Helpful, But Misleading: A Review of 20th-Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age

Grenz, Stanley J., and Olson, Roger E. 20th-Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.


This widely-used textbook on 20th century theology contains much useful information about some influential theologians of the past century, and is therefore somewhat helpful. Though the treatment is broadly chronological, the structure and major analytical approach come from the twin concepts of God’s transcendence and immanence. The authors see the past hundred years of theology as an ongoing struggle to find a balanced treatment of these to facets of God’s being and action that reflects the core beliefs of the Christian faith. Nine chapters helpfully survey the shattering effects of the Enlightenment upon many intellectuals, who could no longer accept traditional Christian teaching; the tendency towards immanence in 19th-century German theology; the strong neo-orthodox re-affirmation of transcendence in the early 20th century; an equally strong “deepening” of immanence in the theologies of Paul Tillich, secular theology, and various forms of liberation theology; and a modified return to some sort of transcendence in the thought of some German Protestant and Roman Catholic writers, as well as the proponents of narrative theology. Each theologian receives brief but apparently fair treatment, including a short biography, exposition of his thought, and a critical evaluation from a mildly evangelical perspective. For those who want to know about non-evangelical, mostly German (with some exceptions, especially among theologies of liberation) theological speculation, this volume will be quite useful.

But Misleading

On the other hand, anyone interested in a balanced treatment of modern theology will have to look elsewhere, for 20th-Century Theology is fatally marred by omissions and distortions. Omissions Despite its apparently inclusive title and a final, supposedly balancing, chapter on two evangelical theologians, the authors practically ignore what might be called “traditional” or “conservative” or “evangelical” theology. In fact, they give the impression that not much theological reflection or biblical study was going on outside the limited sphere which they choose to survey. You would never know that major contributions to both biblical studies and various branches of theology were being made by serious scholars who believed in the accuracy of the Bible and the truth of orthodox Christianity. For example, we hear little or nothing about systematic theologians such as E.J. Carnell, Cornelius Van Til, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and John Frame; or biblical theologians Gerhardos Vos, Herman Ridderbos and George E. Ladd. From the way Grenz and Olson have put it, you would think that modern biblical scholarship had conclusively proved the Bible to be filled with errors and thus historically untrustworthy. There is no hint that “conservative” scholars such as F.F. Bruce, E.J. Young, Gleason Archer, and literally hundreds of others after them had wrested the initiative from “negative” biblical critics to demonstrate the trustworthy nature of biblical narrative and the authenticity of the biblical documents. Distortions As noted above, the authors present a façade of fairness by including a discussion of two leading evangelical thinkers, Carl F.H. Henry and Bernard Ramm. Even here, however, they display their glaring bias and anti-traditional agenda. Despite a reasonably accurate description of Henry’s main views, they (1) use clever rhetoric to negate his contribution and (2) lavishly praise Ramm, largely because he agrees with the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. Olson and Grenz, although citing those who acclaim Carl Henry as “the prime interpreter of evangelical theology, one of its leading theoreticians” and “one of the theological luminaries of the twentieth century,” describe him is one of those who “turn their faces away from modern theology in any form.” In contrast, Bernard Ramm “represents those who have turned their faces toward modern thinking, in his case, toward contemporary scientific advances and the approach to modern learning advocated by neo-orthodoxy, especially by Karl Barth.” This approach “would allow Ramm to move beyond the tighter categories of others in the evangelical movement and at the end of his career call for his colleagues to embrace a basically Barthian paradigm for theology ‘after fundamentalism.’” Again: “Ramm was able to move beyond the backward-looking approach of Carl Henry…[He] provided the foundation for a generation of younger evangelical thinkers who would build on the freedom to think critically and engage in positive diaolog with modern culture.” Note the rhetoric here: To turn the face “away from” or “toward”; “tighter” categories; “after fundamentalism.” All these words are more than descriptive; they imply values and paint two portraits: Narrow, tight, fundamentalist; broad, open, loose, and not fundamentalist. Though they criticize Carl Henry for not writing a complete systematic theology, Bernard Ramm, who likewise never produced a complete treatment of Christian doctrine, is not similarly faulted. (Did Augustine, Luther, or Edwards write a full systematic theology?) Even Henry’s constant dialog with contemporary thought – including biblical criticism and scientific theory – is brushed aside as merely “theological journalism.” As elsewhere in their treatment of evangelical theology, the authors resort to name-calling and rhetoric to dismiss the ideas of someone with whom they disagree. This is not scholarship, but polemics – albeit very skillfully executed. Sadly, Roger Olson’s other works on theology are similarly marred.