Recently, I interviewed theologian Roger Olson. You may know Olson from my book Beyond Evangelical, which he highly (and kindly) recommended. Here’s the interview.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, tell us about your ministry and the topics that you are most passionate about.
Roger Olson: I teach historical theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. I’m in my thirtieth year of teaching theology and previously taught it at Bethel College (now Bethel University) and (for two years) Oral Roberts University. I’m passionate about evangelical theology and Arminian theology—clearing up misconceptions about them and exploring what they really are. Both are widely misrepresented and misunderstood. My main area of interest and research, though, is modern/contemporary theology.
In my book, Beyond Evangelical, I quote you, Scot McKnight, and the late Michael Spencer quite a bit. There is no doubt that a growing number of evangelicals today are moving beyond the classical Left and Right categories. To your mind, what are the top 3 biggest obstacles that evangelicalism faces today with respect to how the world views us?
Roger Olson: 1) “Evangelical” is widely viewed as synonymous with “Religious Right” and conservative politics and social issues (anti-this and anti-that). 2) “Evangelical” is widely viewed as fundamentalist—a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible and a rigid adherence to traditional doctrine (“maximal conservatism”). 3) “Evangelical” is widely viewed as synonymous with legalistic, exclusivistic, intolerant Christianity.
The top 3 biggest obstacles evangelicalism faces today are:
1) Self-appointed spokesmen who manage to gain public credibility (as speaking for all evangelicals) and use that influence to exclude evangelicals they consider too “progressive” in their beliefs and interpretations of the Bible.
2) Belief that “evangelicalism” is a closed movement with definite boundaries that have to be patrolled (e.g., “inerrancy”).
3) Perceived dominance of Reformed theology as normative for evangelical faith.
Many commentators have pointed out that the evangelical coalition is fracturing more today than ever before. What do you subscribe this problem to and how can it be resolved?
Roger Olson: Back in 1991 George Marsden announced an “irreparable split” in the evangelical movement caused largely by Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1976) and the ensuing controversy over inerrancy. He announced then that the term “evangelical” had lost its meaning as describing a transdenominational movement. (p. 76) He then went on to say that insofar as there is any movement left it is simply “sympathetic parallel manifestations of related traditions.” (p. 81) I’d say he was right then and his diagnosis is still true today. The evangelical movement of my youth, for example (1960s and early 1970s) is gone. But there is still an aroma left over from it—an ethos that lingers here and there. To me, “evangelical” now names an ethos, not a movement.
Some evangelical Christians who call themselves progressive have little tolerance for those who are a little further to the right than they are. The same is true for some evangelical Christians who call themselves conservative. Some have little tolerance for those who are a little further to the left than they are. In other words, some evangelicals on the left and the right cannot seem to tolerate those who take a middle position or a third path on issues. Have you seen this problem and is there a solution for it?
Roger Olson: Of course. Anyone familiar with the affinity groups that call themselves “evangelical” will have seen this phenomenon. But, in my opinion, it is mainly the conservatives who have shunned the progressives. Progessive evangelicals generally have a “big tent” view of evangelicalism. Conservatives are the ones who have used the rhetoric of exclusion to try to push more progressively minded evangelicals out and away, labeling us “post-evangelicals” and such.
Many years ago I met a man (we’ll call him Bob) who measured everything by a person’s theological vocabulary. (I talked about this recently in my blog series, Spiritual Conversational Styles.) A person could be an orthodox Christian who fits Mark Noll’s and David Bebbington’s definition of evangelical, but if that person didn’t describe their beliefs in the exact same terms that Bob used, then Bob would castigate them with the worst vitriol, even misrepresenting their views to others. In this regard, some have observed that the “word police” charge applies to both sides of the spectrum, left and right. What say you?
Roger Olson: I haven’t experienced that so much among the so-called “left” wing of evangelicalism. I have experienced it aplenty from the “right” wing. I could tell many stories of my unfortunate experiences with conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars who have gone out of their way to damage my reputation for no other reason than that they do not perceive me as with them in their attempt to exclude open theists, postfoundationalists, inclusivists, etc
If you had a paragraph of advice to give to evangelical Christians on the right, what would it be?
Roger Olson: Lighten up, tell the truth, be charitable, learn to distinguish between dogmas, doctrines and opinions.
If you had a paragraph of advice to give to evangelical Christians on the left, what would it be?
Roger Olson: Strictly avoid repeating the mistakes of the liberals. Value the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy even as you revise it in light of fresh and faithful biblical research.
Out of everything you’ve written, what do you consider to be your most important book and why should Christians read it?
Roger Olson: That’s like asking a parent to say which of his children he likes the most. It depends on where the Christian is in his or her journey of faith. For Calvinists and those attracted to Calvinism I suggest Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities and Against Calvinism. For those who need a basic course in the Great Tradition of Christian theological reflection and doctrine I suggest The Story of Christian Theology. For those who need a primer on Christian doctrine from a more systematic approach I recommend The Mosaic of Christian Belief. For those who want to know what “evangelicalism” has been and is I suggest The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology.
For details, click on the above links for each book title by Roger Olson.