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Renewing the Evangelical Mission edited by Richard Lints

David A. Booth

Renewing the Evangelical Mission, edited by Richard Lints. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2013, 282 pages, $34.00, paper.

The paradox of evangelicalism is that it retains extraordinary vitality while its theological core is rotting away. The clash of these conflicting realities generates an endless stream of renewal movements and gives cause for both despair and hope about evangelicalism’s future. It is therefore particularly fitting that David Wells, the keenest critic of Western evangelicalism, would be honored by a conference devoted to renewing the evangelical mission. This volume of essays arose from the lectures given at that conference.

The erudite article “Found Faithful” by Os Guinness can serve as a useful lens through which to view the book’s twelve essays. Like several of the authors, Guinness draws our attention to the rise of global Christianity and the shift of the church’s center from the West to the global South. He writes:

The churches in the global south are truly exploding, but most of the global South is pre-modern. They have yet to face what Peter Berger calls “the fiery brook” of modernity, in which we were so badly burned. This means that much of what we have to share with our sisters and brothers in the global South is a confession and a caution: “don’t do what we did.” (94)

The pessimism that this comment reveals about Western Christianity is striking. Yes, we must work and pray with our brothers and sisters in the global South in the hope that they will not repeat our mistakes. But where is the sense of gratitude that the Western church has been entrusted with important doctrinal insights gained through centuries of debate and reflection? Where is the sense of duty that, as stewards of this deposit, we have the privilege of contending for these truths while handing them on to those who are first and second generation Christians? This pessimism about the Western church can also be found in Professor Tite Tienou’s article “Renewing Evangelical Identity from the Margins” which expansively treats the relationship between worldwide mission and evangelical identity. The primary concern of this article seems to be how Western Christianity marginalizes non-Western churches or perceives non-Western theologies “as threats to orthodoxy” (43). These are important themes for consideration, but what’s odd in a series of articles designed to honor the author of No Place for Truth,[1] is that the authors in this volume seem utterly unconcerned with the possibility that such theologies may in fact actually be a threat to orthodoxy.[2] Indeed, it is difficult to see what is distinctly evangelical about these discussions of global Christianity and why Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants couldn’t say the very same things.

It would be unfair to conclude from the above that the essays in this collection are not concerned with truth. Dr. Guinness, for example, expresses a longing for God to send a modern day Luther to liberate us from our own Babylonian captivity (105–6). He even urges the church to recapture its prophetic voice in the tradition of Elijah on Mount Carmel (107). Yet, apparently unaware of the irony, Guinness is simultaneously calling evangelicals away from extremism (97–98).   It is difficult to imagine a scholar of such wit and wisdom missing the incongruity of wanting a Luther or an Elijah but without the extremism. The only person unquestionably more extreme and divisive than Luther and Elijah is the Lord Jesus Christ.[3] Perhaps Guinness only wants to eliminate the bitter political divisions that have increasingly come to define American life. If so, who could demur? But the irony of wanting the results of a Luther or an Elijah without the extremism permeates the articles in this book and may be the central tension in this strand of evangelicalism. Indeed, it would be difficult to find anything in these articles that would offend anyone anywhere—and that seems to be the studied point. The vision of evangelicalism which emerges from these articles is one that seeks the results of reformation without the real world conflict that genuine reformation necessarily entails. It defines itself over against fundamentalism every bit as much as it does against liberalism. It seeks to engender a robust theological self-consciousness without throwing anyone out of evangelicalism’s big tent or being called names by Christianity’s cultured despisers. It seeks orthodoxy without borders. That is, it wants what never was and never will be.

Will this collection of essays on evangelical renewal be remembered as the last gasp of a dying coalition? Given the vitality of evangelicalism, that would be a premature conclusion to draw. Professor Lints wisely opens the book with the questions: “Whose evangelicalism? Which renewal?” (1). We should remember that the articles in this book reflect only the small slice of evangelicalism which is centered on parachurch educational institutions in North America.[4] Nevertheless, although this is only a slice of evangelicalism, these institutions are influential and Orthodox Presbyterians will want to consider the view through the window of these essays before entrusting these institutions with our financial resources or with the formal education of our children or future pastors. It is difficult to find any other compelling reason to read this book. Perhaps those who enjoy discussing the aesthetics of fire while watching a house burn down can happily wile away several hours perusing this work. Those willing to put on a helmet and actually rush into the fire will be far better equipped to do so by reading (or re-reading) David Well’s The Courage to Be Protestant.[5]

Endnotes

[1] David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] For a brilliant work which seeks to integrate insights from global Christianity into a doctrinally orthodox Christianity see Tim Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

[3] E.g., Matthew 10:21–22, 34–39; Luke 14:26; 18:22.

[4] Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is the one significant denominational seminary in this evangelical coalition. TEDS promotes itself on its website as “pan-evangelical” with a “commitment to broad evangelicalism that welcomes voices from various denominational and theological traditions.”

[5] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, May 2014.

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