What do you hope your book will accomplish?
Thomas Oden: I think the Holy Spirit is at work in our time to bring evangelicals together in common witness and mission and service. This is work of the Spirit, and we are only attesting that textually. We are trying to show how there is a correlation and a resonance that runs all the way through virtually all of the major evangelical statements in the last 50 years.
Our purpose is not to display an act of tour de force scholarship, but rather to cooperate with the mission of the Spirit in eliciting the unity of the body of true believers.
J.I. Packer: I think that's a very fine way of putting it. We are saying we hope that the book will edify, illuminate, instruct and so build up evangelical people who read it. We hope that the book will strike home with people who aren't yet evangelicals but ought to be. We hope that the book will instruct folk whose interest in evangelicalism is perhaps biased by negative stereotypes. And we hope to clear away those stereotypes. We hope that people in all the fields of study which require them to know about evangelicals and what evangelicals are up to will be able to use our book as a resource for finding out what they need.
And we certainly hope that in seeking to fulfill these goals we shall be in line with what the Spirit is doing amongst Christian people in these days. He's extending the fellowship of evangelicals. He's increasing the inner strength and maturity of judgment of the evangelicals in this worldwide constituency. He's expanding it at a great rate: There are half a billion evangelicals in the world, and the number is quickly growing. And from that standpoint, we hope that our book will have a sort of catechetical ministry, giving people the basics that they need to get their faith straight and then to live by.
Some scholars question whether there is such a thing as evangelicalism. Your book points in the opposite direction.
Packer: Well, we think the documents are unambiguously clear on that. You can only argue the other view, I think, by ignoring the documents.
Oden: I think we have textually presented the counter to that facile argument. And if anybody takes the text seriously, I can't see how they could argue that way, but I would welcome an ongoing discussion about this.
What gave the two of you the idea for this book?
Oden: We were in the airport waiting to come back after the Amsterdam 2000 conference. We got to talking about how the evangelical tradition had a cohesive consensus on so many major doctrinal affirmations, but that these had not been brought together in a synoptic way. The idea emerged there in Amsterdam that Jim and I might cooperate in trying to produce such a document.
Dr. Packer, you've had a hand in writing some of these statements yourself. How many of the statements in this book did you help to create?
Packer: I helped draft The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration and the Amsterdam Declaration. I also wrote the exposition of inerrancy for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and I did the first draft of the Willowbank Declaration. That may be the lot.
This is a very full-orbed book, but many of the statements have big holes in them. For example, a number of evangelical Protestant organizations have statements that fail to mention justification. And I can remember being part of conferences where drafters forgot to even mention the Holy Spirit. As you've gone through these many statements, are there any areas you think we tend to ignore?
Oden: There are a lot of things that are not present in the confessional tradition. The Apostles' Creed does not mention providence. If you were to look at the Westminster Confession, you would probably find some holes in that. The concern here is the documentary evidence of a substantial doctrinal consensus in the evangelical tradition in the last 50 years. And I think that you're right that justification was not fully enough treated before The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.
Packer: I think that's correct. Some statements aim to be fuller than others. And some statements are more preoccupied with immediate polemics and definitions repelling error than others are.
The Fundamentals was an example of a statement that didn't even attempt to be a balanced affirmation of the gospel. It's simply said that on these five points, we are prepared to fight liberals to the death.
Because of their polemical background, some of these statements become shibboleths—precise word tests to discover who is in and out. Is that a valid function for these faith statements?
Packer: No statement ever ought to become a shibboleth for anybody so that it's just a question of whether the right word is heard on the lips of the other guy. The statements, like all confessional statements, are ring fences around orthodoxy and truth. What's important is that in the organizations that sponsor the statements, everybody should be inside the ring fence rejoicing in the truth. They don't have to do it necessarily in the same words as the confessional statement uses.
I spend a lot of time with my students, trying to disabuse them of what I call "the magic word syndrome." That is the idea that you're not affirming something unless you affirm it in familiar language. I tell them that anything that you really understand you can express in different words. This is apropos of whether you do or do not use words like infallible and inerrant.
Words like infallible and inerrant bring to mind the split many years ago between Fuller Seminary and much of the rest of the evangelical movement. What is the significance that Fuller is quoted so fully in your book? Have times changed?
Packer: I want to reach out a friendly hand toward Fuller, because I think that the right thing to say historically is that they had domestic reasons for wanting not to affirm inerrancy, and that led them for a number of years to embrace this idea of non-infallibilist or non-inerrantist evangelicalism.
Under the present management, it's very clear that that's no longer the idea that is driving them. That's an era that they've left behind. They are seeking to be on board with the rest of us evangelicals, maintaining the evangelical faith on which we all agree. And then the question of whether they use exactly the words that we use or we use the words that they use is of secondary importance. They're inside the ring fence and anxious to make a point of being there.
Oden: I just want to emphasize that our concern here is an irenic one. We are not trying to renew old fights. We're trying to show where evangelicals indeed do find very deep consensus.
An affirmation about the Bible is the first item in some evangelical faith statements. Others put it somewhat later. Why does your book's structure place the Bible first?
Oden: I think the Bible takes the first place in confessional Protestantism, particularly in the Reformed tradition. So this is not an invention of the evangelicals of the last hundred years. You can go back to the Heidelberg Catechism and similar documents and find the order of the loci presenting the Bible, the authority of Scripture, first or very close to first.
It seems to me that confessions are saying to us today that we, in the last 50 years, have been following a traditional sequence of ordering Christian doctrine.
Packer: During the last 50 years, the matter has become higher profile and the debate perhaps sharper than it used to be simply because it's liberals that we're up against. Liberal epistemology starts from the affirmation that the world has the wisdom and what the church believes has to be relativized to what the world is saying at the moment.
Encountering that, all these statements of faith have appreciated that you have to start with your epistemological basis. You get your knowledge of the truth of God from the Bible. And so, before you go any further, you have to make an affirmation about the Bible as a fit source to consult for sure knowledge about God.
Some evangelicals put the Bible in a different place. But whenever that's done, it seems to me that it produces more inconveniences than it removes. I'm thinking, for instance, of a systematic theology textbook that makes the Bible part of the doctrine of the church because the Bible is God's means of grace to the church. Well, epistemologically, that leaves you with enormous unsolved problems. It's the kind of thing that a Roman Catholic who believes in infallibility in and given to the church could say quite happily. But for an evangelical to leave the doctrine of Scripture so late is problematic.
Your book presents an interesting balance between doctrinal belief and concerns for mission and service in the world. That second element would distinguish a lot of evangelical faith statements from the classic creeds. What does that tell us about evangelicals?
Oden: The Great Commission and world mission are absolutely central to evangelical integrity and consciousness. We have not gone very much into moral and social questions, although there are two chapters, one on religious pluralism and the uniqueness of Christ, and the other on Christian social responsibility. But those are only two chapters out of sixteen. And in those cases, the views that are expressed are really very traditional views.
Statements like the Amsterdam Declaration, the Manila Manifesto, the Lausanne Covenant, and the Willowbank Declaration are all mission oriented. They're not simply doctrinal statements.
Packer: Yes they are. That's because evangelicalism as a form of Christianity is mission oriented. Always has been, and please God, always will be. This is something that it's right should be there.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
J.I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden's One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site you can:
Read a review of One Faith
Read an extended interview with the authors
The publisher is taking pre-orders of One Faith and has more information on its web site.