Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Conservative Evangelical Dialogue Partners

Previously, I posted a blog on “My Favorite Liberal Theologians” in which I listed the top 10 theological liberals whom I consider my “essential dialogue partners.” I promised a follow-up on evangelicals, but it has proven tougher because, broadly speaking, I am part of the evangelical tradition and because the parameters of “evangelical” are not all that clear. Liberals, who begin with human experience and intentionally adjust Christian doctrine to modern knowlege, are easier to define. Originally, the term  “evangelical” meant “Protestant,” then “Lutheran,” (in some European countries, “Evangelical” [Lutheran] is still contrasted to “Reformed”), then referred to the 18th C. renewal movements which became Pietism in Germany, the Wesley-Whitefield revivals in Britain, and the “Great Awakening,” in the U.S. Beginning in the late 19th C., “evangelical” began to take on the meaning of “conservative Protestant,” but there were also “Evangelical Liberals.” Here, I have in mind that part of conservative Protestantism that essentially grew out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. Today, I list my essential dialogue partners among the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum. A follow up blog will list my dialogue partners among the wider evangelical spectrum. My continuing series’ on mentors and heroes will name/describe my theological “home,” whereas these posts, like my post on theological liberals, describe outside conversation partners. I think I will also do posts on essential dialogue partners among Catholics (liberal and conservative), Orthodox, Jewish thinkers, and (possibly) philosophical skeptics. Perhaps this is a sign that I am more eclectic than an original, creative thinker, but I find it impossible to do theology (even theological ethics, my specialization) except in conversation with others, including others who present strong challenges to my perspectives.

But no one can dialogue with everyone. Like others, I usually ignore voices that I don’t find helpful in some fashion. Thus, although the broadly Reformed tradition informs me (Baptists have both Puritan and Anabaptist roots; I draw more from the latter, but try not to ignore the former), I do not find its scholastic forms at all helpful: I have long since stopped reading anything from Kuyper or Dooyeweerd, nor the “Old Princeton school” of Hodge, Warfield, & Machen, nor their Baptist disciples: Boyce, Manley, John Piper, or Al Mohler. If you find them helpful, fine, but I cannot stomach them at all.

  • Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) represents the best of the post WWII evangelical renewal in the U.S. His The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) pushed his fellow conservatives out of their apolitical slumbers–although an Eisenhower Republicanism was the most social conscience he allowed. An adult convert and former newspaperman, Henry went on to earn 2 doctorates (Th.D., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University), and after teaching at his alma mater (NBTS), went on to help found Fuller Theological Seminary as an institution both ecumenical and evangelical (though it eventually defined the latter term more broadly than Henry desired) and then became founding editor of Christianity Today, so Henry’s influence cannot be underestimated. Henry represents what I call “evangelical rationalism,” a position whose strength is to push evangelicals away from a fear of reason, but whose weakness is a theology that has little place for mystery–either in a pentacostal or a sacramental direction. He also epitomizes evangelical obsession with epistemology–writing not a systematics or dogmatics, but 8 volumes defining and defending biblical inerrancy! I have read all of these volumes (indeed, when Henry came as a visiting prof. to SBTS–back when my alma mater was allegedly full of liberals!–, I had to nurse several conservative students through his God, Revelation, and Authority, who had gone to class expecting sermon outlines instead of serious apologetics), and they have many strengths, including more interaction with non-evangelical theologians than was common during the period Henry wrote. I have to say that I did not feel that Henry always understood his opponents like Barth, Brunner, or even Pannenberg, try though he did. I find Henry’s overall approach sterile and lifeless, but his shadow is so large in American Christianity that I would be a fool not to read and interact with his work. But my biggest criticism of Henry is that he was a poor exegete. For me, that is a damning statement. No one who spends 8 volumes defending a particular view of biblical authority should be as inept at close readings of the biblical texts themselves! (This was true not only in his writings, but on the two occasions when I heard him preach.)
  • F. F. Bruce (1910-1990), by contrast was a first rate exegete and set new standards for evangelical biblical scholarship. I do not agree with him always (his defense of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, for instance, remains unconvincing), but his love for Scripture and for the gospel showed in his careful handling of texts. He is a great example of how an education in the classics can prepare one for a career in biblical studies. I also appreciate his commitment to teaching in religious studies departments in secular universities rather than in confessional seminaries. (This partly reflects his “Open Brethren” tradition which has no ordained or paid clergy, and whose congregations are led by scholarly laity. Bruce preached and taught in Brethren pulpits–and those of other Christian denominations–throughout his career.) Bruce’s generous spirit toward “liberal” Christians, including Rudolf Bultmann, was also rare for his day. He showed by precept and example that one could be orthodox without launching a war on believers from other traditions.
  • Bernard Ramm(1916-1992) is another conservative evangelical whose works I greatly appreciate. His early writings included textbooks on the basics of biblical interpretation, studies on sin and soteriology, and attempts to reconcile science and theology, eventually adopting theistic evolution. His later works bear the impact of Karl Barth in a very healthy way. I also appreciate the way Ramm considered himself always a Baptist, but never wedded to any one Baptist convention. During his career, he taught at institutions related to the American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Baptist General Conference, Canadian Baptists, and Conservative Baptist Association–and did not see this as “switching denominations.” My only criticism is that Ramm saw Baptists as one branch of the Reformed tradition–period. Had he interacted with the Anabaptist dimensions of our heritage, what changes would that have made to his theology–particularly his lifelong attempts to wed head, heart, and life.
  • The Australian Anglican, Leon Morris(1914-2006), was another sound exegete and one whose mild Calvinism tried to face seriously the challenges to that tradition from within it. I especially appreciate the way his later writings showed how he learned from criticisms of earlier work. For instance, early on Morris defended substitutionary atonement, and especially propitiation, as the only viable atonement theory. Later, while still insisting on the validity of these dimensions, Morris recognized that the cross event was bigger than any one atonement theory and attempted to incorporate other elements–relating each perspective to particular biblical texts.
  • Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Prof. of New Testament at Denver Seminary, was my Greek and NT teacher and academic advisor at Palm Beach Atlantic College in South Florida before we both left for other areas. I learned huge amounts from Craig and became friends with both Fran and Craig. I had already begun learning Greek from my home pastor, but Craig added more, reinforced my love for close exegetical work, and introduced me to liberation theologies–evangelical and otherwise. I was one of the few students at this conservative Baptist college who was (even then) more liberal than Craig, not holding to inerrancy (not even his nuanced version–and I delighted in citing his own teacher, I. Howard Marshall, on my side!) and defending evangelical feminism against his own complementarianism. (Ironically, in practice, Craig & Fran’s marriage always looked perfectly egalitarian to me and these days Fran is a missions director on staff at a church in Denver!) But Craig never tried to make cookie cutter followers of his students; he wanted followers of Jesus Christ, instead. When I have been in the classroom, much of my teaching methods came from Craig–including his habit of assigning pairs of textbooks, one more “liberal” than his view and one more “conservative” than the approach he was taking. How many evangelical scholars, especially in the U.S., have co-written a dialogue book with a Morman theologian? Craig Blomberg has–and that kind of “critical openess” pervades his work. He has chided fellow evangelicals for blanket condemnations of liberation theologies and of pacifism (though I have yet to convince him to become a pacifist). His recent work, Contagious Holiness, is an important corrective to Marcus Borg’s contention that Jesus’ meals with sinners show a lack of concern with holiness/purity, but that, instead, Jesus’ compassionate and inclusive table fellowship attempted to spread holiness.
  • George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), who taught New Testament at Fuller Seminary, worked hard to bring North American evangelicals to an eschatology that did not involve dispensationalism. Ladd also sought to engage the “Biblical theology” movement and the challenges of the 2nd wave of the “quest for the historical Jesus.” He was unfairly attacked from both the right and the left.
  • George R. Beasley-Murray(1916-2000), British Baptist New Testament scholar who taught at Spurgeon’s College (twice, including a stint as Principal), the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary and moved to Prague, Czech Republic), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Ladd, Beasley-Murray also worked in New Testament eschatology, though, being British, he wasn’t constantly engaging Dispensationalism! Beasley-Murray, another of my teachers, was attacked by conservatives because his strong defense of Mark 13 as going back to the historical Jesus involved his concluding that Jesus was mistaken about how soon the End would come. He translated Bultmann’s commentary on John, although his own 2-volume commentary on the same book found far more historical material. A truly amazing exegete and biblical theologian. See an excellent tribute here. As with Blomberg above, I almost listed Beasley-Murray as a mentor, rather than a dialogue partner. It was a close call, but both scholars are so identified with “Evangelicalism,” that I could not omit them here.
  • Donald Bloesch, a Reformed theologian from the conservative end of the Presbyterian Church, USA, attempts to reincorporate the pietist tradition into evangelical Reformed thought. Bloesch really sees the dangers to evangelical thought of Henry’s rationalism. Although he continues to use the term “inerrant,” for Scripture, he stretches that term considerably in his interaction with Barth and Brunner. See also here.
  • G. C. Berkouwer(1903-1996), the Dutch Reformed theologian and conservative Barthian. Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture rescues its authority from liberal neglect and from Protestant scholasticism. His defense of perseverance of the saints almost convinced this born and raised Arminian. For years the leading theologian at the Free University of Amsterdam, Berkouwer led the Gereformeede Kerken in Nederland (“The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” a conservative splinter group from the Dutch Reformed Church) to join the World Council of Churches, becoming one of the first evangelical denominations to unite with the mainstream conciliar ecumenical movement. His 14 volume Studies in Dogmatics, map out a “middle orthodoxy” which is a firm middle ground between fundamentalist rationalism and liberal flights of fancy.
  • Augustus H. Strong (1893-1921) may have been the most important evangelical Baptist theologian of the late 19th and early 20th C. President and Professor of Theology at Rochester Theological Seminary in upstate New York (now merged as Colgate Rochester Crozier Theological Seminary), Strong, converted as a college student under the preaching of Charles Finney, worked to reformulate Calvinist-Baptist thought for the modern era. He abandoned inerrancy as indefensible, and had a mild view of election. He came to embrace theistic evolution.
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary also taught church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before returning to his native Texas. His new 2 volume Systematic Theology is an excellent, centrist, evangelical Baptist work–and notable for its historical interactions.

There are many others from the broader evangelical tradition and I will try to post on those dialogue partners in the near future.

December 6, 2006 - Posted by | evangelicals, theology


  1. Michael,

    What an absolutely awesome post. Some of these you’ve mentioned I too dialogue with. I have never had the stomach to tackle Henry’s mammoth set, however.

    I agree with you about Henry’s sermonizing. I heard him once in Memphis and can remember his text but I reasoned he may have not known his audience. I do not want to be disrespectful to this giant. But an average SS lesson was just as insightful, I recall concluding.

    I’m sure you’ll get plenty of the “but you left out” sort of comments. So let me mention three possibles:

    James Packer
    John R.W. Stott
    Tom Oden

    have a great evening Michael. With that, I am…


    Comment by peter lumpkins | December 6, 2006

  2. I will look forward to hearing what you might say about N. T. Wright as an evangelical. In terms of his political understanding of Jesus and his ministry, he is much like Yoder or Richard Hays. Yet, he does not draw out the same conclusions as Yoder and Hays.

    Comment by Jonathan | December 6, 2006

  3. Peter, I have no beef against Packer or Stott, but I don’t find them all that helpful, I’m afraid. I do find Tom Oden helpful and he’ll be part of my post on dialogue partners in the wider evangelical tradition. Thanks for dropping by.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 6, 2006

  4. Jonathan, Yoder is a mentor. I will put Hays and Wright in the wider evangelical category, rather than the “conservative evangelicals” who grew out of the fundamentalist reaction to modernism.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 6, 2006

  5. Michael,

    Thanks Michael. I was thinking of not only of my personal appreciation of both Packer & Stott, but also the impact they have had on evangelicalism at large. Packer surely made an indelible imprint with his Fundamentalism & the Word of God perhaps only surpassed by Henry’s uneasy conscience.

    And as for Stott, I think the “jack-of-all-trades” contribution he has made is noteworthy: evangelism (BGEA), NT commentary (Tyndale, others), theology of the Cross (The Cross of Christ), ethics(Involvment vols.), preaching (Between Two Worlds). Not to mention his courage–what staunch evangelical would actually confess annihilation may be true?

    Have a great day, Michael. I look forward to your annotation of the wider evangelical community. With that, I am…


    Comment by peter lumpkins | December 7, 2006

  6. Great list, Michael. I look forward to the next installment. If it includes folks like Wright and Oden, I think I’ll feel right at home. 🙂

    Comment by D. P. | December 7, 2006

  7. Hi Michael,

    I would never think to describe Ramm and Bloesch as coservative. (The latter has been a great mentor to me, btw – introduced me to Barth!)

    Additionally, I would’ve included Wright as conservative, certainly more than Ramm and maybe even Strong.

    Comment by graham old | December 7, 2006

  8. Well, Graham, I didn’t use “conservative” as a term of rebuke. Both Ramm and Bloesch use(d) the term “conservative evangelical” as self-descriptions–even in the midst of polemics against fundamentalism.

    I’m sure Bloesch made an excellent mentor. I heard him give a series of lectures once and was impressed. Over the years I have been impressed with the way Bloesch, very strongly Reformed, still works hard to bring all strands of the evangelical heritage (Lutheran, Reformed, Pietist, Wesleyan, Baptist, Pentecostal, even Anabaptist) into the definition and description of evangelicals–compared to the narrow way that many relegate the term only to strict Calvinists.

    As for N.T. Wright–it’s not your average evangelical who sings the praises of Albert Schweitzer! Many evangelicals find him heretical, especially because he adopted the “new perspective on Paul” pioneered by Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and James D. G. Dunn. So, while on some things the good bishop of Durham may be very conservative, he is not perceived that way by large sections of evangelicalism.

    The difficulty of these classifications is, of course, why the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are so difficult to define with any precision.

    Darrell Pursifal, thanks for stopping by. As you say, the next installment will be very close to the place I feel most “at home” theologically.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 8, 2006

  9. […] rationalism has never been my cup of theological tea, but I have recognized  his importance as a dialogue partner.  His memoir, Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography (Word, 1985) is fascinating, and […]

    Pingback by Some Theological Memoirs « Levellers | April 5, 2009

  10. […] CONSERVATIVE Evangelical Dialogue Partners (I have long neglected a promise to write on dialogue partners who are “broadly evangelical” in more generous definitions of the term.) […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Dialogue Partners « Levellers | August 10, 2009

  11. […] to be indispensible conversation partners in my theological reflection.  I then did the same for Conservative Evangelicals and for Jewish theologians and philosophers.  But I had promised to list my conversation partners […]

    Pingback by Dialogue Partners in the Wider Evangelical Tradition « Levellers | August 23, 2009

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