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…

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