2016 has, to many, seemed to be the year in which the word “evangelical” has been completely watered down to nothingness. “Evangelical” has become a word that carries virtually no distinction and thus no meaning; everything from the media’s misuse of the word to the broadness of its use in churches have contributed to this. But rather than throw the word out, what if we simply need to recover its meaning? Vanhoozer and Treier won’t have the repudiating of this word on the basis of what it has socially become. Instead, they seek to hold onto it because of what it means about the gospel (11). The goal of the book is simple. “Part one sketches an agenda for evangelical theology…part two analyzes in greater detail how that agenda applies to the evangelical theology currently being practiced” (41).
In the opening chapter, Vanhoozer and Treier set out to try to begin by coming to a consensus on how we should think about defining and identifying what “evangelical theology” itself is. They build their argument on an understanding of evangelical theology as an “anchored set.” This idea of an anchor is a wonderful word-picture for the discussion. Anchors, of course, are an immovable weight, a tool that prides itself on sturdiness. But the anchor’s primary function is to help the boat from moving. The anchored set of theology, then, should be defined “not only by its anchor but by the limited range of motion.” This is what Paul was describing when urging the Church to not be carried about by winds of doctrine. Vanhoozer and Treier go on to show that the gospel events are rooted in the very being of God (81). Chapter 2 turns its focus towards how Scripture plays the role of mirror, that it carries authority, and helps us understand the differences between first-level, second-level, and third-level doctrines.
With a foundation laid, Chapters 3-6 grow a bit more focused in nature, as Vanhoozer and Treier go on to outline approaches to mere evangelical theology. One must look at it as the pursuit of communal wisdom and the exegesis of Scripture, and these are two particular themes expounded on heavily in this book. Most importantly, theology, as the authors show, is not simply for the purpose of heady scholarship. Theology affects our very ecclesiology, and this book makes a case for that.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
“At their wisest, then, theological interpreters stand with unveiled faces before the light of Scripture, soak it up and say what they see. Doctrine is not a dull and dry substitute for biblical discourse but a means of catching its light, and perhaps of seeing further into the mirror.” (105)
“The Christian life is not one of solitary confinement but of life together, in community; similarly, interpreting Scripture is not the prerogative of lone exegetical rangers but of the gathered church, a creature of the word and hence an interpretive community.” (111-112)
“Differences over the first level are fundamental, while at the second level they are church-dividing but acceptable within evangelical cooperation. Third-level variety is possible within ongoing, close congregational fellowship. The goal should be to avoid the collapse of first order doctrines and obsession or schism over third-order doctrines.” (209)
This is an excellent opening volume of InterVarsity Press’s “Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture” series, and I couldn’t be happier to commend it to you. Vanhoozer and Treier’s prolegomena of how we must approach evangelical theology, from definition to practice, is an excellent tool filled with tons of wisdom.