Monday, April 26, 2010

Will the real division in American evangelicalism please stand up?

Listening to Richard Hays' critique of N.T. Wright at Wheaton's theology conference (hat tip Mere O) reminds us that it's not just Wrightians versus Piperians out there (which McCracken nobly tries to reconcile), but there are Barthians in the American Protestant mix as well.  How nice that they were mentioned, as the toiling Barthains are excluded far too often.  (Consider Thuesen's recent history of Predestination in America, which - despite the fact that election is Barth's most exciting move - only mentions Barth once in connection to Robert Jenson.)  So yes, it was good that Hays played the Barth card, even if my mentioning Barth now means my wife has - as is her custom - instantly fallen asleep.

However, to posit Barhianism as the great tertium quid by which to break the Piper/Wright gridlock might be a bit too generous to Barth, as if we were to credit him with the Trinity because he recovered Trinitarian theology.  It is true that Barth - without forsaking history - did much to re-Christologize Scripture, restore canon and tradition, and has rescued many from the end game of historical criticism; but this rescue (like his move on election) is thanks as much to the great pre-critical tradition of reading the Bible as it is to Barth himself.  Hays' critique of Wright sounded, therefore, more like an ecclesial critique of Wright with a Barthian label slapped upon it.  Which is to say, Orthodox and Catholic believers could easily find themselves agreeing wholeheartedly with Hays. This, therefore, makes Hays' critique of the Bishop (for now) of Durham very similar to the late Richard John Neuhaus' critique of the same (which began with The Possibilities and Perils of Being a Really Smart Bishop, and ended here).  In fact, Hays' critique might be considered a sort of vindication of Neuhaus' perspective.  Sadly, however, the Neuhaus/Wright exchange did not share the same irenic tone.

The point is this:  The theological division in American evangelical Protestantism circa 2010 may not be between Piperians and Wrightians, for both of those parties are arguing from the same premises.  But nor, as a casual listener to Hays' address might infer, is it between Piperwrightians and Barthians, for again, this over privileges Barth.  Instead, the division - as Neuhaus understood - is between modernist evangelicals (lately galvanized by trickle-down postmoderism), and those of a more ecclesial sensibility (a category which, thankfully, includes an increasing number of evangelicals).

[cross posted at evangel]