New controversies in Evangelical theology

New controversies in Evangelical theology October 17, 2013

Evangelicals today are being torn by some major theological controversies.  The debate between Calvinists and Wesleyans is getting more and more heated.  Then there is a related debate between “Traditionists,” who believe Christians should hold onto the traditions of the historic church (particularly the decisions of the early church councils0 and the “Meliorists,” who reject holding onto traditions and believe the church can get better and better.  The Calvinists tend to be Traditionists (who themselves can be divided between “Biblicists” and “Paleo-Conservatives”) and the Wesleyans tend to be Meliorists.

We confessional Lutherans have our own theology worked out, of course, and in many ways might think of ourselves as above this particular fray.  And none of the debates, as far as I can tell, even bring Luther into the picture at all.  And yet I would suggest to the contending parties of both sides that they study how Lutheranism resolves Wesley and Calvin, the Bible and Tradition, Orthodoxy and Reformation.

After the jump, a sample and a link to a detailed account of what is going on in evangelical theology.

From Orthodox Anglican Gerald R. McDermott:

Evangelicals have always been divided over John Calvin, but now they are even more so. Today’s movement emerged from a Puritan-Reformed tradition indebted to Calvin, and a Wesleyan/Pietist tradition reacting against Calvin and all his works. Wesley agreed with Calvin that salvation is by grace, but for Wesley this meant a “free will supernaturally restored to every man” rather than only to the elect. Wesley denied Calvin’s unconditional election, preferring the view that God saves based on the condition of faith which he sees from “all eternity at one view.” Wesley also rejected Calvin’s “perseverance of the saints”-his assurance that true believers will never lose their salvation. The conflict between Arminians and Reformed continues today, with, for example, Ben Witherington arguing in The Problem with Evangelical Theology (2005) against irresistible grace, the idea that Christians are in bondage to sin, and individual election as something that takes place before a person’s own choices. He also faults dispensationalism for its rapture theology (arguing it has no basis in the Bible) and his own Wesleyan tradition for an overly-optimistic view of free will. But the fault line between these two evangelical theological traditions is familiar-dividing Arminian synergism (we are saved and sanctified by our wills cooperating with God’s will) from Reformed monergism (God’s will determines ours but without making us robots).

Now this traditional division has morphed into a larger theological split that has turned former foes into allies. I choose to call the new opposing camps the Meliorists and the Traditionists. The former think the tradition of historic orthodoxy needs improvement and sometimes basic change. The latter believe it might sometimes be wise to adjust our approaches to the tradition, but that generally it is more important to learn from than to change it. The new division is loosely connected to the old, for most of the Meliorists are also Arminian, and most of the Traditionists are Reformed. But there are some curious realignments, such as the Paleo-conservatives (led by Thomas Oden, who is Wesleyan) who are among the Traditionists. Oden, a 1970s convert from trendy liberalism to what he and others call the Great Tradition (of early church, medieval and Reformation theology), famously said his goal is to eschew anything new, for everything worth saying has already been said.

This new division has developed from attacks by post-conservatives on what they call “conservative” evangelical theology. “Conservatives” are allegedly still stuck in Enlightenment foundationalism, which seeks certainty through self-evident truths and sensory experience. It supposedly sees the Bible as a collection of propositions that can be arranged into a rational system. 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 don’t realize the historical situatedness of the Bible. In Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (2007), Olson suggests this brand of evangelical theology is fundamentalist in spirit because it hunts down heretics and chases them out of their “small tent.” He calls his brand of evangelical theology the “big tent.”

Olson divides “conservatives” into two camps, “Biblicists” (a derogatory term in theological circles) and “Paleo-orthodox” (another unseemly moniker suggesting musty museums). The Biblicists (who according to Olson include Carl Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler and D.A. Carson) see revelation as primarily propositional and doctrines as facts. But most importantly, Olson claims, they also regard doctrine as the “essence” of Christian faith.

The Paleo-orthodox include Baptist D.H. Williams, the Reformed author-pastor John Armstrong, Anglicans Robert Webber and David Neff, William Abraham at Perkins School of Theology, and of course the Methodist Oden. For this sub-division of “conservatives,” the ancient ecumenical consensus is the governing authority that serves as an interpretive lens through which Christians are to interpret Scripture. The critical and constructive task of theology is conducted in light of what the ecumenical church already decided about crucial doctrinal matters.

Meliorists such as Olson think the basic problem with Traditionists (both the Biblicists and Paleo-orthodox) is that they give too much weight to tradition. They believe Biblicists pay too much attention to evangelical tradition, and Paleo-Orthodox thinkers are too subservient to the pre-modern consensus. Olson asserts that the Great Tradition has been wrong in the past, which just goes to show that all tradition is “always . . . in need of correction and reform.” Evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests. The creeds are simply “man-made statements.” They all need to be re-examined for possible “revisioning of doctrine” based on a fresh reading of scripture. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is on the table. Only the Bible is finally authoritative. But even that is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which in reality consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of the Bible. Meliorists tend to reject the idea that the actual words of the Bible are inspired, and often prefer to speak of “dynamic inspiration,” in which the biblical authors but not their words are inspired.

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