Would McDermott Call Donald Bloesch a “Meliorist?” (And Some Comments about Evangelical Heresy-Hunting)

Donald Bloesch was one of the most highly respected evangelical theologians for forty years. He was born in 1928 and died in 2010. He wrote numerous books–all considered within the mainstream of American evangelical thought (except perhaps by fundamentalists). True, he studied with Karl Barth and was influenced by him, but he was always irenically critical of Barth–especially his “objectivism” of salvation (that left personal decision out of the equation) and his tendency to divide the Word of God from the Bible (something Barth did not intend to do but occasionally slipped into doing especially in the first volume of Church Dogmatics). Bloesch was no “Barthian” although he helped evangelicals appreciate the true Barth (as opposed to the half shod interpretations of Barth offered by fundamentalists and some conservative evangelicals who obviously never read Barth thoroughly or carefully).

I knew Don; he became my theological mentor first through his books (beginning with The Evangelical Renaissance in 1971) and then in person. We corresponded often and met several time during which we ate together and shared our stories and sometimes debated the finer points of theology (he was more inclined to embrace paradox than I am). No single theologian has influenced me more than Bloesch. I have read virtually everything he wrote and was privileged to contribute a chapter on him to A New Handbook of Christian Theologians (Abingdon, 1996).

Some of the characteristics that drew me Bloesch were his warm-hearted pietism, his openness to new ways of looking at old subjects, his trust in the Bible and basic Christian orthodoxy, his passion for personal Christian and church renewal, and his very moderate approach to evangelicalism–neither fundamentalist nor liberal. He described himself to me as a “progressive evangelical,” but he also called himself “catholic,” “confessional,” and “conservative.” But his conservative was not that of today’s neo-fundamentalist evangelicals who consider him as at best a “mediating theologian.”

I return often to Bloesch’s books and always find myself inspired, enlightened, renewed and challenged. I don’t agree with Bloesch about everything. I think he misunderstood and was too negative toward narrative theology (in his Foundations series–his quasi-systematic theology). But even when he was opposed to something he remained fair and irenic. He was the consummate Christian scholar and gentleman. I observed him interacting with liberal and feminist theologians in professional society meetings. After the paper was read he would invariable rise and ask a trenchant question that went right to the heart of the problem. But he would then sit and listen respectfully to the answer (which I knew he often did not agree with at all) and never pester the person with follow up questions.

So, right now I’m interested in whether McDermott and his ilk would consider Bloesch a “meliorist” (as McDermott considers me). In order to understand my question you’ll have to read my earlier post responding to McDermott’s article in JETS. Look back three or four posts ago.

Here is a very typical statement by Bloesch about doctrine. He says this in some way in every book: “No doctrinal formulation is ever in and of itself infallible or irreformable. But it can nonetheless bear and communicate infallible truth.” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 121)

What have I said differently from that? Nothing that I meant to say! And if someone things I said something different somewhere, I invite them to trot it out, explain why they think it’s different than that in its import. I have never advocated unfettered theological innovation. Nor did my friends Stan Grenz and Clark Pinnock (McDermott’s two other primary examples of “meliorism.”) We all affirmed traditional evangelical doctrine except when and where it needs revision in light of God’s Word. Even then, our approach was never to toss traditional doctrines aside willy-nilly but to reform them carefully and respectfully in light of God’s Word. Even those we thought (I think) need revision are bearers of truth which does not make them improvable. That was Bloesch’s point.

Now let me give an example from Bloesch himself. In at least two of his books Bloesch revised the doctrine of God’s omniscience–which is not the same as saying he denied it! (This is a problem with neo-fundamentalists; as soon as someone suggests a revision of a doctrine they say he or she denied it.) In The Evangelical Renaissance Bloesch wrote “God knows the course of the future and the fulfillment of the future, but this must not be taken to mean that He literally knows every single event even before it happens. It means that He knows every alternative and the ways in which His children may well respond to the decisions that confront them. The plan of God is predetermined, but the way in which He realizes it is dependent partly on the free cooperation of His subjects.” (53)

Just in case someone thinks Bloesch slipped up there and really didn’t mean it, he said the same years later (1988) in The Struggle of Prayer (28-29). Sure, he may have changed his mind at some later point, I’m not sure about all that, but at least throughout much of his EVANGELICAL career as a theologian he felt comfortable retaining the doctrine of God’s omniscience while revising it from what most earlier Christian thinkers believed.

Does that make him a “meliorist?”

The fact that Bloesch was never accused of being a meliorist or anything similar by neo-fundamentalists and evangelical traditionalists and that he is still held in very high regard to many of them PROVES (to me) that much of the finger-pointing of neo-fundamentalists and traditionalists at fellow evangelicals is POLITICAL–to exclude certain people who have impermissibly “troubled the waters” by openly challenging neo-fundamentalists within the evangelical academy.

I happen to know that, in the past, anyway, MUCH of the agenda of neo-fundamentalists and ultra-conservative evangelicals was over Christianity Today–who should be published in its pages and who should not. Much of it has also had to do with attempts by neo-fundamentalists and ultra-conservative (almost all Calvinists) evangelicals to control evangelical colleges and seminaries, publishers and agencies of various kinds. Some of us who McDermott labels “meliorists” and suggests are/were following liberal path (utter nonsense) were caught in those political meat-grinders over control of organizations and institutions. Some day I will tell all. Right now I would rather not to protect the half-innocent.

In other words, what I am saying is that I have solid information from inside sources and from personal experience that MUCH of the controversy that has gone on these past three decades within evangelicalism over theology has more to do with power and control over organizations and institutions than with real theology. Mountains have been made out of mole hills and people have been singled out for inquisitions and expulsions who only said things others said before them who were not similarly attacked.

Within certain ultra-conservative evangelical circles people get “credit” (pats on the back, promotions, etc.)FOR “discovering” heresy or “liberal trajectories” where nobody had before seen them. Of course, in many such cases, there never was heresy or any real liberal trajectory.

And on it goes…

  • John W. Morehead

    The real question and challenge for Evangelicalism is how we carve out space for disagreement, discussion, and even (dare I say it?) the reformulation and reassessment of various doctrines without the gatekeepers charging heresy and compromise. As a religious movement we are far too focused on boundary maintenance, which not only keeps heresy at bay, but at times also devours those in our own community.

  • labreuer

    I still don’t get why being called a ‘meliorist’ is bad, unless it’s due to a dispensationalist mindset that says the church will be weak before the rapture. So much for all the nations being blessed through Abraham! Oh yes, the ‘blessing’ is one of salvation and joining The Right Side, after which nothing really is done to promote life—after all, when Jesus uttered John 10:10, he just meant heaven, right?

    I repeat what I learned from a friend: if someone says, “You are either for us or against us.”, he/she is claiming to be Jesus or Satan. What makes us brothers and sisters in the faith is the fact that we all do the will of God. We really need to cleanse us from the horrible idea that we can decide whether another human is saved or not—while this isn’t explicitly stated (and is sometimes explicitly denied), it does seem to remain an undercurrent from our RCC heritage.

    • Roger Olson

      It isn’t the word “meliorist” but the context to which I object. (Although I would never call myself a “meliorist.”) McDermott clearly implied that “evangelical meliorists” are following a path forged earlier by liberal theologians. I take hearty and strong objection to that.

      • labreuer

        Does McDermott think that liberal theologians got nothing right? If so, that sounds like the black-and-white thinking of a child.

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    Yes, my comment was…I left this article totally unable to understand what it was that you were trying to tell me or teach me. I don’t know many of the people you quote or mention. I don’t know many of the words you used to describe these people. I read these posts in hopes of learning things that challenge me to think, question and hopefully grow spiritually. I have a college degree…not in theology…that became very apparent when trying to understand what was being said here. I’m sure many who follow this site knew exactly what you were talking about….BUT for the sake of the rest of us “could ya bring her down a notch or two”. Thanks!

    • Roger Olson

      Very briefly…In my view every human doctrinal formulation is subject to review and possible correction from Scripture. Some conservative evangelical theologians who claim to believe in “sola scriptura” (Scripture over tradition) are inconsistent when they accuse me and evangelicals like me of being “liberal” for that. As Protestants they should always be open, however tentatively, to doctrines being corrected, revised, amended, supplemented by new discoveries of faithful, believing Scriptural scholarship. The attacks on some of us by some of them are, I suspect, motivated more by intra-evangelical politics than by serious theological concerns. Total outsiders to intra-evangelical politics are not expected to understand this.

      • Sandra Saunders Traw

        Thank you, I have gained a greater understanding from your reply and the comments of others. Since I too, have been challenged in a rather demeaning way by some of the followers of the “in crowd” of popular teachers who have gained huge followings I now believe I understand better what you are speaking of. Although I have only been confronted on a personal level, zi have found those discussions to be less than loving or tolerant of my beliefs. Thank you for helping me understand that this is a much larger issue than I have seen on the surface.

    • Andy

      I too have a college degree and no theology degree. What this site does for me is expose me to complex topics I would not otherwise be exposed to, Sometimes they prompt me to additional reading. When they are a bit too complex for me, I often find that reading the comments helps explain some. The hope, of course, is that I am growing by exposure (kinda like playing tennis with someone better than me). Usually I can follow.

      What amazes me is that Roger has time to write these blogs entries so consistently while maintaining his academic schedule (research, articles, books, class lectures, office hours, and speaking engagements).

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “Much of it has also had to do with attempts by neo-fundamentalists and
    ultra-conservative (almost all Calvinists) evangelicals to control
    evangelical colleges and seminaries, publishers and agencies of various
    kinds.”

    Respectful Evangelical philosopher Paul Copan spoke of a “Calvinist mafia” using emotional pressure and bullying to get control over Christendom.

    Here is the beginning of the quote:

    A while back, my Calvinist friend
    Michael Patton here at Parchment and Pen told me that he generally
    preferred the company of Arminians over Calvinists. A well-known
    evangelical Christian statesman (who will go unnamed) related his
    negative experiences with what he called “the Reformed Mafia.” Trevin
    Wax recently echoed this concern in a blog post as a plea to some of his
    fellow Calvinists.[1]
    That, I regret to say, has been my experience in the Calvinist-Arminian
    debate. So I hope that, in my posting this list, grace from my Reformed
    brothers and sisters will abound!

    Michael Patton asked if I would be willing to mention my top picks for Arminian books.[2] Since Jacob Arminius was as good an Arminian as any, we should at least mention his works in passing: Work of Jacob Arminius. (We could also mention the writings of John Wesley here.
    However, my list will focus on more accessible, popular-level
    expositions of Arminianism. In addition, since Arminius was influenced
    by Molinism, I’ll include Molinist-related works as well. (Note: I’m
    not including open theism, which I find philosophically and biblically
    problematic.)[3]

    1. Arminian and (Gentle, But Frank) Anti-Calvinist Theology
    Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. Olson here evenhandedly explores genuine points of overlap between………”

    I trust you can find the link ;-)

  • TerryJames

    When do we “hunt” and out heresy and false teachers? When is a line crossed?

    I have changed my views on some teachings over they years, to the better I believe; some of the things I believed in the past were wrong (early on I was into Armstrongism). I hope I continue to grow in the knowledge of God, reassessing my beliefs.

    When should we point out heresies and those who teach them?

    Not many years ago Benny Hinn said there were nine persons in God–the Son, Father and Holy Spirit each had three persons (he later recanted). Do we point out the heresy and the false teacher (I don’t like to call people heretics who are just ignorantly teaching error)?

    • Roger Olson

      Technically speaking, a heretic is only someone who knows he or she is teaching heresy. One can’t really be an “accidental heretic.” But there remains the question what constitutes heresy. I’ve addressed that here before at some length. Google key words and my name and I’m sure you’ll find at least one of my previous posts about heresy.

  • DavidHong

    Looks just like what the dispensational-calvinistic fundamentalists did to southwestern baptist theological seminary. btw, i don’t take the baptists pretending to be reformed or calvinistic as being truly that.

    an example of simple-mindedness of fundamentalists: “a student at a seminary is reading bultmann; therefore the entire seminary must be liberal.”

    an example carpe diem mentality of fundamentalists: “we found the smoking gun! (student reading bultmann) now, let’s take over this seminary!”

    from my personal experience, fundamentalists really do believe that everything they do is theologically driven, and i agree. the politics — it’s their way of establishing their agenda and they do so well. and they do so well in uniting under a banner they so believe in. other’s should learn from this. but progressive whatever are just too smart to join hands with each other for a common cause. oh well.

    • Roger Olson

      A former president of a major Southern Baptist seminary told me he was fired partly because the regents (all fundamentalists) ordered him to order the faculty never to mention liberation theology to students. They were not to teach about it at all. He refused, not because he agrees with liberation theology but because such a mandate destroys education to say nothing of academic freedom.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Well, roger, I took you at your word and have started reading Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology. Wow! He’s everything you said. Thanks for the recommendation. I want to read much more.

    • Roger Olson

      Almost nothing makes me happier than turning someone on to Donald Bloesch’s theology. He/it rescued me for evangelicalism. I truly believe that at a crucial point in my spiritual journey God led me to read and then later to know Don. No single theologian has influenced me more.

      • Mark Kennedy

        Roger, not ‘roger’. Sorry :)


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