Moving Right is Never Wrong

Moving Right is Never Wrong December 1, 2011

A friend and I, after the Clark Pinnock tribute at AAR/SBL, were chatting about how the Evangelical Theological Society and conservative evangelicalism in general seem to have a special radar for folks who in their view are moving to the left theologically. A set of expressions came to my mind and I want to flesh them out here:

Among conservative evangelicals moving to the right seems never to be wrong.

Moving to the left, however, is either on the way to being wrong or is in fact already wrong (for the right).

To the left is a slippery slope, to the right is faithfulness (even if it is extreme).

I wish to challenge the very notion that going to the right is never wrong, and I want to contend that going left is sometimes the right thing to do. I have three witnesses.

Question: Do you think the above theories are accurate? Why or why not?

First, Jesus. The singular folks who were most opposed to Jesus were the Pharisees. Though today the Pharisees are often misunderstood as religious bigots and miserable legalists and anal-retentive religious folks, and each of those stereotypes has no bearing on what they were actually like (so we should equating “hypocrite” and “Pharisee”)… though they are misunderstood, their central platform was faithfulness to Scripture and scrupulous attention to detail and constant vigilance in observing Torah. In other words, they were zealots for the Torah and if they wanted to add to Scripture, as long as it was founded in Scripture, they were right. Anyone who looked left was in trouble.

Jesus was on their wrong side. Why? Because he ate with the wrong people, he invited tax collectors and hookers and sinners to the table and told them stories that were designed to change them and society. He pushed their boundaries on sabbath and what could be done on Sabbath. He claimed to forgive sins, and they thought that was for God alone. He protested their operations in the Temple, or at least the priests’ operations, and they thought him a misguided lunatic for it.

What matters here is that Jesus was pushing left, was expanding the people of God, was pushing back against traditions and probing new areas because of the work of God … and he got in trouble. The Pharisees could add and add and add to the laws and that was a sign of obedience; they could even get extreme and it be fine; but Jesus could subtract a few laws on who eats with whom and he was a goner for them. Going right seems never wrong; going left seems wrong (for the right).

Second, Paul. I’ll be brief. Paul’s slogan was that when he was with the Gentiles, he acted like a Gentile; when he was with the Jews, he was kosher. Read about it in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  The right side of the religious spectrum in Paul’s day thought him a chameleon. The Spirit of God, though, was pushing Paul in progressive ways and he got in trouble. Going right is not wrong but going left is wrong (for the right).

Third, Peter. Ah, a neglected text. In Acts 10-11 Peter learned first hand, through experience, that God could save Gentiles, that God could give them the same Spirit he had given to Peter, and when he saw it happen (no exegesis got him there), he caved in: if God gives the Spirit to them, who am I to resist? Well, he got in all kinds of trouble about this, and it all comes crashing down in Acts 15 when they had to sort things out. They did, and what they decided was that God was progressive: he was opening the boundaries to new folks, to Gentiles, just as he was doing in Jesus’ day. The right didn’t like it. Going right is not wrong but going left is wrong (to the right).

Many conservative evangelicals are like this today; they are right-facing zealots. No one to my knowledge has ever been kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society for being too conservative, and frankly I don’t think anyone could get kicked out for being too conservative. Why? Because going right is never wrong. Go as far as you want, you’ll never get into trouble. You can believe in dictation theory, in views on the authorship of books that are more miraculous than anyone needs to believe, in snakes talking to Adam and Eve (as a result of a miracle, mind you), in a 10,000 year old earth and in youth earth creationism, in radical views of complementarianism, you can deny women their rightful place in ministry (it’s in the Bible, after all, that women were prophets and apostles and leaders of the whole People of God), you can equate right wing Tea Party libertarianism with what the Bible is teaching, you can be as Calvinistic as you want to be (and more), and I could go on and on … no one ever gets in trouble for espousing these views among conservative evangelicals. Ever.

But if you wonder if science might have a few things to offer us when it comes to Genesis 1-3, if Isaiah didn’t write that whole book, if something in one of the Gospels just might be midrash (did Peter really grab a coin from a fish’s mouth?), if maybe God made a world where there is divine self-limitation (some forms of open theism), if Jesus rides (or will ride) on clouds, if justice is at the heart of God’s mission in this world, especially through the church … well, then, you’re on the slippery slope. Going left is wrong (for the right); going right is never wrong. Even if you can show that your view is justifiable biblically, many think any move away from the right is wrong.

Here’s my thesis: the slippery slope, if there is one, is one both sides. The middle, the Third Way, takes the courage of commitment to faithfulness and the willingness to join Jesus, Paul and Peter to progress when God’s Spirit guides. The right embraces the first and fails at the second. By the way, liberals embrace the second one and fail on the first. What I’ve said here can be said in reverse about many in the American Protestant liberal tradition.

The Third Way is the courageous way. I’ve sketched this view of reading the Bible in The Blue Parakeet.

If you want safety, avoid true Christianity. Safety is found only on the extremes. Aslan is not a tame lion.

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  • Steve Sherwood

    PREACH!! Good words.

  • Peter Murphy

    The church that I attended twenty years ago was in turmoil over an issue of interpretation related to “husband of one wife,” etc. People on each side of the issue were sincere in their concern that the issue be addressed biblically. I was unsure what to think and concerned about finding the right answer. A guest preacher spoke to us, I believe prophetically: if Scripture leaves you unsure about an issue because you find it difficult to reconcile different verses, deciding to choose the most conservative (ie, “strict,” or even “safe”) interpretation says more about how you view your heavenly Father (think, “a harsh man reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter”) rather than about the issue itself. I could not count how many times that advice has guided me since, and helped me to recognize that my attitude toward my heavenly Father is what is unbiblical. I thank him for his faithfulness to me in spite of my “suspicious mind.”

  • I think the issue is not so much that moving to the right is never considered wrong, it is more that it is not considered dangerous. Moves to the right evangelically (in our present western culture) are rare, against the flow of culture, and generally considered cranky. They generate few followers. The same cannot be said for moves to the left that are normally prolific, with the flow of culture, enthusiastically embraced especially by the young, and considered trendy and edgy.

    What concerns me is that one only needs to stand still (fast!) to be perceived as moving to the right… Cambridge change.

  • I couldn’t agree more.

  • I grew up around the sentiment, “Be careful. Education can make you liberal,” with the accompanying sense, “And we know that’s bad.” My later thought was, “Does that mean that the truth tends to be liberal, when learning tends to take you in that direction? Isn’t that the more obvious conclusion?”

    I’m now much more nuanced. Learning tends to expose your blind spots, your unexamined assumptions, but this is true for those who grow up “liberal” as well as those who grow up conservative. Truth tends to broaden you, which for the right pushes you to the left and for the left pushes you to the right. Truth tends toward the middle and toward realizing how little you actually know for certain, IMHO

  • Stuart B

    Great stuff. I’ve been thinking similarly after your post a while ago on giving texts priority over others.
    When it comes to contentious issues (nature of hell, atonement, Caananite genocide) evangelicals (in my experience) seem to favour the interpretation that is the most difficult to stomach as being the most faithful. To do so otherwise is to ‘water-down’ what the Scripture says. It’s easy to get in trouble for over-emphasising God’s love above His wrath/justice, but less often the other way round.

  • CJW


    But, to be fair, SBL and AAR may be just as biased in the opposite direction.

  • Mark Farmer

    I have moved to the “left,” and have done so out of what I hope is faithfulness to what is true and real.

    Each of us needs to distinguish between our ideas of God and Jesus on the one hand, and God and Jesus as they really are on the other. To define who the “faithful” ones are in the terms above seems to take the discussion out of the realm of seeking after truth. It supposes that one knows more clearly than the others who God and Jesus really are.

    Such “faithfulness” is only to a certain idea of Jesus – but who gets to define what that idea is? With C.S. Lewis (in Letters to Malcolm, I believe), don’t we all need to acknowledge that the God to whom we pray is certainly different from our idea of that God? If all truth is God’s truth, then to be faithful is to seek it as openly as possible and with as much discernment as possible. And we do so together.

    Isn’t the measure of faithfulness our commitment to truth, wherever it leads? And I acknowledge I am supposing that God is pleased with that.

  • Anyone who has spent much time around the ETS knows how true what you are saying is. I appreciate your willingness to say with clarity these words. I think the Peter example is a very important one. I would add that I see this same trend emerging now in Catholic Church in America on theological questions.

  • Mark Farmer

    On another level, my eye was caught this morning by a review in the New York Times. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, looks promising as a study of how our minds work both rationally and irrationally. I often wonder how much of our theology, which is by definition rational, is actually driven by irrational factors?

  • DRT

    I feel the reason is that the rightward movement is generally motivated by fear rather than love, and fear can be, in many cases, a more singular emotion.

  • Peter Murphy

    DRT (11) – that sums it up well.

  • Rick

    DRT #11-

    What then is the motivation for those that move too far leftward?

  • Very well said. Us evangelical harbor all kinds of nutty positions in the name of our movement. It drives me crazy. But let one person make one little suggestion that something or another must be revisited jut a little and the guns of Navarrone come out.

  • Here is what I posted in my blog in response to today’s blog. By the way, Christianity Today should post your contribution, Scott.

    Scot McKnight has said well what had to be said and I couldn’t figure out how to say.
    Here’ the link. It’s just way too true.

    I have always been amazed how large a tent evangelicalism is on the right, no matter how whacko the ideas, but let one person open a window shade just a millimeter to peer into another direction and all hell breaks loose.

    I remain convinced, per Tony Jones comments, that there is an evangelical mafioso. And though I can’t prove it, I can easily imagine the conference calls between ______ and _______ and _______ conferring on who must be taken down.

    Take on Osteen? Noooooo. Take on Jakes? Noooooo. Take on Pat Robertson? Nooooooo.

    I remain convinced there is still much thinking to be done theologically and that reformulation must be the work of future generations. No one generation has given to us the final formulation. This is always dangerous work, because the possibility is a drift away from our moorings. But there is no avoiding it. And no matter how vigorously we preach the Puritans or Wesley or Calvin or Luther, the work goes on. And no amount of artillery and ammunition can stop it.

    I just have a large tolerance for serious questions, and I hate it when people tell me they already have the answer for that and I know very well they don’t. Let’s ask the questions and get on with it.

  • Robert Ayers

    I love reading your posts and the comments. You’re all usually fair and calm.

    The right/left metaphor is somewhat naive, though. I think there is a “Third Way” but I don’t think its orientation should be derived from right or left. If those two extremes are both wrong why do we think a way in the middle will be correct? The most useful approach to this dilemma that I’ve read is Lesslie Newbigin’s in “Gospel In a Pluralist Society” and “Proper Confidence.” Which I assume many of you are familiar with. What do you think?

  • Rick

    Don Bryant-

    “Take on Osteen? Noooooo. Take on Jakes? Noooooo. Take on Pat Robertson? Nooooooo.”

    Robertson is not taken seriously. I see many go after Osteen. And Jakes has an upcoming appointment to appear in the Elephant Room seminar, which should be very interesting.

  • Is it time to not move Right or Left, but move Out? Post-modern, post-Christendom, post-evangelical?

  • Dru @ 18 – When I say above that I have moved “left,” I could also say that I am post-modern and post-Evangelical. Traditional Evangelicalism is incompatible with more than a modicum of post-modernism, it seems to me.

    DRT @ 13 – A key factor in my move “left” was seeing that any given theology presupposes a philosophy, both metaphysical and epistemological. Since we read the Bible through our philosophical assumptions, whether they be conscious or unconscious, we are not beginning with the Bible itself. Yes, I acknowledge that in my case, it was fear that fenced in my healthy inquisitiveness for many years. It was very scary at times to put my toe on the other side of the lines that had been drawn in the sand. Now I would not want to go back.

  • DRT

    As far as those going “too far left”, I think that is a red herring. The too far left positions are ones that actually are not rational, and hence not left, just wrong.

    For instance, accepting marriage to animals would be considered very far left by the right, but it is not, it is simply not rational.

    Likewise, denying the physical resurrection and still considering oneself a Christian is seen as very left, but it is not, it is just not thinking.

  • Aaron

    AMEN Scot!!! I have been thinking this for a while now so I think your assessment is amazingly accurate – Thank you!

  • T

    The thing I would add is that going “to the right” does not always mean allowing scripture to have the primary role in shaping our theology. Often cessationism is seen as a move “to the right.” But the unfortunate reality is that cessationism is a move out of the liberal playbook, exegetically speaking. It is a “move to the right” in cultural terms only, not in its approach or commitment to scripture.

    This is not the only example, but it’s the most obvious. And it needs to be used to show that “moves to the right” are absolutely not synonymous with “moves in faithfulness to scripture.” Scripture flat out commands churches not to forbid speaking in tongues. How many conservative churches do exactly that based on a web of uncharacteristically unjustified readings of scripture? We need to think about how and why such theology is supported to be able to more appropriately evaluate whether any moves to the right or left are faithful to scripture, or something else.

  • Scot, if there is a slippery slope to both “left” and “right,” might there also be a bog in between? Is there really a firm place to stand anywhere that poses no risk while at the same time fearlessly seeking out all truth?

    The image of a slippery slope seems to come from Deuteronomy 32:35 – “In due time their foot will slip….” In the context it refers to those who had rejected God the Rock and had “followed foreign gods and detestable idols.” But if we carve our idea of God into stone, doesn’t it become an idol itself?

    Deut. 32:35 is the text used by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

  • Anna

    Amen! I especially will remember what you said about a slippery slope existing on both sides. Thank you for this.

  • T


    I think the idea of being a disciple of Jesus gives us both perpetual room to grow in our understanding, but also a clear focal point for our learning, namely Jesus, who is not so much set in stone as testified about via several witnesses and experienced in many ways.

  • Well, from my vantage point… for better or worse, it seems as if the “Right” has won (or is winning). Leading Left thinkers have either been marginalized (McLaren, Wallis, etc.) or are off making TV shows (Bell). Left-leaning mainline denominations are quickly fading – and the few individual, large mainline churches that are still strong appear to be exiting their denoms because the denoms have become too far “Left”. The churches that are growing are very conservative. To the general public, Christian = Far Right.

    Perhaps this is simply the direction the Spirit wants to take the church. That idea greatly unsettles and saddens me! but I know waaaay to many strong, loving Christians who are also deeply conservative. Right now, maybe it’s my job as one of those “hopeless liberals” to just humbly support & pray for them… and get out of the way! 🙂

    Just my limited perspective on things.

    Peace, Brian

  • Which is a harsher rebuke

    ” ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, or the power of God”


    “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

    Also, fortunately, you get marched out of Evangelicalism pretty quickly if you go ‘right’ on racial issues. At least more recently.

    For now. Maybe in a few years of “mythical adam” being more popular left wing evangelicals might go soft on “one blooded humanity” and be open to scientific racism.

  • Richard

    @ 22

    I think T raises a very important point here that I was wondering as well. It seems that, for me, the more concerned I’ve become with following the example of Jesus the more susceptible to accusations of “liberal” I’ve become.

    I’ve also had cultural conservatives argue with me after a sermon in which I allowed Ezekiel 16 to interpret the account of Sodom and Gomorrah and the sin being greed and inhospitality rather than homosexual action or desire. I was accused of not being in line with Biblical teaching (note that my sermon wasn’t an endorsement or apologetic for homosexuality) and to watch that slippery slope of liberal attitudes toward the Scriptures. I didn’t know how much more conservative in my approach to Scripture I could get than quoting an OT Prophet verbatim…

    Or more recently when I taught on The Rich Young Ruler and was accused of hating rich people (never mind that I self-identified as being very well off according to biblical and logical standards and that I’m challenged by the text) and class warfare.

  • This is a great post Scot. I agree that the ETS members have a fear-based reaction to left-leaning ideas and tend to placate those who veer to the right. Also, I appreciate many of the comments here about the difficulty of these labels to help us sort out our beliefs. In light of that, I have several questions that come out of your post and the comments:

    1. Didn’t Jesus move as much to the “right” as to the “left” in his confrontations with the Pharisees et al? (Many examples come to mind: such as, drawing them back to a more conservative view on marriage and divorce, a more biblical view of how the Court of the Gentiles was still part of the House of Prayer etc.).

    2. Just curious: Why do we assign the directions we do to conservatism and liberalism (i.e. right and left)?

    3. There is a “counter-attack” going on toward those who get too extreme on the conservative end (such as reactions to Mark Driscoll and Pat Robertson). Isn’t it possible that there is coming a new “middle” as more and more people open the Bible and read it for themselves and stop swallowing the ultra-conservative koolaid?

  • T @25 – I quite agree. Well said.

  • Cliff

    I don’t understand why there is fear of losing the evangelical label if you are moving left? Why fear getting kicked out of ETS if that group is backward-thinking, stubborn, and ignorant because they embrace even the wackiest right-moving people and ideas? Or is this more about academic career considerations than about the truth? I’m not trying to be flippant, just curious why such angst over claiming a label of “evangelical”?

  • @T, you’re onto something. I have run into countless self-professing conservatives that treat the BIble like a magic wand and have a seriously gnostic view of Jesus and church practice. If “liberalism” means departing from orthodoxy, these people have been “moving left” for quite some time, all while convincing themselves that they’re staunchly conservative.

  • John

    More conservative types aren’t kicked out of ETS because they generally hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and an orthodox position on the Trinity. That’s what it takes to be a member in good standing. Progressive Christians are more likely to be removed because of their suspicion and skepticism of inerrancy, as well as their less-dogmatic stance on the Trinity.

    Your theory of “moving right is never wrong” at ETS may be over-thinking it. It seems you’re accusing the society and its members of a bias that just isn’t there. It isn’t any more complicated than there would be no justifiable reason to remove them from membership.

  • RobS

    I grew up right and moved more middle over the years… thankfully someone in College Republicans was good enough to insult Christianity and that was a great wake-up call to how I identified an “ally”…

    That aside, I still see many on the left almost hating God and the church. They probably hate legalism more, but it’s harder for me to find much common ground.

    And awesome post Dr. Scot, I just want to challenge myself (& others may have ideas) to see if some consensus building can be made? In my case, I know more people on the “right” so I’d probably challenge them with scripture (not philosophy of the Democratic National Committee) to re-build their view and consider other ideas.

    Example: “Hey military officer, you do a great job and work hard. Truly though, I’m not sure that spending $2 million on each cruise missle shot into Libya is the best use of our funds when we have other challenges. Jesus never shot off a cruise missle, but wants all to come to knowledge of Him.”

    At the same time, I can tell them about a church member living in a dirty mobile home who lost her job and the government is clawing back her disability check and she’s at her rope’s end.

    At that moment, I just admit that my reading of the Gospel shapes my view a certain way.

    They can stay with their beliefs, but they may open up to change or think about certain things differently.

  • DRT

    as I have contemplated this today, I again watched Jonathan Haidt’s Ted talk on conservatives and liberals in organizations.

    The “Openness to New Experiences” trait would indicate that those on the right tend to be more definitional and therefore more acceptable to conservatives who also value ingroup behaviors. But moving to the left, almost always I would say, makes the definitions more judgment based.

    As we have seen in the comments on this thread, there is more than just me who sees this.

  • The old middle ground argument.

  • TJJ

    Yeah, never really thought about like that before, but yes I agree that what you say is pretty much true. I do think that the farther one goes right however, there is a loss in credibility and acceptance. But yeah, there is in general an unreasonable “fear” of leftness and liberalness and it distorts many evangelical’s perpective and context and way of seeing things.

    Good post.

  • I see your point but you may be overstating your case. A blanket statement is never good in these instances. In fact, Norman Geisler, though never being officially kicked out of ETS, left because ETS because it wasn’t conservative enough when it refused to kick out Clark Pinnock.

    And Im sure a guy like, say, Fred Phelps would be far too “conservative” for ETS, if not theologically, then definitely on social matters.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    I agree that there is a slippery slope on both sides, and that thoughtful conservative evangelicals need to speak out when some (like a Ken Ham, say) has gone too far to “the Right.” I actually try to do that, myself.

    But I have some deep reservations when it comes to equating (or even analogizing) two-thousand year old Pharisees with “the Right” today. A lot of water has passed under that bridge. And the center moves over time. What counted then as “left” (if we should even call it that, a movement in the direction of greater liberality) may count now as “right”). So, Jesus arguably moved leftward over against the Pharisees, but arguably moved rightward over against the surrounding culture. In other words, as you know, there is no presumption in favor of movement in one direction. One has to move toward faithfulness, and one will move leftward or rightward depending on where one begins. The trick is to know when you have moved far enough to the right, or far enough to the left, that you no longer have to move anymore (which is not to say that you no longer grow, of course). Too many people think that, since they had to move to the right initially, or to the left, then that’s always the direction in which they should move.

    At this point I think the left/right analogy is growing too strained, though. Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  • DRT

    Timothy#40, well that depends on how you define liberal and conservative. I am starting to really appreciate Prof. Haidt’s framework (see #36) which really makes the difference in the relative value place on in-group loyalty, support for authority, and insistance on purity. Based on that, Jesus was quite liberal.

  • DSO

    Timothy @39, FWIW I agree with your concerns about equating the modern conservative with the Pharisees. They seem to be the favourite ‘bad guys’ in religious debates (sometimes it’s Philistines).

    I find it interesting that the OT had concerns with people moving too far to the left. Jesus & Paul spoke in the context of conservative Judaism. It is no wonder that they advocated a different path. Western society, whether in America or Europe is hardly under the sway of conservative religion. To the contrary we see a post-Christian Europe and an America that is engaged in a cultural battle over traditional morality (morality shaped by the Judeo-Christian heritage). Could it be that different contexts call for different warnings? Our danger in this country is not from some resurgence of an unexamined Pharsaical Christianity.

    I also find it interesting Scot had this epiphany after attending ETS. Scot, you might want to move outside of the confines of the ETS crowd and see how your experiences would be with the AAR (since the conferences are at the same times). You also might examine your thesis at schools that are even more liberal than North Park. Go to Northwestern, the U of Chicago or any of the regional state universities and try to teach an introduction to Christian ethics or an introduction to the Bible. You will find out in the first week that the paradigm is just the opposite of what you described above. Take all of those objectionable positions (young earth creationism, women in the church, homosexuality, etc) and run them up the flag pole at the AAR or even nominally Christian universities like Elmhurst or Princeton and see how people respond. It seems Timothy has had a little experience in this area (see his series on Sex at Seminary and the responses).

  • @Richard #28- Thanks for this example. There are so many stories like this. It’s not noticed as much as it ought to be- “conservatives” who flinch when you use Scripture correctly but don’t explicitly endorse a culturally conservative position, aren’t actually conservative. For example, using Genesis to exalt God the Creator and establish the purpose of man, but taking an old earth stance or ignoring age of the earth issues entirely far less liberal than YEC. A reading of the NT that rams everything through the “get born again” rubric- liberal. Insistence on traditional church government as we know it from the 20th century- not conservative. Warning against social gospel and ignoring Jesus’ ministry to sick and poor up until the Cross- flaming liberalism. This is the tip of the iceberg. here are loads of pseudo-conservatisms like this. Exposing this could really kill off the allegiances people want to create to things other than Jesus.

  • Joe Beach

    Thank you, Scot. I think this is one of your best posts ever. I just said a hearty “amen!” and breathed out a sigh of relief that maybe I wasn’t going crazy.

  • Joshua Wooden

    In my hometown of Orange County, CA, the term “Liberal,” was always used pejoratively, as though anything liberal, or even resembling liberalism, was wrong in and of itself. Saying that something was liberal was a way of writing it off.

  • TJJ

    No question Jesus was “left” of the Pharisees on many issues and his teaching seen by them as provocative and subversive on many levels.

    But it seems fairly established that Jesus was still much closer on theological and social issues with the Pharisees than with other political/religious groups found in the gospels, and Jesus was “right” of many others, such as the Sadducees.

    And the ultimate break with the Pharisses still seems to have been over statements and actions that were seen as blasphamy and/or politically dangerous, and not over the other issues that were centered on religious tradition and interpretation of the OT as it related to faith and practice of first cenbtury Judaism.

    But yeah, the over point of the post still holds as basically true IMHO.

  • That same leftward trajectory you note is seen in the first hand documentation of abolitionists arguing with church authorities leading up to & during the time of the Civil War, Scot. I agree with you. It seems, to me, to be a Spirit-driven motion stretching us away from rigidity of words toward incarnate Word.

  • scotmcknight

    DSO, I haven’t been a part of ETS since 1984 when the Geisler-led coalition ran out Robert Gundry. I have always and almost only participated in SBL (AAR is the religion and philosophy group). And read the last paragraph of what I said; this post is not about whether liberalism has its own similar issues, but about whether being too conservative can get anyone in trouble.

  • scotmcknight

    Timothy, I’ve written many times we have to be careful about using the Pharisees, but in this case I said Jesus got in trouble with the Pharisees when he progressed left over against their traditions, and that his biggest opponents were the Pharisees. On that I think the evidence is firm. That’s all I wanted to say about the Pharisees. Sometimes faithfulness is progress, and when it is the Right will kick against it.

  • Gearoid

    So, evangelical “mystics,” are they headed left? A.W. Tozer, the celebrated “fundamentalist mystic,” was he an anomaly?

  • scotmcknight

    No John, I’d say you are mistaken: Bob Gundry affirmed inerrancy; so did Pinnock and John Sanders. And both Gundry and Sanders affirmed (affirms) the Trinity. If Sanders can be tossed, though he affirms inerrancy and Trinity, why can’t someone be removed for “adding” to the text that says more than inerrancy? Isn’t that what Sanders did? And Gundry? He clearly affirmed inerrancy, but thought the midrash was part of the mode of writing for Matthew.

  • Scot, I have felt this about ETS for some time, and have largely moved away from participation. I do find AAR refreshing, not because of its othodoxy, which is often warmly affirmed and just as often renounced, but by its openness to discussion, its lack of people with mental checklists, and its inclusion of evangelical voices.

  • richard williams

    I think there are issues to the right that would cause trouble. I’m thinking of: interracial marriage/dating, even Ken Ham had to come out on the issue today of his facebook page, justification of slavery like Dabney’s tied into a hierarchical society leads into justifying extreme patriarchy as well(no votes for women, no outside employment etc). Flat Earth and geocentricism are too discredited to return to, even though they are on a simple continuum with young earth. Health issues like casting out demons, handling snakes, and brutal child discipline are right-side issues from the past, proposed by small minorities today that would likewise provoke reactions.

  • Gary Lynch

    So sometimes The Way can take you to the right and sometimes The Way can take you to the left. The most important thing then is to stay on The Way and trust God in His leading us on that path.
    It will take a willingness to admit that we were wrong all along even to think that our way, whether right or left was ever truly “right”.
    I really don’t like labels anyway…

  • Scot,
    This is excellent! I very much agree with what you are saying. The truth of this has been seen in so many congregations and denominations. It really is strange what will be tolerated and even accepted if it seems to be on the right. I agree with your thesis. If there is a slippery slope, it really is applicable to both sides.


  • Love it. Great post.

    I think the key is in realising, not that going Left may be correct, but that drifting too far right is also departing from the way of Jesus. And if we’re not going the same way as Jesus, we’re definitely not his followers!

  • Bo

    ETS was created with only the “left” in mind so it lacks the institutional resources and will to deal with the “right”. If open theism can be challenged on grounds that it compromises inerrancy I don’t see how Grudem’s Politics according to the Bible can stand the same test.

  • JBL

    The Third Way you are looking for is usually known politically as libertarian in America. Liberty(grace) is the most Christlike way to walk politically. Love involves discipleship to the moral position (charity/non-violence/etc on the left, drugs/gay-issues/etc on the right) rather than coercion. Discipleship involves lovingly persuading, influencing, and modeling. Right and Left is simply morality by force depending on which issue you are talking about. Christ rejected the political power centers, the religious power centers, the business power centers. Big Government, Big Church, and Big Business are all hierarchical and anti-Christ. Jesus’ Kingdom has no hierarchy except Him as King of course – a loving King. He never forces.

    The slide left lately is trading one set of garbage for another set of garbage. It’s just different stuff to be religious about. Religion is bondage and anti-Christ!

    What is the difference in attitude between Environmentalism and Teetotalism for example? Both are great examples of religious fervor for “right” behavior complete with markers that adherents must have to prove there seriousness in that religion. They both dishonor Jesus IMO.

    It is our responsibility (personally, lovingly) to disciple people to be good stewards of God’s creation and be sober-minded citizens in our community. Passing laws to ensure less pollution or less drunkenness is a shirking of our responsibility to disciple personally.

  • Good thoughts, Tim (#40).

  • Andrew McClurg

    To equate the Pharisees with “right” and Jesus with “left” is simplistic and neither accurate nor helpful. Jesus was more of a stickler for every jot and tittle of the Law than were the Pharisees (Matt 5:17-20) and he himself said that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was that Jesus was interested in the Law being kept inwardly. And that can only be accomplished through faith and the Spirit of God. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Nicodemus), the Pharisees were interested in an external righteousness.

    So when a person begins to live by the Spirit, does the word of God then become more properly the target of subjective interpretation? Or to put it another way, does the Spirit compel us to become post-modern? Hardly. Jesus said of God’s word “Your word is truth” (John 17:17) and of his own words, “They are Spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). We can certainly disagree about how to interpret certain verses, but overall the Bible was written as truth that people can understand. Paul wrote, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5:17). The will of God is something that can be understood, independent of culture, although perhaps with different emphases in different cultures.

    The sentiment, “Let’s just love each other and not sweat about doctrine” is naive, and foreign to Jesus and the New Testament. Correct doctrine without love is Pharisaism. But God’s love does not live in a vacuum apart from truth — otherwise love becomes empty sentimentality that cannot address the real needs of the soul.

  • JBL, #50, I couldn’t disagree more with your claim that libertarianism is the Third Way. Scot’s post deals with liberal & conservative theological issues (in community contexts & academic groups), and from my POV, you went onto an individualistic (not surprisingly) tangent that flies off topic of the discussion.

  • sorry, wrong number — should have been addressed to JBL, #60!

  • ok, now I’m in LOL mode. poof!! 😀

  • Great not to be stuck with left or right; to be called to the edge.
    My impression is that increasing support for the left by people my age who care in Australia is because of a sense of powerlessness and inertia amongst them.
    In a rich relatively comfortable country like ours conservatives symbolize rightly or wrongly the aforementioned – “we can or could have done something about it(entrenched poverty,jobs,earth stewardship )with all our wealth and history”.If our ideas ( largely conservative in nature) haven’t worked in our lifetime its easy to think we need to change(left or reactionary groups incl Greens).The tendency to see salvation in such a move is something I see as shallow and do not share.Salvation does not come in new clothes, but by wearing the old ones well.Parliament not party for example.
    like our forefathers in the faith i see the framework set in large measure 350 AD and before

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Scots post is an interesting reverse side of Jim Wallis’ blog post today. While Scot suggests that Evangelicals never get in trouble for going too far right, Wallis decries the ways that Evangelicals jettison fundamental beliefs in order to justify supporting particular political candidates.
    (Newt Gingrich and his marital relations are his example.)
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Scot McKnight

    Andrew, please don’t accuse me of simplicity and then say the Pharisees were external and Jesus internal. Have you read either the DSS or the rabbis? I made some nuanced comments in my post, making it clear that in important ways I was avoiding some issues but wanted to focus on Jesus’ progressive stance on some issues.

    The Pharisees could be depicted as liberalizers compared to Sadducees… my analogy is only to Jesus’ pushing against some traditions.

  • Scot, your words are what has been jostling around in my mind of late. really gives me some pause, and I need to take some time to reflect and consider. Really good stuff. thanks

  • The challenge is not so much moving left or right, but remaining solidly in the tensions that clearly define reality. Key tensions are love/holiness (or its expression in the fallen world as mercy/justice) and the granddaddy, God’s sovereignty/Man’s responsibility. We humans do not like to operate in tensions, so we gravitate to one side or the other. Therefore, movement either left or right takes one out of the comfort of being in one side or the other of the tension. It’s comfortable because, ironically, it allows us to remain in control (it strokes our fallen nature). But Christ has called us to walk solidly in the tensions. BTW: a tension is two seemingly opposing concepts where each must be kept at 100% force simultaneous with the other; and if one mitigates or eliminates one or the other side BOTH sides are lost.

  • Steve Jung

    How about, “I’m not liberal, I’m critical.” AND “I don’t and cannot know. It is a mystery.”?

  • Bravo… thanks, Scot. Couldn’t agree more. Reposting.

    We often say at Soulation that to be a good apologist you have to be more committed to truth than to the relativism of right and left. Those will always be relational properties to the status quo. And when the status quo is wrong, no matter which way you go, you will go wrong.

    It takes courage to follow Jesus. And the subtleness of the Enemy keeps throwing up new status quos for us to contend with and risk our reputations among the kingdoms of men.

  • JBL

    @Ann F-R #63

    I am the last person to advocate individualism or anything be done individualistically. It is all about community. Jesus’ call is a call to communism. If you are not a communist, I don’t see how you could be following Jesus. Libertarianism is not what I am about. I am about following Jesus. I said that POLITICALLY (in America) this is what this philosophy resembles [as opposed to left – right]. Community requires relationship. There is no relationship in Big Business, Big Government, and Big Church; therefore, these are anti-community and thus anti-Christ. This can be related politically to a libertarian philosophy – a truly free market in ideas, relationships, and business naturally keeps the scale small of these aforementioned institutions. The loving scale is small. A nameless faceless bureaucracy can’t love anyone no matter if it is found in a government, a corporation, or a church.

    But institutions on a relational scale (anything less than about 150) can operate on an intimate community level. A Jesus-sized community is between 70 (Luke 10:1-10:24) and 120 (Acts 1:15). A community of ~310 million (US population) or 68,503,456 (The Catholic Church), or 2.1 million (Walmart) are not communities at all. There is no relational love, relational responsibility, or relational accountability with any of these groups. There can’t be. It is impossible given the scale. The gospel virus is communicable through relationship only.

    Our mission as laid out by our King Jesus is to go into all the world and make disciples and multiply communities. Each of the 70-120 are to go out together in smaller groups and start new groups. Propagation of the gospel virus needs everyone to be vital. As an average employee (or shareholder) of Walmart I have virtually no power to propagate a Walmart. Ditto as a citizen of the “community” of California (~40mil), or member of the United Methodist Church, (7,774,931) or whatever. Audience members are psychologically oppressed into passivity. This is the goal of the right and left in American. Distract the people by telling how awful the other side is while the establishment of both “sides” laughs all the way to the bank.

    BTW, I see this as very much on topic to the question of what is orthodox is to the theological right and left and slippery slopes and whatnot. The theo right and left would have us worry about what the Bible says and what is orthodox and what part of the Bible to make a religion out of instead of following Jesus. Following Jesus is very, very simple to understand – love God, love others, and propagate this relational and graceful philosophy. It is much harder to actually DO this (especially when the establishment theologians distract the masses with what is correct/orthodox whether from the left or right).

    The Third Way is irreligious!
    The Third Way is graceful!
    The Third Way is about love and liberty!

    Sorry this got long 🙁

  • Isaac

    I would have to disagree Scot.
    Regarding the ETS, I don’t see it as a right-left problem either in the sense of American politics or progressive tendencies in theology. The issue (problem?) with the ETS is that the ETS has only a two-point doctrinal standard — Trinitarianism (broadly consistent with Nicea) and Innerancy (now defined as consistent with Chicago). Unless one is seen as violating one of these two positions, it would be impossible to be disciplined by the body, however hostile the academic subculture might be to particular viewpoints. Jim Wallis could never be removed from ETS membership for his political positions, any more than Grudem could be for his. New Perspectives on Jesus or Paul tend to spark heated debate at ETS, but it would be impossible to eject a member for a position that was simply inconsistent with these. All we can say about politically leftist or theologically progressive evangelicals is that they are unpopular at ETS (due to the attending demographics), and a challenge to their understandings of Trinity or biblical innerancy might be biased by this unpopularity of their otherwise unrelated views. It is also true that many theologically conservative tendencies are unpopular at ETS. Try presenting a paper defending a historical six-day creation, or the perpetual virginity of Mary, or a psalms-only approach to Christian worship. ETS as an organization would accept your paper, and (provided you argued that the Bible was fully consistent with your view), it would be impossible to call for your dismissal. Still, papers on any of the above topics would (in my opinion and in some cases experience) be just as unpopular as a paper arguing (from Deuteronomy) for socialist-style land redistribution.
    It is fair to say (and I agree) that far-right political philosophies do seem to get an unfair pass within American evangelicalism broadly speaking. Far-right theological positions are ridiculed as obscurantist or anti-intellectual across most of the evangelical spectrum. Far-left theological or far-left political positions are attacked as slippery slopes to atheistic communism. But who criticizes the libertarians or chauvinistic nationalists?

  • Isaac

    On further reflection: couldn’t we say that Francis Beckwith was pushed out of the ETS for theological conservatism?
    Yes, I know it was technically a voluntary resignation, but to my knowledge his return to Rome didn’t conflict either with the ETS’s position on the Trinity or with Chicago-style innerantism.

  • I appreciate the point about the penalty of moving left, but I’d disagree that there’s no penalty for moving right. The penalty for moving right comes in the form of not being able to teach at any kind of more “reputable” academic institution. If you move towards inerrancy, for example…you’re usually moving categorically away from getting a position at any Ivy League school, any major European school…the kind of place where many people would really like to be. It makes me think of the passage in the Great Divorce where the spirit confronts the professor ghost:

    Ghost: “My opinions were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”

    Answer: “What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came — popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

    The bottom line is, we get penalized for moving and penalized for staying the same! At least the pay is good….. 😉

  • Thanks for an insightful analysis of current trends in US religious life. Thankfully many Christian religious traditions elsewhere in the world, especially in what might be labeled Evangelical traditions, hardly know that a far left wing or right wing ideology exists. When you face paganism and religious hostility for merely calling yourself Christian, you really don’t worry about such theological labels of liberal or conservative; they are pretty much irrelevant to your life. Loving God, standing in genuine submission to the authority of His revelation, seeking to love an unlovely world, and honoring God day by day — these are the things that really matter. Everything else is largely secondary or irrelevant. Such commitments demand that you reach out in new ways to sharing the Gospel; in most instances, by just having become a Christian you have made a major break with rigidly traditionalist religious tradition, and are moving in new, unfamiliar territory religiously. The ‘radical middle’ is perhaps the most challenging stance in all Christianity to follow.

  • Tim Marsh

    Dear Scott,

    Great words! Thank you!

    – Tim Marsh

  • Arman

    I believe the theories are true. But, our choice is based on our social location.
    The christian faith and practice ( praxis ) should be biblically based and nothing is wrong as long as it respond to the immediate context.

  • Mark McEntire

    In response to comment 7, to be (really) fair, the AAR and SBL have no official doctrinal positions and do not vote people in or out.

  • Every inch of real estate is on a slippery slope. People who think they’re on level ground? Scare me every time.


  • Besh N.

    I absolutely LOVE this. Just what’s been on my heart lately, except in actual language. Thank you!!

  • Scot, this is one of my favorite posts of yours… ever! Thanks for your courage to be part of a movement that carves out space for us younger Christian leaders to pursue Christ from a “third way.” Peace Scot!

  • Sam

    “If you want safety, avoid true Christianity. Safety is found only on the extremes. Aslan is not a tame lion.”

    I disagree if you want true safety live for Christ, in Christ, with Christ (What can be safer? He is the master of the universe). I think of false safety as something that we (people) think up to make us feel better or more comfortable with our lives. Also the extremes are not safe, they lead to ridicule, judgment, and might even cause you or other to stumble. Finally to say Jesus is this or that, in the extremes or the middle is always a bit presumptuous. One thing we can presume is that He neither thinks nor acts like a lion. That being said I did like the article. 🙂