The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Classicists, Part One: Classical Conservative Evangelicals

This is the second of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology. The first can be found here.

The Classical Region

We begin our journey across the landscape of the Evangelical country in the ancestral homeland of most Evangelical theologians: Classical Evangelical theology. This theological movement began as a young rebellious group within the isolated Fundamentalist region but broke away in the 1940s and 50s. They called themselves ‘Neo-Evangelicals’ to distinguish themselves from their Fundamentalist parents, though are now usually seen simply as ‘Evangelical’ theologians. These were the thinkers to the groups which settled around the great chieftains Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry and John Stott. From the 1940s-1980s, such Evangelical theology was dominated by what can now be called ‘Conservative’ Evangelicalism. To this day, this is still the go-to style for many Evangelical pastors and ministers in the Western world (especially the US, UK, Canada and Australia). However, since the 1980s, an alternative tribe developed, known as ‘Postconservative’. Both these movements accept the paradigm and frame of reference set out by Neo-Evangelicalism in the Post-war, pre-millennial world – some are more conservative, some ‘postconservative’. They compete in the same landscape (publishers, seminaries), have fights over who has access to the same watering holes (professorships, blogs, journals). The authors in IVP’s ‘The Bible Speaks Today’ or ‘Tyndale Commentary’ series reflect both the unity and diversity of this region. This is a 20th Century Evangelical model of doing theology continued into the 21st Century. Like most Evangelical theology it has a high doctrine of Scripture which informs all of its cultural formation. Unlike Fundamentalism, it is happy to engage with the best of Biblical criticism – though usually from a more conservative perspective (unlike liberalism). It has a high doctrine of the Cross as the atonement for the sins of humanity (usually embracing some form of substitutionary theology). It emphasises conversion in the Christian life. This means that it is suspicious of mere cultural Christianity. And finally, because of its evangelistic drive, it has a high regard for apologetics as a means of intellectually engaging a sceptical culture.

We begin our journey in this region by studying the most powerful tribe: Classical Conservative Evangelicals (CCE).


Hodge and Biblical Theology

With the re-emergence of Evangelicalism out of the shadows of Fundamentalism in the 1940s, theologians such as Carl F.H. Henry and Harold Ockenga aimed to create an Evangelical theology that was passionately engaged with the intellectual world around it but without jettisoning the orthodox theology which Fundamentalism had sought to preserve. They drew as their main inspiration the Princeton theology of the Hodges, Alexander and Warfield – the crowning achieving of this kind of theology being Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology.[1] Hodge combined the rigor of Reformed Confessional Scholasticism with Scottish Common-Sense Realist philosophy, which emphasised humanity’s innate ability to perceive common ideas. This was developed through a foundationalist approach to epistemology, i.e. that all knowledge must rest on a certain foundational bedrock. In some ways, Henry’s massive God, Revelation and Authority[2] is a 20th Century Baptist rearticulation of Hodge. This Classical Conservative theology was deeply committed to a propositionally interpreted notion of Biblical inerrancy – defined as per the Chicago Statement of 1978.[3] All inherited theology must be rigorously tested against the witness of the Scriptures – even those doctrines affirmed by the Reformation. Usually, such theologians err on the side of caution and accept traditional interpretations of the divine attributes, creation, justification and eschatology. Nevertheless, divergences can be found. Classical Conservatives can be wary of giving too much weight to claiming Scriptural language is anthropomorphic, for instance. Wayne Grudem[4]  and John Stott[5] reject the divine impassibility of classical theism. Stott even posits a conflicting will in God in writing of ‘a conflict of emotions, a strife of attributes, within God.’[6] Perhaps such an approach reflects the classic Protestant aversion to Plato. Nevertheless, this approach to hermeneutics means that Scripture can be divorced from its history of subsequent interpretation: doctrinal development is sometimes squeezed into Biblical theology. Scripture can be reduced to comprehensive bundles of factual information, i.e. Hezekiah 6.8 states x, 4th Corinthians 1.4 states y, therefore the doctrine is xy. This is almost like a scientist collecting and evaluating scientific data. Wayne Grudem, describes systematics as follows:

Systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic… It attempts to summarize the teachings of Scripture in a brief, understandable, and very carefully formulated statement.[7]

Lest one think this is mere proof-texting, CCE theology undergirds itself through an increasingly sophisticated body of Biblical Theology. G.K. Beale’s brilliant studies on the Temple and idolatry[8] are shining stars in the CCE constellation. Here, historical and literary criticism are carefully used as precise tools for helping understand the development of a Biblical theme. Nevertheless, in less capable hands (for instance, Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe),[9] the hard graft of Biblical theology is quickly swapped for the easier task of proof-texting. Though CCE doctrine is generally conservative, this hermeneutical approach is a deeply modernist and thus atomist approach to theology.

The positive is that doctrine is never far removed from the clear sense of Scripture. If a doctrine isn’t firmly founded in the Scriptures, it is suspect – no matter what its heritage may be. The negative is that, as Herman Bavinck noted, it overlooks how denominational outlooks create certain lenses for reading Scripture.

[Biblical theology] suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions from his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their churches have put on them… The result, therefore, is what one would expect: all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by the members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors.[10]


The Character of Classical Conservativism

Given these criticisms, what is the kind of conversation found amongst Classical Conservatives? One will find some of the subjects that were prominent in late-19th and the early 20th Century still discussed in this tribe: dispensational versus covenantal theology, pre- versus post-tribulationist millennialism, creationism versus intelligent design, cessationism versus non-cessationism etc. Generally, most Classical Conservatives tend to be complementarians when it comes to gender relations (there are, of course, many exceptions). There are an ever abundant series of books on the Cross, heaven and hell, Biblical authority, creation, gender relations, and hermeneutics. Accordingly, even though CCE theologians are not Fundamentalists and would firmly root themselves in the Neo-Evangelicalism of Billy Graham, Carl Henry and John Stott, many are still quite close to their Fundamentalist grandparents. Taboos include a wariness in handing too much credit to social and natural scientific hypotheses, a wariness in seeing a positive role for other religions, and a genuine concern that moving away from penal substitutionary theology is a move away from the heart of the gospel. Much of this became apparent when pastor Rob Bell published Love Wins[11] in 2011. Whereas many Classical Postconservatives noted the similarity to much of C.S. Lewis’ thinking, Classical Conservatives were vehemently critical of what was seen as accommodation to universalism.

However, in keeping with Classical Evangelicalism’s desire for cultural engagement, CCE theology has demonstrated a passion for apologetics. Indeed, in that the underside of much evangelical preaching is evangelistic, the underside of its theology is often apologetic. It is for this reason that C.S. Lewis is almost granted a sainted status within this tribe (which is why Lewis’ views on atonement, other religions, prayer for the dead, are given a ‘free pass’, whereas in any other person they would normally be considered taboo). Although most CCE theologians will explore apologetics in some degree, some have specialised in the area. This includes William Lane Craig,[12] Michael Green,[13] F.F. Bruce,[14] Norman Geisler,[15] J.P. Moreland,[16] Lee Strobel,[17] Josh McDowell,[18] Timothy Keller,[19] and Ravi Zacharias.[20] The one way that a CCE theologian (or pastor) can certainly make money is by producing a well-argued book of apologetics! Much evangelistic theology on university and college campuses (such as IVCF, Cru, and CU) comes in the form of apologetics, and has proven to be a very successful way of engaging the faith. Like their colleagues in biblical studies and systematics, such theology is often rooted in Hodgean common-sense realism. As such, though it was a key driver in theological evangelism from the 40s-80s (and still has much value today!), it has an increasingly limited shelf-life as such approaches to realism hold less water in the secular culture around.


Conservative Alternatives

CCE theology is still the most prominent form of Evangelical theology in America as can be seen by the sales of Grudem’s Systematic Theology. However, despite this, its grip has weakened since the 1980s due to the alternative options that gave rise to Postconservatism. Furthermore, CCE theology, with its more atomistic approach to biblical hermeneutics and preferencing of contemporary over historical interpretation, hasn’t prevented a slide into heterodoxy within its ranks. Indeed, most strikingly, Grudem and Bruce Ware steadfastly defended for far too long than they should have the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father as a means of grounding their gender complementarianism. Even conservative evangelicals have begun to be wary of a kind of theology that can replicate a near-Arian (or at least a homoiousion) position. This is not to say that all such CCE theology is flawed in this way – Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology[21] offers a far more reliably orthodox and hermeneutically sound contemporary version of the Hodgian systematic endeavour, and D.A. Carson’s New Studies in Biblical Theology series continues to pump out a fountain of biblical delights. However, theologians in the conservative camp have begun to look to pre-19th Century models of theology in response to the more worrying slides of CCE theology. Many have taken the advice of J.I. Packer and found a rich unity of theology and spirituality in the writings of the Puritans.[22] Others have followed the example of John Piper and have their sustenance in ‘America’s Greatest Theologian’, Jonathan Edwards.[23] Such a path quite easily leads another generation of theologians to find that the world of Confessional Evangelical Catholicism is richer and more fecund than that offered by Classical Conservativsm.

The Hodgean path is not the only possible form of Conservative Evangelical theology. Those theologians who are closer to the Dutch Reformed Neocalvinist tradition of Abraham Kuyper have always been less than keen on the Scottish Common Sense Realism that Hodge espoused. Much closer to German Idealism, Kuyper argued for a world-embracing form of Calvinism that recognised the necessary historicity of doctrinal development. Herman Bavinck, a near contemporary and critic of Hodge, wrote the brilliant Reformed Dogmatics[24] in a historicist mode. Instead of ‘collecting biblical data’, Bavinck engages with the historical and contextual development of doctrinal loci to help understand the Scriptures. Those theologians in the Kuyperian tradition that followed – such as Cornelius Van Til, Hermann Dooyeward, G.C. Berkouwer and Hans Rookmaaker – have had a minority though still potent voice within the CCE world. The most prominent figure here was Francis Schaeffer, whose L’Abri community was a revitalising force for Conservative Evangelicals who wanted to reconnect their faith with arts, philosophy and politics after growing up in the Fundamentalist ghetto.

Some Conservatives, many inspired by Schaeffer, have taken a moderate approach to intellectual engagement outside the theological academy, and offer a bridge to Classical Postconservative Evangelicals. The French Evangelical Henri Blocher has continued to maintain an informed yet always charitable approach in his Biblical studies. In the Neocalvinist tradition, Richard Mouw – for decades President of Fuller – has consistently argued for a culturally-engaged Calvinism and promoted civility and common ground in Evangelical discussions.[25] In systematics, the ongoing Van Tillian work of John Frame has produced much thought provoking recategorization of classical conservative thinking.[26] Such a presuppositionalist theology has of course produced its own apologetics, which is far more willing to engage with postmodern philosophy. This moderate tradition offers an arguably more fruitful path for CCE to follow in the coming years – as well as offering much to Postconservative traditions as well.



Despite its post-war dominance – amplified by the cultural dominance of post-war American Evangelicalism on the wider world – Classical Conservative Evangelical theology has found its flame increasingly flicker. The development of Classical Postconservatism (inherent to the movement via the towering figure of Bernard Ramm even from the earliest post-war days) has meant that it is not the only ‘Classical’ Evangelical show in town. But the development of Confessional and Ecumenical Catholic Evangelicalism (often following after such figures as Packer, Sproul and Piper) has meant that it is no longer even the only conservative tribe. As the world globalises and American influence shrinks, other alternatives will inevitably arise. Indeed, the future of Conservative Evangelical theology may perhaps be found elsewhere. Nevertheless, Classical Conservativism still has a relevance and vibrancy – and an ever present readership – which means that as the oldest model of post-war Evangelicalism it is still the most dominant.


Representative theologians: Carl F.H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, Francis Schaeffer, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler, D.A. Carson, David F. Wells, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, John Frame, Henri Blocher, Kenneth Kantzer, G.K. Beale, Richard Mouw, William Lane Craig, F.F. Bruce, J.P. Moreland, Timothy Keller, Ravi Zacharias



[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Hendrickson, 2003), 3 Volumes

[2] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Crossway Book, 1999), 6 Volumes

[3] ‘The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics’,%20Sec%2023.pdf

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 1994), p.165-6

[5] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: IVP, 198/2011), p.382

[6] Ibid., p.153

[7] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.21, 23

[8] G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2004) and We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2008)

[9] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Crossway, 2010)

[10] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume One: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p.82

[11] Rob Bell, Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)

[12] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Publishing, 2010) and Reasonable Faith: Christian Trust and Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)

[13] Michael Green, Avoiding Jesus: Answers for Skeptics, Cynics, and the Curious (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005) and But Don’t All Religions Lead to God?: Navigating the Multi-Faith Maze (Leicester: IVP, 2002)

[14] F.F. Bruce, The Apostolic Defence of the Gospel (London: IVP, 1959)

[15] Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1976)

[16] J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987)

[17] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998)

[18] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1972/9)

[19] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2008)

[20] Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ (Faithwords, 2018)

[21] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998)

[22] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 2010)

[23] John Piper, Captive to Glory: Celebrating the Vision and Influence of Jonathan Edwards (Desiring God: 2015)

[24] Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)  4 Volumes

[25] See Richard Mouw, Calvinism at Los Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), and Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016)

[26] John M. Frame, A Theology of Lordship (Phillisberg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company), 4 Volumes

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