Case Studies in “Re-forming Orthodoxy”

Case Studies in “Re-forming Orthodoxy”

Of course, following one definition of “orthodoxy” nobody should “re-form” it. That definition is simply “right thinking” or “theological correctness.” If you’re convinced a doctrine is true and correct, then you wouldn’t want to re-form it. However, there are other definitions of “orthodoxy.” A common one is “what ought to be believed.” Closely linked with that is “established doctrine.”

Every denomination has some idea, whether written or not, of what members ought to believe—established doctrine. Some orthodoxies (in this sense) are extremely fine grained and fine tuned, detailed and written out. Some orthodoxies are more implicit, not written but understood by consensus and passed along from generation to generation by teaching, singing, preaching, etc.

When I talk about re-forming orthodoxy I’m using “orthodoxy” not in the sense of “theological correctness” but in the sense of “what some group of Christians says Christians ought to believe.” In other words, traditional interpretations of Scripture, of the gospel.

As I have said in previous posts, I do not think anyone should join a denomination or church for the purpose of changing its beliefs. I think every denomination, church, ought to have some mechanism, however, by which its beliefs can be carefully, thoughtfully challenged and re-formed by its own members. Sometimes that process may be stimulated by an outsider’s writings, but outsiders should not invade churches to change their doctrines.

And, as I said before, I don’t think members who undergo some kind of conversion to a wholly different set of beliefs ought to try to change their denomination’s or church’s ethos, core doctrines. They should simply change to one that reflects their newfound beliefs. Of course, if it’s a matter where the person’s denomination or church has no beliefs about a certain subject, then it’s alright to attempt to fill the gap with biblically sound doctrine.

Years ago I belonged to a denomination whose central distinctive doctrine I began to doubt. I left rather than create a controversy about it. It wasn’t easy; it was very difficult to leave. I grew up in that denomination.

Now, if the Holy Spirit stirs the hearts and minds of a denomination or church such that the people, en masse, begin to doubt and question its beliefs and desire to reconsider them with a view to possibly revising them, I have no complaint about that.

All that is for clarification—and to avoid having to explain it in response to comments here.

Real controversy and accusations of “heresy” or “liberal theology” begin when someone dares to question a point of “basic Christian orthodoxy” or “the received evangelical tradition” with a view to revising it. But, of course, that simply begs the question what is “basic Christian orthodoxy” and “the received evangelical tradition?” What all is packed into those concepts? And who decides?

In other words, to be very clear, when I questioned a core distinctive doctrine of the denomination I grew up in nobody outside that denomination or ones nearly identical to it cared at all. They might have had I caused a big controversy over it and forced the issue like a bull in a china shop. They rightly would have counseled me to just change denominations—unless, of course, the Holy Spirit was stirring the denomination to make such a change as was happening in me. However, when I or anyone else dares to suggest that perhaps some point of “basic Christian orthodoxy,” as perceived by some person or group, should be reconsidered in light of fresh and faithful biblical interpretation (not even in light of culture or philosophy) cries of “liberal theology!” or “deep deviation!” or even “heresy!” go up. The same happens whenever someone questions some aspect of the “received evangelical tradition.” The wagons are circled, the heavy artillery is brought out—to protect tradition from “liberal theology.” (I’ll explain in another post why this use of “liberal theology” as any departure from tradition is mistaken.)

Let me start with an example from “the received evangelical tradition.” So, in recent years, some evangelical theologians (and others) have questioned the penal substitution theory of the atonement and preferred over it, for example, the Christus Victor view of the atonement. Some conservative evangelical leaders, seminary presidents, theologians, influential evangelicals, have reacted strongly. I would say they have over reacted—claiming in effect that the penal substitution theory is an essential, a fundamental, of evangelical belief if not of Christian orthodoxy itself. While I believe the Bible teaches that we are guilty, not just in bondage to the devil, and that Christ’s death not only sets us free but also sets aside our guilt when we repent and believe, I do not think the penal substitution theory of the atonement is sacrosanct. Luther did not emphasize it; he emphasized the Christus Victor view of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.

Why the near hysterical reaction to evangelicals questioning substitution atonement? Is it really a fundamental of the faith? When did it become that? I don’t find it in, for example, Irenaeus. Irenaeus’s recapitulation theory is closer in time to the apostles than the full blown Puritan penal substitution theory is.

Certainly the penal substitution theory of the atonement is not part of the early Christian creeds (Niceno-Constantinopolitan, Athanasian, Chalcedonian Definition, etc.). When did it become a fundamental of Christianity or even of evangelical faith?

To tell you truth, I think what is going on is that many evangelicals have come to regard Charles Hodge’s theology as a kind of baseline of evangelical orthodoxy. But where does that leave the whole Wesleyan evangelical tradition? Many Wesleyans preferred and still prefer the governmental theory of the atonement (which I have blogged about several times and which I think is widely misunderstood).

There are those conservative evangelicals who seem to think that any departure from any aspect of Charles Hodge’s theology is a deviation from evangelical Christianity and an opening to liberal theology.

Now let me widen the scope and go further back—into ancient Christianity. There are those conservative or orthodox Protestants who insist that Christianity necessarily includes all that was agreed upon by the ancient church fathers in the first four or more ecumenical councils. (Of course, I always wonder why only four or why all seven and if all seven does that include what Nicea II decided about icons?) They rarely say they put the creeds on the same level as Scripture, but they often claim that we later Christians have no right to “private interpretation” of the Bible but must interpret it through the creeds. No departure from the doctrinal deposit of the ancient ecumenical councils is permitted. Any such departure is charged with being on a slippery slope toward liberal theology and outright heresy.

Now I have often and in several of my books expressed strong appreciation for the achievements of the church fathers—especially with regard to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. I happen to think that what the first four councils decided about these doctrines is correct because it is simply says in other words what Scripture says and rules out views that would undermine and possibly destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ as God and Savior.

However, I remain open to challenges to those doctrines as they were expressed in 381 and 451—insofar as those challenges do not arise from disbelief but from concern about whether the wording of the creeds and definitions really do justice to what Scripture says.

So here’s my case study in this. Some years ago I became editor of Christian Scholar’s Review—a scholarly journal dedicated to integration of faith and learning supported by about fifty Christian colleges and universities. It publishes many articles about Christian theology. About the time I came on the editorial board, before becoming editor, there appeared in the Review an article by a young evangelical scholar entitled (I’m going by memory here) “Jesus: the One-Natured God-Man.” It was an attempt to examine and correct the metaphysics and language of Chalcedon. The author clearly believed in the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and was not just repeating the old Eutychian or Monophysite heresies (although exactly what those were is not always clear). He was wrestling with whether the “two natures” doctrine of the Person of Christ is biblically and metaphysically sound. He agreed with the intention of Chalcedon but saw it as ultimately coming down too heavily on the Antiochian side of the dispute that led to it. And, he concluded, the model of Christ expressed there (“hypostatic union”) ultimately divides the person of Christ by, for example, implying two wills and two consciousnesses in him.

I read it with interest and considered his critique of orthodox Christology. He was not arguing from some modern bias against the supernatural (he affirmed Christ’s preexistence as the eternal second person of the Trinity, Christ’s miracles and resurrection, etc.) He was solely concerned to raise questions about the conceptuality and language of Chalcedon and ask whether it does justice to Scripture’s testimony about Christ or the Chalcedonian fathers’ own intentions.

I never did agree with the author, but neither did I see him on a slippery slope toward heresy or “liberal theology” just for questioning the concepts and language of Chalcedon. It was a worthy attempt even if it ultimately fell short of being convincing.

Years later I “met” the author (we corresponded by e-mail) and he told me that he had first sent his article to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society which rejected it out of hand without editorial peer review because, so the then editor said, JETS is a creedal journal and does not publish articles that question orthodoxy.

So, for that editor, anyway, Chalcedon, the hypostatic union, even though it is extra-biblical, was sacrosanct, above questioning—even from Scripture and reason.

My question then and now is how that does not add the Chalcedonian Definition to Scripture as the fifty-second (or fifty-third or fifty-fourth) book of the Bible? In effect, it does.

There are conservative theologians out there—mostly among evangelicals—who see it as their “job,” as it were, to watch fellow evangelical theologians closely, read what they write, and then warn the whole evangelical community (not just their own denomination) when they think they perceive a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Any transgression of orthodoxy or the received evangelical tradition, even only promoting sola Scriptura , which is itself part of the received evangelical tradition (!), is grounds for crying “Wolf!”

This is simply nonsense and tears evangelicals apart. It has torn us apart. We are now so divided I see no hope of reunion.

Some years ago (I think 2005) I was invited by the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to deliver a plenary address to the organization’s annual meeting. The president knew I was not a member and never had been. He also knew I do not affirm the word “inerrancy.” He held out the invitation anyway and I accepted. Then he e-mailed the members of the ETS executive committee, announcing his selections of plenary speakers. He included me, my e-mail address, among the persons receiving his notifying e-mail. Suddenly I began receiving e-mails about me as executive committee members failed to notice my e-mail address was among theirs and simply pressed “reply to all.” The e-mails were clearly not intended for my eyes! They were bashing me as dangerously liberal or “neo-orthodox,” etc., etc., without citing any specific information from anything I had written. It was all impressionistic. I gently corrected them and was suddenly dropped from the conversation. Next I received an e-mail from the president withdrawing the invitation.

This is the kind of thing that happens when someone raises “concerns” about a fellow evangelical—even when they have not affirmed any heresy or denied any point of orthodoxy but are only perceived as “leaving the door open” to that by daring to raise questions about “the received evangelical tradition” (e.g., whether open theism necessarily strikes at its heart!).

Others who have suffered this kind of treatment have generally retreated. Often, I suspect, because their jobs are at risk. They work within institutions where becoming controversial, whether deserved or not, is risky. I have decided to push back against this kind of neo-fundamentalism and evangelical creedalism that forbids, upon pain of being labeled an enabler of liberal theology, any questioning of perceived orthodoxy.

These people need to be asked who appointed them the popes of evangelical Christianity?


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  • Rick

    “I have decided to push back against this kind of neo-fundamentalism and evangelical creedalism that forbids, upon pain of being labeled an enabler of liberal theology, any questioning of perceived orthodoxy. These people need to be asked who appointed them the popes of evangelical Christianity?”
    I appreciate what you are saying to a degree (there is too much concern about slippery slopes), but your article seems to blend historic orthodoxy with denominational (or Evangelical) orthodoxy. The standard for historic orthodoxy is higher than the denominational.
    So in your view, is there such a thing as orthodoxy/right belief? If so, should not some speak up for it?

    • Roger Olson

      Yes. I speak up for it. But I speak up even more for Scripture. That’s all I’m sayin’.

  • Dante Ting

    Are evangelicals today rightly afraid of the New Perspectives on Paul? Just recently a Reformed pastor was warning his members in his sermon against reaching out to new ideas instead of staying firm in (Reformed) orthodoxy, and cited N.T. Wright and the New Perspectives as an example of the “new ideas” that people are reaching out to when they get “bored” by traditional orthodoxy (though in Wright’s defense the so-called New Perspectives are actually an attempt to return to Paul’s orthodoxy).

    The main problem I find today is that there are many who interpret Scripture by their doctrines rather than the other way round.

    • Roger Olson

      Exactly. As I said in my post–many (especially Reformed) evangelicals see little difference between Charles Hodge’s systematic theology and Scripture itself. I don’t see any “danger” in the New Perspective on Paul espoused by N. T. Wright. I blogged about his book Justification about a year ago. I was surprised at how mild its revision of traditional Protestant thinking about justification is. It seems to me to be a debate within Protestant theology over some details of interpretation of Paul. But to some others it’s an outright rejection of Paul.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I realize that you find reading T.F. Torrance a bit of a drag (not exactly your words) and I also know that trying to convey what one thinks Torrance might mean in a short blog comment is, at best, inadvisable – however, in his little booklet “Reality and Evangelical Theology:The Realism of Christian Revelation” there is a section that seems perfectly suited to your advisors who would label you a ‘meliorist’ and those who think there is no place for a critical review of at least some tradition. It’s found in chapter one (The Bounds of Christian Theology) of the above book, and I hope the quotes below encourage you to check parts of the entire chapter, or perhaps, are helpful in themselves.

    In essentially warning against dualistic/nominalistic approaches in both the science of nature and scientific theology Torrance says: “The kind of scientific theology that arises in this way” (non nominalistic) “may be called ‘fluid dogmatics’. …… it is the kind of theology that develops under the compelling claims of the Word and Truth of God’s self-revelation and their demand for unceasing renewal and reform…..” “The deployment of fluid axioms which are continually open to change and renewal in the light of ever-deeper understanding of God means that the formulations of doctrine organized by reference to them must be ‘open structures’ of thought and statement.”

    “In a realist theology this will mean that we must distinguish ………. between dogmatic formulations of the truth and the truth itself, in the recognition that even when we have done all that it is our duty to do in relating them rightly (i.e, in an orthodox way) ‘sic’ to the truth, they nevertheless fall far short of what they should be, and are inadequate.”

    And then, in a typical, even surprising flourish to seal the point: “Indeed, it must be said that their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.”

    It may, or may not, help your critics to know that even from one of the centres of reform theology come ideas about the limits of dogmatics and even, if we dare think it, orthodoxy.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for that word of support from Torrance, Bev. I don’t know what neo-fundamentalists and evangelical traditionalists think of Torrance. For the most part they’ve been pretty quiet about him. But they tend to be pretty suspicious of Barth. While I agree with what Torrance said there about tradition, I tend to agree even more with James McClendon in Doctrine (Systematic Theology vol. 2). But maybe they would agree. McClendon treats tradition as a guide, a hermeneutical aid subordinate to Scripture.

  • labreuer

    “No growth allowed, for it might be cancerous.”

  • Rory Tyer

    Roger – keep speaking out. Your perspective is refreshing and helpful.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks! I will.

  • James M. Henderson

    I appreciate the way you formulate your stance. I am not a Wesleyan, nor do I buy into Old Princeton rationalism. This means I catch fire from both sides on many issues, but it is only my Reformed friends and colleagues who seem to think that I am some sort of heretic, without even the courtesy of dialog. BTW I am re-reading *Reformed and Always Reforming,* and I find it helping a great deal in understanding where I and my colleagues situate ourselves, traditional and post-conservative alike.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks. I think it was that book of mine that set McDermott off. Unfortunately he doesn’t take equally seriously my The Mosaic of Christian Belief where I emphasize the authority of tradition–but as a second authority (“normed norm”) after Scripture. I always thought that was the traditional evangelical view. Silly me.

  • Mark Kennedy

    I appreciate your willingness to be open about your thinking. Respect!

  • Brian P.

    Roger, you said:

    “And, as I said before, I don’t think members who undergo some kind of conversion to a wholly different set of beliefs ought to try to change their denomination’s or church’s ethos, core doctrines. They should simply change to one that reflects their newfound beliefs.”

    In response I would like to suggest that you are being painfully naive and individualistic in this recommendation. I, for one, am a person who has loss the beliefs of the community of my origins. What they believe, I generally no longer believe. I am willing and have tried patiently and respectfully to discuss with clergy of the community.

    While I recognize that my discussions with clergy have been futile, I have family responsibilities. I am in my late 40s and have a family for which I am responsible. I wife would leave me (with the mostly silent support of her family, my family, and the church) should I be honest about my beliefs and should I “simply change to one that reflects [my] newfound beliefs.”

    I would suggest you reconcile your rhetoric with real-world lives such as mine. And by the way, I have tried to discuss with my church’s clergy their theologies with that which has been considered orthodox over the centuries of Christendom. They know the beliefs that got them “saved,” and unfortunately little more in the Christian tradition.

    I would respectfully consider you not be so aloofly individualistic in depicting what one can or can not do when beliefs change, dare I say even grow.

    • Roger Olson

      You are over interpreting me. I didn’t say one should change just because they hold different beliefs. I said changing is better than launching a crusade to try to change the church’s beliefs. If you’re able to stay in the church and not make an issue of your disagreement with its fundamental beliefs or ethos, fine. I would find that too great a cognitive dissonance to endure Sunday after Sunday.

  • Clay

    There is a big difference in the ecclesiastical context in which the Church Fathers and Councils hammered out these doctrinal issues, and modern day Protestantism. During the period of the Councils, there was the sense that there was only one, visible, Church and that the bishops meeting together had real authority (but not infallibility) within the Catholic Church. This is in contrast to the modern Protestant situation in which there are no commonly recognized authorities. Therefore, I don’t see how across-the-board orthodoxy is even possible within Protestantism. I’m not even sure it’s possible within individual denominations.

    • Roger Olson

      This is a point I have striven to make with little success. Without an emperor or magisterium to enforce orthodoxy what exactly IS orthodoxy? I have had little success getting evangelical traditionalists to explain to me exactly what counts as orthodoxy and how it is to be enforced among Protestants. Apparently the way to enforce it is to write articles for evangelical journals and trying to get anyone who questions orthodoxy shunned by other evangelicals.

      • Clay

        Interesting. So do you really believe a Protestant orthodoxy is impossible? If so, do you see this as a problem, or is right doctrine not a necessary aspect of God’s salvation? I ask because you are one of the only Protestant thinkers I have come across who seems to have followed the Protestant assumptions through to the logical conclusion. And I am just curious to know more about if and why you are still comfortable as a Protestant. Most people I know who have honestly considered these issues become either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

        • Roger Olson

          Yes, I’m a comfortable Protestant. Not complacent, but comfortable. I don’t think I’m alone in my view either. I mentioned to another person James McClendon whose view on Scripture and tradition I heartily embrace. But I think my view is the one held by most non-creedal Protestants. Doctrine is important. Anyone who reads me as saying otherwise is not reading me rightly. But all doctrine is man-made and open to correction FROM SCRIPTURE. How likely that is ever to happen with major points of Christian orthodoxy–I don’t expect it. But secondary doctrines are often subject to amendment and change. In THEORY, though, any extra-biblical doctrinal formulation could turn out to need correction from Scripture itself.

  • Sam

    I think you should “push back”, you have history on your side. If enough people push back, of course with wisdom, love and other virtues it will have a positive effect.

    • Roger Olson

      I hope so. But there’s a little problem called “money and power.” Right now, in this phase of the evangelical movement, most of both are in the hands of conservatives–many of who lack the integrity to play fair with those who disagree with them.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Wow, so pleased and encouraged to see the basic free church perspective on the relation between scripture and creeds articulated so simply and clearly.

    I know a lot of mainline evangelicals (that would be a bit of an oxymoron if I didn’t have my tongue so thoroughly in cheek when I say it) are mostly unnerved by the extremes to which the “quasi-creedal” _sola scriptura_ ideology carries us along, , , , along toward–gasp!–non-creedalism. But hey, we didn’t decide to align ourselves with the Reformation without some trepidation, did we?

  • I wonder what you’d say to someone who, in her study of theology, moves in the direction of the earlier held theology of a denomination, which is now at deviance with the currently held theology. For example, the Missionary Church was founded by Mennonites influenced by Wesleyanism and Pietism (among other influences). However, today it is largely a conservative evangelical denomination full stop. (The Constitution no longer affirms pacifism as normative and limits ministry positions for women, etc.) In such an instance, would it be appropriate to try to reform the denomination back to its roots? Or would you still advice cutting ties and joining, say, a Mennonite or Wesleyan denomination?

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t think calling a church to reconnect with its roots is ever wrong.

  • Robert

    I never understood how a resort to scripture amounts as a tenable defense, as it ignores the authority issue. As if the Bible interprets itself, or else who claims to speak for God?

    • Roger Olson

      This is confusing–especially your final question. The Bible is always interpreted, but so is the U.S. Constitution which does nothing to lessen its authority over U.S. jurisprudence.

      • Robert

        My point is, using your comparison, that appeals to law are made not to books but to courts. Making everyone a judge makes not the rule of law but of anarchy. And then we wonder why many expressions of Christianity are held in derision by unbelievers!

        • Roger Olson

          But the judges of the courts have to rule in accordance with the constitution.

          • Robert

            Which brings us back to the original conundrum – who has the authority? Is this self proclaimed, any interpretation is as good as the other? (Not so in the case of the Constitution – it is only the opinion of the court which is binding. Your analogy, alas, breaks down). How is this resolved? This has never been explained.

          • Roger Olson

            Without a state church or a church magisterium, it is inevitably a matter of personal (not necessarily “private”) judgment.

          • Robert

            So, then, when you say you are ‘speaking up for Scripture’ you are really speaking up for your personal interpretation of the same.

            Perhaps my original remark isless confusing.

          • Roger Olson

            There is no escaping interpretation–even of “tradition.” So the same could be said of any and every document and source. When anyone says he or she is “speaking up for” it, he or she means “for his or her interpretation of it” if you want to press it that far. I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m saying I am speaking up for the AUTHORITY of Scripture over other authorities.

          • Robert

            The Eastern Orthodox understanding and practice seems to offer such a solution, albeit not in the form of a ‘top down’ Magisterium. It is rather the teachings of the Fathers (which include the Scriptures), the Councils, it’s canons, and the liturgies – held and practiced in common – which together constitute an ortho-doxy and ortho-praxis. One’s own personal interpretation then has to be measured not merely against the 66 books of the Bible, but against the entire orthopraxis of the church over the centuries.

          • Roger Olson

            Of course, yes. But the question is–what happens when one discovers (as Luther believed he did) a conflict between what the church has taught as orthodox and what the Bible teaches?

          • robert

            To the Orthodox Church as Luther and other reformers should have done. But alas that didn’t happen and further strayed.

          • Robert

            The notion of “what the Bible teaches” brings us back to the question as to what is orthodox. Whose interpretation shall we accept, and on what basis? It is none other than that pesky authority issue facing us again.

            My suggestion is that we can only know and practice orthodoxy by going to the people who have been faithful to what has been traditioned to them.

  • Robert

    “These people need to be asked who appointed them the popes of evangelical Christianity?”

    “….it is inevitably a matter of personal (not necessarily “private”) judgment.”

    Perhaps ‘these people’ are merely being consistent. They are the popes. And so are you and I.

    And then we ask “what is orthodox?” And we wonder. This is a huge problem as I see it.

    • Roger Olson

      The issue I’m raising (with the “popes” question) is power.

      • Robert

        Yes, me too. Judgment is power.

  • Christine Erikson

    1. governmental theory and substitutionary atonement are a distinction without a difference. “governmental” theory speaks of the effect “substitutionary” has.

    2. the presence of two natures and two wills is NOT two persons or two consciousnesses. Nature and person are NOT the same thing. I have human nature but I am one person, distinct from all other humans. “will” is one of those things inherited from the colossal wasters of our time for over two millennia known as the great philosophers. But theologically the human will and the divine will are like I think modes of operation, I have a human will a cat has a cat’s will, and in any case you can be totally divided in your goals and have mutually exclusive violently opposed desires and goals (the idea you can’t will two things at once that oppose each other is pure nonsense concocted by someone who was out of touch with reality, but then that is the typical philosopher I guess) you can be violently internally divided over conflicting goals to the point of a physical breakdown, and still be ONE PERSON. I have been there, straight to the hospital emergency room as a result, because of the physical crack up caused by the internal conflict, thank you very much.

    So this talk of Chalcedon dividing Jesus Christ is based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of words used and the issues.