Some thoughts on theological biases

Some thoughts on theological biases January 4, 2011

I often scratch my head in bewilderment at some theologians’ reactions to things.  For example, to be get very straight to my point, some people I count as friends and comrades in what I call postconservative evangelicalism absolute despise the term and are quite critical of my (and my late friend Stan Grenz’s) project.  I know we think much alike about specific doctrines and about theology’s tasks (viz., that the contstructive task of theology is always ongoing and never finished).  Some of these people, who I count as postconservative evangelicals, have written scathing reviews of some of my books and also of other postconservatives’ books (e.g., Stan Grenz’s).

I’m thinking of one person, who I’ll leave unnamed here, who happens to be a very influential evangelical seminary dean who gave us a tongue lashing at our second Word Made Fresh meeting in Toronto (at the AAR meeting there).  Stan gave a fine presentation called “Concerns of a Pietist with a Ph.D.” (which you can read on line at his web site–just google the title of the essay).  I was chairing the session.  There were at least 100 people present–mostly evangelical theologians.

The aforementioned but unnamed seminary dean was invited to be on a panel of respondents to Stan’s paper.  When it came his turn to respond he criticized us for…what?  It was difficult to tell exactly what he was criticizing us for.  He said, among other things, “Isn’t anyone else here worried about Schleiermacher?”  I guess he was referring to Stan’s appeal to Pietism and his defining of “evangelicalism” as a particular style of spirituality.  (Stan made absolutely clear his commitment to biblical orthodoxy while arguing that “evangelical” is a style of spirituality influenced by the Pietists and thus “conversional piety” is its central feature.)  The seminary dean panelist gave us a tongue lashing in a not very kind way.  And yet, this seminary dean is anything but a fundamentalist or even conservative evangelical in the usual sense of that label. 

This is just one example of something I’ve noticed.  Many evangelical theologians and biblical scholars and administrators who are quite progressive in their thinking come across as very conservative sometimes and chide others who push a progressive line about evangelicalism. 

Here’s how I have come to think about this seeming paradox.  Many evangelical leaders, like the seminary dean, belong to so-called “mainline” Protestant churches and they have become very concerned about the continuing trend within those denominations toward full acceptance of gays–ordination of gays, gay marriage, etc.  This concern has driven them to speak and write more conservatively than they did in the past–when they were surrounded by fundamentalists and conservatives. 

Others of us work within religious contexts where the main threat is not liberalism but fundamentalism and that causes us to lean into a more liberal or progressive stance–not in the sense of adopting liberal “maximal accommodation of the claims of modernity” but in the sense of valuing greater diversity and openness and flexibility in our evangelical theology.

What I am suspecting is that if there were another Roger Olson, my “Doppelganger,” out there doing theology in a context where he was surrounded by real liberals and feeling pressure from them to conform to their relativistic and pluralistic theologies, he might sound quite different from me–even though, as my double, he would believe all the same things.

I have mentioned my hero Donald Bloesch here before.  I knew Don personally during the 1980s and 1990s when we attended the same professional society of theologians in Chicago twice annually.  We had many talks about theology and corresponded.  I read his books and I know he read some of mine because he endorsed them.  However, I noticed Don becoming increasingly conservative during his later years and this comes out especially in his 7 volume Fundamentals series on doctrine published by IVP in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  There he is uncharacteristically critical of narrative theology, for example. 

I happen to know that, as a member and minister of the UCC denomination, Don was very dismayed by some of that denomination’s trends–toward radical feminism, pluralism (of saviors), etc.  (Of course, the UCC is congregational and so individual churches can be as conservative or as liberal as they want to be, but the denomination as a whole is generally quite liberal.)  I believe that IF Don had been a Southern Baptist, for example, instead of a UCC-er, he would have leaned more the other direction–not toward real liberalism but toward a greater openness as he had shown earlier in his career.

My point is that, apparently, we are all prone to be influenced by our social locations (including especially denominational and institutional affiliations or affinities) such that we worry about different things even when we agree about specific doctrines.  We tend to “put different faces” on issues because of concerns arising out of tendencies around us.

As a theologian working in a very conservative state and alongside colleagues who have been badly treated and abused by fundamentalists, I probably tend to see the greater danger as conservatism than as liberalism.  (I think it’s actually difficult to find real liberals around here!)  Fundamentalism is, I believe, a real threat to evangelicalism.  But perhaps that’s because I work within a context filled with conservative conservatives (the Southern evangelical context)!  What if I worked within a context riddled by real liberalism leaning into radical theology?  Some evangelical leaders I know are members of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and althought their own personal theologies are quite moderate-to-progressive they seem very, very reluctant to help me in my campaign for a more open and flexibile, progressive and even postconservative evangelicalism. 

These are just my own musings–thinking out loud.  I wonder, for example, what Thomas Oden would be like if he lived and worked within, say, the Lutheran Church, Missour Synod rather than the United Methodist Church?  What if David Wells lived and worked within, say, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARB) instead of the UCC?  (I don’t think he’s been UCC for a very long time, but I think his conservatism may still be colored by the way that denomination has gone.)  What if Rich Mouw lived and worked within, say, the Presbyterian Church of America instead of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.?  What if I lived and worked within, say, a very liberal district of the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. instead of a context struggling out from under the shadow of the Southern Baptist Convention?

Sometimes I’m tempted to speak out very publicly and forcefully against liberal theology, but then I realize that might make me sound like one of the fundies breathing down our necks.  I don’t want to be confused with them or give them help because I know they aren’t just anti-liberal; they want to force uniformity and conformity on everyone.  (For example, by making people sign statements that they do not speak in tongues even as a “private prayer language” or lose their jobs!) 

But that helps me realize why some people who could be friends of postconservatives because they really are, in their hearts of hearts, progressive evangelicals, are reluctant to join our movement.  They don’t want to give any aid and comfort to the liberals surrounding them dragging their denominations down into perdition.

Well, those are just some of my thoughts lately.  I have no idea what can be done about the matter except try to have dialogue with each other. 

Not too long after that meeting of the Word Made Fresh at AAR in Toronto where Stan Grenz gave one of his last public presenations, I sent a conciliatory and apologetic e-mail to the evangelical seminary president asking if we could try to be friends or at least friendly acquaintances and perhaps try to understand each other.  I apologized for any offense I may have given him.  He didn’t respond.  I wish he would have.

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