Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Interview with Andreas Kostenberger about the Identity and Future of Evangelicalism

The following is an interview with Andreas Kostenberger, who is the director of PhD Studies and professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Kostenberger is also the Editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the general editor of the new book, Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism? Perspectives on the Past, Direction for the Future: Nine Presidential Addresses from the First Fifty Years of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. (Quo Vadis is Latin for "Where are you going?")

Tell us a little bit about how the volume was conceived in the initial stages of the project.

The 50-year anniversary of the publication of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society seemed to be a fitting occasion to celebrate with a special volume showcasing the importance of the Journal in the life of the Evangelical Theological Society. ETS, of course, is the major evangelical scholarly society in the United States, and so the idea was born to trace the development of the evangelical movement by featuring several selected ETS presidential addresses on the topic of “evangelical identity.” The purpose for this is not merely archival—chronicling the past—but forward-looking as well. In the conviction that we can learn from the past in order to understand our own identity as evangelicals better in the present and move into the future, these presidential addresses are important “guiding visions” that shed light on where we have been, where we are, and where we should be going.

This seems to allude to the title of the volume, Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism? How was this title chosen?

Well, the truth is, one day “Quo Vadis?” just popped into my head when thinking about the project (not that I necessarily claim divine inspiration here), and as I reflected about it some more, it seemed like a good phrase to engage the issue of evangelical identity. Also, as I mentioned in my answer to your previous question, the expression focuses on the future—“Where are you going?” (alluding to Peter’s question to Jesus in John 13:36)—rather than the past, of the ship “evangelicalism.”

The issue of evangelical identity, I believe, is a fascinating one, because, unlike, say, Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism, which have a visible head and an institutional hierarchy, evangelicalism is centered on shared convictions regarding Scripture, Christ, salvation, and so on. This lack of formal structure makes it more difficult to define and to steer the movement into the right, or any, direction. In the ETS, too, recent controversy such as the “Open Theism” debate has focused attention once again on the question of what are our foundational beliefs—most notably inerrancy—and thus, I believe, the publication of Quo Vadis? is very timely indeed in that the volume can assist us in the ETS and as evangelicals to chart our course for the future.

There may not be one dominant personality that can serve as the visible spokesperson or public representative of what the ETS in particular, or the evangelical movement at large, stands for, but it is vital to sharpen our understanding of who we are and where we want to go in the coming decades. The Journal, of which I serve as Editor, has an important part in this as well in that it can help set a standard of academic excellence in evangelical scholarship and serve as a reflection of the developing evangelical identity by publishing material on issues that define who we are as evangelicals.

Which criteria did you use in selecting the nine presidential addresses that are included in Quo Vadis?

As I mentioned, once “evangelical identity” was chosen as the guiding theme of the book, selecting the nine presidential addresses was comparatively straightforward. There were about 50 presidential addresses to choose from, and many of these addresses, though excellent, were on other subjects. An example of this is Carl F. H. Henry’s presidential address on the topic of justification. In the end, the nine presidential addresses that were selected nicely fell into three periods, “The Early Years” (1958–1970), “The Maturing Movement” (1971–1999), and “Recent Reflections” (2000–2007), with contributions by Ned Stonehouse, Warren Young, Gordon Clark; Stan Gundry, Alan Johnson, Mois├ęs Silva; Darrell Bock, Millard Erickson, and Craig Blaising, respectively. While there are, of course, recurring themes such as a focus on, and a proper definition of, inerrancy, as I edited these pieces I was able to detect certain characteristics of the group of essays in a given period and to discern a certain progression from “the early years” to the “recent reflections” on evangelical identity by those ETS presidents.

What surprises did you encounter while preparing the volume? Is there anything you learned that you didn’t already know?

Well, yes, there were several things I discovered that I didn’t already know, even though I have edited the Journal now for almost ten years. One of the things I learned was that several ETS presidential addresses were never published in the Journal! Examples of this are the addresses by Kenneth Kantzer and Gleason Archer. Several of these addresses would have been suitable for inclusion in the volume, so I did my best to locate these, but unfortunately I was unable to do so. Also, in my quest to find Carl F. H. Henry’s banquet address delivered at the very first meeting of the ETS I came across the volume Fifty Years of Protestant Theology, published in 1950, which still repays careful reading, even though it was not suitable for inclusion in Quo Vadis?, since it is a 100-page manuscript in its own right.

What is your own personal assessment of the future of evangelicalism?

Good question. I will talk about this in more depth in my ETS Banquet address at the upcoming Annual Meeting. Incidentally, for those who are planning to attend the meeting, which will be held in San Diego (see, the entire Banquet program will revolve around Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism? and feature addresses by Alan Johnson (representing Sam Schulz’s tenure as JETS editor), Ronald Youngblood (who edited the Journal for 23 years), and myself. This occasion will also include the formal presentation of the volume by Crossway president Lane Dennis.

With regard to my assessment of the future of evangelicalism, this is hard to answer in one or two sentences! (Though, as I said, I will address this topic at the Annual Meeting.) In short, I believe a building is only as strong as its foundation, and in my perusal of these ETS presidential addresses it has become clear that a high view of Scripture, and inerrancy in particular, is a vital and distinctive foundation for our Society in particular and for our movement at large (though, as you know, not everyone who identifies himself as an evangelical believes in inerrancy, which is an interesting question in its own right).

At the same time, even the best of foundations still needs a building on top of it. So, as I think you will be able to see when reading the volume, ETS presidents have addressed the question of evangelical identity with increasing sophistication. We have also seen a change to a new generation of leaders in recent years, which has brought new approaches and ideas to the table. Personally, I think the future of evangelicalism can be bright if we remember that God’s kingdom includes people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. This means we must become more globally minded—“missional”—and willing to move beyond our own confines to have our ranks reflect more accurately the makeup of Christianity at large.

That said, evangelical scholarship should continue to strive for academic excellence. I, for one, think inerrancy is not a hindrance in this regard, but rather constitutes an indispensable foundation. For scholarship to be vibrant, however, I believe there must be a certain amount of freedom for new insights to be discussed, a theme that recurs as well in the presidential addresses included in Quo Vadis? Speaking in terms of scholarship, boundaries are vital, but not if they become a straitjacket that stifle academic work and engender a spirit of fear and suspicion.

Dr. Kostenberger, thank you for editing this important work and for taking the time to answer these questions. My final question for you: Who should buy and read Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism?

I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in evangelical identity—in who we are as evangelicals—and in the future of evangelicalism and Christianity in the United States and worldwide. This includes pastors, seminary professors and students, and others committed to seeing the gospel spread to the ends of the earth for the glory of God. In fact, I believe many who will read these essays will be surprised that they are not only insightful and worth pondering but also in many cases entertaining and spiritually nurturing. I, for one, am grateful for these guiding visions of past ETS presidents and am looking forward to see what God will do in and through evangelicalism in the future.