Erickson, Millard J., Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor, eds. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.
Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times is a collection of essays that explore the controversial topic of Postmodern Christianity in light of regaining the ground that has been lost in the last millennia. With contributions from some of the leading minds in conservative evangelicalism, Erickson, Helseth, and Taylor move the reader from a deconstructed understanding of truth to a biblical post-postmodernist perspective. One to two scholars that represent the various perspectives discussed in the introduction of the book write the individual chapters of Reclaiming the Center. This book review will therefore examine the key beliefs of postmodernism, evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, and provide an annotated summation of Reclaiming the Center.
- Taylor, Justin. “An Introduction to Postmodern Evangelical and the Rest of this Book”. 17-32.
Justin Taylor begins Reclaiming the Center by introducing a comparative examination of three different perspectives revolving around the center of postconservativism. The three perspectives are Publicists, Pastor, and Professor. Within each of these perspectives, there are representatives that will typically exemplify the paradigm behind their view of postconservativism. The Publicists, like Roger E. Olson and Robert E. Webber, hold to the understanding that postconservativism is a “commitment to ongoing reform of evangelical life, worship, and belief in the light of God’s word” (19). Brian L. McLaren exemplifies the role of Pastor for the postconservative perspective. He states that “emerging postmoderns point to Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God, which concerns the here-and-now, not just heaven; community, not just individuality; all of creation, not just the individual soul” (23). Lastly, Stanley J. Grenz, who explains, “theology is the intellectual reflection on faith we share on the believing community in a particular context” (25), best exemplifies the Professor. Through this discussion, Taylor is building the structure that the remaining chapters will explore in greater depth.
- Carson, D.A. “Domesticating the Gospel: A Review of Grenz’s Renewing the Center”. 33-57.
D.A. Carson begins with a review of Stanley J. Grenz’s book Renewing the Center, where Grenz attempts to argue that a postmodern perspective of Christianity is deeply rational in today’s society and thus required to accurately move forward epistemologically. To this, Carson responds, “thoughtful Christians should not permit their epistemology to be held hostage by modernism, so they should not permit their epistemology to be held hostage by postmodernism” (55). Therefore, in his attempt to free the hostages, Carson illuminates six critiques to Grenz’s, Renewing the Center. Within each of these, Carson offers multiple weaknesses to the paradigm propagated by Grenz. Of these, the most damaging is how “Grenz moves from the church as the locus of theological reflection to the church as the object of theological reflection” (52).
- Groothius, Douglas. “Truth Defined and Defended”. 59-80.
Reclaiming the Center then sojourns down the path of deconstructing ones understanding of postmodern truth to a more biblical post-postmodern comprehension. Beginning with Doug Groothius’ writing on “Truth Defined and Defended”, the section on philosophy provides excellent insight into truth, foundationalism, and language. Groothius will focus on the truth question. He will identify the three leading theories behind the concept of truth: correspondence theory, coherence theory, and pragmatic theory. To explain the overall need for this discussion Groothius states that, “a rational theory of truth is required for a rational and truth-seeking epistemology, whether applied to philosophy, theology, or any other discipline” (64). This identifies the supreme danger of postmodernism as the potential for truth, created or controlled, and dependent on culture, mindset, or wills (78). Therefore, in order to propagate a biblical perspective of truth, the correspondence view-which is both biblical and logical- is in need of the Christians sworn allegiance (79).
- DeWeese, Garrett, and J.P. Moreland. “The Premature Report of Foundationalism’s Demise”. 81-108.
In chapter four DeWeese and Moreland explain that the report of foundationalism’s end as described by Grenz was inaccurately justified. Throughout this chapter, the authors will identify a modest foundationalist perspective. Here they will provide basic evidence and support this evidence with an ontological model for knowing subject. They articulate that postmodernist hold to two different kinds of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by judgment. When reduced these forms of knowledge simply hold to the construct of language and language to linguistics and linguistics to behavior (97). The foundationalist model provides a compelling critique of postmodernist thought. All forms of knowledge viewed through the lens of transcendence toward an object and the community of mental states are required for developing and justifying any model of thought (101). In the end, the discussion brings forth the major goal of Reclaiming the Center, the reestablishment of the inerrancy of Scripture and how the foundationalist model provides for this understanding.
- Smith, R. Scott. “Language, Theological Knowledge, and the Postmodern Paradigm”. 109-135.
Here, Smith will work backwards with the goal being to identify the failures of the postmodern paradigm. He quotes Nancey Murphy (an epistemological holist) as stating: “the foundation for conservative Christians has been authoritative, inerrant Scripture” (109). With this as the foundation for his argument, Smith will begin dissecting the postmodern paradigm by explaining the correlation between language and the world in which life is lived. Working through the viewpoints of Murphy, Kallenberg, Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Grenz, and Franke, which increasingly pull away from foundationalism,
Smith will provide five contributions from the postconservatives perspective. First, they stress the importance of maturing in Christ. Second, they find it vital that Christian’s life reflect the gospel and is part of a community. Third, they imply that the historical, cultural context influences beliefs. Fourth, their emphasis on language and the terms one uses shapes their understanding of the world. Fifth is the appeal to the “humility of knowledge” (although DeWeese and Moreland argue for a realist epistemology) (121-122). Smith will conclude his chapter by illustrating the results of their use of language on core Christian doctrines.
- Caneday, A.B. “Is Theological Truth Functional or Propositional? Postconservatism’s use of Language Games and Speech-Act Theory”. 137-160.
With Caneday’s writing Reclaiming the Center shifts to understanding the implications of postconservativism’s theological method. The emphasis on this chapter is their theological method, therein identifying the effects, and thus providing methodological modifications. Because of the postconservatives theological method there have been three effects identified. First, when evangelical theology recede the implications for worship, spiritual formation, and prophetic voices diminish in the world (138). Second, evangelical theology acclimates to the pluralistic culture while also analyzing it (139). Third, it intimidates and shapes Christian action, speech, and thought (139). In the end, Caneday provides Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic method as the basis for proper theological methodology.1
- Wellum, Stephen J. “Postconservatism, Biblical Authority, and Recent Proposals for Re-Doing Evangelical Theology: A Critical Analysis”. 161-198.
In this critical analysis, Wellum provides an excellent foundation for establishing a biblical theology. In doing so, he will examine postconservatism for its flaws in “biblical” theology. Wellum begins by dissecting Grenz and Franke’s evangelical theological methodology for a postmodern world. It is here that Wellum identifies both positive and negative reflections on their work. Positively, among others, he claims Grenz and Franke “challenge the evangelicals to rethink their theological methodology” (183). Negatively, it identified their “adoption of a coherentism, pragmatism, and epistemological and metaphysical nonrealism as resources for evangelical theological methodology” (187). In the end, Wellum seeks to offer a modern reflection on the evangelical theological method. Providing three personal reflections, of utmost importance is the third: “To be ‘biblical,’ evangelical theology must then seek to read and apply all the Scripture says, according to its own presentation, to all of life” (197). This incorporates the other two reflections by asserting the inerrancy of Scripture (read and apply), as well as, the importance to one’s theological proposals and formulations (own presentation to all of life).
- Donkor, Kwabena. “Postconservatism: A Third World Perspective”. 199-220.
Kwabena Donkor, provides insight from a completely different outlook as he writes regarding postconservatism from a third world perspective. Taking his viewpoint from the lens of Grenz, because he departs the most from historical evangelicalism, Donkor will examine postconservatism from five angles: the community, recasting theology, theology as conversation, wider historical-cultural context, and Christian theology. From here, the examination will identify the goal of postconservatism, “to help the believing community hear the voice of God in the text” (208). In the end, Donkor will take a more practical approach to the discussion by identifying a missional dilemma in postconservative evangelical theology. Of these roadblocks, the most damaging is the lack of evangelization that is required by the postconservative perspective. Due in part to the idealized pluralism that postmodernism produces.
- Helseth, Paul Kjoss. “Are Postconservative Evangelicals Fundamentalists? Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism”. 223-250.
Once again Reclaiming the Center shifts to tackle the evangelical historiography of postconservativism and foundationalism. Helseth will begin this section by reviewing the historiographical consensus at Old Princeton. It is here that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy formulized and thus postconservatism has found its most dogmatic doctrine, the errancy of Scripture. From here postconservative thought advocates for a revisioning of evangelicalism, so to that end, Helseth will begin reassessing the Princeton mind of right reason. According to Rogers and McKim, the “sound scholarly analysis” at the base of the doctrinal position of the inerrancy of Scripture is inaccurate rather it was historical scholarship shaped by the Enlightenment period (229). With this in mind, the author will identify the important emphasis on the unitary operation of the soul. He states that Hodge’s focus is on reason (an Augustinian approach) rather than scholastic sense. Because of this, the Westminster Confession of Faith challenges the Princetonian mind. In the end, Helseth will come back to the idea that cognition requires the whole soul, that the explicative power of the foundationalists interpretive framework is key to the Christian faith, and that postconservatives must offer further reason for why their faith is the true religion (250).2
- Travis, William G. “Pietism and the History of American Evangelicalism”. 251-280.
William Travis’ chapter focuses on the supposed shift from convertive pietism to a correct doctrinal position. Once again, hammering Grenz’s Renewing the Center, the premise here attempts to test his hypothesis. Travis will shed light on Grenz’s view of history, classical pietism, and the pietistic viewpoint of the Methodists, Lutherans, and Pentecostals. The issue at hand is whether convertive pietism is an incorrect doctrinal position. When Travis takes his position, it is evident that he follows the Reformation perspective of pietism: “the importance of sanctification in the life of believers, not in diminishing interest in doctrine” (278). The reality is there must be a shift in the comprehension of holiness with a corrective doctrine. This concept is at the heart of sanctification and therefore, the heart of God.
- Brand, Chad Owen. “Defining Evangelicalism”. 281-305.
In “Defining Evangelicalism”, Chad Brand attempts to not only provide a basis for the construct of evangelicalism but also establish an historical perspective of the belief system. In this chapter, he identifies the battle between conservative and liberal denominations that exploded throughout the 1920’s. This explosion did more than simply break open denominational lines; the fact is fundamentalism became more than a battle over orthodox influences—it was a war defending orthodoxy, gospel-centered passionate preaching, and spiritual formation (294). He determines that historical evangelicalism provides for the sufficiency of Scripture, reliability of God’s Word, theology as a study of what God has done for us (296). In the end, modern evangelicalism focuses on three areas of doctrinal importance: biblical reliability (inerrancy and theological construction), evangelism and conversion experience, and spiritual formation (304). The question is will the postconservative movement diminish the core beliefs, or will their more evangelical brethren rein them in?
- Parker, James III. “A Requiem for Postmodernism- Whither Now”? 307-322.
This chapter begins the final section of Reclaiming the Center in which the idea of a post-postmodern perspective is imagined. While there are a great number of individuals that hold to the postmodern worldview, Parker argues that the impact of such perspective is already dying throughout most of the United States and has essentially died throughout Western Europe. On the rise is this idea of transmodernism, which rejects modernism and postmodernism claims, while affirming objective and normative truth, as well as, true moral values and virtues (320). Throughout this chapter, Parker identifies how transmodernism utilizes many of the contemporary methodologies of ministry (e.g. music, visual arts, architecture, poetry, cinema, ethics, and socio-political philosophy). Of all the chapters, this is the most practically applicable while still providing a case against the push of postconservativism.
- Erickson, Millard J. “On Flying in Theological Fog”. 323-321.
To end Reclaiming the Center, co-editor Millard J. Erickson provides a conclusion that casts a vision for a post-postmodern (transmodern) theology. He begins by identifying values and ideas that will establish the vision he is casting. A post-postmodern theology will be global, objective (correspondence of truth theory, neo-foundational, post-newhistoricist), practical and accessible, postcommunal, metanarrative, dialogical, and futuristic. With these values and ideas, Erickson has launched a theological model that delivers the foundation needed for the millennial generation to affect the globe with the gospel. To this end he writes that the “aim is not to tie ourselves too closely to any given cultural situation, but to be prepared to contextualize the message in such a way as to make it more easily understood by our contemporaries” (349).
Evaluation of Postmodernism
As described throughout Reclaiming the Center the ideas of postmodernism (postconservativism) have integrated themselves into human thoughts quite readily. The main thrust of this movement, in the theological realm, has been defending relational theology, defeating foundationalism, contextualizing Scripture, and emphasizing tradition. The problem identified with postmodernism is their lack of ability to establish a link with historical tradition, thus falsifying their claims of moving beyond the modern era. Through their misguided thoughts about theology, foundationalism, and Scripture, postmoderns have inaccurately defended a misguided theological conclusion.
Overall, postmodernism is not a new construct but rather a reinvention of an older ideal, modernism. Where there are evident flaws in ideology, today theologians need to establish a universal mindset that will bring the segregated denominational structure together with a united focus. One in which the flaws are addressed and the positives are maintained of both modernism and postmodernism. Parker calls it transmodern, Erickson post-postmodern, whichever one desires let it be but there must be universal lasting changes made.