Because of this clash between the conservatives and the liberals within theological institutions of the time, there emerged an entire group of evangelical scholars who were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics. Whether for reasons of neglect in their theological training under more critical theologians or because of their purposeful avoidance of dogmatics in favor of Biblical studies, a generation of evangelical scholars arose who had no serious acquaintance with the classical categories of theology developed in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox thought. Nor did they have allegiance to those categories.
Recently, there has been a major clash in the Reformed and evangelical blogosphere on the doctrine of the Trinity. While others have covered the ins and outs of the controversy with some depth, I am more interested in why this clash is happening, and why it is happening now. Michael Bird has said that this is about to be a “miniature civil war”. While that may be an exaggeration, the clash was inevitable for several reasons.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, a strong opposition to traditional doctrines of the Christian faith became entrenched in numerous major seminaries and universities around the world. John Webster indicated in an interview that when he was a graduate student in the 1970s, there was a lack of confidence that the positive task of systematic theology was a worthwhile endeavor due to the “critical appraisal” approach to theology. Fred Sanders makes this same point in his tribute to Webster:
“I remember this doctrinal-criticism style of academic theology very well. For me it was symbolized by the 1994 Hodgson & King book Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, in which every essay subjected an isolated doctrine to a three-step procedure:
- Statement of traditional doctrine,
- Modern criticisms that show why the doctrine can no longer be maintained in its traditional form,
- Clever reconstruction move using the latest whatever.
That theological style had such a grip on academic theology in the late twentieth century that I very nearly went into New Testament scholarship instead of systematics.”
This lack of confidence in traditional doctrine and classical categories of dogmatics was seen in the seminaries as well. The conflict at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early nineties encapsulated the situation very well. Southern Seminary was seen by traditional evangelicals to be so completely dominated by liberals who moved away from Christian orthodoxy that the theological education therein was highly suspect. As part of the “conservative resurgence,” Albert Mohler was brought in by the trustees of the school in 1993 to become president and essentially clean house by removing all professors whose teaching was not in accord with the school’s doctrinal statement (the Abstract of Principles). The other Southern Baptist seminaries had similar situations, but Southern was seen to be the one in the worst shape. Southern illustrates the situation well, as those on the left had moved away from traditional Christian doctrine, while the conservatives merely wanted to be able to take the authority of the Bible seriously in the seminary context.