On “The Neo-Dark Ages of Modern Theology”: Getting Beyond the Smorgasbord of 21st Century Evangelical Theology without Ditching the Modern

Theology isn’t a smorgasbord, but to view my evangelical world you’d never know it. High church confessionalists/traditionalists have greater clarity in this area than does the low-Free-church evangelical world. This is largely due to the fact that us evangelicals were formed out of the post-Enlightenment, deconfessionalized mode of ecclesial identity. In other words, evangelicals, by and large, are a people of the Book, yet abstracted from the Bible’s broader historical reception as that perdured into the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox period. It is difficult to write on this just because what it means to be an evangelical these days represents a massive continuum. Many so-called evangelicals were raised in the sort of deconfessionalized vanilla evangelicalism I am referring to above, and it is for precisely this reason that these types are attempting retrieve what they believe to be the theological foundations of evangelicalism; particularly as that is found in scholasticism Reformed.

But what I largely take evangelicalism to be is indeed a mode of modernity. That is, most of evangelicalism is a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the revivalism/conversionism therein. This is a religion shorn of its historical antecedents, and one that focuses on the turn-to-the-subject, on a warm-hearted pietism that focuses more on an individualistic understanding of Christian spirituality rather than on a spirituality formed by the communio sanctorum. With this ‘turn’ in place, evangelicals, modern in just this way, feel free to roam the planes and valleys in search of whatever expression of the Christian development suits their fancy; however said fancy may have developed for them. These evangelicals aren’t anchored to a tradition, or a confession, per se; at best, their confession is: ‘me-and-my-Jesus-me-and-my-Bible.’ Armed with this mantra, girdled by a staunch solo Scriptura, such evangelicals have little time for church history; especially when church history for them started the day they received Jesus into their hearts. When church history starts in a center in the self-possessed self, it is this self that gets to determine what sorts of theologies they will be formed by. And even if this type of evangelical looks to the past it will always be grounded in the touchstone of their lives, them.

As far as sketches go, I think the above, in an oversimplified way works. When attempting to fellowship with Christians who have been spiritually formed under such conditions (the ones just mentioned) it becomes quite difficult to achieve any sort of depth dimension, insofar as that dimension exists in the tradition[s] of the church. If such evangelicals have intentionally shucked the husk of the church’s confessions it becomes almost completely impossible to go any deeper than 1973, or whenever said evangelical said yes to Jesus. This produces, at an essential level, a fragmented communion, and as such when communions like this attempt to stand together, say against the wiles of the devil, what ends up happening is that the spiritual vacuum their lives are funded by quickly becomes exposed. In an attempt to shore up this vacuum the evangelical will collectively project their sense of individuality onto their leader; i.e. their erstwhile charismatically gifted pastor. As such, a personality cult is born, and the peoples’ unity becomes contingent upon the man, instead of the cosmic Christ, as He has leavened His church with His wisdom throughout the centuries in the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints).

Maybe this helps frame the way of evangelicalism in these our days. Maybe you feel famished, bereft of any depth reality in your daily Christian spirituality. The church is part of a cosmic reaching reality just as her esse is grounded in Jesus Christ and the Triune God. When Christians are cut off from this deep theological (and even historical) well, it becomes seemingly bleak when attempting to move and breath as a Christian in the 21st century. Is the antidote to this to do what the evangelical theologians of retrieval are attempting, to demonize modern theological developments, and jump back to the ostensible formations of “genuine evangelical” theology, as that is supposedly funded and founded in the Post Reformed orthodox developments (of the 16th and 17th centuries)? This doesn’t seem, to me, to be the best way forward. While I am a proponent of being critical of the negative turns made by the ‘new theology’ of the 18th and 19th c. I am not of the belief that modern theology, and even aspects of so-called turn-to-the-subject are purely evil. I believe it is possible to take what modern (and its antecedent mediating) theology has handed to us, and constructively reify that from within a genuinely Christ conditioned confessional frame regulated by what I take to be the regula fidei (rule of faith) of Christ’s life who continuously is in-breaking into His church even today.

Personally, while I reject the smorgasbord self-interested spirituality and doctrinal quilting of most of 21st c. Evangelical style, I think it is imprudent to simply ditch the whole modern period as if representative of a neo-dark ages that must be ignored. I think this is imprudent because in order to do so the “jumper” (of the ditch of modernity) must posit themself in such a way (which itself is a purely modern way to think) to imagine that they aren’t inherently modern themselves. But they are indeed a modern people, and when they attempt to ignore modern theology, in se, they only assume modernity’s anthropological mode of positing or starting with a self-asserted self in search of the ‘true-theology’ (the one developed, in their discursive reasonings, in the 16th and 17th c). In my view, it is best to simply acknowledge that we are a modern people, and to understand that God has been speaking to and in His church in and through all periods. This way we, as the people of God, are starting in a position where we are not the magisterium, but the ministerium of God’s Holy people the church. In other words, when we acknowledge that God has been present throughout, as if a yeast, the ambit of all church history, up to and into the present moment, we are recognizing that we are simply beggars-all, waiting upon God. As we are formed from this alien starting point, in the center of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ, as He ever afresh anew makes Himself known to us, it is from this eagle’s nest, seated at the Right Hand of the Father, high above all rulers and principalities, that the Christian can genuinely operate from the confessional reality of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ.

This is just the beginning of a proposal.

One thought on “On “The Neo-Dark Ages of Modern Theology”: Getting Beyond the Smorgasbord of 21st Century Evangelical Theology without Ditching the Modern

  1. “In my view, it is best to simply acknowledge that we are a modern people, and to understand that God has been speaking to and in His church in and through all periods. This way we, as the people of God, are starting in a position where we are not the magisterium, but the ministerium of God’s Holy people the church. In other words, when we acknowledge that God has been present throughout, as if a yeast, the ambit of all church history, up to and into the present moment, we are recognizing that we are simply beggars-all, waiting upon God.”

    What a breath of fresh air!… (or perhaps an inspiration of ruach is more apropos)… “as He ever afresh and makes Himself known to us… what hope there IS in Christ! And (even among the Gentiles) Christ in me/you (us), the hope of glory!

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