"Handbook Of Evangelical Theologians," edited by Walter A. Elwell (Baker, xii + 465 pp.; $29.99, hardcover). Reviewed by David W. Bebbington, reader in history, University of Stirling, Scotland.

What theologians write in one generation, preachers declare in the next. It is therefore invaluable for preachers (and their hearers) to be able to discriminate among theologians, to know the parameters of their thought, to understand what made them tick. The latest addition to the Baker Reference Library enables them to do just that.

Each article in the "Handbook of Evangelical Theologians" contains the basic biographical information about a particular theologian together with a summary of the main points of his published writings. In the preface, editor Walter Elwell outlines his criteria for selection, including identification with evangelicalism and significant influence on the evangelical movement; a balance between pre- and post-1950 thinkers; and representation of diverse denominational points of view. As Elwell notes, "There might be legitimate discussion about some theologians who have not been included in this volume, but we doubt that many would exclude those who have been included." Here then are studies of 33 of the minds who have done most to mold twentieth-century evangelicalism in North America.

All the essays are, on balance, favorable to their subjects, though some are warmer than others. Sometimes the appreciation is by a committed disciple; in other instances, the author stands back from the theologian to subject his work to more rigorous appraisal, which is usually the more helpful approach.

Occasionally the writers have been tempted to exaggeration. Is it plausible to say that Cornelius Van Til was "perhaps the most important Christian thinker since John Calvin"? A few contributions to this volume, it has to be said, are distinctly pedestrian, sticking so close to the text of the theologians they are expounding that the significance of the individual becomes impossible to assess.

Yet there are some exciting studies as well. Glen Scorgic is clear and authoritative on James Orr. George Fry is vibrant on Helmut Thielicke, and Darryl Hart produces a particularly telling account of J. Gresham Machen. If at times general readers find some sections heavy going, they will discover a great deal that is well digested, readily comprehensible, and extremely illuminating.


Of the 33 theologians covered, the first was born in 1836, the last in 1953. All are evangelicals with a gospel to proclaim. All are white and male, but not all are dead. Thirteen, in fact, arc still alive, several with ambitious projects ahead of them. Ten are emphatically Reformed, and another nine, though broadly evangelical in their stance, are more indebted to the Reformed tradition than to any other. Thus, fully 19 of the 33 could be described as followers of John Calvin. Here is powerful statistical support for the existence of "evangelicalism's Reformed theological establishment," a rather rueful phrase used in an essay on one of the four Arminians covered in the book.

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Three of the theologians included are Lutherans (all of German stock), and two more are broader evangelicals of Lutheran background. The confessional Lutherans can be so Lutheran as to put themselves on the margins of evangelicalism. One regretted, for example, that the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization of 1974 ignored the "means of grace and baptism, as the Spirit's vehicle for evangelization." Many evangelicals of a different stamp would regard such a pointer to baptismal regeneration with incomprehension or dismay.

Another three are dispensationalists, with a fourth influenced roughly equally by the dispensationalist and Reformed traditions.

One, J. Rodman Williams, is primarily charismatic. Although Williams has moved close to the Pentecostals, there is no representative of classic Pentecostalism. The omission is not the result of deliberate exclusion, for dogmatics-the weighty task of scholarly theology as opposed to biblical studies-is only now being taken up in Pentecostal circles. Another notable feature of the group of theologians is the high proportion of Europeans (and the absence of figures from other continents outside North America). Six are British, two Continental; five more are themselves immigrants from the Continent to the United States. Several, furthermore, undertook theological study in Europe, often at a formative stage in their careers. The evangelical theology of North America evidently retains strong links with its transatlantic roots.

Two preoccupations of the American theologians included in the volume strike the British observer. One is their concern with the inerrancy debate. Most of the more recent theologians from the United States have been forced to take a stand on whether the original text of the Bible was necessarily free from error. Although echoes of American conflicts have been heard in Britain, the issue has not become a central bone of contention in British evangelical circles. The evidence of this volume suggests that the higher profile of the inerrancy debate in the United States should be explained partly as the result of closer links with the historical tradition of Christian orthodoxy before the rise of the evangelical movement in the eighteenth century. B. B. Warfield for the Reformed and Robert D. Preus for the Lutherans, knowing that their seventeenth-century predecessors upheld the principle of inerrancy, propagated the conviction among their coreligionists as a battle cry. In Germany, by contrast, Thielicke was "not concerned with concepts like infallibility and inerrancy."

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A second distinctive preoccupation of these American theologians is the question of the extent to which the unbeliever can be reasoned into faith. Gordon H. Clark's confidence in the power of reason was assaulted by Cornelius Van Til in the 1940s, and several of the men in this volume align with one or the other: Warfield and Carl Henry with Clark; Anthony Hoekema and Bernard Ramm with Van Til. Edward J. Carnell's fame in the 1950s arose from his attempt to chart a via media. Donald G. Bloesch still saw the debates in this area as "very much in evidence" during the 1980s. Consequently, many evangelical theologians have channeled their energies into essentially apologetic concerns.

Yet has the non-Christian world been heeding their apologetic? There is a good deal of evidence in this volume that evangelical debates have been remote from the characteristic concerns of the intelligentsia of Western civilization in the twentieth century. Thomas Oden, for example, is the only theologian who is reported to have engaged with the immensely influential Nietzsche. Even Freud and depth psychology, so central to modern culture, are mentioned only in connection with Ramm, Hoekema, and (again) Oden. It is the Methodist Oden, in fact, who, of the subjects surveyed in this volume, engages most directly with the secular concerns of the late twentieth century, calling his work "postmodern."

It is paradoxical that Oden should appear the most contemporary of the theologians since he glories in being totally unoriginal by appealing to the fathers of the early church as the best expositors of the faith. Oden is in dialogue with the secular intellectuals of the time because, as a liberal theologian turned conservative, he knows their interests from the inside. He shows, as does his hero John Wesley, that evangelical religion need not avoid the central questions of the times for the sake of preserving orthodoxy in a private world.

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Preservation, on the other hand, is a primary task of the theologians. They have the responsibility of articulating the faith so that its substance is retained and, if possible, enriched without distortion. How have the evangelical theologians of this book performed according to that criterion? Much of the deposit of faith has been transmitted faithfully and well, but the subjects of this volume, by and large, have not been distinguished for expounding the kernel of Christianity. That core truth, evangelicals have consistently claimed over against more liberal Protestants, is not the example of Jesus or the teaching of Jesus, not even his incarnation or his resurrection, but his atonement on the cross. The suffering Christ is the light of the world. The Atonement has traditionally been the favorite theme of evangelical Christians, whether in the lecture hall, the pulpit, or their private devotions. But on the evidence of this book, twentieth-century theologians have not, by and large, given the Cross of Christ the prominence in their theological work that it deserves. Thielicke and Bloesch, together with John Murray and John Stott, must be exempted from the charge. So must Alister McGrath, the youngest of the men discussed, whose first publication was on Luther's theology of the Cross and who is planning a trilogy of systematic theology in which the Cross is central throughout.

That is a prospect full of hope for the future. If the preachers of the twenty-first century are to be adequately evangelical, they will need to have at their disposal a profound understanding of the Cross. They will look to their theologians to provide it.

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