Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation

The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals & Postliberals in Conversation edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 298 pages. ISBN: 0-8038-1869-3

The Nature of Confession was one of Christianity Today's Book of the year. It brought together Postliberals and Evangelicals to discuss issues they agreed on and differed. It including many of the leading theologians of our day: Alister McGrath, Miroslav Volf, George Lindbeck, Rodney Clapp, David Clark, George Hunsinger and others. IT includes six parts: (1) Introduction; (2) Evangelical critiques; (3) "Realism and Foundationalism; (4) "The Bible & the Church;" (5) "Theology and the Christian Life;" (6) "Putting the Postliberal Model to Work." The last part includes a panel discussion with Lindbeck, Hunsinger, McGrath & Fackre. There is really only two negative critiques by McGrath and Volf. I was disappointed by McGrath's essay, but I was impressed by Volf's essay. I think it is a more effective critique. This is despite my being an admirer of McGrath's work. I was even dissapointed with his comments in the panel discussion.

A common theme in these discussions is a conversation with the project of postliberalism as connected with George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. Lindbeck is surprised by this since he says the true founder of postsecularism is Hans Frei. Another important Postsecularist not part of the conversation was Stanley Hauerwas. The occasion for this book was a conversation held at Wheaton College dedicated to discussing postliberalism and evangelicalism.  This conversation concentrates much on a critique of foundationalism.

George Lindbeck begins the panel discussion my listing six points. First, he thinks comparing evangelicals and postliberals is "like comparing apples and oranges. Postliberals happen to be a collection of individuals engaged in what science calls a research program, whereas evangelicals are members of communities, institutions, movements that are historically associated with inerrancy controversies on the one hand and conversionist revivalism on the other" (246).

Second, the project of postliberals is "an attempt to recover premodern scriptural interpretation in contemporary form" (246). This can be taken in a couple different ways. First, it can operate on the basis of multiple senses of Scripture. For example, the five senses of Thomas Aquinas. Second, the Scriptures are a book of the Church. It needs to be interpreted in the context of the Church and Christian tradition. Another important implication is the importance of community. This would also urge a resistance to excessive modern individualism.

He points out that this research program "overlaps . . . with goals that a number of evangelicals have" (247). He suggests recovering "both the Reformation and Catholic heritages" (247). In other words, it aligns with attempts of evangelicals to renew the faith by retrieving the Catholic tradition.

In his fourth point he seems to respond to McGrath's critique about a lack of substantial theology coming from this project. He thinks this critique is "misplaced." He notes, "It's misplaced because the research program is one regarding methods of reading Scripture, not specifically regarding the development of any single theological outlook. If I do theology, it's Lutheran theology in the Lutheran confessional tradition" (247).

In his fifth point he describes his realization of his differences with evangelicals in his interactions with them. He knew it before, but it became more obvious at the conference. Lindbeck notes, "I'm much more creedal than most of the people here. I place more emphasis on creeds, confessions and dogmas. I'm sacramentally realistic in a way that free church people are not. I have much higher ecclesiology than most of the people here" (247). I think this is changing with evangelicals. More evangelicals are seeing a need for creeds and confessions. They are also drawn to liturgy and Catholic tradition. Many are trying to create a sacramental view of life.

In his last point, he notes that Hans Frei is the true founder of postsecularism.

There are many excellent essays in this volume. I especially enjoyed the many different critiques of foundationalism. Some of the essays responded to what they thought were misinterpretations. For example, Jeffrey Hensley showed how postliberalism does not have to be interpreted an anti-realists. George Hunsinger presents an evaluation of the debate between Carl Henry and Hans Frei. He shows how evangelicals and postliberals can learn from each other. It is hoped that this conversation will help both evangelicals and postliberals to understand each other better.

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