The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Future

This is a fool’s endeavour. Over the last seven articles, I have tried out a new anthropological/geographical slant for mapping out the various branches of Evangelical theology in the 21st Century. I have used the terms ‘regions’ and ‘tribes’. Like any typology, it is very reductive. Some of the theologians discussed don’t even remain fixed in one ‘region’, let alone tribe. Some are closer to Fundamentalism or Mainline Liberalism than to Evangelicalism. This why the language of ‘country’ may be helpful: one doesn’t necessarily have to like or feel at home in the country they live in. One can live in one region of that country whilst yearning to be somewhere else: a citizen of London dazzle may look with longing at the peace of the Bahamas, and vice-versa. A member of one theological tribe may appreciate the customs, taboos and social grammar of a rival tribe without ever fully crossing over. But now I have drawn a little scratchy map, I have given myself the fool’s endeavour of thinking about the future of the country of Evangelical theology.

There are multiple risks in such an approach. The first risk is to presume that the future of theology coincides with one’s own theological preferences. The second is to divide the world into easily countable and distinguishable camps. Of course, this is often a subtle apology for the superiority of one’s own camp. Such an approach is ultimately reductionistic – with the added risk of political kitsch, which is, in the words of Andrew Shanks, a persistent yearning for some simple explanation of the world, some simple hazy certainty, to be accepted by everyone: such as would tend to do away with autonomous thought, restless questioning, the pursuit of the transcendent, altogether.[1]

Another risk is to imagine the future as the present. Such an approach can be found in Francis Fukuyama’s over-ripe prediction of the ‘end of history’ with the fall of the Soviet Union. This left his dynamic understanding of history undercooked – Absolute Spirit had magically arrived in which liberal democratic capitalism was eschatological aufgehoben. Of course, the restlessness of geist put an end to Fukuyama’s triumphalism. Such an approach is ultimately static, univocal and unworldly. A final risk in predicting the future of theology is simply to give up and not make predictions, to stare sceptically at the future as an equivocal unknown. This is to say the course of human history is so unpredictable that the zags of the future never correspond to the zigs of prediction. But though history has unexpected events that rupture the previous order, these live alongside the norm of evolutionary growth and decay. Such an approach is therefore ultimately fatalistic.

To defer to Thomas Aquinas and Francis Turretin, the best approach therefore is always analogy – the future will be both like and unlike the past and present. Though the future will contain unexpected eventful ruptures which will of course skew any easy prediction, one can make hazy predictions based on what has been. Whereas classical philosophy would postulate the cause based upon the effect, this is to postulate the effect based upon the cause. Therefore, to guess the future, one needs to understand the repetition and rupture of the past.


On Repetition and Rupture

Whilst writing this series of articles, I have been repeatedly struck by the way post-war Evangelical theology has tended to follow the pattern of the post-Reformation era. For instance, if Classical Conservative Evangelicalism has tended to incline towards a pre-confessional Calvinism, Classical Postconservatism has inclined to repeat the steps made in late 16th Century and early 17th Century Arminianism. N.T. Wright’s revising of the doctrine of justification is remarkably similar to Simon Episcopius’ Disputationes Theologicae Tripartitae (1646) or George Bull’s Harmonia Apostolica (1675). Stanley Grenz’s social trinitarianism echoes the theology of Remonstrant theologians Etienne de Courcelles’ Opera Theologica (1675) and Jean Leclerc’s Epistolae Theologicae (1679). Wayne Grudem’s quasi-Arian subordinationism repeats nearly verbatim Episcopius and Courcelles. Roger Olson’s critique of divine simplicity treads ground already crossed centuries previously by Konrad Voerstius’ Tractatus Theologicus de Deo (1610). The kind of theology presented by Confessional Evangelical Catholicism therefore seems to consciously tread the same ground as the Reformed scholastics of the 17th Century – the Turretins, Polanuses and Maastrichts.

What then of the Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics? Are they not repeating the same moves as the 17th Century Laudians of the Church of England? Is not their sacramental emphasis above and beyond preaching an echo of Lancelot Andrewes? Does not their Patristic scholarship remind one of George Bull and William Beveridge? Is not their call for liturgical theology following after John Cosin? Is not the Platonism of Boersma a re-presentation of the Cambridge Platonists?

Further afield, what of the Revisionists? There is an uncanny resemblance between the post-Barthianism of Thomas Smail and the theology of the English hypothetical universalists such as John Davenant or Richard Sibbes, or even Amyraldianism. The theology of election laid out by Evangelical Calvinism is often remarkably similar to the thinking of Jacob Arminius himself! And what of the Pentecostal revisionists? Is not their theology sometimes bordering on the kind of religion-of-the-heart revisionism which the Lutheran Pietists and Anglo-American revivalists developed throughout the 18th Century? This was the kind of theology which began to ‘read’ the Scriptures from the experience of regeneration and renewal, much like Pentecostal theology reads the Scriptures from the experience of baptism in the Spirit. Sometimes when reading such theology, there is a startling resemblance to the writings of Wilhelmus à Brakel.

If this is the case, then is the future doomed to repeat the past? If so, we would expect the following:

  • Classical Conservativism would increasingly isolate itself, like those of the Dutch Afscheiding of the 19th Century or American Fundamentalists of the 20th.
  • Classical Postconservatism would follow the sad decline of Remonstradt theology into liberal Unitarianism, Arianism, and eventually, Deism
  • Confessional Evangelical Catholicism would be whittled away by the demands of an increasingly secularised world (as Turretin Senior’s Geneva was overwhelmed by Turretin Junior’s)
  • Confessional Ecumenical Evangelicalism would drift to Anglo-Catholicism, Rome or Constantinople
  • Revisionist Barthian and Pentecostal Evangelicals would split between conservatives and liberals, akin to the splits of Protestantism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Such a future would look bleak indeed, allowing the riches of the current Evangelical country to be plundered by liberalism and fundamentalism. The 19th and 20th Century saw the schism of American Evangelicalism because of the rise of the abolitionist movement and evolutionary theory. We can see some of the signs of this schism already in America due to the increasingly uncritical allegiance of many Evangelicals to the Republican Party. Across the world, Evangelicalism is having to deal with the new issues of gender and sexuality, which could cause a further split.

However, history is not merely the story of the decline of Protestant Orthodoxy. It is also the story of unexpected rupture. The Pietism of August Hermann Francke and Phillip Spener spilled over into the revivalism of Wesley and Edwards in the 18th Century, causing a rich renewal of Orthodox Calvinism and Arminianism that lasted deep into the 19th Century. The Neocalvinism of Abraham Kuyper steered a fresh and fertile middle ground between the Modernist and Fundamentalist wings of the Dutch Reformed Church. The strange and unexpected burst of Pentecostalism out of Azusa Street has utterly transformed the religious landscape of the world and turned secularist expectations on their head. The post-war Neo-Evangelical movement of Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham and John Stott took the struggling and ignored Evangelical movement and lifted it into the heart of religious and political life in the Western world.

From a more negative view, the rupture of Tractarianism meant that the sunny postmillennial Evangelicalism of the early 19th Century was not to be realised. Rather than the Church of England being Evangelical by the beginning of the 20th Century (as was expected by many in the 1830s), it was increasingly dominated by ritualism and post-Protestantism. The rupture of Darwinism divided the Evangelical denominations of the United States until the point of schism in the 20th Century. The supernova of options in the post-war era decimated Dutch Neocalvinism. The rupture of the Moral Majority in American politics meant that the broad Neo-Evangelical movement of the post-war period was sucked into the Neo-Fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell. Such ruptures are impossible to predict – though inevitable with historical hindsight!


Where were we twenty years ago?

Such large-scale historical landscaping means that it is nearly impossible to plot a detailed map. Perhaps a smaller scale local road map may be of more help? If we look at some literature from the late 90s and early 2000s, we can see the massive strides Evangelicalism has taken in the past two decades. For instance, in his chapter in the book The Futures of Evangelicalism, Alister McGrath notes the need for Evangelicalism to take up the academic batten. For McGrath, the movement has been hamstrung from embracing a potentially rich academia by its pragmatism and fundamentalist legacy.[2] This is echoed in by John Stackhouse in his essay in Evangelical Futures:

Whilst evangelicals around the world rejoice as millions of people convert to their form of Christianity, there are few theologians of stature who have converted to evangelical theology from some other tradition and now work within it. And even if I have overlooked a notable convert or two, to look for converts is to miss the larger point. Evangelicals can and do explore Ruether, Hartshorne, or Zizioulas, or Gutiérrez in order to enrich their evangelicalism. But which liberals, neo-orthodox, Roman Catholics or what-have-you take the evangelical tradition seriously as a theological resource even to enrich their own perspectives?[3]

Such a pessimistic take on Evangelical theology is quickly fading. One just need mention John Webster, Oliver O’Donovan, Richard Bauckham, Richard B. Hays, Kevin Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, Peter Leithart, Hans Boersma, Katherine Sonderegger, Miroslav Volf, Anthony Thiselton, N.T. Wright, J. Richard Middleton, J. Kameron Carter, Fleming Rutledge, Oliver Crisp, Richard Muller, Michael Horton, Amos Yong, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen for potent examples of Evangelical theologians who are revered and respected in the wider theological academy. O’Donovan competes with the best of Postliberal ethics. Vanhoozer locks swords in an equal fight with Postliberal and Roman Catholic approaches to Scripture. Liturgical theologians scour James K.A. Smith for insights for their own thinking. Wright is debated about in the best Biblical departments in the world. I could go on. In two decades, Evangelicalism has transformed the theological landscape. However, it should also be noted that all the theologians listed here are those who have travelled away from Classical Conservatism. This is not to say that Classical Conservative Evangelicalism isn’t producing excellent theology; rather it is to say that it has remained enclosed within the Evangelical world.

In his introduction to Evangelical Futures, Stackhouse noted the following:

It is obvious, however, that these essays are not all that diverse. They reflect the fact that the contributors do not vary much in age (all between forty and fifty-five years old, with Jim Packer the venerable exception), in training (all educated in some combination of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States – Stan Grenz is the exception, having studied with Wolfhart Panneberg in Munich), and in race (all white). All of us, furthermore, are male. For this unhappy narrowness of field we can only plead in defense that the state of evangelical theology today is itself dominated by such demographics.[4]

It had been noted by one early commentator on these articles (somewhat pre-emptively) that it was dominated by white males. As the Stackhouse comment indicates, we can only plead ‘Guilty!’ The comment was made about Classical Conservative and Postconservative theology. But as can be seen throughout these articles, as new tribes emerge, so does the diversity grow. Women, black, or Asian theologians begin to dominate as Evangelical theology globalises. The occasional female name in Postconservative and Confessional Evangelicalism (Elaine Storkey, Larycia Hawkins, Katherine Sonderegger) soon becomes a plethora of racial and gender diversity in Barthian and Pentecostal revisionism (Nimi Wariboko, Melissa Archer, Daniela Augusta, Simon Chan, Amos Yong, Ogbu Kalu etc). In the same way that Evangelical theology over the last twenty years has become more respected in the theological academy, it has also become more diverse.

This is a diversity which can only expand. African American theology has been dominated by Black Liberation Theology – a rich resource, yes – but this has inevitably meant that the treasures of orthodox African American Evangelical theology has been overlooked. This is now being overturned. The work of Esau McCaulley has brought to attention the long history of Evangelical African-American hermeneutics.[5] Anthony Bradley has shown the remarkable convergence of African American experience and Reformed theology.[6] Thabiti M. Anyabwili has delivered a passionate critique of Black Liberation Theology and a call to reclaim the orthodox past of African American theology.[7]

In the area of Evangelical feminist theology, theologians such as Aimee Byrd,[8] Nicola Hoggard Creegan[9] and Christine Pohl[10] join the ranks of more established voices such as Elaine Storkey,[11]  of Beulah Wood,[12] Margaret Bendroth,[13] Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen,[14] to demonstrate the emerging fecundity of thinking through Evangelical theology from a feminist perspective. Like with the work of Anyabili and McCaulley, such feminist theologians demonstrate that such a perspective need not lead into liberalism (contra the crude accusations of Wayne Grudem[15]), but instead offer a fresh perspective into Scripture that is much needed in an occasionally stale theological world. Indeed, as Creegan argues, even ecofeminism – often seen as the archetypal liberalism of liberation theologies – has much fruit to bear in Evangelical theology.

It is difficult to locate such theologies in my tribal typology. In some ways they could be seen as ‘Postconservative’ – but hardly ‘Classical Postconservative’. Such theologies have little reliance on the Neo-Evangelicalism of the post-war era other than historical legacy. As such they could be called ‘Postclassical Evangelicals’. They would join such established theologians as biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, a figure who in many ways has defied categorisation for several decades. Clearly in the orthodox Protestant tradition, yet also in many ways a revisionist who has been influenced by Moltmann, Bauckham could be seen as the latest figurehead of ‘Liberal Evangelicalism’, a movement that emerged in the 1920s Church of England. Bauckham has defended such conservative positions as an early high Christology in Christianity and the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, yet does so through startlingly modern historical critical techniques.

One could replicate such fascinating new emerging routes for Evangelical theology globally: Korean Presbysterian HapDong theology, Mexican Reformed theology, charismatic Anglican theology in Singapoore, Reformed Anglican theology in Hong Kong, as well as the endless list of international Pentecostals discussed in article 7 (Revisionist Pentecostal Evangelicals). As such theologies draw on their European Confessional roots whilst mixing with the own contexts, who knows the ways in which it will develop? Anglo-American Evangelicalism has yet to catch up. Here in the Northern and Western hemispheres, we would do well to read the second edition of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology[16] to get an insight into the workings of Global Evangelicalism.


A Postclassical Future

Out of this comes a more modest prediction: that as the Evangelical country globalises, it diversifies and fractures. Some will leave the Evangelical country altogether. They will journey into mainline liberalism, Anglo- or Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or even atheism. Others will regress from the advances of post-war Neo-Evangelicalism and develop into Neo-Fundamentalists (a glance at the sad decline of Eric Metaxas gives weight to this speculation). This will be increasingly the risk for Classical Conservatives.

Others in post-Trump America may heed Michael Agapito’s summons to ‘Revangelicalism’,[17] a label which has the potential to develop into a Neoclassical Evangelicalism – that is, a deliberate resourcement of the Evangelical movement in the 21st Century by returning to the ideals of Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham and John Stott. Alternatively, others may feel that the Classical Era of Evangelical theology is ancient history; that Henry, Graham and Stott are distant figures who offer little to the globalised and diversified Evangelicalism of the third decade of the 21st Century (and beyond). Much Catholic and Revisionist theology has already begun that journey and can call itself ‘Postclassical’. Yet tying the following generation to a title to which they have little emotional or intellectual connection to seems like yet another typological approach of a white Western author who wishes to tidy up the complicated matrix of global Evangelicalism into a tidy schema. As such, let the post-postclassical generation name themselves!

Another prediction: that despite the overripe eulogies fr the decline of Protestant theology from such thinkers as John Milbank,[18] the country of Evangelical theology has a growing vitality that will continue to blossom throughout the 21st Century. It’s just that its first language will probably not be English. In much the same way that theological vitality has shifted from Europe to America, we may find ourselves looking up to Singapore, Lagos and Rio de Janeiro by 2099. It may be the case that there is currently a seminary or university in Uganda or Mexico overlooked by us haughty Westerners where a new revolution in Evangelical theology is stirring. After all, the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch could have never imagined that the most formidable theologian of the 5th Century would emerge in Hippo. The professors of Paris, Oxford and Bologna in 1516 would have been bewildered had they been told that the greatest theological comet of the 16th Century would come from Wittenberg.

And so, alongside my predictions for the continued diversification and fracturing of the Evangelical country, and the growing theological dynamism of the Global South, I have a final prediction: that the 21st Century will produce a theological surprise that none of us were expecting. For we worship a God of surprises who always has a few more tricks up his sleeve. In the immortal words of John Robinson, preaching to the fearful yet hopeful pilgrims upon the Mayflower before their great trek across the Atlantic, ‘I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.’ Amen.



[1] Shanks, Andrew, Hegel’s Political Theology, p.123

[2] Alister E. McGrath, ‘Theology and the Futures of Evangelicalism’, in The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects, ed. Craig Bartholomew, Robin Parry and Andrew West (Leicester: IVP, 2003)

[3] John G. Stackhouse Jr, ‘Evangelical Theology Should Be Evangelical’, in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 2000), p.40

[4] Stackhouse, ‘Preface’, in Evangelical Futures, p.10

[5] Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP Academic, 2020)

[6] Anthony B. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and Black Experience in America (Crossway Books, 2010)

[7] Thabiti M. Anyabwili, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 2007)

[8] Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020)

[9] Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Creation and Hope: Reflections on Ecological Anticipation and Action from Aoteaoa New Zealand (Pickwick Publications, 2018)

[10] Christine Pohl, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2012)

[11] Elaine Storkey, What’s Right with Feminism? (London: SPCK, 1989), and Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women (London: SPCK, 2015)

[12] Beulah Wood, The People Paul Admired: The House Church Leaders of the New Testament (Wipf and Stock: 2014)

[13] Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (Yale: Yale University Press, 1996)

[14] Mary Stewart Van Leeuwan, Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 1990)

[15] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? (Crossway, 2006)

[16] Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, Second Edition: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020)

[17] Michael Agapito, ‘A Report from Across the Pond: The State of Evangelicalism Amid the 2020 Election’

[18] John Milbank, ‘The New Divide: Romantic Versus Classical Orthodoxy’ Modern Theology, 26.1, 2010

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