The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Revisionists Part I: Barthian Revisionist Evangelicals

This is the sixth of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth can be found hereherehere, here and here.


We continue our journey through the vast country of Evangelical theology. We began in the Classical region, the ancestral homelands of much post-war Evangelicalism. There we found great monuments to the ancestral spirits of Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry and John Stott. We then moved to a new region, Catholicity, where tribes who had moved away from the old Classical region found sustenance in the tulip fields and the Boswellia groves. Woe betide you if you offend the ancestral spirits of these tribes, whether that be the Reformation confessions or the early Church Fathers! Now we move into a new region, as vast as the sea. The tribes who moved here journeyed in the opposite direction to those who journeyed into the Catholic region. This new region is called Evangelical Revisionism. These are theologians who were nurtured in the Classical Postconservative tribe but felt the need to go further.

There has always been theological experimentation amongst Evangelicals. In many ways Jonathan Edwards was an orthodox radical, rejecting the Aristotelian metaphysics of his Reformed Scholastic forefathers in order to create a new ‘New England’ orthodoxy for the 18th Century.[1] John Wesley weaved together the radical Arminianism of the 17th Century with an orthodox pietism, a synthesis which produced some quite surprising conclusions regarding inclusivism and eschatology.[2] In the late 19th Century, Evangelical denominations in North America split over the extent to which theological experimentation was permissible. Those who were uncomfortable with it broke away to form their own Fundamentalist denominations. Those who were comfortable remained in the mainline churches, thereby incubating the classical liberal theology of the 20th Century. As such, Evangelicals were not known for their theological creativity.

Evangelicals Revisionists turn back to Edwards and Wesley by surfing upon the theologically creative waves of the broad seas of orthodoxy. Where they differ from Classical Postconservative Evangelicals (CPE) is in no longer holding themselves ‘accountable’ to the old Classical Conservative Evangelical (CCE) magisterium. If Roger Olson or N.T. Wright still debate with the likes of D.A. Carson or John Piper, a Barthian like Myk Habets or a Pentecostal like Amos Yong have moved on. Like Evangelical Catholics, they see themselves in a new paradigm. Unlike them, they continue the Postconservative suspicion of being beholden to the Catholic tradition. It is in this sense that they are ‘revisionist’ – not a liberal revisionist rejection of orthodoxy or the authority of Scripture, but revising the ways in which orthodoxy can be expressed – especially as articulated by Classical Conservative Evangelicalism and the wider Catholic Scholastic tradition. Perhaps this reticence to CCE theology and Evangelical Catholicism is because Evangelical Revisionists write from Singapore and Lagos, New Zealand and Brazil. This is Global Evangelicalism finally pushing its rightful place onto the Evangelical table. Sometimes, however, the voices can grate upon established but alien Evangelical shibboleths. What hath Dort to do with Dodoma? How shall we sing the strange German song in a familiar Columbian land? Why should Chicago hold captive the readers of Seoul? In this sense, Revisionist Evangelicalism is postcolonial – finding its own voice away from the expectations of the American seminary. This is not to say that all Global Christians are theological revisionists – the flourishing school of Confessional Presbyterianism in the South Korea puts pay to that idea! Nor is it to say that Revisionist Evangelical theology is only to be found in the Global South – Barthian and Pentecostal Revisionists are flourishing in the US and UK as much as South Africa and New Zealand. It is to say that the trend of Global Evangelical theology has generally declared itself independent of Carl F.H. Henry and no longer feels the need to pay tribute to him. Offerings are placed upon the shrines of greater ancestors.

There are two large tribes in the Revisionist Evangelical region – the Barthians and the Pentecostals.[3] Barthian Revisionist Evangelicals (BRE) have found in the work of Karl Barth and his followers a richer, more biblical mode of doing theology. Pentecostal Revisionist Evangelicals (PRE) develop theology by weaving Pentecostal experience with indigenous cultural contexts. Though these two tribes seem to have very different concerns, they share a suspicion of Protestant scholasticism and therefore are willing to revise classical articulations of orthodox formularies. Yet this is not simply two independent paths bound together by a writer eager to simplify complex phenomena. There is a striking conversation in the subject of pneumatology emerging between them. This can be seen in Myk Habet’s excellent essay collection, Third Article Theology.[4] Indeed, some of the richest pneumatology in the theological world today can be found in Barthian and Pentecostal circles. As global Christianity shifts south, that old Swiss giant may find himself being baptised in the Spirit.


Barth amongst the Evangelicals

Karl Barth was a colossus in 20th Century theology, with an influence akin to Wagner’s upon 19th Century music. That is to say that though you may love or hate his theology, you couldn’t ignore it. From the publishing of the first edition of Der Römerbrief in 1919, to the gradual tailing off of the Dogmatics in the late 50s and 60s, Barth was the theologian. Since his death his titanic impact has shrunk. However, in the areas of Christology, revelation and election, Barth casts a long shadow. Barth centred revelation on the person of Jesus Christ, that God must be understood primarily from his saving act in Jesus. Hidden abstract decrees make Jesus Christ less concrete, final and definitive, which for Barth is to create an idol. This means that there is no God ‘behind the back of Jesus Christ’, no decretal snarl beneath the surface of the Christological smile. In Jesus Christ we see the abundant overflowing fullness of God, without remainder. This shapes all the Dogmatic loci in Barth’s Dogmatics, from the divine attributes (which he renames ‘perfections’), to creation, to atonement. Where Barth is at his most convincing – and creative – is in how the previously dark subject of election is Christologically transformed into the light at the heart of revelation. For Barth, in Jesus Christ we see that God’s eternal decretal decision was to graciously be for humanity. Thus, Jesus Christ is the elect one, eternally chosen, but is also the reprobate. God’s election of Jesus Christ is the election of humanity in him; the Cross is the demonstration of the wrath of God against human sin – once again, without remainder. Reformed supralapsarianism is turned on its head – the hidden decree is made manifest in Jesus Christ.

For many, that ‘without remainder’ leaves little logical wiggle room away from the conclusion of universalism. This – alongside Barth’s understanding of Scripture as the witness to revelation without necessarily being revelation itself – has made Evangelicals somewhat wary of the Swiss giant. Carl Trueman sums it up well:

In addition to Barth’s own disdain for conservative evangelicalism, there was also the apparent incipient universalism; the appropriation of the slippery Historie (that which is reported as fact) and Geschichte (the interpretation of that fact) distinction; the radical Christological reconstruction of the concept of revelation; and, perhaps above all, the sheer vastness and complexity of the Church Dogmatics, which militated against a unified and coherent account of his thought, something that should surely be basic to any positive interaction… To all this, one might also add the practical, ecclesiastical point: the failure of Barthianism to stem the collapse of Europe’s churches, both numerically and doctrinally.’[5]

Despite this, from the beginning there were those who found in Barth a fresh well. His Christocentrism and emphasis on biblical theological narrative appealed to those who were left thirsty by the post-Princeton propositionalism of Neo-Evangelicalism. This is not to say that Barth had no Evangelical dialogue partners – many Classical Postconservatives and even Confessional Catholics draw on his theology (Kevin Vanhoozer being an obvious example). What sets Barthian Revisionist Evangelicals (BRE) apart is the sense that Barth’s theology was a real gamechanger. Although one can draw on Protestant Scholasticism, theology has been irrevocably changed after its encounter with the Swiss meteor. BRE theology can be sympathetic or critical of Barth – what it doesn’t do is ignore him.


Evangelical Theology After Barth

The BRE have been steadily growing in number for decades. It was an Evangelical Anglican, Geoffrey Bromily, who translated much of the Church Dogmatics. The great Bernard Ramm, the co-Dogmatist of Neo-Evangelicalism alongside Carl F.H. Henry, increasingly found himself a writing in a fully Barthian line, which culminated in his After Fundamentalism, An Evangelical Christology and Offence to Reason.[6] Donald Bloesch was increasingly sympathetic to Barth throughout his Christian Foundations series as he sought to create a ‘consensual Christianity’.[7] Oliver O’Donovan has developed a deeply sophisticated body of theological ethics upon Barthian convictions (even if critically diverging from Barth in multiple places).[8] Arguing that any ethics must be grounded in the resurrection’s affirmation of creation, O’Donovan set the stage for other explorations in political theology, sexuality, and just war theory.[9] The decades-long work of John Webster, though often sadly ignored in his own Anglican denomination, has emphasised Barthian principles as a way of tidying-up theological problems as well as contributing to dogmatic development.[10] Though in his later years he became increasingly sympathetic to Protestant Scholasticism (Aquinas and Owen became bigger conversation partners), he was always a theologian ‘after Barth’. Bruce McCormack has spent several decades helping transform Princeton into a Barthian fortress. In his attempt to demonstrate to the world that Barth is ‘orthodox and modern’,[11] he has called out to young disaffected Evangelicals, saying that there is an alternative Evangelicalism on offer.[12]

More recently, Nigel Wright’s The Radical Evangelical is a restatement of moderate Barthian theology, especially in its discussions of Scripture, election and soteriology.[13] He critically uses Barthian analyses of sin as the basis of his A Theology of the Dark Side.[14] Sue Patterson has developed the post-Barthian realist worldview of Thomas Torrance with post-Wittgensteinian linguistics.[15] Alister McGrath works with Barth in order to rehabilitate natural theology, as well as writing theological biographies of the Neo-Orthodox Brunner and the Barthian Torrance.[16] J. Kameron Carter has used Barth as a way of giving voice to the tragically ignored rich world of African-American Evangelicalism.[17] His excellent essay weaving together Barthian theology with the thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrates the fecundity of (critical) Barthian Evangelical theology from an African-American perspective.[18] Barth is one of the main conversation partners for the writers of Tom Gregg’s stimulating essay collection, New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology.[19] The Evangelical Episcopalian Fleming Rutledge has written one of the greatest works on the Cross in recent decades through a Barthian reworking of election, penal substitution and justification.[20] Murray Rae and Jeremy Begbie have adapted Barthian concerns to such areas as architecture[21] and music.[22] Amy Plantinga Pauw has critically used Barth to develop liturgical and ecclesiological theology.[23] Paul Nimmo has drawn on Barth (and McCormack after him) to articulate a Christological ethical ontology.[24] Contemporary Evangelical students of mission find themselves thinking through Barthian lenses due to David Bosch’s Transforming Mission[25] and the works of Lesslie Newbigin[26] being considered essential reading. The list could easily go on.

The charismatic movement in the Church of England has been far more open to Barth than many of its cousins across the Atlantic. This is undoubtedly due to a single individual: Thomas Smail. From his earlier Reflected Glory to the later The Giving Gift, Smail developed a charismatic pneumatology from Barthian convictions. His last book, Like Father, Like Son is a charismatic trinitarian anthropology via Barth and his more critical successors (like Moltmann, Pannenberg and Gunton). Because of Smail, Anglican charismatic Evangelicalism has found a friend in Barth and Barthians such as Thomas Torrance and Colin Gunton. Whether that is James H.S. Steven’s theological and sociological study of worship in the charismatic movement, Worship in the Spirit,[27] or Graham Tomlin’s study of priesthood and blessing, The Widening Circle,[28] Barthian themes have certainly enriched charismatic Anglican theology.

Arguably the biggest current name in contemporary BRE is the group calling themselves ‘Evangelical Calvinists.’[29] Now into their second volume of essays, this ecumenical group (including Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed) argue for an alternative Calvinist tradition than the dominant Federalist version (beloved of Confessional Evangelical Catholics). This tradition runs from Calvin through the Scottish Reformed tradition, fully flourishing in the theology of Barth and Thomas Torrance. Like Federal Vision, these theologians put union with Christ at the centre of their theological vision. Like Tom Smail,[30] they have also emphasised the atonement theories of Scottish theologians John McLeod Campbell and Thomas Torrance: the vicarious ministry of Christ. This is to say that Christ vicariously represents humanity before the Father and repents for sin on humanity’s behalf in the Cross. In the word of McLeod Campbell, ‘This confession as to its nature, must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the side of man. Such an Amen was due in the truth of things. He who was the Truth could not be in humanity and not utter it – and it was necessarily a first step in dealing with the Father on our behalf. He who would intercede for us must begin with confessing our sins.’[31] (In an alternative clan of the Barthian tribe, Andrew Purves has developed the implications of this for pastoral ministry, arguing that ministers must remember that we are called to share in Christ’s vicarious ministry, not claiming a ministry of our own).[32] The central figure here is New Zealand Baptist theologian Myk Habets. As well as writing monographs on pneumatology, Spirit Christology, eschatology and Thomas Torrance,[33] Habets is the editor of a multitude of essay collections, including post-Barthian Trinitarian theology, gender egalitarianism, the Filioque, and pneumatology[34] – a fecund and creative mind, showing the exciting ways in which BRE theology can develop.



The global spread of this tribe – from the US and UK to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, from Anglican charismatic to Black Liberation – argues that it is unlikely Barth’s star will fade any time soon. Furthermore, considering that Barthian studies and post-Barthian dogmatics are having a fruitful life within mainline theology, like with Confessional Evangelical Catholics there is a considerable overlap of theological countries. Some Evangelicals may be surprised that they live in the same country as Bruce McCormack, Fleming Rutledge, Amy Plantinga Pauw and J. Kameron Carter. Theologians who would traditionally be consider ‘mainline’, such as the Torrance family, George Hunsinger, David Fergusson, and Paul Dafydd Jones, could also be considered as comfortable members of this tribe. Creating arbitrary limits on ‘who’s in/who’s out’ is the kind of exclusiveness I ruled out of my definition on Evangelicalism in the opening article. Drawing a line becomes increasingly difficult in some of the established magisterial denominations such as Presbyterianism, Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Perhaps this overlap is allowing for a new ancient-future Evangelicalism – ancient in the sense of having a greater allegiance to the Reformation heritage than to the Great Awakening, future in the sense of finding Barth a richer dialogue partner through which to develop that same heritage. Perhaps there is hope in a mixed marriage – those orthodox descendants of the liberal mainline and the open descendants of the fundamentalist breakaways. Though Barth may have been critical of Pietism, his theology may find its true home amongst its proponents.


Key theologians: Bernard Ramm, Donald Bloesch, John Webster, Oliver O’Donovan, Alister McGrath, J. Kameron Carter, Sue Patterson, Thomas Smail, James H.S. Stevens, Myk Habets, Tom Greggs, Paul Nimmo, Fleming Rutledge, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Andrew Purves, Bobby Grow, Marcus Johnson, Nigel Wright, Graham Tomlin



[1] See Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2002)

[2] See Kayla Harward’s upcoming article for Fulcrum on John Wesley’s views on the salvation of animals.

[3] There are multitudes of smaller tribal units, which may grow larger as time goes by.

[4] Myk Habets (ed), Third Article Theology: A Pneumatological Dogmatics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016)

[5] Carl Trueman, ‘Foreward’, in David Gibson and Daniel Strange (ed), Engaging with Barth: Contemporary evangelical critiques (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), p.14

[6] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1983), An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic and Historic (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1985), and Offence to Reason: A Theology of Sin (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985)

[7] Donald Bloesch, Christian Foundations (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 7 Volumes

[8] See, for instance, Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd Edition (Leicester: Apollos, 1986/1994)

[9] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Cascade, 2008), and Just War Revisited (Cambridge: CUP, 2009)

[10] See John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2001)

[11] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

[12] See Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (ed.), Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmanns, 2011)

[13] Nigel Wright, The Radical Evangelical: Seeking a place to stand (London: SPCK, 1996)

[14] Nigel Wright, A Theology of the Dark Side: Putting the power of evil in its place (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002)

[15] Sue Patterson, Realistic Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age (Cambridge: CUP, 1999)

[16] Alister E. McGrath, Reimagining Nature: The Promise of a Christian Natural Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), T.F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999)

[17] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

[18] J. Kameron Carter, ‘An Unlikely Convergence: W.E.B. Du Bois, Karl Barth and the Problem of the Imperial God-man’, in The New Centennial Review 11.3 (2011)

[19] Tom Greggs (ed), New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology: Engaging with God, Scripture and the World (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010)

[20] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2015)

[21] Murray Rae, Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place (Baylor University Press, 2017)

[22] Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: CUP, 2000)

[23] Amy Plantinga Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmanns, 2017)

[24] Paul T. Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (London: T&T Clark, 2011)

[25] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008)

[26] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1978), and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989)

[27] James H.S. Stevens, Worship in the Spirit: Charismatic Worship in the Church of England (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2002)

[28] Graham Tomlin, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s way of blessing the world (London: SPCK, 2014)

[29] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (ed), Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012) and Evangelical Calvinism Volume II: Dogmatics and Devotion (2017)

[30] Tom Smail, Once and for All: A Confession of the Cross (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1998)

[31] John McLeod Campbell, The Nature of Atonement (London: James Clarke & Co., 1959), p.116

[32] See Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ and The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010)

[33] Myk Habets, The Progressive Mystery: Tracing the Elusive Spirit in Scripture and Tradition (Lexham Press, 2019), The Anointed Son: A Trinitarian Spirit Christology (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2010), Heaven: An Inkling of What’s To Come (Cascade Books, 2018), Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (London: Routledge, 2016)

[34] (with Phillip Tolliday), Trinitarian Theology After Barth (Cambridge: James Clark and Co, 2011), Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014), Ecumenical Perspectives on the Filioque for the 21st Century (London: T&T Clark, 2015)

Leave a comment