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Harriet A. Harris
How Should Evangelicals Do Theology? Stop Fretting About Sure-Footedness
Papers and responses from the first annual Theology Conference at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, in October 1999 have been gathered in a volume edited by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation About Theological Method (Baker Books), with contributions by Stanley J. Grenz, Trevor Hart, Alister E. McGrath, Roger E. Olson, J.I. Packer, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stephen Williams. Books & Culture asked Harriet Harris and Richard Mouw to respond to this volume, with an eye to what it says about the current state of evangelical theology.
As a student, I was booed in an evangelical church in Oxford for saying that I studied theology. In Evangelical Futures, Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us of Bernard Ramm's alarm when he realized that instead of a theology he had a rag-bag collection of doctrines. These anecdotes suggest that in recent times evangelicals have weakened their own theological awareness and practice.
Two factors help to explain how this happened. First, evangelicals became preoccupied with the nature and interpretation of Scripture and their concern to be "Bible people" (cf. Evangelical Futures, pp. 9, 46). Second, they developed a narrow conception of the theological task, understanding it in terms of "biblical induction." According to this conception, the systematician collects relevant biblical texts on a given topic and develops from them general conclusions. Insights from the Christian community down the ages are not integral to this task, and the purpose of systematic theology is hard to imagine other than that it enables us to teach ourselves and others what the whole Bible says. In other words, theology is deemed worthwhile because it helps us to know the Bible better. This view of theology resulted in the doctrinal rag-bag that so appalled Ramm.
Contributors to Evangelical Futures seek to enrich evangelicalism for the future by attending to theological method. They take us beyond biblical induction, though still a key issue between ...