The Shaping of Evangelical Theology

August 9th, 2012

If theology is understood as contemporary reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Christian community in light of God’s revelation, then evangelical theology will necessarily be shaped by these concerns for apologetics, renewal, and mission. The exact shape of theology and practice will be significantly determined by how these concerns are related one to another.

I am arguing for their integration such that no one of them can be properly addressed without attention to the other two. This has not always been the assumption of evangelical theologians or practitioners. The lack of their integration has proven detrimental to both understanding and witness, and will only be more so in a postmodern culture. Let me suggest how each one necessarily involves the others.

The apologetic concern, at its best, will give an account to the contemporary world of who God is and what God has done in creation and redemption based on God’s revelation. This is essential for shaping the renewal of persons and communities and to direct missional outreach. At the same time, unless apologetic theology takes account of actual transformed lives and communities, and the reality of missional experience, it can become too abstract, and perhaps unaware of how culture can shape our thinking and understanding in ways contrary to the gospel.

The concern to renew the church, at its best, will paint a theological portrait of both the Christian life and the church as a living community, and encourage the expectant faith necessary to receive the life that God offers. This leads to an embodied apologetic and a motivation for mission. At the same time, unless renewal theology is grounded in God’s revelation through scripture and tradition, and thinks concretely of persons and churches in mission, it can become too individualistic or inward, and perhaps unaware of how culture can shape our experience and desires in ways contrary to the gospel.

The missional concern, at its best, will provide a vision of what God is doing in the world. This is essential for a full understanding of the character and promise of God, as well as how the Christian life is lived out in the world by persons and churches. At the same time, unless missional theology is grounded in God’s revelation and thinks concretely about the nature of the new life God gives, it can become too pragmatic or grounded other than in God, and perhaps unaware of how culture can shape our goals and actions in ways contrary to the gospel.

The apologetic, renewing, and missional concerns are related to another trio of broader terms that shape the theological task. The apologetic concern is to defend orthodoxy, or “right belief.” While this is the normal and correct definition of orthodoxy, what is sometimes missed is that ortho doxa also means “right glory” or “right praise.” Orthodoxy thus not only entails defending the faith but also proclaiming and celebrating it rightly in worship. Unless we worship the Triune God, and Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior, we are not offering “right praise” to God.

The missional concern to become actively involved in God’s work in the world calls us to orthopraxy, or the faithful practice of our faith enabled by critical reflection. In the early church “orthodoxy” encompassed the entirety of belief and practice, but by the medieval period orthodoxy became limited to referring to doctrinal correctness. In the 1960s liberation theologians coined the term orthopraxis, arguing that not only does theology shape practice but how we live our faith in the world shapes our theology. They sought to account for the tendency of ecclesiastical bodies to acquiesce in poverty and injustice even though doctrinally orthodox. They argued that it is in faithful practice, involving working for justice for the oppressed, that one comes to understand God’s revelation more fully.

Evangelicals have rightly grounded their theology in God’s revelation as authoritatively witnessed in inspired scripture. But all too often, this has been seen as a one-way movement from scripture to practice, forgetting that what mediates this move is our interpretation or understanding of scripture. To take orthopraxy seriously—as I think John Wesley did, though without using the term—is to be open to how our practice can illumine our understanding of scripture and hence our theology.

Many theologians, without necessarily adopting the methodology of liberation theology, have sought to integrate orthopraxy with orthodoxy. Yet for a number of Wesleyan and Pentecostal theologians, this dual emphasis remained inadequate. What was missing was orthopathy, or “right experience,” a term that would encompass the evangelical concern for a renewed heart and church. They did not always mean the same thing or even use the same term, but each sought to add Christian experience as a third element, shaped by and shaping the other two.

As with orthopraxy, evangelicals did not want orthopathy to lead to the abandonment of God’s revelation in scripture as determining their theology. Not every experience is “right experience.” But at the same time, they wanted to draw upon Christian experience as a source for understanding scripture. How we think about the God of the Bible and how we see the world in light of God’s revelation is shaped by our experience of God through scripture, prayer, sacrament, and service, even as it is shaped by doctrine and practice.

Evangelicals who see their theology as shaped by these three elements are not relativizing scripture. What they are doing is showing how God uses and illumines scripture as we live out the Christian life in the world. The integration of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy is a way of describing the dynamic by which the Holy Spirit enables us to think and live scriptural Christianity.

My earlier book, A Future for Truth, was centered on apologetic concerns and the faithful proclamation of orthodoxy in a postmodern world. This book will be focused on the concern for renewing the church through transforming the human heart, and therefore will be giving a description of orthopathy. It will do so, however, in concert with the apologetic and missional concern, and by taking account of the shaping role of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The way I do this will be evident in the chapters that follow.

I have already alluded to the content of the renewed Christian church and life as love. The God who gives this life is not any god, but the Triune God. The love God gives is not any love, but that in response to and shaped by God’s love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This God will not be considered here as one of a number of potential human expressions of some deeper experience of the divine, but the very particular God of Israel and the church, who creates all that is and enters history to redeem.

In the same way the Christian life and community and the mission of God in the world is simply not one expression of a more general good or moral life. They are instead the very distinctive life, community and mission brought about by God in and through Jesus Christ, and they are expressions of the eschatological life which is being even now manifested through the Holy Spirit and will come in fullness with the return of Jesus Christ.

It is this particularity of the Christian life that will be the central theme of all that follows.


This article is excerpted from Is There a Future for God's Love: An Evangelical Theology, coming October 1 from Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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