A final comment on Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

A final comment on Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism September 19, 2011

Quick review: Zondervan has just published an excellent new book entitled Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism edited by Andy Nasselli and Collin Hansen.  The four authors are Kevin Bauder (fundamentalism), Al Mohler (confessional evangelicalism), John Stackhouse (generic evangelicalism) and Roger Olson (postconservative evangelicalism). I hope you will purchase the book and read it; it reveals much about the current state of evangelicalism in America.

Long before the book was written, my editor at Zondervan contacted me about the idea.  I gave her some advice and later gave the same advice to the editors.  I think the final product is fine, but I think it could be better had they taken my advice.

My advice was to include a chapter by an evangelical proponent of paleo-orthodoxy.  Here I use that term to describe theologians such as Thomas Oden (who, I think, coined the term), D. H. Williams and Christopher Hall–all men I highly respect even thought we have our differences of opinion about authority for theology.

Personally, I think their perspective is better called “confessional evangelicalism” than Mohler’s.  At least it is different and I think leaving their view of evangelicalism out of the book was a mistake.  (However, I admit that it’s possible they asked one or more of these paleo-orthodox theologians to contribute and they declined.  So I’m not criticizing the editors or publisher; I’m just saying the book lacks a perspective that I think is a very powerful one among evangelicals today.)

I think Bauder’s view and Mohler’s are too much alike to really represent fundamentally different approaches to defining evangelicalism.  I think the same of Stackhouse’s and mine (with apologies to John if he disagrees!).  IF you want to fill in the gap, read one of Dan (D. H.) Williams’ books on tradition.  Then read my critique of his approach (and Oden’s) in Reformed and Always Reforming.  🙂

Williams, Oden, Hall and company wish to point evangelicals to the ancient Christian consensus as an authority for belief.  (I could mention the late Robert Webber as a proponent of this approach as well.)  These evangelical theologians think contemporary evangelicalism is doctrinally and liturgically shallow and needs enrichment from the church fathers.  For them, this is more than a mere suggestion (as it would be from me).  They treat the ancient Christian consensus as THE authoritative lens through which Scripture must be interpreted.  For them, we have no right to read Scripture apart from that.

One thing these traditionalists (I use that term in a neutral or positive and not a negative sense) have in common with Mohler is appeal to tradition as authoritative.  But the difference is that for Mohler the authoritative tradition is a received evangelical tradition stemming mainly from the Reformation.  The paleo-orthodox theologians reach further back to the church fathers and like to argue that the mainline Protestant (read “magisterial”) reformers did not fundamentally disagree with the church fathers and even relied heavily on them (especially Augustine).

Now, both Mohler and company and the paleo-orthodox theologians seem to me to agree that the constructive task of theology is finished.  All that remains is to express the tradition in ways that make it relevant to contemporary culture without in any way accommodating it to contemporary culture.  I argue that in matters of theological controversy among evangelicals tradition gets a vote but never a veto.  I think they give it a veto.

However, there is a richness and depth to Oden’s, Williams’, Hall’s and Webber’s approach to evangelical theology that I find missing in Mohler’s.  Mohler seems to me to be a simple biblicist who interprets the Bible through the lens of, say, Charles Hodge (and his student Boyce who founded SBTS and wrote its Abstract of Principles).  The paleo-orthodox traditionalists, on the other hand, plumb the depths and riches of the ancient church fathers and bring those riches to us today.  The only area where I disagree with them is the level of authority they invest in them.

One thing that bothers me about these paleo-orthodox evangelicals is a certain inconsistency that I think I recognize in them.  For example, in my reading of Augustine’s theology (e.g., his doctrine of predestination), it departs radically from anything that went before.  When did the constructive task of theology end?  Some would say with the seventh or eighth ecumenical council.  But why?  That seems so arbitrary.  The magisterial reformers seemed to end it with the Council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council).

I regard the church fathers as guides rather than guards (e.g., of a chain gang).

Anyway, the book is very good as it is, but I think it would be better with a chapter by one of these paleo-orthodox evangelicals.  But then it would be “Five Views” and maybe that’s too many for most people; it might hurt sales of the book.  If I were given the opportunity to change it, I would combine Bauder’s and Mohler’s chapters into one and add a chapter by Williams.

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  • Roger,

    I enjoyed this post. I love your statement: “I regard the church fathers as guides rather than guards (e.g., of a chain gang).”

  • Got into a debate some years ago with an Orthodox fellow (not paleo-, but Antiochian) who kept insisting that anything I said wasn’t valid unless I could back it with the Fathers. I pointed out that to me, the Fathers aren’t fathers but brothers; we all serve the same Jesus, and we certainly should listen to one another, but He’s the authority and we’re not, and each of us could be wrong. He hated that. I still stand by it though.

    I suppose you’ve just listed another book that I’ll have to add to my to-read pile.

  • John Mark

    Many Wesleyans (I am one) consider Augustine both friend and foe, theologically. Today I think ‘we’ would look to the Orthodox fathers for consensual teaching, before Augustine and the Western church.
    Do you think that Augustine’s experience with the Manicheans, along with his moral struggles had more of an influence on his theology that we once might have thought? I realize you are not Wesleyan, but what is your personal view of Augustine’s theology, if that question can be simply and quickly answered. Many Arminian’s look at Augustine these days with a raised eyebrow, for reasons you mentioned in your post.
    I enjoy your work a great deal, I am finishing up Arminian Theology and plan to read further from you in the (hopefully-my ‘to read’ stack is already too tall) near future.

    • rogereolson

      As an Arminian with Anabaptist leanings I see two great diseases of Christianity in history–Constantinianism and Augustinianism. I admire and respect especially the early Augustine (e.g., of the Confessions), but the later Augustine went seriously off track due to two factors: 1) his over reaction to Pelagianism (e.g., in On the Predestination of the Saints) and 2) his over reaction to Donatism (he called on the empire to suppress them violently). I don’t really have a problem with his reliance on neo-Platonism to help answer some questions the Bible does not clearly answer (e.g., the nature of evil), but I think he took it too far into his theology (e.g., in his doctrine of the Trinity which seems modalistic to me). As you can tell, I am no fan of Augustine. To those who ask why I recommend the following book: Augustine: His Thought in Context by T. Kermit Scott–a book with a boring title that packs a big punch. Scott demonstrates from Augustine’s own writings that he was obsessed with what Scott calls the “imperial myth” projected onto God. That is, he was willing to qualify God’s goodness (or empty it of any meaning) to preserve God’s absolute power.

  • When do you sleep? I’m serious. How do you find (make!) time for everything you do, including these wonderful conversations you make possible?

    • rogereolson

      In fact, I sleep too much! 🙂 What a waste of time sleep is. Most of my posts here take less than 30 minutes to compose. I enjoy writing very much and it comes relatively easily to me. Thanks for the implied compliment, though.

  • Rob

    I would recommend Williams. I studied under him during my undergraduate and it really changed how I look at Christian theology. Prior to my studies with him, Christian thought before the reformation just seemed old and dry to me. I don’t know if I would call myself paleo-orthodox but I feel like the focus on the early fathers opened the way to a much deeper theological understanding.

    • rogereolson

      I agree completely. It’s one reason I wrote The Story of Christian Theology–to try to make at least reading about the church fathers and medieval theologians interesting. I think most of the books that have been written about them are dry as dust. That’s a big part of the problem. Also the translations are not very good. If one can overcome the translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word it’s absolutely gripping theology, totally brilliant. And I love Irenaeus, too. My problem is with those who claim these church fathers are more than guides. And, in my opinion, modern Christians (including evangelicals who elevate the church fathers to authorities) tend to overlook elements in the church fathers’ writings that don’t sit well with modern sensibilities (e.g., premillennialism and spiritual warfare).

      • Tom

        Roger – in the UK your book “The Story of Christian Theology” is part of the required reading for graduate volunteers (called Relay Workers) for the UCCF: The Christian Union.
        I used to read chunk of my flat mates copy before he moved out and I was forced to buy my own. I still really enjoy dipping into it to learn about a particular part of history around my other readings so it would seem you have been successful in making historical theology interesting.

        The head of theology in the UCCF is called Mike Reeves and he seems very keen for students to learn/engage with historical theology. I can recommend his own book “The Breeze of the Centuries” as being a very readable introduction to some of the early and medieval Christian theologians. He also has some very good talks on historical theology on the UCCF theologynetwork website.

        Who knows? Perhaps this will pay off and my generation of evangelicals will be willing to engage with the first thousand years of Christian theological thought just as much as we’re willing to engage with the last 500 years of theology.

        • rogereolson

          I’m glad to know of this. Thanks.

  • I’ve only just learned the term paleo-orthodoxy in the past year. I bought Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, last year. I’ve only used it as a helpful reference, but I like it. If I’m going to use the Church Fathers as a guide, I need to at least know what they say. But Oden seems to have a broader outlook. He frequently cites Luther, Augustine, and Wesley, not to mention Aquinas. I don’t get the impression that he gives the tradition of the Fathers a veto over theological endeavors, but you know him and the movement far better than I.

    I know for a fact that regarding Augustines view of predestination, he says it never enjoyed any kind of consensus within classic Christianity. I guess he would say that as an Arminian, but I assume he knows what he’s talking about.

    That’s the problem… Who can read enough and study enough to know what actually is a consensus?

    • rogereolson

      Well, I think Oden is right. Augustine’s doctrine of predestination falls outside the ancient Christian consensus and there is one. Where I think Oden and I might disagree is on two points: 1) In my opinion he goes too far in insisting that we must read the Bible through the lenses of the church fathers, and 2) He broadens the consensus to include too much. I think the ancient Christian consensus can be boiled down to a few doctrines. Furthermore, some of Oden’s comments about open theism indicate to me that he rejects it primarily because it conflicts with the ancient consensus. (In an early response to open theism he wrote that it is heresy because the issue was settled by the early church–meaning the church fathers.) My favorite Oden book is The Transforming Power of Grace–the best one volume expression of Arminian soteriology I have ever read.

  • Whoops! Where I said “Augustine” above, I meant to say Calvin. (Of course he cites Augustine!)

  • Tim Reisdorf

    “Now, both Mohler and company and the paleo-orthodox theologians seem to me to agree that the constructive task of theology is finished.”

    This is a uniquely clear and concise statement. It explains so much. Thank you for pointing this out. I believe they are incorrect in a similar way that those who definitively state that the gifts of the Spirit are done. As God works in new and fresh ways, new and fresh perspectives of God become evident and influence/change our theology. To say that the constructive task of theology is finished seems to not respect enough the limitations of people and the “unencompassable God” of unbounded being, creativity, and surprise.

  • Ryan S

    Great blog post. I think you are right on the paleo orthodox, in a lot of ways they are a far deeper and more compelling option than Mohler. I think in some ways if he was consistent with his (Mohler’s) theological method he would end up looking a lot more like a more Augustinian Odenite.

  • Well said, Roger. What I would add is that there is no representative of charismatic/Pentecostal evangelicalism. This fits a pattern in which evangelicals like to claim charismatics when it comes to numbers of adherents, global appeal of evangelicalism, but ignore them when it comes to theological inquiry, which has as one result a group like New Apostolic Reformation receiving no critical engagement. If evangelicals are going to be a gift to broader church, they need to monitor/engage those they like to claim as theirs.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. But there might be a defense of the book on that score. While I don’t consider myself Pentecostal or charismatic anymore (“postpentecostal” would fit me well) I do believe all the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Scripture are for the churches today and the churches are missing out by suppressing them (or simply ignoring them). The instructions from the editors (of subjects to cover in our chapters) didn’t include anything about that issue, so I didn’t bring it up. I don’t know the other authors’ views on the gifts of the Spirit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are all cessationists (with regard to speaking in tongues, for example). I am most definitely not a cessationist. In fact, I will go so far as to say that, in opinion, cessationism is a stupid belief with no biblical support. It clearly derives from fear of Montanism and fanaticism. At the same time, I will admit that I sometimes fear the “gifts of utterance” (tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, word of wisdom, word of knowledge) insofar as they are exercised in the public worship without discerning control and restraint. So far I have found no church that knows how to do that.

      • Marc

        Dr. Olson,

        I just want to agree with the latter part of your response post here. It is so hard to find a church that believes and practices the Gifts of the Spirit in a manner that is controlled. Outbursts during the service, tongues uninterpreted, etc. is problematic.

        Why is it, you think, that churches have a hard time finding a balance? It seems it is often either or. Either it is a service/church which exists to practice and promote the gifts, or it is s service/church which ignores or suppresses it. What are we missing?

        • rogereolson

          So often my answer to good questions like that is simply “common sense.” For all his flaws and faults (which were many!) my father (a Pentecostal pastor for over 50 years) exercised good common sense in managing the uses of the gifts of the Spirit in his churches. He simply did not tolerate fanaticism and excess. Many self-styled prophets left his churches because he would not allow them to take over church services or manipulate people with their gifts of utterance. But he allowed these gifts to be used even during church services within strict biblical guidelines derived from 1 Cor. 14 and common sense.

          • Marc

            Your father’s example is a good one. I guess life is just messy, and it scares me a bit that some things are left to what we consider “common sense”. Given what I would call a “schism” between evangelicals who practice this, and those who do not, it seems “common sense,” (at least in this particular area) is a rare commodity.

  • I am planning to read your book Reformed and Always Reforming. I would also like to read The Bible Made Impossible to follow along with your upcoming posts (however as I look at the stack of books on my desk right now I’m going to have to wait).

    I agree with the argument for Post-Conservatism that you post here but I have a problem with the following wording:
    [Now, both Mohler and company and the paleo-orthodox theologians seem to me to agree that the constructive task of theology is finished. All that remains is to express the tradition in ways that make it relevant to contemporary culture without in any way accommodating it to contemporary culture.]

    What is the difference between making theology ‘relevant’ to contemporary culture versus ‘accommodating’ it to contemporary culture? I do believe that the constructive task of theology continues, albeit as a challenging task (that for some (i.e. neo-fundamentalists) is terrifying prospect)). However I do not see the task of constructing theology as an act of accommodation – rather I see at as a work of continued authentication.

    I look forward to reading the book discussion threads and gleaning some insights.

    • rogereolson

      Let’s separate out some concepts here. “Accommodation” (in theology) generally means allowing culture (philosophy, science, pop culture, etc.) to play some authoritative role in determining the content of what should be believed. “Contemporizing” or making relevant the gospel and traditional doctrines does not necessarily include accommodation. Millard Erickson distinguishes these using the categories of “translating” versus “transforming.” Accommodation is transforming the content of Christian belief because social pressures demand it. Contemporizing is translating the content of Christian belief to communicate it to a contemporary audience. The constructive task of theology is the on going project of re-examining traditional beliefs in the light of fresh and faithful biblical interpretation and, when necessary, revising them. A good example is N. T. Wright’s “new perspective” approach to justification. It’s not being driven by a concern for accommodation or contemporizing but by a concern for faithfulness to the meaning of the texts.

  • I got Four Views through Barnes & Noble for my Nook on Sunday, but to my chagrin it was a pre-order! Happily, it is available as of today (the 20th) and I look forward to reading it now. I will fill in the gaps with some readings from Oden, whose “traditionalist” systematic I have yet to finish.

    Thank you for your work on the book!


  • Russ

    I love your humor! Thanks for the insights. One question I have is over something I recently read… It relates to Sanders, Dunn, Wright’s discussions on the New Perspectives of Paul (NPP) vs. the Reformational Church’s apprehension of Augustine by Lutheran and Reformed theologians who saw Paul in legal justification terms. When comparing the two (one a biblical approach, the other a Church Fathers approach) it seemed to me that Augustine’s understanding of the New Covenant (NC) in Christ was hijacked by the Reformers. That is, his doctrines of grace and love were re-interpreted into doctrines of sin and depravity. That the NC was extrapolated into terms of man first, not God first… so that it bent all previous theistic interpretations of the NC into terms of anthropology and harmatology. And thus words like election and foreordination are revised away from their covenantal understanding to a soteriological understanding. And it seemed that this all began for the Reformers from their revisionism of Augustine’s conceptions of God’s love to man. As reference see Scot McKnight’s review in vanguard under Section V (Augustinian Anthropology and Criticism of New Perspective) – http://www.vanguardchurch.com/mcknight_npp.pdf. If correct, I found this early example of paleo-0rthodox revisionism by the early Reformational Fathers quite formative in their impact on Church History over the last 500 years. Which gives subsequent need for theologians to examine the original biblical texts through early extant Jewish sources (and other tools) to re-right popular mis-understandings of the “Gospel of Paul” as presented by the evangelical church today. Thanks.