teachers), 2G theology can seem more advanced, mature, objective, or charitable than 1G theology. Think of a typical evangelical student, raised in youth-group or popular theology, who first encounters formal theological education in an introductory course that exposes the class, often for the first time, to the different traditions. In the ecumenical wing of contemporary evangelicalism, these may well be presented as a range of options (e.g., sacrificial atonement, Christus Victor, moral influence theory) – perhaps as "orthodox options" (e.g., Calvinism and Arminianism) among a greater range of historical positions (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, Calvinism, Determinism).

Suddenly the world is bigger than before. The students are liberated from the easy certitudes of their local churches, and their urbane professors lead them through the existential valley of ambiguity. Some take their places among the more sophisticated. But others, taking their cue from the wider culture rather than the catholicity of the Church, interpret 2G theology as relativism. The acceptability of several options implies the eqivalence of all possibilities. Thus 2G theology can be polarizing too, dividing an audience into a group of insiders (who may feel comfortable with the wideness of God's mercy, the mystery of the transcendent, or simply the apparent reinforcement of their cultural relativism), and groups of outsiders (who may feel restless with what is in fact simply a broader theological status quo, lost in a sea of complexity, hostile to what they perceive as liberalism, disillusioned with a tradition that looks uncertain and unable to resolve its own difficulties, or frustrated with the teacher's refusal to take a theological stand).

The best 2G teachers present ranges of orthodox and heterodox positions with a keen appreciation to both the strengths and weaknesses of each school and an engagement that does not allow students to float sovereignly above them all. They can "devil's advocate" and take contrarian positions without fostering skeptical reactions that "you can make the Bible say anything." They know that real persuasive power sustains these various schools, and that students need to appreciate it without compromising the critical skills their own traditions have brought them.

Third-generation (3G) theology accepts that criticisms of its theological status quo need to be answered with more than mere defensive maneuvers, but pushes beyond the broader status quo of 2G ecumenism. It moves from the apologetic and descriptive levels to the constructive. Its goal is to help an audience use old and new resources to answer old and new questions in new and more satisfactory ways. It looks forward to some monument in the theological future as normative.

Because 3G theology requires 2G's broad knowledge of the field and 1G's conviction that simple description is inadequate, it tends to happen in relatively sophisticated contexts such as upper-division courses and the literature of the academic theological guild. However, it can even find a place in more basic contexts, from church sermons to introductory courses. Alongside Berkhof and Oden, my systematics class offered Paul Jewett's "neo-evangelical" God, Creation, and Revelation as a project to renew and reorient as well as recover the evangelical way of doing theology.

The 3G camp might seem to get all the credit for creativity and innovation, and some practitioners may even believe they deserve it. Yet constructive theology has no monopoly on creativity. Basically apologetic theologies often employ creative tactics to argue for the status quo. Likewise, descriptive theologies often employ innovative typologies to bring order out of the apparent chaos of conflicting schools, or offer ecumenical syntheses that reconcile incompatibilities among traditional positions (and not always artificially!) in order to point to some greater whole of which the current schools turn out to be parts.

Nevertheless, students encountering 3G theology are easily dazzled by the daring of a new position taken against what seems to be a whole tradition. The quest for a satisfying answer to a long perplexing question excites our culture's latent individualism: "I will get right what organized religion got wrong." It also feeds the pride of evangelicalism's selective anti-intellectualism: "I can ignore all those overly speculative forebears and proceed straight to the correct answer." Among my twenty-year-old evangelical students, for every homesick 1G type and cosmopolitan 2G type there is a 3G rebel ready to prove to pastors and parents that Church and family really were suffocating them and stunting their growth. So this approach can create its own camps of revisionist insiders and traditionalist outsiders.

Yet the best 3G thinkers honor their parents in their maturity. They seek understanding with faith that remains orthodox. They acknowledge that the apostolic traditions they obey have managed to survive for two millennia without their help. They proceed with the humble boldness of Christ himself. They aggressively invite correction, lest their creations turn out to be "innovative" in the derogatory patristic sense. They look to the Fathers and Mothers of the faith not so much as reactionaries to overthrow as pioneers to appreciate and imitate. As times change they move us all onto new and firmer ground, even as they realize that soon a new generation of revisionists will be nipping at their heels.

Why Generations?

This (apparently rather 2G) typology could be no more than a mundane classification of efforts to defend, describe, and develop theological positions. Its sequence follows the order in which many students encounter Christian theology, but there might not be anything particularly profound in that. Then why the "G"? I think there is a kind of generational shift here, and it deserves attention.

The point of departure for American evangelical theology is twentieth century American Fundamentalism (see George Marsden's Reforming Fundamentalism), and classic evangelical theology is 1G. Old-line evangelicals see themselves as defenders. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing about the future that more of their particular past cannot cure. Of course their certainty arises in part from the depth and power of the tradition they are defending. It also draws from the premodern certainty of sixteen centuries of Christian partisanship. Yet another powerful heritage in 1G theology is the modern certainty of Enlightenment epistemology, on which many evangelical apologetics fall back in order to demonstrate the superiority of their interpretation of the facts.

Likewise, historical forces combined to create a strong respect for 2G methods in the evangelical center-left in at least three ways. First, of the three types, it seems the most essentially modern. The Enlightenment fostered a respect across Christian theology for comprehensiveness, neutrality, objectivity, and critical distance. Projects that delineate typologies of "views" or "options" assume that the reader is free from all of them, and has the sovereign power of choice. Likewise, they hide the location of the editor in some particular tradition. (That particular tradition might simply be "catholic," as ecumenically minded theologians like to believe. But it might well be academic in nature rather than ecclesial — the "community" of scholars that centers around not a table nor a pulpit, but around a course catalogue. Communities are only catholic that are also particular.)

Second, when evangelicals looked beyond their own numbers, their respect for the fruit of the Spirit and existential experience of Christian salvation helped them see fellow disciples in surprising places. Like Billy Graham, who united, supported, and personified them at mid-century, ecumenical evangelicals want to grant some theological respect, however provisional, to any community that bears the marks of regeneration. Rather than become separated from fellow disciples, 2G theologians prefer to regard even disagreeable positions as "evangelical options" unless the integrity of the gospel forbids it.

The third force fueling 2G theology is relativism. While today's evangelical encyclopedists may not be relativists, popular and student audiences who are not so well formed theologically find the 2G tradition more culturally comfortable and less existentially challenging. Not only do they get to choose, they get to exercise their right not to choose.

Historical forces are formative for 3G theology as well. The Enlightenment leaves its marks here too. Those who see in my typology of generations a Hegelian dialectic – an interpretation that would necessarily privilege 3G theology – show themselves to be under the spell of one modern picture of the world. Modernity's production of data unprecedented in volume and character, from archaeological recoveries to whole new fields such as sociology and anthropology, has forced theologians to scrutinize their theological inheritances in whole new ways. Furthermore, the drive to advance a debate satisfies the early modern conviction of progress, and the drive to create anew feeds the late modern project of self-reinvention.

Historical factors behind 3G theology are easy to find among those Richard Mouw calls "restless evangelicals" and others simply call "the evangelical left." Mouw presides over my alma mater, a theological school founded to reform fundamentalism when the old approaches no longer seemed adequate. In my time at Fuller I benefitted from the continuing reemergence of constructive evangelical voices such as Miroslav Volf, from whom I took that theology course. Volf now teaches at Yale, one of a growing number of evangelical theologians who practice their craft outside the subculture's own institutions.

Of course the historical picture is not nearly so easily stratified. There are still plenty of 1G and 2G evangelical theologians doing first-rate and urgently needed work, and fundamentalism's pioneers were in fact 3G synthesists. Furthermore, today's grandchild can become tomorrow's grandparent. A 3G voice might take his or her place among others within a 2G project, or find disciples defending his or school school in a 1G project. A very successful 2G constellation, such as H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, can become a position unto itself whose defense or destruction becomes a more urgent matter than paying attention to the individual types.

Generational Flux

The dynamics of evangelical theology that have produced this scene also promise to keep it unstable.

Countervailing forces produce 1G theology, and their dynamics keep it from dominating the scene. One force comes from within the apologetic tradition. Often it is the powerful insight that produced the tradition in the first place, and has maintained it throughout its lifespan by continually reasserting itself. The other force comes from outside, embodied in the antagonists that refuse to abandon the definitive insights of their own traditions. Like germs generating resistance from antibiotics, all parties adapt to advance, and evolve constructively in the process. Moreover they find allies against common enemies, producing a 2G-like respect for newfound friends.

The 2G scene is equally unstable. A 2G project assumes and requires committed 1G partisans, but in laying out a range of options it often helps people rise above their old partisanship. This weakens the old loyalties that made the typology helpful in the first place, and easily creates a new generation of reformers and independents. It offers a moment's snapshot of communities in flux. Its interpretive power can ironically change the self-images of those it seeks to picture, and thereby influence their courses. It draws lines that name and even create insiders and outsiders. It creates conversations that become driving forces of new constructive thinking. An influential description becomes a new moment in every party's ongoing history.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo drives 3G projects. If these are successful, they become schools with 1G defenders and 2G chroniclers. Constructive theology arises from a restlessness that remains unsatisfied with both evangelicalism's older apologetics and its newer ecumenism. Yet its challenges invigorate 1G partisans to raise objections and reassert themselves more strongly and creatively.

What Is the Point?

What is the point of this exercise? Do I float above these types like a superman or a god (or just an overambitious 2G encyclopedist)? Hardly. Like all college professors, in the introductory classes I teach I lay out historical spectra of orthodox and heterodox positions on theological topics for students entirely new to the theological terrain, and I stand up for historical positions they try to dismiss, if only to teach intellectual honesty and respect. The more I teach undergraduates, the more these habits become influential and even reflexive. Yet my master's work happened at Fuller Seminary, a 3G evangelical school if ever there was one, and Fuller helped make me a 3G theologian. So however much I defend and describe, I keep wanting (in the words of Wittgenstein) "to go on," to say more than just what has already been said, especially in cases where theological debate has ended in deadlock.

Let it still be crystal clear that I mean no disrespect to 1G or 2G evangelical theology. I am deeply grateful for the apologists and cataloguers. Their efforts are instrumental in transforming an evangelicalism that is impatient with history and quick to settle for existential comfort. No tradition that refuses diligently to look back at itself or sideways to fellow travelers has a future.

Yet my preference for 3G comes from more than just my personality type. I am convinced that evangelicalism needs more 3G theology. We were born of an apologetic contest against (and within) modernism, but as modernity ends we need to do more than fight the old battles. In our adolescence we learned great respect for the theological giants beyond our communities, but we need to do more than repeat what they have taught us. Wary of violating our heritage or offending our constituencies (e.g., administrators, donors, church leaders, gatekeepers, and parents), many evangelicals find 1G theology the least risky career path. Those who wish to transgress the boundaries that confine their inquiry can pursue 2G projects that are only slightly riskier, in which advocacy for change can hide under a mask of descriptive objectivity. Our tradition's incentive structures go some way to explaining the tendency toward conservatism and even reactionism among so many evangelical intellectual leaders.

When this conservatism recovers and renews what is precious in the past and present, it fulfills its promise. But when it atrophies into a reluctance to go on, into what C. FitzSimons Allison calls "orthodoxy as idolatry," it threatens both the health of the movement and the integrity of those thinkers who strive for faithfulness to it. If evangelicalism is anything, it is a social movement of local fellowships and discrete ministries. If evangelicalism is distinct among the other fellowships and ministries of the whole Church, it is so because of distinctive practices which embody distinctive convictions about God, the Kingdom, and the mission of God's disciples. If evangelicalism has a distinctive witness to offer the whole Church and the wider world, then that witness will inevitably take shape in new ways as it sojourns in a changing world.

Evangelical witnesses have gone to the ends of the earth. Their efforts have reaped a harvest of a "new Christendom" of witnesses, primarily from the southern hemisphere, whose ways no longer fit the old traditions and typologies. These new colonies of the new creation will inevitably require new apologetics and invite new typologies in which they can find a place. But aren't we theologians capable of more than this? If we want to lead our students, our churches, and our colleagues as we all journey, then we need to do more than just look behind and sideways. We need to get in the habit of looking ahead.