Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier
Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015
$26.00. | 301 pp.
“What is evangelical theology today?” This is the question posed on the rear flap of this recent monograph by Kevin Vanhoozer (Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Daniel Treier (Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College). Writing as evangelicals, the authors of Theology and the Mirror of Scripture work to answer this question not primarily socially or historically, but rather theologically, in the form of a manifesto. They do so out of a conviction that North American evangelicalism – having become both too culturally accommodated and too sectarian – “needs renewal through retrieval of the evangel.” (11)
The primary metaphor offered for the remedy commended in this volume is that of Holy Scripture as a mirror – one that reflects, first and foremost, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, as a corrective measure, the authors enjoin professing evangelicals (particularly of the North American breed) to gaze afresh into the image that Scripture supplies, and at the same time to allow their own image be conformed into that likeness. In doing so, the authors hope that a very countercultural sort of unity may be achieved – one that brings evangelicals of all stripes together, as they affirm their shared interest in and commitment to the gospel.
Borrowing from C.S. Lewis, the authors brand this approach a mere evangelical theology, meaning one that emphasizes evangelical essentials, for the sake of unity. This is intended to be a middle way between traditionalist (bounded set) and reformist (centered set) approaches – a via media that is described as an anchored approach, encompassing “a Protestant ecumenical range of motion while anchored to the biblical, Trinitarian and crucicentric gospel.” (21)
Prior to sketching the lineaments of this middle way, the authors provide a diagnosis of the contemporary North American evangelical scene. The trope employed in so doing (borrowing again from C.S. Lewis) is that of venturing beyond the ‘hallway’ (which represents ‘mere evangelical theology’) that connects the various “rooms in the evangelical household,” and taking time to inspect these rooms. (23) Through this process of exploration, the authors identify a number of factors that complicate the provision of a mere evangelical theology, including recent evangelical re-engagement with the academy, awareness of the Great Tradition and global Christianity, and existence in an era where “new media” fosters “faster” and “more polarizing conversation.” (26)
Recognizing that the current situation makes it difficult to distinguish between “evangelical theology” (that which indeed mirrors Scripture) and “theology done by evangelicals” (often simply that which mirrors evangelical culture), the authors attempt to reorient mere evangelicalism around a more robustly ecclesiological account of what it means to reflect Scripture, along the way seeking to “transcend a merely American locale.” (27) In order to do so, they seek to “present a united, clear distillation of evangelical theology as the pursuit of wisdom, via ‘theological interpretation of Scripture,’ in the drama of the church’s worship and witness.” (40)
This stated goal is worked out within in the book’s two main sections. Part One: The Agenda deals with “the material and formal principles of evangelical theology,” and contains two chapters. The first chapter focuses on “the reality behind the mirror,” that is, “the gospel of God and the God of the gospel.” The second chapter concerns “the authority of the mirror,” and moves from “the ontology to the epistemology of the gospel, from the material to the formal principle.” (81)
Part Two: The Analysis builds upon the first part and labors to work out the practical implications of a right apprehension of Scripture’s mirror over the course of four chapters, in which four desiderata of practical evangelical are posited: 1) it is done in search of wisdom, 2) it recognizes the need for theological exegesis, 3) it proceeds in fellowship with the saints, and 4) it pursues scholarly excellence.
Having assembled the components of a mere evangelical theology – one that includes parts fitted for both right doctrine and right practice – the authors conclude by underscoring the fact that theology’s ultimate purpose “is to help the church glorify and enjoy God forever. The end result of theology is not theories about God but godliness.” (255) Godliness entails not just correct theological beliefs, but further, wisdom, which is the “lived understanding of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” (257)
However, one cannot live in such a manner independently. Rather, it “takes a company of disciples – a church – to embody in concrete practices what is in Christ.” (257) Living as the church involves reflecting the eschaton in the present age, and a key way it does so is through ongoing participation in the Lord’s Supper, which is envisioned here as “a symbol for mere evangelical theology” wherein baptized believers of different “confessional, denominational, geographical and contextual boundaries” demonstrate their unity in Christ.
On the whole, the aim of this book is laudable, and the central question that it seeks to address is certainly a timely and pressing one. There is presently something of an evangelical identity crisis (at the very least in North America), and seeking to unite evangelicals by giving definition to the corridor that unites the various and often disparate evangelical rooms is a valid means of working to resolve this perceived crisis. Further, a potential solution that attempts to achieve such unity theologically, through appeal to the biblical gospel, seems fitting.
Still, this book is best thought of as a step towards a solution, rather than a definitive statement of the solution. Part of this is the fact that all theology in this life is done in via (something the authors recognize). Along with this, there is the nagging question of how to demonstrate continuity with the “communion of saints” by respecting “earlier creedal formulations” and councils, while at the same time upholding sola Scriptura. (124-25) Just which ecumenical councils ought evangelicals to heed – the first four, or the first seven? And on what basis may evangelicals propose a denial or revision of the decisions made by these councils?
Furthermore, while Vanhoozer and Treier supply a helpful heuristic by identifying at least three levels of doctrine, who decides which doctrines get assigned to which level? Many evangelicals, I think, would flinch at the authors’ assignment of the doctrines of sin, the atonement, and justification to secondary (non-essential) status. Perhaps the larger problem here is the one already mentioned: there is a present evangelical identity crisis. Does identifying as an evangelical mean anchoring one’s-self to the gospel defined in terms of first-level dogmas, or to a more nuanced gospel definition that is refined by specific positions concerning second (and maybe even third) level doctrines?
When considering questions like those posed above, one is confronted with the fact that all sets (whether centered or anchored) have boundaries – and as such, the ongoing evangelical quest to align our boundaries with Scripture remains no easy task. This is why virtues such as humility and charity (which, all too often, have been absent in some evangelical quarters) are so crucial. So then, I am grateful for the presence of these virtues in Theology and the Mirror of Scripture. If nothing else, this book stands as a model for how to engage the current conversation regarding the whence, where, and whither of evangelical theology in an informed and irenic – yet still passionate – manner.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.