Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity … What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 201 pp., cloth, $14.99.
Clark H. Pinnock, Tracking the Maze: Finding Our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 222 pp., cloth, $24.95.
Hendrickus Berkhof, Two Hundred Years of Theology: Report of a Personal Journey Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 312 pp., cloth, $29.95.
A visiting church leader from an undeveloped nation recently commented that American pastors seemed answerable to efficiency and growth as the measures of ministry. In his part of the world, he related, they could afford only the standard of faithfulness.
Every serious preacher knows that a theological vocation is part of the call to the pulpit. And yet, many preachers consider engagement with the theological issues to be among the luxuries displaced by the press of ministry tasks.
We preach and minister in an atheological age; that is, an age in which theology, the pursuit of the true, has been pressed to the margins by the pursuit of the practical, the successful, and the entertaining. This makes the preacher’s vocation as a steward of the Christian theological heritage all the more critical. If faithful engagement with doctrine and theological concerns is not found in the pulpit, it will not be found.
Preachers looking for an opportunity to join three capable and engaging theologians on a journey into some of the most basic issues in contemporary theology will find Thomas Oden, Clark Pinnock, and Hendrikus Berkhof worthy summer companions.
Oden, who teaches theology and ethics at Drew University in New Jersey, is one of the most prolific contemporary theologians, with a half-dozen significant titles published in the 1980s. Oden’s After Modernity, a revision and expansion of his earlier Agenda for Theology, is part mea culpa and partly an indictment of modern theology’s abdication of classical Christianity.
Oden’s confessional rehearsal of his days as a “movement theologian” speak volumes of the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. Oden chronicles his travels from one theological way station to the next, each a form of accommodation to modernity at the expense of classical concerns. “The shocker,” he states, “is not merely that I rode so many bandwagons, but that I thought I was doing Christian teaching a marvelous favor by it and at times considered this accommodation the very substance of the Christian teaching office.” Each of these movements had, in Oden’s pointed words, “rebaptized Christianity in the triune name of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.”
In Agenda (1979) Oden had called for a return to “postmodern orthodoxy,” the classical expression of Christian truth communicated in contemporary terms. In the meantime, the deconstructionists and revisionists had hijacked the term “postmodern,” necessitating Oden’s use of “postcritical” for his call to faithfulness. Oden’s systematic efforts reveal a postcritical appropriation of classical and patristic texts. (See the two volumes of his systematic theology The Living Word and The Word of Life (Harper and Row). A third volume will eventually complete the project.)
A concern for the church pervades Oden’s discussion. He calls for the church to rediscover the distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and asks what such a rediscovery would mean for the pulpit and the pew.
The enemy is clearly unmasked as modernity, with its omnivorous appetite for convictional concessions. The church is beset with “modern chauvinists” who champion relevance over revelation.
After Modernity is a programmatic treatise, but it reads as energetically as the morning’s newspaper. Oden writes with passion and with credibility. His turn from the liberal experiment to classical Christianity is neither naive nor spontaneous. It arose out of disillusionment and a sense of betrayal at the hands of experimentation. He does not call for an abdication of theological responsibility in the present; he calls for contemporary theology to find itself again in continuity with its confessional heritage and in conversation with the present.
Oden’s latest offering includes a consideration of issues ranging from the appropriate limits on biblical criticisms to the role of theological education. Throughout, Oden demonstrates keen thinking and faithful commitment. He is neither pessimistic nor giddily hopeful, but he is ever conscious of the task: “Many may still persist in viewing Christianity essentially as an object of aesthetic interest, a curious yet lovely modern collage, without reference to its historical identity, its power to redeem, or its radical claim on the human spirit. The happy task of theology is to rediscover and reveal the message underneath the garish modern overlay.”
If Oden’s pilgrimage was a radical shift from left to right, Clark Pinnock has moved in the reverse direction, yet far less radically. Pinnock remains in the evangelical movement, though he presses the leftward flank on some issues.
Pinnock has played an important role in American evangelicalism, but also within Baptist ranks in the U.S. and Canada, much as Oden has become an important figure in current United Methodist discussions. A Canadian by birth, Pinnock teaches theology at McMaster Divinity School outside Toronto. He previously served on the faculties of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Regent College, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Tracking the Maze is Pinnock’s most significant treatise in many years. His measured cadence and irenic spirit are evident throughout the volume, and those who find their way into its pages will think themselves in the midst of a friendly, but often pointed, theological conversation.
Pinnock describes a critical “identity crisis” in contemporary theology “in which some theologians are no longer able to distinguish what is Christian truth from what is not.” Relativity has so consumed the moment that “theology seems to be drowning in a sea of human opinions and modern trends.” Yet, Pinnock does not fear the radical left so much as the constant temptation to accommodate to modern culture.
Pinnock is a master at laying out a topographical map of the theological terrain. He describes the range of options in contemporary theology from modernism, through evangelical liberalism and conservative evangelicalism, to fundamentalism. Both modernism and fundamentalism are closed systems, he suggests, leaving evangelical liberalism and conservative evangelicalism to leave some room for openness.
The main fixtures on Pinnock’s theological topography are the progressives, the conservatives, and the moderates. His revealing discussion of these three major options is an entre into a wealth of theological concerns and issues. In separate chapters Pinnock investigates these three main options, leaving their strengths and weaknesses open to view.
Pinnock describes modern theology as “a labyrinthian maze which practically defies tracking,” thus his title. Nevertheless, Pinnock is a creative and compelling guide through the maze. His own pilgrimage from the rigid fundamentalism of his youth to an open evangelicalism has included numerous stops along the way, and several significant shifts. Included in these shifts have been revisions of his earlier model of biblical inerrancy, a turn from Calvinism to Arminianism, and a renewal experience which prompted a reappraisal of the charismatic movement.
Thus Pinnock, while never a movement theologian in Oden’s sense, has found himself at several way stations on the evangelical path. He remains an illusive figure who resists any standard stereotype. Most significantly, perhaps, is Pinnock’s search for a postmodern evangelical theology — a model which would incorporate the strength of progressive courage with conservative conviction. His sympathies are clearly with the “moderates” who attempt mediating positions, sharing a basic grammar of faith and classical Christian concerns.
Tracking the Maze includes a lengthy and interesting review of theological shifts since the rise of the Enlightenment as context for the present situation, in which the most critical divide is between theological realists who hold to some objective truth, and the nonrealists who have forsaken objective truth.
Pinnock borrows from Tolkien in naming the gospel a “eucatastrophe,” a myth made fact. Christianity is, in a sense, the story too good to be true, but made true. In a section fertile with immediate significance for preachers, Pinnock calls upon the church to tell this story in its fullness. The theologian, like the preacher, is often best described as narrator.
His call to the gospel is clear: “What is the heart of the Christian revelation, then? It is that God himself in grace has broken through into history and human culture. The gospel proclamation is like a newscast, announcing what God has done for the salvation of humankind, how that God has come in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to reveal to us our true condition and to effect our reconciliation.” Why is this narrative so relevant? Pinnock points to the meeting of narrative and objective truth.
Clark Pinnock remains one of the most interesting theologians active on the North American scene. His programmatic desire to construct an evangelical theological method both conservative and contemporary, matched with the intensity of his mission, makes for an interesting volume.
Another approach to modern theology and the issues of modernity comes from Hendrikus Berkhof in Two Hundred Years of Theology. Berkhof, though hardly a household name in the United States, is one of the leading theologians in Europe. Professor emeritus of dogmatical and biblical theology at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands), Berkhof is known to a generation of seminary students as the author of the systematic theology volume, Christian Faith.
Two Hundred Years of Theology is a tour de force, carrying the reader through modern theology from Immanuel Kant onward. The volume’s subtitle, Report of a Personal Journey, is fulfilled through Berkhof’s candid analysis of trends and movements in modern theology.
The reader will journey with Berkhof through the tumultuous two centuries which are covered by the volume. Berkhof is a master teacher and a keen theological mind. Readers who have not picked up a theological volume since seminary days will find the volume both accessible and challenging. Berkhof cuts to central theological concerns in dealing with each major theologian and issue. His central quest is to analyze each theologian’s interface between theological conviction and contemporary culture.
Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Barth, Bultmann, and a host of other figures are carefully and painstakingly considered with a critical eye and a respectful distance. Two Hundred Years of Theology could be written only by one who has struggled arduously with these critical concerns. Berkhof offers in this volume a distillation of his teaching career and his personal struggle.
Berkhof is convinced that the challenge of secularization will demand the church’s most valiant theological efforts. He is clearly concerned that the church not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Readers are indebted to translator John Vriend for the emergence of this volume in English. Furthermore, Berkhof actually deals with theological developments in both Great Britain and the United States, which is rare indeed for a European theologian — especially one who writes primarily in German. Berkhof demonstrates a careful interaction with several English-speaking figures.
Preachers planning their summer reading will pack one or two of the latest novels, thereby to keep in touch with literary culture. Some will include seminal works in history or other areas of interest. We may hope that many will take the opportunity to dedicate some time and effort to their theological vocation. Berkhof is right; any preacher who seeks to communicate the everlasting Gospel in this age must be thoroughly prepared and ready to deal with the assaults of modernity. Nothing less will do.
Pinnock, Oden, and Berkhof will be engaging summer reading companions for any preacher. Taken together, they are a veritable feast amidst much theological famine.
Booknotes
John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 139 pp., paper, $8.95.
Claypool, currently rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, here releases a second edition of his 1979 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching delivered at the Yale Divinity School. This is Claypool’s classic statement on “confessional preaching” and the “event” character of the preaching act. Claypool was a Southern Baptist when the lectures were delivered, but was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood in 1986.
Philip Yancey, I Was Just Wondering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 234 pp., cloth.
Few contemporary religious writers are as facile with poetry and prose as is Philip Yancey. He is a master at seeing the eternal in the transient and pointing to the sacred in the mundane. I Was Just Wondering is a “Best of Philip Yancey” volume, bringing together some of his finest articles from the last five years.
Yancey is perhaps at his best when asking questions such as: “Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate SCUBA equipment? Who are they beautiful for?” Preachers will find Yancey a catalytic composer.
Thomas G. Long, The Senses of Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 96 pp., paper.
Long, professor of preaching and worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, first delivered the material in this slim volume as lectures at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. The four chapters are incisive and insightful. Long discusses preaching in terms of four “senses.” They are “the eyes of preaching” (vitality in the pulpit), “the voice” of the preacher (the nature of preaching), “the ears” (the role of listening), and “the embodiment” (the liturgical setting of the sermon). As Long reflects: “When we preach, we are participating in the most important activity in which a human voice can engage — praising God. Yet we all remain stutterers and stammerers, perpetual amateurs in the very thing to which we have given our whole lives.”

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