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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