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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  • John Inglis

    As you are no doubt aware, David S. Dockery delivered the Evangelical Theological Society’s 2001 plenary address, entitled, “Understanding Evangelicalism Biblically”. He interacts with several writers, including yourself, and on his part portrays evangelicalism as a movement that can be categorized using a linear spectrum of left, middle, right:

    “Today the larger Church is divided between liberal expierientialists[9] who make human moral experience the primary basis for the Church’s message and theological understanding and rigid fundamentalists[10] who have equated cultural norms and forms of philosophical rationalism with the truth of Scripture. I believe that a biblical evangelicalism must avoid these extremes in offering an understanding of the inspiration, interpretation, and authority of Scripture. Such a position unapologetically affirms the complete truthfulness and absolute authority of God’s Word. ”

    He does refer to your generous definition of evangelicals with approval, “Olson is right to suggest that evangelical identity is more specific than a synonym for Protestantism and with a generous and charitable spirit suggests that “we give the benefit to all who sincerely and proudly claim the label ‘evangelical’ for themselves.””

    Nevertheless, he disagrees with you about the centre of evangelicalism (see quote below), though obviously part of his disagreement stems from his use of a linear spectrum to characterize evangelicalism. In your writings to which he refers, were you using a linear spectrum or were you already writing about evangelicalism from a perspective that rejected a simple linear model in favour of a more nuanced and accurate model? I suppose I’m asking how long your idea of a non-linear model has been percolating in your brain. The Dockery quote I referred to in this paragraph is:

    ” Yet, Olson contends that over the past two decades the theological center of evangelicalism moved from Carl Henry to Donald Bloesch. This proposed shift was done by relocating Henry on the map of the evangelical landscape. Olson claims that:

    Henry emerged as the leading spokesperson for postfundamentalist evangelicalism in the 1950s and 1960, but his star faded in the 1980s and 1990s as he retreated more and more toward a narrow, almost fundamentalist mentality.[19]

    I think it is much better to suggest that several postconservative evangelicals moved the center toward the left rather than to suggest that Henry moved toward a more narrow, fundamentalist mentality.”


    • rogereolson

      I admit that I have not been able completely to abandon the spectrum. And, as I’ve said in my first post in this series, it works for those theologians who clearly are reacting to modernity. So, insofar as accommodation to modernity is the criterion, the old spectrum begun in the 19th century works. Evangelicals have developed a separate spectrum where faithfulness to the “received evangelical tradition” is the criterion of placement. Any deviation from it causes a theologian to be pushed out toward the extremes and away from the center. For most evangelicals Henry was and still is the norm of the center. I’m not satisfied with that; I wonder who determines that. Henry represented a form of the received evangelical tradition but not the only one. My thinking about the spectrums and their usefulness is evolving. This blog is my “musings,” so it’s where I think “out loud,” so to speak, and invite correction, affirmation, etc. I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with any of the spectrums commonly use to position theologians in relation to each other vis-a-vis some assumed standard of “the middle.” Who occupies the middle seems to me to be increasingly impossible to agree about. That is, there is less consensus among evangelicals today than, say, in the 1950s or even 1960s. And the spectrum conservative evangelicals use is still dominated by Reformed orthodoxy (viz., Hodge). What I would like to ask Dockery is what causes an evangelical theologian to be re-positioned to the “left.” People like him have done that to me, but I think that’s ludicrous. And I think it’s just because I’m an outspoken Arminian who is open to open theism neither of which have anything to do with modernity or liberalism or “lefty” theology. I suspect that much of this public talk about the spectrum among evangelicals has to do with politics–trying to sway administrators toward hiring only people like themselves.

  • John Inglis

    BTW, Dockery’s address is at http://www.uu.edu/dockery/111501-ets.htm

  • Zach

    I’m assuming you will suggest an alternative, as this is something you yourself have talked about, with people not being comfortable with the label “evangelical”. Of course Kierkegaard’s “if you define me you negate me” is true, yet we still are left with the reality of “naming and necessity”. I for one would love to see “liberals” and “conservatives” come together.

    • rogereolson

      I think it is actually easier for evangelicals and liberals to come together for dialogue than for conservative evangelicals and postconservative evangelicals to come together for dialogue. This weekend, however, I will be in face-to-face dialogue before an audience with a leading conservative Reformed theologian about Calvinism and Arminianism. I’m looking forward to it. (It’s a closed meeting, so there’s no point in announcing it publicly.) However, I have found talking to liberals easier than trying to talk to fundamentalists or neo-fundamentalists. At least the liberals, who value tolerance, have to listen or pretend to listen!

  • Marc

    I think you’re spot on when saying people use it for political reasons. The only time I’ve ever encountered a left to right spectrum in a class room is in political- and social studies. The spectrum was used to label parties and politicians on a spectrum from liberal to conservative, or socialist to capitalist (Planned-economy vs. Free market).

    No single spectrum can do justice to any serious scholar, but I do think it has some merit still. A Modernist spectrum, like you said, still places Fundamentalists and true “old fashioned Liberals” quite well. And even though you cannot place everybody, it still is useful if you’re the kind of person who would avoid scholars who are too far to the left or right.

    Even though scholars would consider themselves moderate does not mean that they are so compared to the rest of the scholars (data). Just like extreme Conservatives might view themselves as moderate, does not make them so on a spectrum that contains Communists, Neo-Socialists, and moderate Conservatives. I think one could place Pannenberg, Schleiermacher, etc. in a spectrum in relation to each other. Now, this placement is of course subjective and fluid, but I’d consider Schleiermacher more Liberal and “leftish” than Pannenberg. I’m open to correction.

    Is this a useful tool? Like I said, depends on what kind of person you are, and if you wish to avoid someone with a different, or perhaps extreme viewpoint. In the academy this spectrum-mentality should be avoided. You’ve mentioned before (I think) your gratitude for attending a Bible College where reading Tillich was not frowned upon, and where you could read him and be able to agree and disagree with his arguments. But as you’ve mentioned before, Evangelical Scholars are sometimes afraid of agreeing with “Liberals” out of fear from being fired, etc.

    A spectrum might serve a a useful tool for Pastors and leaders in recommending books, or authors, to seeking church members. If a believer asked whether he should read Borg or Wright, it may be useful for leaders to know where they are on a spectrum (not all pastor/leaders know about scholars and their work). I would recommend Wright over Borg, just because Wright’s views are more orthodox (in a broad Evangelical sense).

    One might add to this spectrum. On the x-axis having modernity vs. post-modernity, or orthodoxy vs. unorthodox, and the y-axis showing monergism vs. synergism or literalism vs. existentialism.

    Just some ideas.

    I don’t think the spectrum is useful to theologians or scholars, but for laypeople it might serve as a useful, albeit faulty tool, to shelter against ideas which they might swallow whole, leading perhaps to serious doubt and despair. Not that doubt is a bad thing, but not all people are mature enough to handle unorthodox views.

    I’m not sure I agree the spectrum needs to be shattered, in the sense that any sort of spectrum is useless and relative (if that’s what you meant by it, I’m not sure). I think a spectrum can hold merit if re-defined, and used for a purpose other than placing scholars politically, and promoting a political viewpoint (which is sadly how it is often used).

    Good post as always. Looking forward to your alternative.

    • rogereolson

      Just one correction. The Bible college I attended (some of people who were associated with it read this blog) was NOT, I say again NOT, that kind of place. What you describe is the seminary I attended that liberated me from fear of anyone and everyone who was not “safe.” The Bible college I attended stopped using an adjunct professor of psychology because he talked about behaviorism. (He was a personal friend of mine and I know he was not a Skinnerian naturalist; he just saw some value in behavioral training for neurotic people.) I thank God daily for the seminary I went to. If only it were still as it was then!

  • Rick

    “Is there a better way to categorize evangelical theologians? I will suggest an alternative.”

    Please don’t leave us hanging too long.

    • rogereolson

      I have to think it up before I post it! 🙂

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    Great points about spectrum usage in presenting false dichotomies! An interesting analogy would be the spectrum of light, having red at one end and blue at the other, with green being the apparent center of things, if we take equal portions of the ends, and mix them, we might think we get a balance like the center, but we end up with the exact opposite, purple! Should we apply this to politics as well?

    • rogereolson

      Good points.

  • Rob

    So I have a small worry that does not detract from your overall argument but may merit some attention. I get nervous when you identify Scottish Common Sense as an “Enlightenment philosophy”. This could be misleading to those who have not studied any philosophy and extremely misleading to those who have studied some modern philosophy.

    Scottish Common Sense is of course “Enlightenment” in the sense that it emerges during the period of the Enlightenment and amid a flurry of Enlightenment activity; 18th century Scotland. But if by “Enlightenment” we mean something like “shares the general assumptions of other Enlightenment theories” or “an example of typical Enlightenment philosophy”, then Scottish Common Sense is absolutely NOT Enlightenment philosophy but a rejection of it.

    Enlightenment philosophy generally makes 3 commitments that shape its own characteristic epistemology: 1) knowledge must be built upon self-evident and indubitable foundations; 2) knowledge is thus infallible; 3) mental ideas or representations are the immediate objects of perception and the world is only known through them.

    These commitments are first made by Descartes but all the subsequent philosophers also hold them until we get to Reid, the father of Scottish Common Sense, who rejects all of them. That makes Scottish Common Sense very different from Enlightenment philosophy especially when we consider that Post-Modern thought assumes 3 outright and also 1 and 2 in a more subtle way.

    I guess I also need to read Hodge at some point because I am interested in seeing how theology links up to this stuff.

    • rogereolson

      I’ve also been reading a lot of Reid and scholars about Reid lately. As I’m sure you know, there’s a lively debate in the literature about to what extent, if any, he belongs in the Enlightenment. Some scholars talk about “The Scottish Enlightenment” and include Reid there. Perhaps it’s his foundationalism which is, of course, not Descartes but not too far from Locke’s. It seems to me he wanted to back up from Hume and say that Locke was basically correct except about his latent idealism.

      • Rob

        I recommend Wolterstorff’s “Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology”, Philip DeBary’s “Thomas Reid and Scepticism”, and the Cambridge Companion. The first two bring Reid into dialogue with contemporary epistemology. There is also “Thomas Reid’s Theory of Perception” which explains Reid’s theory in contemporary terms. I am reading all three for a research seminar on Reid this semester.

        I think Reid goes back further than Locke. He want to jettison Cartestian foundationalism and what he calls “the way of ideas” which goes back to Aristotle. Reid does not believe that perception is mediated by sensations. He thinks that once you admit that we do not directly perceive the world, skepticism follows.

        • rogereolson

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Reid argue that revelation must be judged by reason (both as to its validity as revelation and as to its interpretation)? I read the Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid and some other books and articles. The one thing that I recall jumped out to me as making Reid “modern” and indebted to the Enlightenment was that. It sounded very much like Toland. (Of course I’m not saying Reid’s theology agreed with Toland’s deism.)

          • Rob

            I have not read Reid on religion (shocking, I know) but that sounds correct. Reid thinks that the only sources of belief that come to us already justified are from the basic sources of belief.

            It comes down to whether or not Reid thinks that revelation is properly basic, or dependent upon basic sources like testimony, sense perception, reason, etc. Reid may have concluded that revelation was not properly basic but really the use of sense perception and testimony which are properly basic.

            As far as reason goes, Reid requires that belief-forming mechanisms must cohere with one another. That does not mean the basic sources like sense perception, memory, etc must answer to reason as though they are not justified until reason approves, but it does mean that they cannot just flout reason either.

            William P. Alston, who died just a few years ago, was a recent Reidian who thought that religious experience was essentially a basic source of belief. He has a great book called Perceiving God.

          • rogereolson

            I know that some scholars have tried to connect Reid with “Reformed Epistemology” (Plantinga, Wolterstorff, et al.). But others have objected to that connection. I vaguely remember reading a chapter in the Cambridge book of essays on Reid. When I was reading Reid on religion I remember thinking he sounded a lot like Toland except where they both came out–doctrinally. Toland wasn’t orthodox whereas Reid was.

  • Darcyjo

    I will admit to wondering how one might categorize Dr. Hauerwas in comparison to other theologians and being at a total loss. However, being in one of his classes tends to do that to you. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around his lecturing style! Just out of curiosity, what do you think of his theology?

    • rogereolson

      He’s a good case study in why the spectrum doesn’t work for everyone. I have no idea where he would go on a “right to left” spectrum. I haven’t read a lot of Hauerwas himself; I’ve read reviews of his books and articles about him, etc. At some point when considering delving into H. (at the behest of my late friend Stan Grenz who was enamored with H.) I decided to go directly to the source–Yoder. I immersed myself in Yoder and I think I got from Y. everything of value in H. One time I decided to buy H’s latest book which was then With the Grain of the Universe–his Gifford Lectures. I was severely disappointed. I disagree with him and agree with Fackre that Niebuhr’s theology was basically Christian (not basically utilitarian as H. argues). The book upset me so much (Niebuhr is one of my heroes as is Yoder which makes me a split personality) that I had to put it down about halfway through. I’m about to read H’s new book War and the American Difference, so I’m always willing to give an author another chance.

      • Chris

        Maybe this it a bit of a tangent, but since you mentioned Yoder, which of his works would you recommend most highly (or, at least, as a good starting point into his theology)? “The Politics of Jesus”?

        • rogereolson

          Yes, that one.

  • Steve Rogers

    I’m eager to learn your new proposal for categorization of theologians. Might I suggest that “by their fruits you shall know them”? Instead of left, right, liberal or fundamentalist, how about loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind and so forth?

  • Russ

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  • John Inglis

    One thing I appreciate about your blogging (beyond the sheer learning value and provocations to think) is that it brings a personal and individual element that cannot be present in scholarly writings, and that is also neither sentimental nor an improper over exposure. Beyond just making the writing interesting and engaging, it adds a fulsomeness that strengthens its persuasiveness. That is, it’s not just the arguments that are persuasive, but the opportunity to enter into or identify with your musings and thoughts and reflections also persuade by helping me grapple with the thoughts in a deeper way (or if not persuade, then at least cogitate). Others may want more “bare the soul” or a more rarified debate, but I enjoy what you do the way you do it (what is it that Selena Gomez sings? “I don’t know what you do to me, but you just do . . . what you do”. Ah, where would we be without teenage America to help us express ourselves? But I digress.). Anyway, not to swell your head or anything, just to encourage you to keep writing in the manner you have been.


    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the affirmation. I truly appreciate it. My next post may go too far with the “individual element,” but I think some of these stories about what I have experienced among evangelicals these past 30 years are worth telling.

  • Fred

    Dr. Olson, I have never read Niebuhr but have lately been interested in doing so. Can you recommend one of his books (to a theological neophyte)? (And while you’re at it, how about Yoder?) As usual, my posts are off topic but since you mentioned his name, I thought I would ask. Sorry, and thanks.

    • rogereolson

      Neither one is easy to read. It takes some perseverance. I have my students read Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics and Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. It seems to me that just about everything they say can be found at least seminally in those books.

  • John Inglis

    The problem with spectrums, is that they can only accommodate one main characteristic, or perhaps one main constellation of closely related characteristics. Of course this has the usefulness of focus, which is helpful where the main characteristic is the one at issue, and properly of concern.

    However, this also has distorting effects that go beyond shouldering aside other characteristics and eliminating them from direct consideration, and so short circuiting what should be a broader and a more nuanced discussion. It serves to frame debates and analyses beyond just the issue of concern address by consideration of that (not “the”) main characteristic. Consequently, it allows and foments the pretense that the spectrum is the (only) proper vantage point and that it gives the proper context and frameing for viewing the subject. Furthermore, it tends to expand its scope beyond what is useful as well as outlive its usefulness.

    To relate this to evangelicaldom, it was once of great concern to distance orthodoxy from liberalism and a spectrum that focussed on the key differences was a useful shorthand. But that issue is no longer the only important issue facing evangelicals. Nor is it any longer the only or key criteria that should serve to distinguish evangelicals from other varieties of Christians.

    In this regard it is interesting to note the play that Dockery engages in. He was asked by “the conference leaders . . . to address the issue of evangelical identity” in relation to the differences between traditional and postconservative evangelicals. Dockery affirms McGrath’s six controlling evangelical convictions, but also makes it clear that (he believes) there has always been and still is a dispute–crisis even–over evangelical identity. Without providing evidence, Dockery asserts and then assumes that Carl Henry remained at the putative center of the spectrum and that analyses that see his position as changing are faulty. What is more troublesome, however, is that after faulting Lindsell for an overwrought focus on innerancy, Dockery uses that characteristic as the controlling criterion for the scaling of his spectrum of evangelical identity.

    Dockery justifies basing his spectrum on innerance by arguing that one’s definition of, or disregard for, innerancy impacts other doctrines. And this is where we can see the problems with deciding that a linear spectrum is the best way for understanding the varieties of evangelical faith, and then using a particular characteristic to mark positions on that spectrum. Dockery ignores the other five convictions and excludes them from discussion by his creation and use of the innerance spectrum. He clothes his analysis in words of “centre” and “boundary”, but the use of the spectrum as if it were the entire universe of relevant analysis obscures the fact that he is merely presenting a more nuanced argument à la Lindsell.

    It seems to me that Dockery’s decision to use a spectrum to frame his discussion of evangelical identity leads him to choose just one of several possible characteristics to mark off points on the spectrum. The spectrum would not be useable otherwise. This forces the discussion along a particular tragectory, and not necessarily the most helpful, or if helpful, it effectively excludes others from consideration by focussing all the discussion on the spectrum at hand.

    In the end, “defining evangelicalism biblically” (a subheading of his paper) comes to mean “defining evanglicalism only with respect to views about inerrancy of the Bible”. “Biblically” could be, and should be, so much more than just that.

    Or, at least this is how it seems to me at this point. Of course, by the above observations on someone else’s use of a spectrum I point out what I see as the value of Roger’s deconstruction of the spectrum.


    • rogereolson

      Well put. Thanks.

  • Scott Gay

    Just a reminder of some of Dr. Steven B. Sherman’s definition of postconservative evangelical.
    more holistic theology;
    alternative concepts of knowlege;
    additional ways of knowing;
    instrumental use of scripture;
    ecclesial and community-oriented;
    generous orthodoxy;
    a positive view……of postmodern insights

    Dr. Olson probably coined the term postmodern evangelical and it has been recognized by a diverse and influential audience. So its young and not a movement, not bounded in a Christological sense. It doesn’t deserve the old spectrum to describe its diversity. It’s not on that scale as regards liberal-fundamental and inbetween.
    So I wish it was described by a different term. The Patheos Religion portals has Evangelicals, but not Protestants. It has Progressive Christians as separate. I’m for leaving Evangelical to the neo-reformed. They want it. Their exclusive and determined viewpoints puts me in different world. I don’t know how Charismatics got a separate label from their Pentecostal roots, but they influenced all type of churches in the second half of the 20th century. I’m influenced by each description of postconservative evangelical above. I started blogging because of the late Michael Spencer’s description of a postevangelical wilderness. I take postconservative evangelical to be a time immediately after conservative evangelical. I guess I’m trying to speed it up to when it is a time beyond “post”.

    • rogereolson

      I thought I coined the term “postconservative,” but then I found that Clark Pinnock had used it in Tracking the Maze. And the intended title of Jack Rogers’ Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical had been Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical! I define my meaning of it in Reformed and Always Reforming. To me, “post-” does not mean “against.” It means transcending the limitations of something while preserving its values. I am most certainly conservative vis-a-vis liberal theologians. But I don’t identify with those who today call themselves “conservative evangelicals.” This blog is my constant attempt to explain to myself and others what I mean by postconservative evangelical.

    • I prefer the contemporary term “Emergent Christian” without adding too big a tent progressively, nor too sloppy theology academically. Of course Emergents are more concerned with orthopaxy than they are with orthodoxy which accounts for either spectral drift pragmatically. And if my post-conservative Evangelical brethren would join this movement I think that it would make for a great dynamic duo! “Eggheads” on one side, and “Zealots” on the other side. Each wishing to change the world through service and postmodern ideologies. And each helping the other towards balance and stability which I think Christianity at its global, social networking stage, mightily needs.

      Hence I like “Emergent” b/c it allows for significant change and difference as a movement or as an invading paradigm without being lumped in or confused with successor movements. Too, it seeks revolutionary freedom and a re-orientation that can be liberating, and is willing to rediscovery a non-Reformational, non-Hellenistic, Judaistic Christianity that is thankful to past church history but not beholding to it (i.e., non-creedal per se but very much creedal in other senses).

      For more see my blog journal that I started a year ago to help establish theological baselines that I wasn’t finding in popular emergent websites, while attempting to re-indoctrinate my alarmed Evangelical brethren towards more temperate rhetoric and judgments.

      I’m hoping Dr. Olson will say “Amen” and drive towards this same type of consolidation of movements as I sense his-and-my frustrations and criticisms seem very much aligned as I’ve read him over the past year.

      Thank you for your consideration.

  • Categorization difficulties are also rampant in the world of biblical studies; I think this will only become more and more difficult as the fields both (theology and biblical studies) become more diverse – each separately diverse, and sometimes further apart, and sometimes more greatly entwined. I’m inclined to think that eventually categorizing and comparing theologians / scholars / movements will become its own subdiscipline (as opposed to being part of church history or something) with its own conventions and language games. There are indications in biblical studies that this is already happening.

  • Rob

    I have always understood Right-Left to be a way of categorizing interpretations of history. Hegel’s followers agreed that the world must be understood as an unfolding historical process but they disagreed on whether it had reached its end or not. Right-Hegelians believed that the enlightenment was the full realization of humanity. Left-Hegelians thought that the process was still ongoing and could only progress by negating the enlightenment. “Conservative” and “progressive” then just express different interpretations of where we are in history.

    I think Hegel is nuts and so is all this historical-consciousness stuff. But I could see a place for a similar but more limited understanding like this for Christian faith. I tend to think that the important and essential elements of Christian faith were hammered out during the patristic period with scripture as the authority. So I guess I would be conservative in that I don’t think Christian faith needs to be rebuilt, just modified perhaps. I know other people who could care less what previous Christians have thought and seem comfortable with the idea that anything and everything in Christian faith is up for grabs and the Christian faith could endure a complete replacement of beliefs. I would call such a person a “liberal”.

    • rogereolson

      So would I (e.g., Troeltsch). You make a good point. The whole identification of Hegelians as either “right” or “left” may have been the beginning of this spectrum tool. Then there were the “right” and “left” followers of Bultmann in the middle of the last century. So the spectrum isn’t limited to evangelicals. The problem is, of course, that someone has to identify the “norm” for a spectrum to work at all. And then it’s tied to that norm. Don’t you think Eastern Orthodox theologians would consider EO the norm and put everyone else to their left (except for their own lunatic fringe on the right)?

      • Rob

        It absolutely depends upon what time you take to be the authoritative/canonical period. So Church of Christ (I think) claim to take New Testament Church as that time and so Eastern Orthodox would be seen as progressive innovators. (The problem being that Church of Christ is dreaming if they think they really are an embodiment of New Testament church.)

        So really some of the major disagreements between denominations can be described in terms of what time period they identify as the on in which people got it right. I think most non-liberal Protestants would identify 1500s-1700s as when we basically got everything right.

        • rogereolson

          Sure. And then we disagree over WHO basically got it right during that time period. I think the Anabaptists came closer to getting it right than, say, the Lutherans. And I’m including there not only doctrine but lifestyle. From my perspective, the Lutherans missed the boat in part for persecuting fellow Christians, using the authority and power of the state. But even as to doctrine I think the evangelical Arminians such as Michael Sattler and Menno Simons came nearer to getting it right than, say, Zwingli or Calvin or Knox. And one reason I say that is because they (the Anabaptists) discovered a soteriology much more like the earliest Christians’ than Augustine’s who, in my opinion, was overly influenced by neo-Platonism. But I don’t think anyone has basically gotten everything right yet. That’s an eschatological condition.

  • Craig Wright

    Rather than a spectrum, it seems that there are two groups who are considered to be Christian theologians. It occurred to me in seeing a previous entry mentioning Borg and Wright. Borg does not recognize God as personal, and denies the deity of Jesus. That puts him in a whole different category than Wright. Within Wright’s category, it seems that (as you have pointed out) neo-fundamentalists have started to try to label people as liberal or conservative. In some ways it is just silly (political or power struggle or misguided defense of the “truth”). I appreciated your previous blog on the definition of a Christian. That seems sufficient to me to call someone “brother.”

  • Dan Reid

    Thanks for articulating this, Roger. Let me suggest that much the same analysis could be applied to biblical scholarship. And the right-left grid stirs up a terrible amount of trouble for honest, skilled and faithful scholars in that field and gets us nowhere.

  • Calvin Chen

    Dr Olson,

    I might agree with you that categorizing theologians on the old right-life spectrum isn’t helpful, but the spectrum is still extremely helpful in student discipleship and also sociologically to make sense of churches and denominations and how they stand on a few issues like young earth creationism, inerrancy/infallbility, womens and LGBT ordination, exclusivity of Christ, reality of the resurrection, virgin birth, and so forth.

    I actually put various such denominational positions on a chart that I use in discipleship with undergraduates and it really helps them make sense of different churches and denominations around them and helps them intelligently choose a church after college (that doesn’t fall too far either on the liberal or fundamentalist side).

    Then I use your Mosaic of Christian Belief to introduce them to doctrinal unity and diversity 🙂

    I might also push back that just as Kierkegaard is often pushed aside as a philosopher because it’s difficult to categorize him, Yoder, Hauerwas etc could easily be categorized as ethicists instead of theologians and Newbigin as a missiologist.

    • rogereolson

      Where would you put this church on your spectrum? I know (and have visited) a church in a major metropolitan area that is evangelical in doctrine and experience but “welcoming and affirming” with regard to gays? And where would you put a church that teaches biblical inerrancy and young earth creationism but teaches universal salvation? (I know of several.) And where would you put Kierkegaard on the spectrum? Newbigin? Hauerwas? My point is the spectrum is too limited and limiting to be of real value. When used it trains people to pigeon hole everyone even when the pigeon holes are irrelevant to the church’s or theologian’s real beliefs.