In the early 1990s, David Wells, Mark Noll and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. received “a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to write a trio of books on the decline of evangelical theology and on ways it might rebound” (p. 189). Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Plantinga wrote Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, and Wells actually wrote a series of five books, the first being No Place for Truth and the last The Courage to Be Protestant. Wells’ work was ultimately the most insightful and had the greatest impact on evangelicalism, and Lints’ volume was written in his honor. In Renewing the Evangelical Mind,twelve different authors, from a wide range of evangelical thought and tradition, contributed scholarly essays related to the themes Well’s addresses, including Os Guinness, Noll, Michael Horton, J.I. Packer, and Plantinga. “The hope of this collection of essays is to take stock of the significant changes in the cultural location of American evangelicals, and to stimulate thinking about key questions of evangelical identity(ies) in the relationship to public square of a diverse, global, technologically advanced, consumer-saturated, and post-partisan culture” (p. 5). Three key themes are covered: “the global mission of evangelicalism, the theological mission of evangelicals, and the ecclesial mission of evangelicals” (p. 5). The book is organized around these three themes with a selection of between three and five essays dedicated to each theme. A helpful overview of the essays is found in the introduction (pp. 6-10).
With such a wide choice of contributors—from Reformed scholars such as Michael Horton, Guinness, and Packer, to professors from liberal seminaries such as Bruce McCormack (Princeton), Rodney Petersen (Boston Theological Institute), Miroslav Volf (Yale Center for Faith and Culture), and Noll who teaches at Notre Dame—the reader will not be surprised to find an ecumenical tone throughout and an accommodating view of Roman Catholicism, if not a complete capitulation. In a book on renewing the evangelical mission, this ecumenism is an important factor and does much, in this reviewer’s opinion, to harm the project. Nevertheless, as might be expected with a multitude of authors, some of the articles are more insightful and valuable than others. Yet, even while disagreeing with many of the ideas and conclusions drawn by various contributors, the book provides wide exposure to the theological and missional thinking in the broader elements of evangelicalism and thus draws the more conservative pastor or theologian to step out of their doctrinal bubbles and glimpse the thinking that is circulating in seminaries, books, and articles of those in a different lane.
Some highlights include Guinness identifying the many cultural shifts taking place in our world today and the challenge of addressing them (pp. 92-108). Packer’s list of themes that every Christian should know (pp. 117-119) is also well worth pondering. Michael Horton is on target in linking Finney and the Second Great Awakening to Barna and the seeker-sensitive church of modern times and the inevitable hollowing out of the evangelical church as a result (pp. 135-156). Plantinga’s call to deeper theological reflection (pp. 198-200) should be heeded, and Vanhoozer’s discussion of the growing divide between biblical scholars and theologians should not be ignored (pp. 201-223). Perhaps the thickest of the essays theologically is reserved for McCormack’s discussion of the doctrines of God’s simplicity and impassibility being a challenge to penal substitution in the modern mind (pp. 250-269). He accuses the Reformers of adopting the ancient metaphysical-based ontology and taping their central convictions to it. Protestantism cannot survive if it tries to continue this practice (p. 269). This is a chapter I need to reread and consider.
Renewing the Evangelical Mission is not for everyone, but for those desiring a wider perspective concerning the thinking of some of evangelicalism’s heavyweights, this volume would meet that criteria.
by Richard Lints, editor (Grand Rapids: William b. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 272 pp + x paper $24.93
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel