My (Roger Olson’s) follow up to Austin Fischer’s guest post

I do agree with much of what Austin wrote. In fact, I agree with the substance of it. I think a lot of critics of his post entirely missed his concluding remarks (criticisms) about “moderate” preaching–that it is sometimes too weak and lacking confidence in its own gospel message.

I have a one frame cartoon from (I think) Leadership magazine (years ago) showing a bespectacled minister sitting at his church office desk. Behind him is an attendance chart showing Sunday attendance at his church declining steeply. Across from his desk sits someone (a deacon?) saying “Well, pastor, maybe it would help if you didn’t end every sermon with ‘But then, what do I  know’?”

But another one shows a church custodian cleaning up around the pulpit on a Monday and seeing a post-it note in the pastor’s handwriting on the pulpit saying “Weak point, pound pulpit here.”

Austin rightly called for the current crop of “neo-Calvinist” preachers to preach with less certainty and authority (because what they are preaching is often opinion) and moderates to preach with more assurance and confidence (of the gospel).

I will stop speaking for Austin (and ask him to correct me if I got him wrong) and add my own commentary on the subject.

Yes, as some commenters here have rightly pointed out, Arminian preachers can also preach with over-reaching certainty that leaves no room for disagreement or doubt (that is, calling into question a person’s spirituality if not salvation for disagreeing or doubting). That’s just not currently as much of a problem with college students (especially) who are flocking to student conferences attended by upwards of twenty-to-thirty thousand students who hear neo-Calvinist (or whatever they should be called) preachers proclaim Calvinism as if it were the gospel itself and saying things like “If you received Jesus Christ for any other reason than the glory of God you might not be saved” and “Godordained sin” and “Christ died for God and not for you” and “If a dirty bomb fell on a city it would be from God,” etc., etc. (These are statements students returning from these conference and ones like them have reported hearing.)

These statements and things like them are preached in some contexts by Calvinist preachers as if they were gospel truth and not theological opinion. They are preached as if they were quotations straight out of the Bible on a par with “For God so loved the world…” (a biblical statement not often quoted by these preachers without defeating qualifications).

The problem I point out is some preachers’ lack of signals to help listeners distinguish between gospel and theological opinion that they should go home and check out with Scripture, tradition, reason and experience–in other words that they should exercise discernment about.

Paul says in 1 Cor. 14 that the elders (spiritual leaders) of a  congregation should discern the truth of prophecies. My question is how can that happen when people over 26 are not allowed to attend some of these conferences? Is that possibly WHY people over 26 aren’t allowed to register and attend some of these conferences? It does make me suspicious.

I have heard GOOD preachers who proclaimed the gospel with confidence and assurance but stopped to mention that something they also added to a sermon was their own opinion that might help listeners understand. EVEN PAUL did this in his letters. “Not the Holy Spirit but I say….”

One way I discern fundamentalism at work is when I hear (or read) a preacher proclaiming what I recognize as theological opinion or even denominational doctrine as gospel truth–implying by tone of voice, if not direct words, that anyone who disagrees might not be saved or might be on the slippery path to hell JUST FOR DISAGREEING OR DOUBTING.

Yes, this happens in all types of religious settings–even liberal ones (although it wouldn’t be on the path to hell but to being dismissed as simply ignorant or prejudiced). I can remember many times when I was Pentecostal hearing preachers loudly proclaiming, in pulpit-pounding fashion, an opinion that couldn’t be supported from any clear passage of Scripture and that wasn’t part of the gospel. As I got older and challenged them (afterwards, of course, one-on-one), asking for biblical proof of what they were proclaiming with such certainty, I was shamed for it.

So the problem isn’t unique to one movement.

HOWEVER, as Austin rightly points out, numerous, thousands of Christian young men and women (but especially young men) are being sucked into high Calvinism by preaching that borders on demagoguery (especially when it implies that Christians who think otherwise are “still in darkness” or not yet fully converted). This is much more of a problem on college campuses and in churches that attract college students than non-Calvinist preaching that falls into the same error and than “moderate” preaching that occasionally revels in doubt even about the gospel itself. (I actually haven’t heard that in any moderate churches, but I won’t question that it sometimes happens. It’s common in out-and-out liberal churches.)

So what’s the solution? I agree with Austin: “Less and more.” Less confusing the gospel with human theological opinion in proclamation in some contexts and more confidence in the gospel itself in others.


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  • jesse

    I wasn’t sure whether to post this on this post or the last one. I wouldn’t mind hearing the opinion of both Roger and Austin (or others). Who are some good non-Calvinist preachers out there? I really like Greg Boyd and Bruxy Cavey a lot. Are there any others out there? I have really enjoyed these last two posts. Thanks Austin and Roger.

    • rogereolson

      I’ll let Austin give you his suggestions. As for me, Adam Hamilton (Church of the Resurrection, Kansas City) is one of the best.

    • I love Greg Boyd, and will also recommend my own pastor, Randy Bush, who is definitely Reformed but also “progressive”:

      • rogereolson

        Apparently “very progressive!” He invites Gene Robinson to serve as “guest liturgist?” I’m not sure Greg Boyd and your pastor belong in the same category.

  • Austin

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! I think some of the reactions (which I do appreciate!) merely serve to further illustrate my point. For those itching for certainty, the only options on the table are positivism or skepticism, absolute certainty or flaccid relativism. If we can’t be certain about everything then we can’t preach anything with confidence. This simply isn’t true. It’s assuming that the only knowledge that counts is knowledge that is indubitably certain.

    And as Dr. Olson noted, the real crux of the issue is that while a great many things can and should be preached with all the confidence we can muster, Calvinism is not one of them. Show me where Jesus clearly and unequivocally preaches Calvinism and I will repent and sit in ashes. Thus, the question I find most troubling is, “Why do Neo-Calvinist preachers preach Calvinism with more certainty than Jesus did?” (Of course as an Arminian I don’t think Jesus did :)…)

  • Steve Dal

    For starters I never listen to anyone any more as if they have it all together. Even less so when they start declaring in some form or another that they ‘have it all together’. People need to do their homework and sus out whether what is said is anywhere near OK. Then they have to have the courage to disagree if necessary. Then finally, and this is the mark of true Christian living (fellowship) they need to keep the dialogue open. The last point is the hardest of course. Hence why we have this sectarianism that is so vehement. I don’t mind if people declare their point as if it is the only one but its whether I agree or not that is the point. The difference between the gospel and theology is a good one. But it is complex. Many people I have found forego their reservations about various aspects of scripture for fear of rejection. So they hang in a kind of half way house staying for the fellowship but really having difficulty with the doctrines.

  • James Petticrew

    I must admit to experience something of this tension when it comes to preaching “entire sanctification” I am pretty committed to the doctrine ( as articulated by Wesley and modified by the best of contemporary scholarship rather than the American 19 th cent Holiness version ) however I realise it’s of a different order of ” Theological” certainty than the Gospel. I want to preach to encourage people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to God and experience his empowering presence in a new way but don’t want to do that in the way that was popular in a previous generation ( remembering an older pastors ” holiness or death” sermon ) how do we preach denominational distinctively but not arrogantly authoritatively ? Tough question. As someone deeply committed to the “Missional movement ” I think those within it need to be careful that their pronouncements on ecclesiology don’t start sounding like neo Calvinists pronouncements on predestination

  • Percival

    James Pettigrew,
    It may be that if you don’t want to preach entire sanctification you only have two other options. 1) Don’t preach on sanctification, or 2) Preach a message of partial sanctification. For some reason, neither of those options excites me very much.
    Sanctification should not be about rules we should follow, or personal righteousness, or about a doctrinal distinctive of your tradition that needs to be rediscovered. Sanctification should be about total freedom, pure love, and full salvation. That’s the kind of preaching that stirs up the gift within.