My Response to “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” by Gerald McDermott (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:2 [June, 2013])
This is the second time Professor McDermott has criticized me and other (what I call) postconservative evangelical theologians in print (that I know of). The first time was about a year ago in (I think) First Things. The substance of this article is the same as that one.
McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. We have met once and corresponded two or three times (by e-mail). He was good enough to send me a pre-publication copy of his previous article and I was able to help him put my own theology in a more accurate perspective than at first. Even though I disagreed with much of what he said about me and postconservative evangelical theology (which he labels “meliorist theology”) in that article, at least he took seriously what I said to him by way of response to his invitation to preview that article.
So now, somewhat to my surprise, he is at it again—attacking what he calls “meliorist” evangelical theology and defending what he labels “the orthodox tradition.” He lumps me together with several other “meliorists” in evangelical theology and criticizes our approach as following “a trail blazed by Protestant liberals.” In essence, he accuses us (what I call postconservative evangelicals) of prioritizing experience over doctrine. There’s some truth in that, but he completely misunderstands it. Many of us postconservative evangelicals lean toward pietism; we believe transforming experience of God is closer to the heart, the center, the core of Christianity than doctrine. That is not to say, however, that experience is above Scripture in authority. There’s where McDermott and other critics of postconservative evangelical theology miss the boat entirely.
After a relatively standard discussion of differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, McDermott begins his attack on postconservative evangelicals.
First, he rightly admits that we, whom he calls “meliorists” (I’ve never seen or heard that word before this and I certainly don’t accept it as a label for myself) and whom I call “postconservative evangelicals, “reserve the right to use Scripture as a trump card over tradition when they see conflict between the two. Self-designated ‘post-conservatives’ such as Roger Olson, Clark Pinnock, and the late Stanley Grenz have been the most vocal about the need to be open to further light breaking out from the Word that might compel a reshaping of doctrine or new doctrine entirely, such as Openness of God theology.”
What’s interesting is that, in the paragraph before that one, McDermott also admits that Protestants in general have insisted on Scripture above tradition. So, I ask, what’s wrong with what he calls meliorists and I call postconservatives? Aren’t we just pursuing the Protestant method of prima Scriptura? Yes, and for some reason McDermott objects to us doing it whereas he applauds (I’m sure) Luther for doing it!
Or perhap McDermott thinks there came a point, somewhere in the development of Protestant theology, where the critical and constructive tasks of theology ceased and what had by then become generally agreed on as “correct Protestant doctrine” was no longer open to amendment or addition even in light of fresh and faithful study of Scripture?
If that’s what he thinks, as appears to be the case, then who are the real Protestants? He and his seemingly crypto-Catholic fellow “orthodox tradition” comrades or those of us who, like Luther, dare to question tradition in the light of Scripture and reason?
But here’s where my real complaint against McDermott begins—with his rhetoric that misrepresents what we, meliorists or postconservatives, are saying. He blames us for beginning the “new division” among evangelicals. Hardly. The division was not begun by progressives or postconservatives but by the heresy-hunters and self-appointed inquisitors among those he lumps together as “orthodox” but whom I call “neo-fundamentalists.” They started it by attempted to have open theists (and before that Robert Gundry) expelled from the evangelical theological society.
But here’s where McDermott really goes off the rails in his critique of us. Speaking for us (which he claims to do but doesn’t) he says that according to postconservatives “Doctrine is said to be the essence of Christianity for the ‘conservatives,’ who build a rigid orthodoxy on a foundation of culture-bound beliefs because they do not realize [so we supposedly say] the historical situatedness of the Bible.” That is not what we say. The issue is tradition, not the Bible! We postconservatives have been absolutely clear that we accept the authority of the Bible; we emphasize that tradition is what is historically situated in a way conservatives ignore and therefore is always open to correction insofar as Scripture requires it.
This is not a minor point; it’s major. It is, in fact, we, whom McDermott labels “meliorists,” who are the ones who uphold biblical authority and it is, in fact, they, McDermott and those he defends as the “right kind” of evangelicals, who place tradition on the same level of authority as Scripture—functionally (by making some traditional interpretation of Scripture, some system of doctrines, for all practical purposes above question).
Yes, indeed, this rhetorical twist makes me angry. It’s no minor thing. It’s nothing less than bearing false witness against brothers. All of them who do it owe us (yes, even the now deceased Pinnock and Grenz) apologies. We have all gone out of our way to affirm the authority of Scripture over tradition, experience, culture (which are secondary sources and norms, normed by Scripture).
Then McDermott starts giving examples, digging his hole even deeper. He admits that I, Roger Olson, respect The Great Tradition. In fact, what I have said repeatedly, including in the books he cites, is that in every doctrinal controversy “tradition gets a vote but not a veto.” Only Scripture has veto power and Scripture is theology’s norming norm and tradition is its normed norm. What more can a good Protestant, who doesn’t want to slide into Catholic theological method, say for tradition?
McDermott cites as his “bad examples” of meliorist or postconservative evangelical theologians those who criticize “penal substitutionary atonement.” (He fails to mention that I hold to it or at least to the governmental version of it. At least I am not a big critic of it.) But, is he arguing that the penal substitution theory of the atonement is above biblical criticism, that it is equal with the Bible itself in terms of authority?
It’s one thing to disagree with critics of the penal substitution theory like Joel Green and something else entirely to accuse them of somehow thereby automatically abandoning biblical authority. Which McDermott doesn’t do! But what is he criticizing them for? Does he think the penal substitution theory is sacrosanct? How is that different from elevating it to the status of equality with Scripture?
I’m going to stop with this even though McDermott goes on in his confusion to suggest, if not outright claim, that those of us he calls meliorists elevate experience over doctrine and have a “hesitation” about plenary inspiration, etc., etc.
I think McDermott reads those he calls meliorists with the worst possible hermeneutic of suspicion rather than of charity, lumps all together as if we’re all the same (or at least on the same slippery slope), and confuses tradition with the authority of the Bible itself. In one place he even argues that the early Christian doctrinal developments, orthodoxy, were inspired by the Holy Spirit—putting tradition on a par with Scripture.
Apparently McDermott blames me for being a Baptist. I’m not sure what denominational identity he wears. But theologically he’s a creedalist and what I called (in my article “The Future of Evangelical Theology” in Christianity Today [February 9, 1998]) a “traditionalist”—an evangelical who, wittingly or unwittingly, directly or functionally, elevates tradition over or at least alongside Scripture.
Excuse me, Professor McDermott, for being a Protestant and a Baptist! (And don’t tell me there are Baptists who agree with you. There are many “Baptists” these days who aren’t very Baptist in terms of holding to the primacy of Scripture over traditions of men.)
P.S. The Schleiermacher comparison is nothing other than a cheap shot, low blow and vicious calumny (by implication). Neither I nor any other postconservative evangelical I know sympathizes with Schleiermacher’s theological method “from below” or doctrinal revisions. In my considered opinion, it is simply a sign of intellectual weakness not to be able to tell the difference between evangelical pietism and Schleiermacher’s liberal pietism. For those of us who stand within the evangelical pietist tradition, “conversional piety,” beginning with repentance and faith resulting in regeneration and leading into a life of personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is central to Christianity. Doctrine is important but secondary to being transformed by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. For Schleiermacher, on the other hand, and quite to the contrary, the center of Christianity is not conversion but God-consciousness which, in some degree, is universal. I won’t bother to go on spelling out the profound difference. I’ll just say that anyone who has read Schleiermacher and, for example, Grenz or Olson or Pinnock, fairly cannot miss the incommensurability.