On tossing out the evangelical spectrum: Part 2

On tossing out the evangelical spectrum: Part 2 January 27, 2012

Types of evangelical theology: replacing the “spectrum”

In part one of this series I talked about the limitations of attempting to place every theologian somewhere on a spectrum defined by “right,” “middle,” and “left.” It’s a habit of evangelical theologians that’s hard to break. That spectrum was originally tied to modernity. Theologians to the “left” were those who accommodated to modernity; those to the right rejected modernity; those in the middle worked with some kind of synthesis of moderate adjustment to modernity where necessary while remaining faithful to the “received evangelical heritage” of Protestant orthodoxy.

One problem with that spectrum is its use of modernity as the norm; it assumes that every theologian is somehow responding to modernity—with either rejection or accommodation or moderate acknowledgment within basic faithfulness to orthodoxy. Not all theologians (I used Hauerwas as an example) are responding to modernity. Holding fast to that spectrum can end up with some very strange anomalies. Some postmodern theologians reject modernity without affirming orthodoxy. Where would they be on the spectrum?

Contemporary evangelicals have migrated toward a somewhat altered spectrum. On this one theologians are located along it based on perceived adherence to or willingness to revise the “received evangelical tradition.” This was clearly the spectrum Millard Erickson was using in The Evangelical Left. For him, as for many others like him, an evangelical is “left” on the spectrum to the extent he or she revises traditional evangelical doctrinal and ethical commitments and “right” to the extent he or she holds fast to them. One problem with that is, of course, what happens to the extreme “right” of the spectrum? Who goes there? Erickson and others like him claim to occupy the center of the spectrum (of course). But if “left” is revision of the received evangelical tradition and “right” is faithful adherence to it, that distorts the spectrum. It only has a middle (the right) and a left!

Of course, what actually happens is that self-identified evangelical moderates, centrists, like Erickson place fundamentalists off to their “right” on the spectrum. But if the middle is faithful adherence to the evangelical tradition and left is revision of it, what causes someone to be placed to the right of the middle? If strict, faithful adherence to the evangelical tradition is the middle, then what’s to the right of the middle? Fundamentalist think they outdo the moderates in holding fast to the received evangelical tradition—as it was sometime in the distant past, anyway (e.g., young earth creationism). That’s why, with this spectrum, fundamentalists can rightly claim to be the middle and even Erickson, who is not a young earth creationist and is an egalitarian who believes in women’s ordination, is “left.”

Also, where does someone like Donald Bloesch belong on that spectrum? Or Kevin Vanhoozer? Or Alister McGrath? Or any number of evangelicals who are simply not concerned with defending some preconceived “received evangelical tradition” but are also not concerned with revising doctrines?

There are multiple problems with those “right to middle to left” spectrums. I have come to think that the main purpose of the evangelical spectrum is political. Administrators of evangelical institutions (colleges, universities, seminaries, publishers, etc.) are not always theologians or able to take the time to investigate for themselves candidates’ theologies, so they rely on someone they trust to tell them “where the person belongs on the evangelical spectrum.” “To the left” is usually the death sentence for being hired or getting tenure. There’s one notorious case I am very familiar with where a candidate for tenure at an evangelical seminary was denied it simply because a well-known evangelical theologian told the seminary’s administration the person is “postmodern.” In fact, the person is an expert on postmodernism, much more than the theologian who caused him to not get tenure! And he is not a relativist or cognitive nihilist or radical pragmatist or any of the things the seminary’s administrators probably think “postmodern” means.

I‘ve been in this game (viz., the evangelical subculture and its habits) for a long time. I’ve taught at three evangelical universities. (Not everyone at those universities calls themselves “evangelical” but they all clearly are in the broad sense of the word.) I’ve been editor of a leading evangelical scholarly journal supported by fifty (mostly) evangelical colleges. I’ve been an editor of a major evangelical magazine for years. I’ve worked with several evangelical book publishers. I was chairman of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion for two years. All that is to say I think I know this subculture very well, almost as well as anyone. What I have observed is that many, perhaps most, executives of evangelical organizations have someone they consider “safe” to advise them about hiring and tenure decisions. That person (or two or three persons) can blackball a candidate very easily simply by saying he or she is “to the left” on the evangelical spectrum (or something to that effect). Of course, the person saying that is “to the left” of someone else on that same spectrum! But evangelical administrators too often don’t stop to question it; they just take the well-known, influential, “safe” evangelical theologian’s word for it and the candidate never knows why he or she didn’t get hired.

While admitting that we (evangelicals) are addicted to the spectrums—the first one for the broader theological world and the second one for “us”—I am increasingly uncomfortable with them. They simply suffer too many anomalies and abuses. They are too simplistic and easy to manipulate. They make it too easy not to engage seriously with someone’s theology. I observed this with my friend Stan Grenz who was put to the “left” on the evangelical spectrum by almost everyone but who strenuously denied it with good reason. After all, he affirmed inerrancy! The whole reason he was labeled “left” was his post-foundationalist epistemology which, contrary to critics, did not lead him into “cultural relativism” (a stupid claim).

My preferred alternative to these spectrums is for people to seriously engage with others’ theologies and not take the easy way out by simply relying on someone they trust to tell them where they are on the evangelical spectrum. I’m enough of a realist, however, to know that’s not likely to happen. But I urge it anyway.

I have an alternative model in mind for “placing” evangelical thinkers (theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, etc.) in relation to each other: a colorful mosaic. From a distance a colorful mosaic looks like one color, but the closer you get the more clearly the different shades of color begin to appear. Compared with the larger theological world, evangelical theology appears relatively monochrome. For example, if you attend the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion, as I did in San Francisco in November and have at its various locations for about twenty-five years, the evangelicals in attendance appear relatively homogenous theologically.

I’ll use an imaginary illustration. Imagine a large panel of religious scholars who call themselves “Christians.” It includes: a black theologian, a feminist theologian, a radical postmodern theologian, a process theologian, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, a revisionist Roman Catholic theologian, a Tridentine Roman Catholic theologian, a narrative theologian, and a “Christian atheist.” (I have specific people in mind for each category and I know they attend the AAR, so this panel could happen!) What do they all have in common? Only that they are human beings, religious scholars and self-identified Christians. Even from a distance the differences stand out in stark relief.

Now imagine a panel of evangelical theologians—a fundamentalist, a postconservative, a confessionalist, a “generic evangelical” (those are the four found in the recently published book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism). Add any well-known, self-identified evangelical thinker to the panel. Compared with the first panel, this one will appear homogenous from a distance. (I’m asking you to imagine here that theological orientations are like colors.) These theologians have much more in common than those on the first panel. They are human beings, religious scholars, self-identified evangelical Christians, biblicists (in some sense), conversionists, believers that salvation is only through Jesus Christ and his cross, and activists (in the sense of believing in evangelism). Sure, there are distinct differences in the details, but if someone walked in to a large room with the first panel they would see, even from a distance, contrasting colors. If someone walked into a large room with the second panel they would see, from a distance, a mosaic of colors, but it would be difficult to distinguish them without getting very close.

The second mosaic, the evangelical one, is like some of those you see in hotel room bathrooms.  Often there’s a mosaic of tiles in the bathtub/shower enclosure. It might just be a stripe of shiny, colored tiles going around the middle of the enclosure. From a distance it looks like one color, but when you get close up you see subtle differences. One tile is more purple than the tile two or three down from it that is more green, etc.

Compared with the larger religious academy, including its “Christian” theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, etc., this evangelical world of scholars is like that almost but not quite monochrome stripe of tiles.

A close inspection of the evangelical mosaic reveals differences: paleo-orthodox, postconservative (not anti-conservative) or progressive, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, dispensationalist, high federal Calvinist, charismatic, Third Wave, emergent, Pietist, etc. If you put your face right up to the mosaic these differences seem very striking, but if you step back and look at it the differences pale in comparison with what the tiles have in common and in comparison with the splash of bright colors in the “mainline” mosaic.

And, of course, some tiles have some of two or three colors in them. One tile is simply purple and another one is simply green. (But to keep the analogy going, they’re both muted, not terribly bright, so that from a distance they don’t look all that different.) But most tiles are some mixture of both or of two other colors.

The mosaic of evangelical theologies is like that second one. There’s no “right” or “left” or “middle.” There’s just (limited) variety. Using this model, an evangelical administrator will pick up the individual “tile” (a candidate for hiring or tenure) and put it up to the whole mosaic and say either “Yes, I see this color there. This tile’s coloring fits the mosaic. There are others like it” OR “No, this bright pink tile is nothing like those in the mosaic; it doesn’t fit at all.” Of course, this assumes the administrator has taken the time and trouble to learn about the evangelical mosaic and that’s one of the flaws in my alternative model. However, I will argue that a person should not be the administrator of a trans-denominational evangelical organization without knowing evangelical history and theology, unity and diversity.

Now, of course, IF the evangelical organization is tied to a specific denomination or confessional tradition, the administrator will have to use two mosaics—the larger evangelical one and that of his or her own denomination or confessional tradition. But that’s why administrators get paid the big money! They’re expected to know a lot. It seems like evidence of little knowledge and poor judgment ability when an administrator has the old spectrum in his head (or in that of his favorite evangelical theological advisor’s head) and uses it to make these decisions.

Of course, I think it would be a good idea for an administrator to have people who advise him or her on these personnel matters, but such people should not have an axe to grind.

I hope by now you’ve caught on to my main motive for arguing against the old spectrum approach. It has become a political tool among evangelicals. When open theism first appeared among evangelicals, some self-identified “conservative evangelicals” (read “safe”) labeled it “liberal” or “left” on the evangelical spectrum. And yet some of its most prominent proponents were anything but “liberal.” One was and is charismatic or New Wave and believes strongly in real spiritual beings, demons and angels, who are engaged in spiritual warfare invisible to us (most of the time). Liberal? Left? I strongly believe his critics’ attempt to place him and other open theists on the “left” end of the spectrum was nothing more than a political ploy to marginalize him and them and set them up for being fired from their teaching positions. At least the early reactions by self-identified “conservative evangelicals” to open theism was simplistic. It didn’t engage with what they were really saying but caricatured their views (“ignorant God”). One critic of open theism told me it’s wrong because it’s not traditional. He happened to be a five point Calvinist teaching in a seminary that had never had a five point Calvinist on its faculty before him!

I digress, but this is my blog, so…

The whole controversy over open theism changed my life forever. I heard and read blatant dishonesty, conscious, knowing distortion, mean-spiritedness and overt attempts to destroy people’s reputations and careers—all on the side of open theism’s critics. (I’m NOT saying all critics participated in this!) One self-identified conservative evangelical theologian publicly accused open theists of “worshiping the goddess of novelty.” Others equated open theism with process theology. One publicly called open theists “Socinians.” One wrote that open theists “admit” to being influenced by process theology, but the open theist book he cited to support that said the opposite! I was myself sucked into this maelstrom of controversy and threatened with being fired just for being open to open theism and defending my open theist friends. Lies were published about me. One critic of open theism published an article attributing a quote to me I never said or wrote. (There was no chance this was a matter of confusion; the quote was fabricated.) Several claimed publicly that I was an open theist when I knew they knew I was not. When I wrote to them they wouldn’t answer me. This was a witch hunt among evangelicals and I truly believe its main motive was to take over evangelical institutions. (To a very great extent it was a reprise of the inerrancy controversy launched by The Battle for the Bible in 1976.) I see the villains in that controversy (and I’m NOT saying all critics of open theism were villains) as having gained the upper hand with evangelical institutional leaders. They created enough fear, even if only of controversy, that they would only hire people they thought the pot-stirring heresy hunters would approve of or at least not exclaim “J’accuse!” over.

I see the old evangelical spectrum as little more than a tool in such theological-political warfare. Since the mid-1990s I have not known what someone means when they say an evangelical theologian is “left” or “liberal-leaning.” I know for a fact it often means nothing more than “I disagree with him [or her].” But if you get enough influential people to say it sufficiently loudly and create enough fear of “creeping liberalism” it can ruin careers and do real damage to families and institutions.


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  • Rick

    How much of this is speaking the language of society? Since so much of this is framed in the right/left context of the culture, how do we change it in the church, especially in regards to the laity? As new people come into the church, they may have this methodology on their brains.

    • rogereolson

      I assume you mean new Christians may interpret the “right-middle-left” theological spectrum as the same spectrum used to describe politicians? Yes, that’s another reason to get rid of it.

  • Zach

    Interesting; makes me glad I’m signed up to work in what’s considered to be a “mainline” denomination, hopefully my career won’t be ruined for failure to comply with whatever is considered “liberal”! I’m curious, though, whether you’re trying to paint “mainline” or “liberal” in a negative light. Do the more “vibrant” splashes of color at the Academy of Religion make them “wrong”? Is there also a racial/sexist thing in there? I’m 100% positive you don’t mean that, but that’s kind of the impression I got. And let’s face it, if we’re talking about “evangelicalism” in a general sense, the image that comes to my mind is white male middle to upper class. Please understand, I don’t think you think that, just a general impression.

    • rogereolson

      I have no idea where you got those impressions. You’re reading things into what I wrote that have nothing to do with my intentions or the words I used. By “black theology” I meant a certain approach to doing theology that begins with the experience of oppression of African-Americans in predominantly white society. The reason you don’t find that particular approach among evangelicals (but you do find African-Americans among evangelicals) is because evangelicals don’t elevate an experience to that status of authority for theology. An evangelical (such as I) can sympathize with, learn much from, and even agree to a large extent with the concerns of black theologians like James Cone, but our common evangelical approach to theology places scripture first–as the source and norm for theology. I thought I made clear in my post that the “colors” on the panels were theological orientations, not race or gender.

  • Chris

    Thanks, Mr. Olson. I just finished reading “Reformed and Always Reforming,” and I sympathize with you in this rather telling treatment of the current scene, along with its spectrums and boundaries. An interesting thought that occurred to me while reading this thread is that a conservative evangelical who lays claim to a “view from nowhere” hermeneutic untainted by personal experience or culture, unwittingly betrays a capitulation to postmodernity everytime he repositions the evangelical “spectrum” relative to himself (thereby taking the proverbial “middle ground”). Maybe this is the current analogue of Hodge’s recruitment of Enlightenment epistemology to rebuke modernity?

    The whole discussion here reminds me of a quote from “The Crucified God”:

    “The missionary situation of the ‘open church’ is left behind in a retreat into the apocalyptic situation of the ‘closed church’. People grow tired of maintaining the open situation of dialogue and co-operation with others, in which the boundaries are always fluid, and look for the final hour, in which the only possible response is yes or no.” (p.21)

    Heh, I guess we’re all like the disciples in some ways: we flee the scene when our master opens himself up to the world and willingly goes to the cross.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I just took a break from reading Bloesch’s “A Theology of Word and Spirit”, on your recommendation, and had a quick look at your latest blog article. To compare the  behaviour of some conservative theologians in the ‘debates’ over open theism (as you describe them) and the kind of evangelical theology championed by Bloesch is a revealing study in contrast. At the end of his Chapter 5, Bloesch gives three quotes that speak clearly to the issue. From Karl Barth “The angels will laugh when they read my theology.” From Thomas Aquinas shortly before his death and in reference to his own theology, ” It reminds me of straw.” And again from Aquinas “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in search of the truth, and both have helped us in finding it.” 

    The Truth can set us free, His efficacy is never in question, never the problem. However, His possession of us, by the Holy Spirit, is related to the extent our submission to Him. I did not follow the open theology controversies and am just beginning to catch up. However, it is a very good thing to observe much grace being shown by those who were so gracelessly attacked during those days.

    You are right about needing to get away from the left- right blinkered view. There is an equally  pressing need to get away from the Newtonian-deterministic view. In fact, the main root of numerous battles may be found in the deterministic-indeterministic conflict of world-views. This is true not only in theology but also in science and politics. The road seems clear but it will be a long journey.

  • Dear Roger,

    I understand the feeling of being in the “evangelical left.” I was a credentialed minister in a Pentecostal denomination and faced controversy after I modified my eschatology. I needed to resign my credentials if I wanted to publicly teach my new views. I chose to resign, and the decision helped me because Wipf and Stock Publishers recently released my first book Conditional Futurism: New Perspective of End-Time Prophecy.

    By the way, I do not know the best way to ask this to you, but would you consider reviewing my book?



  • John Metz

    With tongue firmly in cheek, I long for the day when you will tell us all how your really feel! Wow!

    It is sad that these kind of things take place among Christians — but, such is our history. I applaud your description of the right-middle-left spectrum and how it is used politically (in a broad sense) to exclude/include family members. The one word that gave me a halt was “villains” — “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.” Maybe a little too much.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I’ve met a few “evangelicals” who act that way–at least toward people with whom they disagree. One is rarely a villain in every context.

      • John Metz

        I have also seen some “villainous” behavior among some evangelicals, as you probably know, and sometimes I have to remind myself that these are my brothers and sisters. Not always easy to do. I will accept “villain” in a limited context.

        Thanks for your boldness. I do appreciate your posts.

  • John C

    Your mosaic metaphor is really helpful, Roger. Some folks who are utterly immersed in the Evangelical subculture suffer from a form of myopia. They are so close up to all the minor disputes among evangelicals (the different shades of red if you like) that they can’t see the wider picture. The result is that they become obsessed with what Freud called ‘the narcissim of small differences’.

    The mosaic helps us to stand back and get perspective on our own subculture. You suggest wider comparisons with contemporary Christian theologians of all stripes. But you could also think of the mosaic historically – it helps to place today’s evangelicals in relation to Greek and Latin Fathers, medieval Catholics, Enlightenment Protestants etc.

    • rogereolson

      I love that Freud phrase! Thanks. I perfectly describes what I see going on among evangelicals these days. Once we arrived at a point where we didn’t feel persecuted by the larger culture (or academy) we turned on each other.

  • steve rogers

    Roger, in your response to JohnC you stated: “Once we arrived at a point where we didn’t feel persecuted by the larger culture (or academy) we turned on each other.” I find this to be a very profound statement. At the core of evangelical theology is a need to be in a fight.

    • rogereolson

      It certainly seems to be in the DNA of some evangelicals. However, there’s a wing of evangelicalism descended from Pietism that doesn’t have this in their DNA. My theory is that fundamentalism attracts a certain personality type and reinforces it. That personality type thrives on conflict.

  • Craig Wright

    For fun, try this. Ask a group of lay evangelical Christians if the following people are Christians: Greg Boyd (or Rob Bell), President Obama, and Pope Benedict.

  • Jamie

    Hi Roger,

    Firstly, I really love the blog, it is a continuing source of challenge, encouragement and knowledge.

    In this article you mentioned a “christian atheist” as guest on your imaginary panel. In an earlier entry you referred to Peter Rollins. I am a Ph.D. student at an evangelical non-denominational college in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Peter’s hometown. I am increasingly aware that many young evangelicals in the province – and older pastors and professors too! – are buying into Peter’s ideas, some in college actively helped to organise events at his Ikon community while it was in existence. When I challenged them I was told “who was I to judge other peoples way of doing church” – personally I’m not sure that the “Church” as I understand it (an eschatological community founded by and committed to witnessing Christ) can exist after the critique issuing form christian atheism. Personally, having engaged with his thought quite a bit now, I find it disturbing – particularly his conception of idolatry, extensive use (and after reading Ricoeur I would venture to say misuse) of Freud, his Christology and caricature of theologians and certain schools of theological thought, too name just a few of the alarm bells that have rung thus far. Having grown up like Peter in a fundamentalist Ulster setting I can emphasize with where he is coming from, but I worry that their are no “brakes” built into his critique, that self deception is a very real risk.

    Basically, I was wondering if you have engaged with his thought in any way – am I totally misreading him? Does he pose a danger to my friends and to the organisations and communities they serve and influence? Should I be wary? Should I help to raise an alarm with my brothers in sisters in college and in the wider province who are really buying into this idea of Christian atheism and utilising it as a tool to raze all traditional structures with the excuse that they’re “idolatry”?

    I understand totally if you do not want to reply to this as I am aware that it might come across as a vendetta against an individual, which it really isn’t meant to be – I’m asking with totally pastoral concerns in my heart.

    best wishes,


    • rogereolson

      Pete is basically an enigma to me. He’s so ambiguous. I just finished reading and discussing (with my theology discussion group) Insurrection. I came away scratching my head. I think Pete is in the prophet mode–trying to make (mostly) evangelical Christians think in new ways without revealing exactly what he believes about doctrinal questions. I don’t think he’s an atheist. His “Christian atheism” is, I take it, like Moltmann’s theology, a reaction to and rejection of a certain kind of theism–that makes God an object and a crutch. I really can’t answer your question. I guess I would just caution people about interpreting Pete beyond what he says. There are things he’s definitely against–idolatry, ideology (same thing), etc. But exactly what he’s for is less clear to me.

  • icthusiast

    Another very helpful discussion. Thanks, Roger.

    I look forward to seeing the graphical representation of your evangelical mosaic.
    No… wait… I’m colour blind! (er…. literally, not metaphorically!)

    Well, what I mean is, I hope I’m not metaphorically colour blind when in comes to appreciating, and responding to, the nuances of different theological positions, but I hope I am colour blind in the way I treat the people involved.

    Thanks again.

    Grace and peace.

  • DRT

    Roger, I really believe there is a difference in the way people view the world but also believe that education about it help alleviate fear. Jonathan Haidt has a wonderful model using openness to new experience as the differentiator, and recognizes that the new experience may be left, or right in the evangelical discussion. This then leads to three traits or judgments that differentiate liberals and conservatives, namely purity, ingroup behavior and authority. Conservatives put a positive value on each of these, while liberals put a negative value on each of these.

    His Ted Talks is a good introduction to his ideas http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

    His blog is here – http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/

    Now, he is a self professed atheist ( I assume he still is ), but my openness to new experience allows me to investigate his work without feeling that I will become impure, or somehow against my group if I do it 🙂

  • Brilliant and deeply encouraging! Recognizing and reporting on the myopia caused by the “spectrum” approach is refreshing. Many will reject your mosaic analogy because is doesn’t lend itself to easy identification of theological Quasimodo’s.

    As long as men insist that “your view” is not orthodox because it doesn’t replicate “my view” we will continue to be petty thieves of the Bride’s beauty. We will snatch bits of her radiance right from the eyes of those who most need to behold it.

  • Tim Buechsel

    Hi Rodger,
    I don’t see how moving away from the spectrum to the idea of a mosaic approach makes any difference. The same political games can be played with the mosaic. People will simply say this theologian is a pink tile (whereas before they would have said she is on the left or far right of the spectrum) The problem seems to lie with how people use the spectrum. I do understand that there is a reductionism inherent in the spectrum that gives people a limited amount of options that are politically charged and not necessarily helpful in understanding a persons theological orientation. If someone is willing to diligently evaluate a person, then the mosaic approach is helpful because it provides a better tool to do this. My point simply is that those who are playing political games with the spectrum can do the same with the mosaic approach – they can go on the same witch hunt that you described.

    • rogereolson

      But I wasn’t just talking about people who are playing political games with the spectrum. My concern with the spectrum is that it is an easy tool for lazy administrators who can’t or won’t take the time to find out what a candidate really believes. They just ask a trusted theologian whether the person is “right” or “left” on the spectrum. Usually “left” is the kiss of death.