There were two principles that provided guidance for the Protestant Reformation--- semper Reformanda (always reforming) and sola Scriptura (the Bible as the final authority on all matters of faith and practice). These two principles of course have not always been equally or fully adhered to in Evangelical circles, but they have been recognized as the basic blueprint of the movement which began Protestantism.
In my recent book The Problem with Evangelical Theology I have tried to point out that we have come a long way since Luther, Calvin, and Wesley (to mention but three) and not necessarily in a good direction. Biblical illiteracy is pretty rampant even in Evangelical circles and things like experience, tradition, or even reason often seem to be allowed to trump the authority of Scripture or become the de facto final authority in deciding one issue or another.
What has concerned me as an exegete and NT scholar is that all of the major Evangelical theologies now on offer (Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Dispensationalism, Pentecostalism and sometimes several of these combined) have their exegetical weaknesses-- some more glaring than others. What is most interesting to me is the fact that these weaknesses consistently show up when one or another of these theologies try to say something distinctive or different-- something that distinguishes them from other Evangelical theologies. For example, the rapture theology of Dispensationalism, the predestinarian/eternal security theology of Calvinism, the charismatic gifts requirement tagged to some experience subsequent to conversion of Pentecostalism, or some forms of the perfection argument in Weslyanism. All of these 'distinctives' in fact are ideas that are very weakly grounded in Scripture. Indeed often one or another of these ideas seems to be supported in spite of what Scripture says over and over again.
Having spent 25 years of my life gradually working through the NT inch by inch, and coming to the point of finishing writing commentaries on all this material in the next few years, the weaknesses, sometimes glaring weaknesses in all these system's distinctives has increasing become apparent to me. What then do we Evangelicals, who pride ourselves on being "Biblical", do about this? Well for one thing it will not be sufficient to say-- "back to the Bible" not least because the Bible is miles ahead of us, and we are struggling to catch up in understanding, never mind in living a Biblical lifestyle.
In my new book, which is not just a critique book I have suggested some new avenues of approach, but first of course one has to own up to the weaknesses of one's own theological orientation, if one is brave and mature enough to do so. After that one has to realize that treating theology as a history of closely linked ideas is in fact a modern notion, a post- Enlightenment notion, which the Biblical writers would not have advocated or recognized as valid.
I am talking of course about the strip mining of Biblical texts--denuding them of their contexts and storied world in which they operate, and then transferring them into one's 'system', for example with the ordo salutis-- the so-called order of salvation (justification is followed by sanctification which eventually leads to glorification).
What's wrong with this picture? Go back and read the Gospels, for example and try and find this sort of linking of ideas denuded of parables or social context or rhetorical moment. You won't find it. And low and behold when you turn to Paul, Paul thinks of such ideas not in the abstract but in the context of stories-- for example when he thinks of the Law he thinks of the story of Moses and Israel, when he thinks of faith he thinks of the story of Abraham, when he thinks of salvation obviously he thinks of the Christian event. It might be better to ask what story is this idea a part of than to ask-- what idea can I chain link this concept to?
It is my hope that this book which I have written will stir up a lot of discussion, not defensiveness or furor. I think in the 21rst century we need to learn to do our theology in a more Biblical way, not just use the Bible as a justification or proof text for the theology we want to do anyway. If we manage to do this then perhaps those two reformation principles will come alive again-- in reforming ourselves, we may become more Biblical persons, thinkers theologians, ethicists. And this would be an exceedingly good thing. The time for posturing, pretending, and polemics should be over.
We need to recognize that it is what unites us, for example what we confess in the Apostle's Creed is the most Biblical thing we ever say, not what divides us. It is time for the world to stop wondering why Protestantism is a many splintered thing, which speaks with forked tongue. Why should anyone pay attention to us when we can't get our own act together? Why should anyone pay attention to us if we embrace relativism and say-- "well its all equally valid or true if it works for you--- right?" Truth, particularly truth in Christ frankly is not a matter of subjective feelings or opinions. It is something that makes a claim on us in God's Word.
May we see this truth soon. May it be so in our life time and in our children's life time.