Getting Beyond the Liberal Conservative Divide

Getting Beyond the Liberal Conservative Divide October 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2012-10-07 at 9.47.45 AMModern theology is the attempt to accommodate the great tradition of the church with modernity and so to make Christianity more appealing to modern/postmoderns. A very typical example of modern theology, in a liberal mode, is Schleiermacher who focused the Christian tradition on the experience (of God). Responses to modernity’s theology included robust defenses of the tradition — and sometimes these defenses were strident, but not always and it is a mistake to think defense of the tradition means defensive or strident or fundamentalist.

But some sought a mediating path, or a third way. This is often called “mediating” theology and Roger Olson, in his very useful The Journey of Modern Theologyoutlines mediating theology. Olson insists that mediating is not the same as moderate (which he thinks is too soft of a category to be of use — I disagree but it all depends what one means and who one wants to classify as moderate). Mediating means not landing in the middle but finding a higher synthesis or a bridge of opposites. It is to find an inner reconciliation or a higher standpoint or a more original unity.

Where do you see mediating theology today? Take inerrancy vs. errancy: where is the mediation? Moderation might do little more than take the heat out of the discussion and leave both sides wondering which side the moderate is on. But what would mediation look like in this debate?

Olson focuses on two examples, one German (IA Dorner) and one American (Horace Bushnell). He knows most take J.W. Nevin and P. Schaff are the typical examples of an American mediating theology (called Mercersburg theology), but he think Bushnell is actually a better example. He says Bushnell advocated “progressive orthodoxy.” They sought to utilize Schleiermacher, they wanted to bridge the subjective and the objective (experience and Scripture), they sought to combine liberal Protestant with Protestant orthodoxy, and they reconstructed theology with an eye on modernity.

Mediating theology is often forgotten because extremes make a bigger impact: “It is always the bold, the innovative, the radical who are remembered” (242).

Dorner, for instance, wanted a view of God that was both relational but not Hegel’s panentheistic view of God evolving through history. Hence, he anticipated some concerns of late 20th Century’s process theology and open theism. God, for Dorner, loves in perfect freedom and knows in relation to human freedoms and actions. Immutability concerns God’s free activation in love (or God as love).

Bushnell represents the American mediating theology for Olson, and it all begins when he had a profound experience of the “gospel” after he had been pastoring for 15 years. True Christian faith is not about propositions or tenets but “of trusting one’s being to a being” (267). It is encountering God in an unmediated direct way. He approached it all from an experiential mode from that day forward. He became America’s most influential theologian of the 19th Century, many ranking him with Edwards and Reinhold Neibuhr. He influenced the Christian education movement with his famous Christian Nurture book. He was opposed to systematizing the Christian faith.

He opposed the anti-supernaturalism and mechanical theories of life of modernists and at the same time pressed against traditionalists in arguing for updating and making things relevant.

He preferred imagination and metaphor over dogma. Instead of classical theories of the Trinity he thought it was all too speculative, and he argued for worship as an expression of God’s revelation to us. What matters most then is in the realm of the aesthetic. He approached postmodernity’s penchant in understanding theological language. God language is metaphorical. And he strove for Christian comprehensiveness — a way of getting beyond the dichotomies and tensions in theological discourse. His view was not accepted in his day but his approach has become standard fare for many today — and is at work in some ways in the ecumenical movement. Olson suggests Lindbeck’s approach to theology is not that far away from Bushnell’s Christian comprehensiveness.

On atonement… Bushnell was dissatisfied with both the exemplary subjective theory and the objective penal substitution theory and eventually came to the view that God suffered in Christ because he was forgiving. He did  not suffer in order to forgive but because he was gracious and forgiving.

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  • I see this dynamic in politics as well. Extremes are remembered (and reacted against) more. It’s unfortunate in both spheres.

    I think the approach to the scriptures as true and reliable (and useful ala Timothy) that has been articulated on this blog by RJS and others is a mediating position there. And it is so not because it is “in the middle” of two extremes, but because it is pressing into what scripture says about itself on its own terms.

  • Brandon Roberts

    Too bad we can’t usually focus on helping the world and less on these petty differences

  • Don Bryant

    I am increasingly suspicious of philosophical theology that is not rooted in exegesis of biblical texts. I have a philosophical mindset, having minored in it and teaching it at the college level for the last 20 years. Imagination captures me. But I have found a tendency in theological dialogue to just skip over texts and speak of a greater unity. In science there is the model of “saving the phenomena.” All data must be accounted for. Nothing can be dismissed because it doesn’t fit the hypothesis. Not to do so will yield an increasingly complex hypothesis that by its very complexity indicates smoke and mirrors. Occam’s Razor applies. Scripture interpreting Scripture is critical. I am not naive enough to suppose that there is no imaginative construction at work in theology. But the only check on speculative theology is text, text, text. Recently I have found Brian Zahnd amazingly dismissive of text as a check on speculation. While I agree with his position on free will, I find his defense of it troubling.