Purpose-Directed Theology: Getting Our Priorities Right in Evangelical Controversies
Darrell L. Bock
InterVarsity, 114 pages, $14

The Evangelical movement is in a moment of identity crisis. Not that the movement ever had a single clear identity, any more than I have a single identity. What I am depends on my purpose and context: I am father, husband-lover, son, editor, boss, employee, neighbor, music minister, small-group member, playmate (to my dog), and more.

Likewise, the Evangelical movement has had multiple overlapping identities, depending on which of its historic purposes is dominant in a given time and context. As reformers of the 16th-century European church, the evangelicals were polemical theologians devoted to the authority of the Scriptures and the pure gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As renewers of Protestant orthodoxy, they were passionate lovers of Jesus who wrote great hymns and formed circles of the committed to foster warm-hearted faith. As reformers of British and American society, they applied revivalistic fervor to the eradication of slavery, of the exploitation of women, and of the evils symbolized by Demon Rum. As foes of modernism, they built institutions in exile.

Each of these historic moments created an evangelicalism with a purpose, and therefore a clear sense of identity. But how do the contemporary heirs of these multiple evangelicalisms define themselves?

Darrell Bock's slender volume, Purpose-Directed Theology, addresses the issue of evangelical identity for the benefit of its theological and biblical scholars. The book is an expansion of the presidential address he gave to the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2001.

The history of the ETS can be viewed as a series of controversies which became exercises in self-definition. Bock surveys the ETS's five decades and finds five hot topics that consumed the society's attention. They are (in historical order) "science and the Bible, especially origins . . . ; inerrancy, its definition and supporting hermeneutics . . .; the role of historical criticism … women and the Bible … and openness theology."

During the historical criticism debate, one member was asked to resign, which he did for the good of the society. In the most recent case, some of the discussion has turned contentious, and the society has voted to challenge the membership of two "Openness" theologians. That suspension, however, cannot become final until next fall.

Bock thinks that all five of these controversial topics are worth serious study and discussion. But he worries that when the discussion turns polemical, it may sap needed energies from the society's primary purposes.

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Bock knows that life is full of competing purposes. As individuals, we all choose between the many good things on our to-do list, and one sign of a healthy life is the ability to set priorities and balance demands. Bock sees the question of priorities as the key to the question of identity.

Circles and Squares

The Evangelical movement is made up of a loose network of organizations, some of them churches, many of them churchly, and many others designed to come alongside the church and aid some aspect of its mission. Bock divides the organizations into two types: circles and public squares. The circles are organizations with tightly defined reasons for being. They often have longish statements of belief suited to a well-defined membership. A denominational college or seminary, for example, will have a more clearly defined statement of beliefs than will a school that is designed to serve students from a variety of church backgrounds. Likewise, a society for Wesleyan, Reformed, or Dispensationalist scholars will have certain belief expectations of its members that a pan-Evangelical society would not.

The public square organizations, by contrast, try to include people from all the major Evangelical streams: Pentecostal, Dispensationalist, Reformed, Wesleyan, Holiness, and so forth. As a result, the expectations of its members are less defined. Bock cites the ETS as an example: it doesn't have a doctrinal statement, as such, and was founded with a single item as its "doctrinal basis"—biblical inerrancy. Thus the ETS becomes a kind of public square—a Hyde Park-ish speakers' corner where people can differ on a wide variety of issues, as long as they bring primarily scriptural arguments to their debates.

The purposes of circles and squares differ: A denominational seminary is designed to train pastors to minister within a particular tradition. The ETS, by way of contrast, is designed to stimulate scholars professionally, to make them think more sharply and argue more biblically. Thus the extra latitude in a public-square organization.

Bock's circles-and-squares schema parallels, but does not equal, one proposed by Roger Olson in a Christianity Today article entitled "The Future of Evangelical Theology" (Feb. 9, 1998).  Olson wrote that "since at least the mid-1970s, [the evangelical] glue has been gradually losing its binding power." He deplored the combative nature of the same controversies Bock catalogs. Olson's article described evangelical traditionalists as envisioning the movement as a "bounded set." They "tend "to specify who is 'in' and who is 'out' of the community." And they think the only way "to avoid the slide into debilitating relativism and pluralism" is "to recognize firm boundaries."

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The other group, which Olson called reformists, envision the movement as a "centered set." That is, the boundaries may be fuzzy, but the center to which evangelicals are bound is clear. That center, Olson wrote, includes "the unique inspiration of Scripture and salvation by Jesus Christ alone through God's grace alone." Olson advocated this clear-center-with-fuzzy boundary thinking as a step toward "a vibrant future."

Bock, too, is helping us think our way toward "a vibrant future." Like Olson, he deplores divisiveness. His "public-square" organizations resemble Olson's "centered-set" thinkers. Both men emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in that vibrant future. Both are open to the periodic need to actually draw lines between those who are in and those who are out. Both advise a careful, slow, and deliberate process for evaluating "new light."

But here is the difference: Olson calls us to avoid slipping back into fundamentalist boundary-drawing for the sake of fellowship. Bock expresses similar concerns, but with a concern for mission. Wise leaders know that groups do not experience community by trying to achieve community. They experience community as they face challenges together and help each other meet crises. The social scientist's phrase for this is the principle of the superordinate goal.  

Thus, for all Bock's and Olson's appeals share, Bock's has, I think, a greater chance of cementing evangelical unity.

Bock's major call for joint theological effort is in the area of Jesus studies. Recent years have seen a rebirth of old-style skepticism mixed with new-fangled speculation about who Jesus was and what he taught and did. The media-savvy Jesus Seminar is the best known embodiment of this approach. When popular TV programs, such as a Peter Jennings special on Jesus, began spreading this highly speculative scholarship, more traditional scholars were not positioned to respond. Bock thinks this is a travesty. And while he doesn't blame intra-evangelical squabbling for the unpreparedness of New Testament scholars, he does think that at this point in history, they should be focusing their energies on helping an unsuspecting public regain their confidence in the Gospel-writers's accounts of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Bock thinks there is also much evangelical scholars can do to serve the church in our understanding of the world's religions. And scholars can serve the church in the emerging concern with spiritual formation as well. Joining forces around a few basics, a diverse group of scholars can experience evangelical fellowship while helping the church and the world meet the challenges of our day. Bock calls that Purpose-Directed Theology. Whatever you call it, it is missional thinking that will pay off.

Related Elsewhere

Purpose-Driven Theology: Getting Our Priorities Right in Evangelical Controversies, by Darrell L. Bock, is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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