Review of Lightner’s Evangelical Theology: A Survey and Review

by John M. Frame


[Originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 50:1 (Spring, 1988), 222-226. Used by permission.]


Robert P. Lightner: Evangelical Theology: A Survey and Review. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986. 303. No price listed.

In an earlier review I observed that the Dispensationalists have led the evangelical camp in popular theological pedagogy, from the Scofield Reference Bible, to the Bible College, to the dominance of religious broadcasting (now being challenged, to be sure, by the Charismatics). All this they have done, while in reformed circles to this date our popular theological instruction still focuses upon the wonderful but quite archaic language of our historic catechisms: hard to remember, hard to understand and hard to integrate with our increasingly redemptive-historical teaching of the scriptures themselves. The present volume represents another good idea from a Dispensationalist, and one which could, if we are willing to learn, serve as a good model for reformed pedagogy.

The book is a survey of evangelical theology as it exists at the present time, integrated with a summary argument for the author’s own position. (He is an Amyraldian Baptist as well as a pretribulational dispensational premillenialist.) It is a “survey:” the sort of thing one might give to the Roman Catholic or liberal Protestant religion editor of the local newspaper who honestly knows nothing about evangelicalism and would like to have a summary that he could read in a couple days. Or one might offer this kind of book to a college student who has heard for the first time about a group called “the evangelicals” and wants to know in general what they believe. Lightner also recommends it as a “review” of theology for pastors and seminarians (p. 2). Well, maybe, but I would prefer that my students use something more substantial for this purpose, like Louis Berkhof’s books or John Murray’s Lectures.

The book treats the traditional loci in turn. Each chapter begins with a “historical perspective,” then a “positive statement” of the doctrine, and finally an examination of “the major areas of difference” among evangelicals. I assumed that controversial matters would be left to the final section and excluded from the “positive statement,” but that was not always the case. Lightner argues or assumes his own distinctive position in a number of “positive statements” (see pp. 84, 85, 217ff). Each chapter is followed by study questions and bibliography.

I liked Lightner’s irenic tone and overall fairness. He seeks to avoid divisiveness (see especially pp. 25, 258). He often gives accurate accounts of doctrines he disagrees with, such as the active obedience of Christ, pp. 91ff. His summary of the arguments for and against the continuation of tongues and prophecy (pp. 121ff) is excellent. He is aware that “semantic confusion” often plays a role in theological disagreement (e.g., pp. 180, 212f). There are some very helpful charts in the book (pp. 71, 91, 111, 259). The book is not intended to be an original theological treatise, but at points there are some interesting suggestions that might be followed up. A few of them: (1) Lightner is the first writer I have read who actually cites an example of a recent evangelical who holds to a “dictation theory.” The culprit is John R. Rice (p. 15)! (2) Augustine introduced a stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit because of his convictions about the sovereignty of God’s saving work (p. 104). (3) Romans 5 supports both federal and seminal understandings of Adam’s headship (p. 181). (4) The believer’s status within God’s royal priesthood is a privilege deserving study alongside the doctrine of adoption in the ordo salutis (p. 204). (5) Infant baptism goes “hand in hand with” the union of church and state (p. 223).

His choice of “major areas of difference” among evangelicals reflects his own theological orientation. He includes discussions of all the millennial positions (including mid-trib and partial rapture) (pp. 270ff), intra-mural debates among Baptists about church government (pp. 237 ff.). He does not discuss differences on ethical matters (Sabbath, war and peace, economics, cultural mandate), methods of evangelism, worship. There is only a brief mention of theonomy (p. 249) and of church/state issues (p. 223). Most astonishingly, there is no discussion of infant vs. believers’ baptism, though there is a discussion of the mode of believers’ baptism (pp. 242f)!

Despite all the good things that can be said, both about the idea of the book and about the book itself, in the final analysis I cannot recommend it for the purposes suggested. My reason is not the aforementioned dispensational bias, although I would prefer a book ordered by Reformed covenant theology.  The dispensational bias is not terribly serious in my judgment, for that would not keep the book from being a useful survey of evangelical thought. Lightner usually (though not always) does clearly distinguish his own views from the evangelical consensus, and in any case it may well be argued that dispensationalism is more popular within American evangelicalism than is any other single theological movement, so that a dispensational book like this is more “typically evangelical” than a Reformed analysis would be.

My reason for disapproving the book, then, is rather that there are simply too many inaccuracies and unclarities in it. Some examples: Lightner attributes to neo-orthodoxy the view that the Bible does not “become the word of God in statements of fact” (p. 8); but although neo-orthodoxy is opposed to propositional revelation, that does not prevent on their view the propositions of the Bible from communicating, even becoming, the non-propositional word of God. On p. 13, he says that “Infallibility, like inerrancy, is sometimes used as a synonym for inspiration.” (Possibly it is, by people who don’t know what the words mean; but why bring that up here?) The relation between the “inspired but errant” and “partial inspiration” views of Scripture is left obscure (p. 14). (I assume the phrase “inerrant but inspired” on p. 28 is a typographical error rather than a compounding of the above problem.) On p. 27, the distinction between “revelational” and “nonrevelational” matters needs explanation. I also think Lightner should have included here a reference to Daniel Fuller’s writings in which these concepts are developed. On p. 25, Lightner recommends the “literal” method of interpretation, while acknowledging that it can be abused; but the discussion leaves much unclarity as to how literal an interpretation must be in order to meet his standards. On p. 58, he notes among the “differences among evangelicals” that “Some insist that God cannot be known at all through his revelation in nature. Others argue that not only can God be known through nature but that such knowledge of him has redemptive merit.” How’s that again? He gives no documentation of these extraordinary evangelical views, and frankly I doubt that anyone actually holds them.

On p. 59, Lightner describes himself as a “moderate Calvinist,” and in the next paragraph describes James Arminius’ position also as “moderate Calvinism.” But it is clear from what follows that Lightner’s own position is quite different from that of Arminius. On p. 69, he assumes the historically dubious proposition that Nestorius personally held the heresy which bears his name. On p. 70 he somewhat inaccurately describes the monotheletes as “a monophysite sect.” On p. 80, he identifies the term “son of man” without qualification as a reference to Jesus’ humanity. On p. 82, he explains the use of “person” in the Chalcedonian Christology, using categories that were not employed until Boethius. On p. 96, he says that for the Reformed (in contrast with the Lutherans) “the two natures are united in the person of Christ without any transfer of attributes whatever,” suggesting wrongly that there is no Reformed doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum. He appends to this discussion a quote from Walvoord which is either simply false or else unclear without additional context.

He says on p. 154 that according to the Greek fathers, Adam was created “morally,” but not “ethically” perfect. The accompanying quote from Berkhof does not help to relieve the obscurity. On p. 169 we are told that heart in the Bible is the “seat of the emotions” (dubious) and is also used synonymously with mind. (How can it be both at once?) Mind, he says, “describes a function of man’s immaterial makeup” (p. 170), but he doesn’t tell us what function it is. The distinction on pp. 174f between “real” and “judicial” imputation seems confused to me, not least when Lightner is quoting Chafer. On 176, Lightner, again quoting Chafer, claims that sin is more than “transgression of law,” but is also “want of conformity to the character of God,” assuming without argument that the latter is a wider category. (Can any moral standard be wider than Deut. 6:5 or I Cor. 10:31? Do we know anything about the “character of God” beyond the divine law of scripture? Lightner does nothing to alleviate my impression that dispensationalists are thoroughly confused about the standard of Christian ethics.) In the discussion of dichotomy vs. trichotomy, p. 180, he says that soul and body are two substances.

On p. 189, he says that “Man’s sin had a great effect on God,” a misleading statement at best. He assumes without argument that the skins supplied to Adam in Gen. 3 were a form of atonement (p. 190), similarly that “God is never said to be reconciled in Scripture” (p. 196). He confusingly places illumination by the spirit and the spirit’s work of conviction in the category of common grace (p. 197). He assumes the controversial propositions that the believer’s “old nature” is still alive and that Rom. 7 describes the struggle between old nature and new nature (p. 205ff).

On the question, “Must Christ be Lord to be Savior?” Lightner answers “no.”  I confess I find it hard to understand how anyone can maintain such a position. Can anything be nearer to the heart of New Testament faith than the confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord?” Lightner tries to clarify matters by saying that his position actually intends to deny only that “lordship is added to faith as a separate condition of salvation” (pp. 212f). But (1) What does this mean? and (2) Who has ever claimed that lordship was such a “separate condition?” (3) What is the relation between Lightner’s view and the views of people like Zane C. Hodges and Charles C. Ryrie who clearly want to deny more than Lightner’s formulation suggests?

My list of problems is somewhat longer than the above, but the reader should see the pattern by now. Every several pages there is something that just isn’t quite right. The book, therefore, represents a good idea rather poorly executed. I do hope that God will lead some reformed scholar to take up the challenge to write a better volume of this kind.