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Core doctrines from the Greatest Generation

Lexham Press has just published Basics of the Faith: An Evangelical Introduction to Christian Doctrine, a handsome collection of essays by leading Evangelical theologians culled from the pages of Christianity Today from 1961-1962.

In my introduction to the volume, I compare the experience of reading these essays to discovering a time-capsule from the hey-day of evangelical theology. These brief statements from what is arguably the "Greatest Generation" of evangelical theologians represent a kind of doctrinal D-Day, an early beachhead on the continent of modern secularism.

There is a sense in which the essays, taken as a whole, represent a virtual systematic theology. What unites them is a formal principle: "obedient recognition to the authority of the Scripture as the infallible rule of faith" (Roger Nicole).

Donald Bloesch (who does not figure in the book) once said that the bane of modern Evangelical theology is a rationalism that assumes the Word of God is the object of intellectual investigation. Arguably, the other bane is a tendency to obsess over peripheral doctrinal matters – to major on the minors. Happily, neither of these tendencies shows up in the essays selected for this volume.

In my introduction, I wrestle (again) with the question, "What makes Evangelical theology Evangelical?" and suggest that the set of doctrines that comprise Evangelical is not bounded or centered, but anchored:

"The church is not the anchor but the vessel, the ark that the anchor keeps from drifting and making shipwreck of one's faith (1 Tim 1:19). What Scripture calls 'a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul' (Heb 6:19) is nothing other than God's promise, his covenant of grace fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The anchor, then, is God's faithfulness to his own word, as displayed in the way that the Father proves his steadfast love for sinners through the Son by the Spirit ... The Triune God himself is the sum and substance of the gospel."

I wrap up the Introduction by suggesting four lessons that today's Evangelical theologians can learn from yesterday's: (1) don't ignore or vilify modern thinking, but do subordinate it to Scripture (2) retrieving past insights is often valuable, even when the past is as near as the Greatest Generation (3) remember that the common core outweighs the secondary doctrinal differences (4) don't abandon but reclaim (and redeem) the term "Evangelical" by recentering it on the Triune God of the gospel: "though Jesus is the magnetic center of evangelical faith, that center requires a Trinitarian magnetic field if it is to be truly evangelical."

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