“The sense of an ending is not a fact of nature,” observed Frank Kermode, it is a feature of human consciousness.1 We ascribe meaning to the turn of a new century, and feel a sense ending as the twentieth century comes to a close. If a sense of ending is not a fact of nature, it is certainly a fact of our experience.
As the last century closed, Friedrich Neitzsche proclaimed that God was dead, and that we had killed him. The twentieth century has not been an era of great theological achievements. The romantic liberalism of the early decades gave way to the unstable half-way house of neo-orthodoxy, which in turn surrendered to a host of radical and revisionist theologies, united only in their denial of classical orthodoxy.
The century also saw the development of a resurgent evangelicalism in English-speaking Protestantism. Matured and chastened by the theological controversies of the century’s first fifty years, the evangelicals coalesced into a formidable intellectual, evangelistic, and cultural movement. If the radical and revisionist theologians were united in their rejection of classical orthodoxy, the evangelicals were defined and recognized by their fervent commitment to the classical, evangelical, orthodox, and biblical convictions of historic Christianity.
As the century draws to a close, the radical theologians have been even further radicalized, and the revisionists continue their program of eviscerating the historic claims of Christianity. The declining precincts of “mainline” Protestantism are not safe territory for the supernatural claims of Scripture, or for the doctrinal foundations of classical orthodoxy.
What about the evangelicals? The second half of the twentieth century began with great promise. The newly resurgent evangelical movement quickly produced a credible body of theological literature in the defense of Christianity’s historic doctrines. Alarmed by the massive theological accommodation of the age, the evangelicals contended for biblical truth and claimed an intentional continuity with the classical Christian tradition of orthodox doctrine.
The closing years of the century have demonstrated a very different pattern, however. The theoretical acids of modernity, the theological accommodationism of the age, and the temptations of the larger academic culture have infected evangelicalism to the point that the theological integrity of the movement is clearly at stake. Having debated issues ranging from biblical inerrancy to the reality of hell, evangelicals are now openly debating the traditional doctrine of God represented by classical theism.
My argument is that the integrity of evangelicalism as a theological movement–indeed, the very coherence of evangelical theology–is threatened by the rise of the various new “theisms” of the evangelical revisionists. Unless these trends are reversed and evangelicals return to an unapologetic embrace of biblical theism, evangelical theology will represent nothing less than the eclipse of God at century’s end.
- Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1968).