American evangelicalism seems stuck in an identity crisis-and the crisis is deepening. The boundaries of evangelical theology have never been particularly clear, but theologians on the evangelical left are now resisting any meaningful boundaries at all.
A group of theologians recently released a new manifesto for revisionist evangelicalism. "The Word Made Fresh" calls for evangelicals to resist attempts to propagate rigid definitions of evangelicalism that result in "unnecessary alienation and exclusion." Well, who wouldn't want to avoid that?
But what does this really mean?
Drafters of the document point to the 2001 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society as the catalyst for their urgent concern. At that ETS meeting, a majority affirmed the conviction that God possesses "exhaustive foreknowledge"-which means that God knows the future perfectly.
In recent years, a number of teachers in evangelical institutions have promoted what they call "open theism," claiming that God cannot know the future decisions of human beings because they have not yet been made, and thus do not yet exist. According to this limited view of God's knowledge, God knows only the general direction of the future, and guarantees His final victory. In the meantime, God is waiting to see how events unfold.
The ETS majority clearly affirmed God's unlimited knowledge, and defined the new "openness theology" to be unacceptable for evangelicalism.
Now, the revisionist theologians are hitting back.
They "deplore a present tendency among some evangelicals to define the boundaries of evangelical faith and life too narrowly." Fair enough. But what is acceptably narrow? The sad fact is that these theologians really see no meaningful boundaries at all.
Their statement reduces explicit evangelical commitments to "the Lordship of Jesus Christ" and "the supreme authority of the canonical Scriptures," thus affirming both the Word incarnate and the Word written. Of course, these same broad commitments are explicitly claimed by every movement or church claiming Christian identity, and are by no means self-explanatory.
As a matter of fact, one of the signers of "The Word Made Fresh" has written a major book denying that Scripture should be seen as the criterion for establishing Christian doctrines, claiming that to use the Bible in this way is "straightforwardly wrong." This is far beyond the "cautious openness to the reform of tradition" the signers claim to promote. In fact, it is the denial of any normative definition of what it means to be an evangelical.
The struggle to define evangelical boundaries has existed since the formation of the movement in the 1940s. The mid-century diversity included both Calvinists and Arminians, and membership ranged across the denominational spectrum. The rise of the "young evangelicals" in the 1970s stretched the movement further.
Now, the evangelical left wants claim upon the movement's identity.
Theologians such as Stanley Grenz, prominent among the signers of "The Word Made Fresh," allege that the evangelical mainstream is locked into a "rationalistic" commitment to propositional truth. This rationalistic bent explains, they claim, the battles over biblical inerrancy in the 1970s and 1980s, and today's battles over divine omniscience and the exclusivity of salvation through conscious faith in Jesus Christ.
In 1990, revisionist theologian Robert Brow declared in Christianity Today an "evangelical mega-shift." A new model of evangelical theology has appeared, he declared, and "a whole generation of young people have breathed this air, making their thinking very different from that of 'old-model' evangelicalism."
That was a huge understatement. He called for the "old-model" evangelicals to give way to the inevitable triumph of the revisionists: "We may still use the old-model language and assume we believe as before, but our hearts are changing our minds." The new model most often discards such beliefs as substitutionary atonement, eternal punishment in hell, and the verbal inspiration of the Bible-hallmark doctrines of the evangelical tradition.
"The Word Made Fresh" is the latest salvo in the battle for evangelical hearts and minds. These theologians charge that the theology of traditional evangelicalism too quickly assumes "that we know what Scripture clearly does and does not teach." Of course, if their proposal is followed, evangelicals will not even claim to know what Scripture clearly does and does not teach.
As a word, evangelical has a certain value to those who claim it, but only if the word actually means something beyond group identity and a constellation of institutions. If evangelicalism has no clear doctrinal boundaries, it means nothing of importance at all.
The revisionist evangelicals want the movement to leave the old theological baggage behind, and learn to love the brave new theological future they offer. The real question is this: Will there be anything distinctly evangelical about evangelicalism?