On the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Modern Theology and Its Conservative Evangelical Despisers

To be a purveyor of ‘Modern Theology,’ at least in the conservative evangelical world makes you suspect in regard to your ‘orthodoxy.’ For some reason among conservative evangelical theologians and pastors, in the main, there is this pervasive belief that in order to imbibe a ‘catholic’ faith the church must bring herself to orbit around the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas and the supposed linkage from him to the patristics in regard to a doctrine of God and its implicates towards constructively working out theories of salvation and so forth. Anything after the 18th century, according to this optic, falls off into the sphere of at best, heterodoxy, and at worst, heresy. But when it comes to actually material theological concerns and ideation construction, when an honest effort is made to engage with modern theologians (which I would suggest is rare among the conservative evangelical theologians who believe we must skip past that period back to the catholic faith propounded as nearly as the 16th and 17th centuries and backwards) what is found is the same spirit that has pervaded all theological construction through all the periods. It strikes me as odd! when folks summarily write off the modern period as if people aren’t still people and God still is not God; as if the Enlightenment and Renaissance so upended the epistemological moorings of the world that a new class of ideators was given birth to such that they are best relegated to the land of theological monsters and zombies rather than Christian people and theologians who like the rest of the Christians in the history of the church are attempting in good faith to know God and make him known. When I survey the history of Christian thought what is striking to me is the commonality shared among all the theologians of every period; indeed, in the modern period we see the same types of ideas, even if “sophisticated” in modern dress, being wrestled with as we see in the early church and medieval periods. This is why I continue to scratch my head in wonder when I see young and old conservative evangelical theologians ridiculing, and at best suspiciously engaging with modern theologians; as if they are potentially going to become heretics by mere association.

In an attempt to underscore with some sobriety what modern theology entails when placed upon against the other periods of theological development, here is Bruce McCormack’s sketch. You will notice that he mentions none of what I just have, and instead simply focuses on various theological themes and doctrines to allow such questions, as each period was so preoccupied with them respectively, to be the way into engaging with modern theology among the various other periodized theological developments. This has the effect, I think, of disarming the often antagonistic approach to the moderns, and allows material theological concerns to frame the entryway.

“Modern” theology emerged, in my view, at the point at which (on the one hand) church-based theologians ceased trying to defend and protect the received orthodoxies of the past against erosion and took up the more fundamental challenge of asking how the theological values resident in those orthodoxies might be given an altogether new expression, dressed out in new categories for reflection. It was the transition, then, from a strategy of “accommodation” to the task of “mediation” that was fundamental in the ecclesial sphere. In philosophy, as it relates to the theological enterprise (on the other hand), the defining moment that effected a transition entailed a shift from a cosmologically based to an anthropologically based metaphysics of divine being.

The transitions I have in mind, insofar as they registered a decisive impact on Christian theology, were effected by means of a few very basic decisions in particular. Every period in the history of theology has had its basic questions and concerns that shaped the formulation of doctrines in all areas of reflection. In the early church, it was Trinity and Christology that captured the attention of the greatest minds. In the transition to the early Middle Ages, Augustinian anthropology played a large role—which would eventually effect a shift in attention from theories of redemption to the need to understand how God is reconciled with sinful human beings. The high Middle Ages were the heyday of sacramental development, in which definitions of sacraments were worked out with great care, the number of sacraments established, and so on. The Reformation period found its center of gravity in the doctrine of justification. In the modern period, the question of questions became the nature of God and his relation to the world. Basic decisions were thus made in the areas of creation, the being of God and his relation to the world, and revelation, which were to become foundational for further development in other areas of doctrinal concern. It is to a consideration of these basic decisions that we must now turn in our efforts to understand what it means to be “modern” in Christian theology.[1]

An important aspect to note in McCormack’s sketch is the shift he identifies in the modern period from accommodation to mediation. As David Congdon develops in his big book on Bultmann mediation has much to do with missiology and mission. So if this is the case modern theology as a mediating-factored endeavor focuses on translating received theological concepts into is modern milieu under the intellectual and social pressures present during that time. The fear, of course, is that these ‘pressures’ exert too much force on the translator with the result being that the orthodox faith which is ostensibly being translated becomes a tertium quid and no longer recognizable as a catholic reality as that is defined by the classical theistic confines. Even so, I contend that what modern theologians were doing was far less sinister than it has been made to be, and have very valuable considerations and innovations to offer the ongoing development of the church catholic as she draws nearer and nearer to the unity of the faith once and all delivered to the saints.

On a personal note, because I am vociferously enamored with certain developments in modern theology, and because of that critical of some of the classical theistic project, conservative evangelicals tend to view me with suspicion. This is ironic to me because I am quite conservative evangelical myself. I am hoping that the quote from McCormack illustrates how we might approach modern theology with the sobriety it ought to be approached with, and allow that to temper the constant suspicion and indeed animus that so many operate with towards modern theology. It is true that modern theology and theologians can be and are just as antithetical towards “pre-modern” theologies of retrieval, and the material theological ideas being resourced therefrom, but not all of modern theology has this type of animus; indeed the best modern theologians recognized the relative value of even classical theistic conceptions and constructed their theological programs from there. It would be a blessing if conservative evangelical theologians and pastors could come to the realization that God has spoken (Deus dixit) and that God still speaks (Deus adhuc loquitur) even in the 21st century; indeed he still speaks under the conditions present—intellectual and social—and desires to be heard even in this day.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, “Introduction,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012), 11, 14 scribd edition.


2 thoughts on “On the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Modern Theology and Its Conservative Evangelical Despisers

  1. I lovingly call this mentality “Stuck in the Fundamentalist- Modernist Split With You”. It seems that despite their claims to orthodoxy and universality, the happenings of mainly European and White American Protestantism of just the last 100-200 years become normative and only Fosdick and Machen, Schleiermacher, Kuyper, and Warfield are seen and one must choose a side. The Reformation proper, the medieval period and the time of the Fathers I don’t think are fully analyzed and true catholicity like you says become certain movements from W. Protestantism in two centuries. Ironically in all this the real tradition evangelicalism actually comes from, the Radical Reformation, the Baptist, Revivalist Movements and Pietist seem to be ignored and replaced with a lot of the failed theology of the Magisterial Reformation.
    Also I think this thinking takes from the Enlightenment notion of “progress” and how as time goes forward humanity advances and the assumptions of the darken passed must be cut off, instead of the accepting that full fledged like the theological modernist they like to defend against they accept the premise but turn it around into a reaction conservatism that looks at the future/contemporary period with suspicion and favors the past. This explains neo-evangelicalism attachment to conservative politics, yearning for Christendom, the debacle with gender-roles and the Trinity a few years back and the general anxiety/pessimism.


  2. Dear Abby 😉 ,

    Yes, I agree that much of the heritage of the Free church evangelicalism can indeed be traced to the Radical Reformation, pietism, keswick spirituality etc. But, importantly, a significant part of even Free church evangelical theology finds its heritage in Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, as Richard Muller calls it; thus the retrieval and resurgence of Reformed theology (which for conservative evangelicals is distilled by entities like The Gospel Coalition etc).

    Yes, I also think there is some fear of progress among conservative evangelicals (of course this label is very broad), but it is ironic that free church evangelicalism, particularly among Fundamentalists, took shape under the pressures of progressive thinking (like revelation millennarianism etc) which borrowed from its place in history as we see the inverse of that in history of religions positivism, marxism, englesism etc. I think Puritanism has A LOT to do with American evangelical pietism beyond what we find in the Radical Reformation. We might get the Free idea of ecclesiology from Anabaptists, but clearly, most evangelicals in America are not Anabaptist and instead are of the Reformed orientation in background; even if only loosely related by acknowledgement or self-awareness.


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