Evaluation of Domesticating the Gospel by D. A. Carson

Image            D.A. Carson’s commitment to Biblical truth and responsible theology is commendable in his review of Stanley Grenz’s book Renewing the Center[1].  He starts off with a summary of two theological extremes (exclusivity to either past or present theological discovery) and chooses “the golden mean”[2] between them.  Responsible theological reflection, according to Carson, “must simultaneously embrace the best of the heritage from the past, and address the present.”[3]  The one extreme of theologians restricting themselves to only honoring the past end up where “they may become mere purveyors of antiquarian artifacts, however valuable those artifacts may be:”[4]  On the other hand, if theologians exclusively honor the present, “it is not long before they squander their heritage and become, as far as the gospel is concerned, largely irrelevant to the world they seek to reform, because unwittingly they domesticate the gospel to the contemporary worldview, thereby robbing it of its power.”[5]

            Carson then brings out Grenz’ view of the current state of evangelicalism as a theological phenomenon.  There were, according to Grenz, three main factors in the shaping of this phenomenon, namely, “the magisterial reformation, the evangelical awakenings of the eighteenth century, and modern conservative evangelicalism”.[6]  He gives credit to Grenz’s studious commitment on these three contributions in an attempt to “tease out a trajectory of historical development”.  Based on the great gulf fixed between schools of theological thought, Carson questions rightly if we might be “on the verge of evangelicalism’s demise”.

Reading the Bible as Community
Carson commends Grenz for not wanting to lose sight of Scripture but comments on how far he has moved away from Luther’s Sola Scriptura.  Grenz does affirm that the Bible is the “primary voice” in theological circles but he believes that it must not be looked upon as independent of the cultural makeup of the community.  Grenz proposes, “the ultimate authority in the church is the Spirit speaking through Scripture”, but also affirms “that speaking is always a contextual speaking… coming to its hearers with a specific historical-cultural context [italics mine].” [7]  Listening for the Spirit who speaks the Word through the word always does so within the particularities of the hearer’s social/contextual construct.  This way the Spirit is able to “speak in all things, albeit always according to the Word who is Christ.”  Carson says that this particular approach opens the way to foundationalism’s demise.

            One assumption, observed from Grenz, is the Christian assertion of God’s tri-unity, and that it mandates a communitarian focus while being basic to theology.  This is a tenable assertion but it does open the way for introducing community as “theology’s integrative motif”, according to Carson.  Grenz also says that theology and science “alike are social constructions.”[8]  He is insistent that the world-in-itself is an unavoidable social construction concluding that both theologians and scientists are involved in the world construction process.  Frequently when Grenz offers up a historical judgment, it tends to be deeply one-sided and partial, in need of competent appraisal from an outside source.

Evangelical vs. Evangelicalism
            Carson asserts that, based upon the divide among evangelicals concerning the aforementioned, the terms evangelical and evangelicalism should be defined apart from each other.  The body of Christ is indeed wide and there are several schools of thought in and among theological circles.  Without hesitation Grenz affirms the sociological / historical approach purported by William Abraham.  In this approach the terms evangelical and evangelicalism are under the same broad umbrella.  The danger in this results when evangelicalism becomes a word used in application to various diverse groups that use the word “evangelicals” in description of themselves.  By doing this Grenz is able to “smuggle into the rubric various contemporary scholars and movements whom no evangelical thinker would have admitted as “evangelical” a mere half century ago”[9], according to Carson.

Whether Grenz has done this in particular or unintentionally, he has been hoodwinked into one of the foundational antitheses clinched by postmodernism: that we can either know something in terms of absolutes or our understanding of it has been reduced to nothing more than something socially constructed.  As responsible theologians and Christians, we must not accept that this analysis is a convincing alternative.  If we do than we will be, according to Carson, “driving to a pretty radical postmodernism, because anyone can always show that human beings no nothing omnisciently.”  By this Grenz affirms a never questioning and simplistic antithesis, which leads him to a mere swank and trendy treatment of science and theology.

Carson does go on to affirm that there is an element of truth in this postmodern assertion, purported by Grenz, in that human beings are never infinite, and that their knowledge is never absolute, final, or omniscient.  He goes on to say, that “all human articulation is necessarily within the bounds of some culture or other, and can thus truly be said to be a social construct. But to run from this fair observation to the insistence that it is improper to talk about objective truth, or about human knowledge of truth, is merely a reflection of being hoodwinked by that one untenable antithesis.”[10]  We may not have perfect knowledge or omniscience, but we can certainly know some things truly.  There are many key passages in Scripture saying that believers can know the truth, and are obligated to pass it on to others as the truth (Psalm 119:160, Matt 28:20, 2 Tim 2:2, 2 Peter 1:20-21).

[1] Grenz, Stanley. Renewing the Center. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Publishing. 2000, 2006

[2] “In philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mean_(philosophy)

[3] Erikson, Millard. Helseth, Paul, J., Taylor, Justin. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Theological Accommodation in Postmodern Times. Wheaton, IL. Crossway Books. 2004

[4] Ibid, p.33

[5] Ibid, p.33

[6] Grenz affirms this trifecta of contributions to modern evangelicalism from William J. Abraham who is an Irish theologian, and United Methodist pastor who is also a Professor of Wesley Studies at SMU: Perkins School of Theology. http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/FacultyAcademics/DirectoryList/Abraham

[7] Erikson, Millard. Helseth, Paul, J., Taylor, Justin. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Theological Accommodation in Postmodern Times. (p.37) Wheaton, IL. Crossway Books. 2004

[8] Ibid, p.38

[9] Ibid, p.43

[10] Ibid, p.47

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