On tossing out the “right-middle-left” spectrum

On tossing out the “right-middle-left” spectrum January 25, 2012

Types of evangelical theology: replacing the “spectrum” Part 1

For a long time scholars studying Evangelicalism have used the analogy of a spectrum to describe its theological diversity. The spectrum is always from “right” to “middle” to “left” with “middle” indicating adherence to the “received evangelical doctrinal tradition” with neither accommodation to modern culture nor over-reaction against it. Books like Millard Erickson’s The Evangelical Left and George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism tend to assume this spectrum as natural.

The spectrum method of categorization and description goes back to the nineteenth century when Protestantism was being pulled apart over the issue of accommodation to modernity. Liberal theologians were those “modernists” who freely adjusted doctrine to fit with the “the best of modern thought.” Yale church historian Claude Welch defined liberal theology as “maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity.” These theologians tended to relativize doctrine and emphasize something else as the “essence” of Christianity (e.g., Schleiermacher’s God-consciousness or Ritschl’s ethical experience).

The reason liberal theologians did that was to avoid conflicts between science (in the broad sense, not just the so-called natural sciences) and Christianity such as the infamous Galileo affair. In those conflicts, when the churches and their theologians stood up to science and condemned its findings, science tended to win and the outcomes were extremely embarrassing to the churches and theologians.

It wasn’t only the Galileo affair, of course, that caused this modern crisis for Christianity. Well into the nineteenth century some church leaders and theologians were insisting on Bishop Ussher’s dating of the creation at 4004 B.C. or thereabouts. (Even those who laughed at his specificity—he even suggested the actual date of creation—held to what is now called “young earth creationism.”) Then geology proved that wrong.

An interesting case study is Charles Hodge about whom I wrote here recently. In his Systematic Theology Hodge stated very clearly that biblical interpretation has to bow to science when it’s a matter of fact and not theory. For example, he considered it scientific fact, not mere theory, that the earth is millions of years old so he embraced the “day age” theory of Genesis 1. However, his last published work was What Is Darwinism? in which he blasted natural selection as “atheism.” Not long after his death, however, Warfield, Hodge’s main follower and his successor at Princeton, accepted evolution as fact. But he did that by claiming that evolution is not necessarily atheistic and can be made compatible with divine teleology (what we now call “Intelligent Design”).

Liberal theologians regarded this entire process of continual retreat in the face of modern science a failed policy. Insofar as Christianity considers its theology a realm of facts about the universe and life in it, it will increasingly become irrelevant and eventually die. So Schleiermacher and his followers and Ritschl and his followers gave the category of “fact” over to science and defined religion, including Christianity, as feeling or ethics. This is the origin of the popular (even among evangelicals!) saying that science has facts and Christianity has faith as if these are in water tight separate compartments. (Even Ritschl, however, could not maintain the line between them.)

A close inspection of liberal Protestant theology and Catholic Modernism reveals that a basic impulse in their creation was to make conflicts between science and Christianity impossible. I believe it is evangelical theologian William Abraham who said that liberal theology was so afraid of being kicked in the ditch by modernity that it jumped there to avoid the pain of the kick! Liberal theology did not so much deny traditional beliefs as relegate all doctrines to the realm of expressions of religious feelings or ethics. The “moralizing of dogma” was the catch phrase for the Ritschlian tendency to ignore doctrines it could not put into the service of ethics.

The main reaction to liberal theology in the nineteenth century was Protestant Orthodoxy as represented by Hodge. Hodge insisted that Christianity is primarily a matter of factual revelation and that Christian theology is simply correctly organizing the facts of the Bible into a coherent system. He explicitly compared theology with science in that regard. For him the Bible is to the theologian exactly what nature is to the scientist—a “store-house of facts.” He adopted Scottish Common Sense Realism, an Enlightenment philosophy, to help his project of rescuing Protestant Orthodoxy’s status as a rational science. (He even went so far as to say that the credibility of revelation is subject to reason.) The way Hodge avoided conflicts between theology and science was by accommodating to the “material facts” of science and rejecting anything science “discovers” that he could claim is mere “theory” insofar as it conflicted with his interpretation f Scripture.

Of course, true to Hegel’s analysis of thought, a “mediating theology” arose to combine liberal theology and Protestant Orthodoxy. Mediating theology is represented in Europe by I. A. Dorner, in Britain by P. T. Forsyth and in America by Horace Bushnell. (Here I am not using “Mediating Theology” in the very narrow, technical, historical-theological sense of Vermittlungstheologie but in the sense of explicit attempts to take up what is valuable in both Protestant Orthodoxy and liberal theology and combine them while leaving behind their flaws.) However, try as they might, the mediating theologians always tended to lean one way of the other. Forsyth, for example, leaned toward evangelicalism while trying to “preach to the modern mind” in a modern way (e.g., by downplaying the supernatural). Bushnell leaned toward liberalism while maintaining an evangelical spirit even to the point of affirming the supernatural. Dorner was strongly influenced by Schleiermacher and Hegel but also strongly disagreed with both of them insofar as they tended to leave classical doctrines like the incarnation behind (or reinterpret them so much that they became unrecognizable).

No matter how hard they tried, historical theologians analyzing nineteenth century theology (and “nineteenth century theology” only ends at 1914 or 1917) could not break the spell of trying to put every Christian theologian somewhere on a spectrum of right to left or left to right with modernity being the criterion of placement. So, by this common analysis, which still works its magic over us, Hodge and theologians like him belong toward the “right” end of the spectrum, Schleiermacher and Ritschl and their followers belong toward the “left” end of the spectrum and the mediating theologians are arrayed at various points along the middle. The often unspoken question the answer to which determines where a theologian belongs on the spectrum is to what extent he or she accommodated to modernity.

But this doesn’t work even for nineteenth century theology. There were many theologians then, as now, who don’t fit anywhere on that spectrum. And the theologians put on the spectrum often don’t really belong where they’ve been placed. For example, Hodge was clearly influenced by modernity as he treated theology as a science in the modern sense. (It won’t work to try to deny this by saying that theology was the “Queen of the Sciences” in the middle ages and that Hodge was simply trying to rescue the queen! He explicitly appealed to modern natural science as the model for theology and used Scottish Common Sense Realism to the fullest.) Why put Hodge way to the right on that spectrum?

Also, where does Kierkegaard belong on that spectrum? The usual way to deal with the Danish theologian is to treat him a philosopher, but anyone who reads him knows he was a theologian. He had a degree in theology, at times wanted to teach theology (but you had to have the King’s endorsement to have a teaching position in the university and Kierkegaard’s enemies blocked it), and most of his writing deals with Christianity either directly or indirectly. Although he was reacting against Hegel and his followers, he was not accommodating to or reacting against modernity per se. He certainly wasn’t “liberal” in any usual sense of that word. So, to rescue the spectrum, people like Kierkegaard are usually excused by being relegating to the separate category of philosophy.

I suggest the reason for the obsession with the spectrum is the ease it offers to categorizing nineteenth century theologians. The emergence of the phenomenon of mediating theology reinforced its apparent appropriateness. But I also suggest it never really worked without serious distortions. People have held onto it simply because it’s easy. And it has become a useful polemical tool for labeling and dismissing theologians. Almost everyone wants to see himself or herself as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, so the spectrum itself becomes relative to the individual using it.

A major problem with the spectrum is that it was originally tied to modernity and gradually, throughout the twentieth century, modernity became less and less the litmus test for categorizing theologians. One theologian even wrote a book some years ago entitled The Shattered Spectrum (Lonnie Kliever, 1981). Indeed. The spectrum needs to be shattered. But it’s still very much alive especially among evangelicals.

The problem with the old spectrum became clear throughout the twentieth century. Where does Barth belong on it? Cornelius Van Til wrote about The New Modernism—one of the first American books about Barth and neo-orthodoxy in general. But, of course, everyone knows Barth was no “modernist.” Where does Pannenberg belong on the spectrum? As a student of Pannenberg’s I can assure you he doesn’t fit on it anywhere. I argue that most twentieth century theologians cannot be fitted comfortably on that old spectrum. Sure, there are still some old fashioned liberals around like John Spong and Marcus Borg, but the “giants” of twentieth century theology don’t fit on the spectrum and attempts to put them there have inevitably distorted their theologies.

I’m not arguing the old spectrum is totally useless. As I just said, there are still old fashioned liberal theologians around. Of course, we call them “chastened liberals” because, by and large, they are not optimistic about inevitable progress as were most of the old liberals (pre-WW1 in Europe and pre-WW2 in America). Process theology, for example, appears to me to still fit on the spectrum. Fundamentalism still fits on it insofar as it is anti-modern (e.g., young earth creationism, etc.). But the giants of twentieth century and early twenty-first century theology don’t fit on it well at all. Where does Stanley Hauerwas belong on it? Nowhere. Attempts to put him in the middle are simply attempts to compliment him in ways I’m sure he would not like. Yoder? Moltmann? Zizioulas? Newbigin? I could go on and on and on naming theologians who don’t fit anywhere on that old spectrum. And yet, especially conservative evangelicals still insist on using it.

I say let it die. Except when talking about theologians who really do fit on it by their own admissions—as pro-modern or anti-modern or attempting some kind of synthesis.

I supposed one way to rescue the spectrum and make it useful today is to tie it to postmodernity. Thus, on that reconstructed spectrum, being to the “right” would be anti-postmodern, being to the “left” would be pro-postmodern, and being in the middle would be….what? Ah, just right!

That’s one of the besetting sins of all the attempts to construct and use such a spectrum. I suggest its main purpose has always been to justify one’s own theology as “moderate.” Schleiermacher thought he was moderate. After all, he wasn’t a deist or skeptic or unitarian. Certainly Ritschl and his followers thought they were moderate. After all, they weren’t followers of Feuerbach! Hodge and his Princeton theologians could claim the middle ground. After all, they weren’t among the proto-fundamentalists.

The reconstructed spectrum, tied to postmodernity, would have the same problems as the old spectrum tied to modernity. It might work for some theologians, but it wouldn’t work for many others. It would be used politically (i.e., to enhance one’s own reputation while marginalizing others.) And there would always be the temptation to make everyone fit somewhere on it even if they don’t really fit on it at all. And it would suffer from the lack of clarity or consensus about what constitutes “postmodernity.”

So, let me sum up this first part of the series and preview the next.

The traditional “right to left, left to right” spectrum for categorizing theologians and theologies was problematic from the start. It began as a way of categorizing nineteenth century theologians and it was tied to modernity. Theologians were placed on it according to the placer’s judgment about the theologians’ accommodations to or rejections of modernity. That spectrum didn’t ever work well, but it became especially problematic in the twentieth century as many theologians no longer responded to modernity. It still works only for theologians and types of theology that clearly and unequivocally respond to modernity either though accommodation or reaction. A completely separate spectrum tied to postmodernity might be helpful for categorizing SOME theologians IF “postmodernity” ever becomes a clear category. But there will probably never be a time when one spectrum works for every theologian. It wasn’t true in the nineteenth century and it isn’t true now and it will almost certainly never be true.

Coming up next: Evangelicals are still under the spell of the old spectrum. Some are attempting to use it with postmodern as the criterion of placement. But even among evangelicals the spectrum analogy doesn’t work. Where did Donald Bloesch belong on either spectrum (modernity or postmodernity)? Thomas Oden? Alister McGrath? Amos Yong? I could go on and on. And yet, many evangelicals are still using the “right to left” spectrum as if it had real validity. Often they use it for their own political purposes—to marginalize someone else while enhancing their own reputation as moderate (where most evangelical theologians want to be). Is there a better way to categorize evangelical theologians? I will suggest an alternative.


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