A brief review of Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, ed. Millard Erickson, Paul Helseth, and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 365 pp., $20.00.
Experience over doctrine. Inclusivistic instead of exclusivistic. Discomfort with propositional truth. Synergistic. It may sound like ordinary heterodoxy, but it is a movement posed to take over normative church life—indeed, in some circles, it has already done so.
Reclaiming the Center seeks to reclaim what is being lost through the influence of “postconservative evangelicals” like theologian Stanley Grenz and pastor Brian McLaren. This recovery is presented from a wide-range of viewpoints—from philosophy to theology to historiography to third-world perspectives.
This theological pilgrimage begins with a concise and informative introduction to the issues (written by Justin Taylor), as well as an overview of how the book is organized and what each chapter is about (which I have in turn summarized in the next few paragraphs). Next is a chapter by D.A. Carson “summarizing and critiquing the broad outlines of Grenz’s vision for evangelicalism” (p. 26).
After the introduction, a philosophical framework is begun. The three chapters in this section take a philosophical approach to answering postconservative accusations by discussing the correspondence theory of truth (Goothius, Ch. 3), foundationalism, reliabilism, inerrancy (Moreland and DeWeese, Ch. 4), and finally with epistemic/linguistic access to the real world (Smith, Ch. 5).
After setting up the philosophical framework (for every theology needs a foundation), the book moves on to theological assessment. Two of the chapters have to do with postconservative’s view of Scripture. The postconservative cultural-linguistic model of Scripture is shown to be unreliable and the canonical-linguistic is put forth as a biblical alternative (Caneday, Ch. 6), and then Steve Wellum (Ch. 7) shows how “their doctrine of Scripture is incompatible with the Bible’s own claims for itself and weakens the possibility of doing theology in a normative fashion” (p. 28). The final chapter in the section evaluates postconservative theology from a Third World perspective (Ch. 8, Donkor).
After the philosophical framework has been set and theological assessment made, the book moves on to historiography. Paul Helseth leads this section by showing that postconservatives have become a new brand of fundamentalism that they sought to remove themselves from (Ch. 9). Bill Travis then shows how orthodox doctrine has been a central concern throughout the centuries—even by those who have influenced postconservative ideas, contrary to the postconservative claim that commitment to orthodoxy is a relatively new “neo-evangelical” idea (Ch. 10). Finally Chad Brand wraps this section up by defining evangelicalism and showing what has been its historic doctrinal beliefs (Ch. 11).
The final section deals with the future of postmodernity. Jim Parker predicts a transmodern period, one that embraces the strengths of modernism and postmodernism but avoids both extremes (Ch. 12). Millard Erickson concludes with a prophetic vision for the future of evangelical theology that will help us navigate through the current “theological fog.” It is a global, objective, practical and accessible, postcommunial, metanarratival, dialogical, and futuristic vision (Ch. 13). Such a vision is extensive and time will only tell if such a theology will result.
There are many strengths in this book. It is edited by three highly skilled theologians who promise to give you a fair and balanced look at the issues. The diverse nature of the chapters give the reader a taste for the many implications that such a shift in “evangelicalism” has.
This could also not be released at a better time. More people than ever are hearing about the “emerging church”. Relevant magazine continues to grow in popularity. The interest of laymen continues to peak—especially with the younger Christians (whose culture has been “lobotomized by television” and the ever-present image), who realize some of their mumbo jumbo postmodern theology has a name.
All this brings me to two criticisms, both minor. The first is its highly academic nature. This is, of course, their intention because “as goes the academy, so goes the church” (p. 31), however, it would be helpful if it were a little more in reach of the average laymen who does not have extensive theological or philosophical training. I do believe most of the chapters are accessible to the majority of Christians, but for some of the more philosophically oriented chapters (especially 3-5) I recommend having something like the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy or the Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion handy.
My second criticism is the book does not deal with the practical church and dialog issues as much as I would have liked. How are we to interact with postconservative evangelicals in church settings? What is the best way to combat these tendencies from taking over our churches? In what way should we use medium—such as the Internet, one of postconservative’s major strengths—to our advantage? Questions like these might take a sequel to answer. However, we may have to look to the upcoming Becoming Conversant with Emergent by D. A. Carson (expected April 2005) to address these questions.
While Reclaiming the Center is a thoroughly academic work, there is no reason for the book to be read only by those in academia. But don’t just take my word for it. This book has endorsements by famous scholars such as J.I. Packer, Albert Mohler, Timothy George, Richard Mouw, and David Dockery. And, with them, I conclude that anyone who is interested in the emergent church movement will find this helpful and enlightening, and I highly encourage you to examine it and consider the devastating effects of postconservative theology in our calling to “test all things” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).