Needed: A New “Progressive Orthodoxy” for the 21st Century: Part Three (Final) of Series about Horace Bushnell

Needed: A New “Progressive Orthodoxy” for the 21st Century: Part Three (Final) of Series about Horace Bushnell August 15, 2012

Needed: A New “Progressive Orthodoxy” for the 21st Century: Part Three (Final) of Series about Horace Bushnell

In the first two installments of this three part series I talked about what Gary Dorrien calls Bushnell’s “liberal-leaning experiment in progressive orthodoxy” with special focus on the 19th century theologian’s theological method. Here I want to suggest some ways in which Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy can be helpful today.

As in Bushnell’s time and place (New England in mid-19th century), Protestant Christianity in America today is deeply divided between conservatives of various kinds and liberals of various kinds. And, among evangelicals, a gulf is widening between those I call postconservatives (including progressives and moderates) and neo-fundamentalists (conservative evangelicals). Notably missing is viable, attractive, influential middle ground.

In my estimation, what American theology needs is what Bushnell (and a few others) provided in mid-19th century New England: an attractive mediating theology that takes orthodoxy seriously but is willing to explore new horizons and frontiers in doctrinal reconstruction. Theologies of retrieval abound and are attracting many conservative-minded young people. These are either paleo-orthodox (retrieving and renewing ancient Christian teaching) or neo-fundamentalist (retrieving and usually entrenching the “received evangelical tradition”). Needed is a vision of orthodoxy in which it is living. Jaroslav Pelikan quipped that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Too often, I fear, orthodoxy today is the dead faith of the dead. Progressive orthodoxy is the attempt to breathe new life into it and make it relevant (without relativism) to contemporary people.

Theologies of revision also abound. Among so-called “mainstream” Protestants there is new interest in process theology and various left-leaning political theologies of inclusion and social transformation. Among evangelicals, many younger people are attracted to revisionist theologies as espoused by some of the more progressive emerging church gurus. These often seem to repeat the liberal Protestant experiments of the later 19th century and early 20th century.

In the midst of the theological convulsions shaking New England Protestantism in the mid-19th century Bushnell attempted to provide a middle way, a via media, that took seriously the new knowledge of the sciences and new paths of philosophy while at the same time holding on to crucial doctrines of orthodoxy such as the Trinity. (Bushnell was a strong defender of the Trinity against the growing Unitarianism of his time and place.)

When people hear the phrase “progressive orthodoxy” there are usually two reactions. Conservatives hear only the “progressive” part and are deaf to the “orthodoxy” part. They react to it as if it were nothing but a new form of the old liberalism. Bushnell was no liberal; he believed in and defended the supernatural, the deity of Christ, the atoning death of Christ as more than a moral example. He was not a reductionist nor was he anxious to rush into accommodation to “modern thought.” Although he did believe it important to moralize dogma, he was not interested in reducing Christianity to ethics (which was the trend among the true liberals of his day).

The second reaction is from liberals who only hear the “orthodoxy” part and are deaf to the “progressive” part. They react to it as if it were nothing but a new form of fundamentalism, but Bushnell was no fundamentalist. He did not believe in biblical inerrancy (a concept he thought was foreign to the nature of Scripture as narrative and imagery), every biblical miracle (although he believed some biblical miracles are necessary such as Jesus’ resurrection), or that correct doctrine is the essence of authentic Christianity.

Like Bushnell, a new progressive orthodoxy would be a conscious via media between neo-fundamentalism that elevates correct doctrine to the sine qua non of authentic Christianity and neo-liberalism that reduces doctrine to unimportance. It would acknowledge that certain beliefs are necessary to holistic, mature Christianity in every place and time, namely the deity and humanity of Christ, the supernatural (that God sometimes acts in ways that transcend the laws of nature), the grace of God in salvation, and the Trinity (to name the most important ones). However, it would be open to reconsideration and revision of the ways in which doctrines have traditionally been formulated and expressed.

The new progressive orthodoxy would, like Bushnell’s, regard communion with God as the essence of authentic Christianity and emphasize spirituality as equally important, if not more important, than correct belief. It would recognize the distance between all human doctrinal formulations and the reality they aim to express. It would encourage Christian engagement with culture (science and philosophy especially) without capitulation to secularism or consumerism or “New Thought.” It would encourage the ongoing process of devout and faithful theological research that critiques and reconstructs traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time holding firmly to the basics of the faith “once for all delivered.”

Bushnell’s lifelong work on the atonement is the best example of his own progressive orthodoxy at work. He refused to reduce the cross to a moral example and influence; he knew the biblical imagery of Christ’s sacrifice required an objective achievement that affected God as well as sinners. But he was dissatisfied with the traditional Puritan doctrine of penal substitution because it went beyond Scripture and portrayed God as a cruel judge who demands blood before he will be loving and forgive—also an unscriptural view of God and the atonement.

Bushnell’s proposal may not have been correct, but it was a valiant attempt to push on the frontiers of doctrinal achievement and break through impasses to something new and faithful and satisfying to both traditional theology and modern sentiments. (It’s important to remember that up until Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo the majority of medieval church leaders and theologians thought of the atonement in terms of a ransom paid by God to the devil. Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” was initially greeted with horror because it was new and culturally sensitive. During his own lifetime, however, Anselm’s theory caught on because it did take into account biblical images of the atonement not accounted for by the traditional ransom theory and it made sense in feudal society better than the ransom theory.)

Another example of Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy is his open belief in the suffering of God. He was one of the first Christian theologians to affirm that God himself, not just the incarnate Son of God, suffers. It was Bushnell who first said (so far as I have been able to determine) that before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary there was a cross in the heart of God. (This is an image that has been much repeated in 20th century theology and attributed to many different poets and theologians; it belongs originally, so far as I can discover, to Bushnell.) There’s no evidence that in this he was at all influenced by Hegel who talked about a “speculative Good Friday” in God and Bushnell certainly did not mean anything like what Hegel meant by God’s “suffering.”) Bushnell was not afraid to break out of the confines of classical Christian theism when Scripture, spiritual experience and reason called for that. He was accused by critics of “patripassionism,” of course, but he steadfastly held on to his idea that God can and does suffer the sufferings of the world and especially of his Son on the cross against the overwhelming weight of traditional ideas of God’s immutability and impassibility.

Like Bushnell’s progressive orthodoxy, a contemporary one would seek to be reasonable while respecting and preserving mystery. It would attempt to take into account many different perspectives on Christian truth (“Christian comprehensiveness”) and unite them as much as possible. It would value imagination and creativity in theology without falling into relativism. It would keep an ear to the ground of culture and adjust doctrines to culture without reckless accommodation or capitulation. It would regard theology as a series of research projects rooted in tradition and community.

Who are some theologians working today along the lines of progressive orthodoxy? I’m not comparing them with Bushnell in terms of specific doctrinal formulations; I’m only comparing them with him in terms of approach and ethos.

One obvious example is N. T. Wright, although he is primarily a New Testament scholar. However, his work on justification is a good example of progressive orthodoxy. Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg are other examples. The late Stan Grenz was one, in my opinion. But the field of candidates is not cluttered. We are living in a time when only extremes get attention. Look at the ubiquitous use of the word “extreme” in entertainment. Radical proposals get more attention in politics and cuture generally (than moderate proposals). If a political candidate is perceived as moderate he or she had better do something quickly to appeal to the extremists in his or her political camp.

While I most certainly to not agree with every position Bushnell took, I think his example of moderate progressivism or progressive moderation in theology is a good model for contemporary theology. May his tiny tribe increase.

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  • Lee

    Thanks for the last three posts on Bushnell. I remember reading some of his “Christian Nurture” in seminary but that was it. I am a pastor who recently turned 60 and have in recent years downsized my statement of faith. The things that remain though I hold with much deeper conviction. I am much more comfortable now with what I call parallel truths in scripture that never quite reach a point of intersection or integration in my limited understanding. I am averse to declaring myself “for” any particular theological construct. I must hunt down some used copies of Bushnell’s writing. Your reference to his view on biblical inerrancy, “a concept he thought was foreign to the nature of Scripture as narrative and imagery” was a new and fresh insight to me. Thanks as always for your posts which I read regularly. From a fellow NABS grad who also saw Dr. Powell step out from behind the curtain and remembers him with deep appreciation.

  • I’m curious what you would do with someone like Kevin Vanhoozer, essentially a Reformed Evangelical, who, nonetheless retools and recovers classic doctrines with sophistication and creativity. Case in point, in his recent, must-read work on the doctrine of God, Remythologizing Theology, he pushes back on the “New Orthodoxy” when it comes to God’s passibility and rehabilitates the doctrine of impassibility making the case that the “voluntary kenotic-perichoretic relational theism” we see everywhere, is itself, another philosophical onto-theology of the sort that it typically accuses “classical theism” of being. He then retools classical theism in light of communicative categories arriving at a post-Barthian Thomism, a Trinitarian ontology that is recognizably Reformed and Catholic, yet much harder to pin down with the typical criticisms leveled by the “New Orthodoxy.” He’s eminently orthodox, and when it comes down to it quite conservative, but as to the way he goes about getting there, he’s not at all afraid of dealing with the most recent and best in philosophy, the sciences, literary criticism, post-liberal theology, etc.

    What I’m wondering is, is there someone who could be a “conservative-leaning experiment progressive orthodoxy” or must anybody who is a conservative evangelical be a “neo-fundamentalist”?

    • rogereolson

      I long treated Vanhoozer as one of my postconservative evangelicals because of his methodology. He teaches at places that I consider quite conservative and, so I’ve thought, he has to appear more conservative than he really is. I could be wrong about that. I bought Remythologizing Theology for $125 a year ago and still haven’t gotten into it. I need to. The whole issue of God’s impassibility is complicated. People seem to mean different things by it when they affirm it and when they reject it. Some people who affirm it seem to mean only that God cannot be made to suffer. I reject it insofar as it means God is incapable of suffering (mental, emotional anguish). I agree that love that cannot suffer is not love.

      • The work is beastly and, I think, a game-changer when it comes to this area. I cut my teeth on Moltmann in college and was very influenced by the Crucified God at this point. I did always have some reservations, though, because whenever I’d read a panentheist/open theist talk about immutability, impassibility, etc and refer to Aquinas, what they said never really matched up with the picture he’d painted. Vanhoozer’s book is good at clearing up confusions that are usually made about the classical doctrine in these discussions. As to the point that you’re making about “love that cannot suffer is not love”, he raises the issue of where we seem to be getting our notion of love as “mutuality” of the sort that demands suffering. Are we getting it from the Biblical narrative of God’s self-presentation, or are we deriving it from pre-packaged, philosophical concepts of what love “must be” and thereby creating a new ontotheology, much in the same way that classical theology supposedly did by imported the foreign concept of “being”? This excerpt sets up one of the main issues he tackles in it:

        ““God is love” ( 1 Jn. 4:8). No argument there. The parting of
        the theological ways occurs only when we begin to say what love
        is. At the heart of the relational view is one particular interpersonal
        relation (i.e., love) together with a particular understanding of love
        (i.e., self-surrender). For the classical theist, God’s love is his selfcommunication
        – the gift of himself, the supreme good, to another. 137
        The main question to be asked, of both classical and relational theists,
        is whether their respective notions of God’s love are ruled by
        abstract conceptions of deity – forms of ontotheology that give pride
        of place to substance and relation, respectively – or by the specific
        contours of God’s triune being as enacted in the history of Jesus
        Christ: “Here especially the common concept must be interpreted
        according to the particularity of this object .””

        I highly recommend the work. It’d be worth a review. Actually, a far better introduction than the one I’ve given is on offer over at the Scriptorium, Fred Sanders’ blog.

        Thanks for your time!

        • rogereolson

          This issue of what “love” means when applied to God comes up all the time in discussions between various kinds of theologians. I agree entirely with Vanhoozer that God’s love must be derived from “the specific contours of God’s triune being as enacted in the history of Jesus Christ,” however, IF that “love” is opposite of anything we know of as love and are commanded to do when loving, then the concept becomes vacuous. Sure, we cannot begin with a purely human, extra-biblical concept of love (e.g., romantic love) and apply that univocally to God. Yet, when we, as God’s people, see Jesus Christ as the model of love and read in 1 Cor. 13 what loves is like, we have every right to apply that to God himself at least analogically. Incapacity for suffering seems to me foreign to what Scripture itself reveals about God’s love in Jesus Christ and about the love God imparts to us and expects from us as a result in 1 Cor. 13. It seems to me that classical theism, any view of God as immutable and impassible in the strong senses, is one that begins with a preconceived philosophical concept of deity (what John Sanders calls the logic of perfection) and imprisons the God of Jesus Christ in it. I know I would never have thought that the God of Scripture is immutable and impassible just by reading and studying the biblical narrative. I knew from the first time I heard it that it was a foreign object brought to Scripture, not derived from it.

          • Sure, and Vanhoozer actually deals with the problem of “perfect being” theology of the sort that Sanders refers too. As for whether or not immutability is something I would have come up with the first time I read through the Scriptures, I think there’s a lot of stuff that after many years of study and wrestling with the options, we come to see because of what we do find. For instance, even though I see the outlines of the Trinity everywhere in the NT, I probably would not have come up with a fully-orbed one on the first reading with immanent relations fully-mapped out, the economic/immanent distinction, or the doctrine of appropriation. Still, I think these things are true and can be derived from Scripture. In the same way, a decently strong doctrine of immutability, God’s unchangingness, seems to be something you can derive in a fairly similar manner.
            Also, when you say, “IF that “love” is opposite of anything we know of as love and are commanded to do when loving, then the concept becomes vacuous,” I don’t think that leaves sufficient room for the Creator/creature distinction between God and humanity. The “at least analogically” is a key point. Does the same action undertaken by actors working on different ontological playing fields have the same effect on them? Where does the “greater dissimilarity” than similarity? I think that this will, at many times, result in modes of acting and being that we have to stretch ourselves a bit to conceive. It’s hard to think about love as pure giving, divine fullness that overflows with life, that overwhelms and engulfs all pain and suffering. That’s brilliant to me.

            Also, just so you know, this does not mean the denial of all emotions in God. Vanhoozer has a great section describing the distinction between a passion and an affection, as well as what it means for God to have a lively emotional life without “passions.”

            Thanks for your time!!

      • Remythologizing is definitely worth your time, Roger. It’s creative and broad and an enjoyable treatment of the subjects. And fear not – some of those “quite conservative” places aren’t as monolithically conservative as you might think. His current institution has a commitment to hiring along the broad spectrum of evangelicalism – what the dean has called a “pan-evangelical” ethos.

        • rogereolson

          I will certainly keep it on my list of books to read.

  • Sorry this doesn’t have to do with this blog but I don’t know how else to contact you.

    Brother Roger,

    The material I’m reading at college (Indiana Wesleyan University) says that John Wesley defined sin as “a willful transgression of a known law” and, therefore, every other wrongdoing is categorized as “human infirmity” (i.e., behaviors that come from our plain old human weakness). As far as I understand so far, this is why Wesley was able to believe in Christian perfection; he was referring to a state in which the “willful transgression of a known law” is no longer a reality to the Christian. He wasn’t talking about the “human infirmity” part of sin – that would always haunt us until Christ comes.

    Do I have that right, so far?

    However, my professor Mark Olson wrote to us and told us that Wesley did teach that both aspects (i.e., that which flows from human infirmity AND willful transgressions of known laws) were sin. This confuses me because I thought that is one of the differences between Wesley and Calvinists when it came to their doctrine of sanctification. If both are sin then what part of Wesley’s Sanctification differs from Calvinism?

    What am I missing here? Can you help me understand this?

    David Martinez

    • rogereolson

      I agree with the other Olson. However, Wesley was not always consistent in his terminology. That confuses things. He wasn’t a systematician. Most of the time, it seems, he believed “infirmaties” are sin, but not condemnable sin. Only willful transgressions of known laws of God are condemnable sin. “Christian perfection” results in the latter disappearing but not the former. That’s why he resisted the term “sinless perfection.” I recommend you read his sermon “On Christian Perfection” or his book “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.”

      • John Inglis

        Thanks, Roger, your answer is very helpful to me, too, as i was unaware of these two documents.

        Those interested may read “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” at

        Having read this, I found the following passage quite helpful:

        In this I endeavoured to show, (1.) In what sense Christians are not, (2.) In what sense they are, perfect.

        “(1.) In what sense they are not. They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for `the servant is not above his master.’ But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase.

        “(2.) In what sense then are they perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This St. John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what, if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence, that `all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live.’

        There is more in the document, which I have found also to be very moving when read as a personal account by Wesley of his devotion to love of God, our first commandment.


  • Rob


    Thank you for this post. Sign me up for via media! As a life-long member of a conservative, quasi-evangelical tribe, I now (mid-30s) find myself longing for a community that embraces a progressive orthodoxy as you describe it.

    It sounds so reasonable, yet as someone who has been advocating for such an approach (without having Bushnell’s or your vocabulary and definitions–thanks) for the better part of a decade in my conservative, quasi-evangelical church, I find the status quo and a general theological indifference/illiteracy are major obstacles.

    That said, I realize you were directing your comments more to the academy than local churches.

    • rogereolson

      But I hope it will filter down to the churches. Theology that doesn’t isn’t worth anything.

  • Joel Costa

    Great series!

    As a young seminarian intent on teaching and doing good theology, I consider myself part of this “tiny tribe” and humbly hope to take on the mantle and firmly stand on a moderate-progressive orientation. You forgot to add someone to the list of theologians, however: Roger Olson.

    Thank you for your work and for the inspiration and hope it provides us kids, as we find our way in theology and ministry.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome. And thanks for the affirmation. Messages like yours are what keep me doing this.

  • John

    As a United Methodist, I’ve found help along these lines in Bishop Scott Jones’ “United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center.”

    I’ll admit, I always thought Bushnell was just a 19th Century Liberal theologian, so I appreciate your refurbishing his image. I recall that Billy Abraham quotes Bushnell sometimes approvingly.

  • I’m confused by the categories you propose here:

    “As in Bushnell’s time and place (New England in mid-19th century), Protestant Christianity in America today is deeply divided between conservatives of various kinds and liberals of various kinds. And, among evangelicals, a gulf is widening between those I call postconservatives (including progressives and moderates) and neo-fundamentalists (conservative evangelicals). Notably missing is viable, attractive, influential middle ground.”

    Are postconservatives not a middle ground between liberal Christianities and neo-fundamentalists?

    It sounds like you are looking for a new middle ground between the conservatives (neo-fundamentalists) and the current middle ground (postconservatives). Is that right?

    • rogereolson

      Adam, I meant to press “reply” when I first read your question but pressed “approve” instead. So here’s my reply. As often, you are too perceptive for my good. 🙂

  • Bev Mitchell


    I knew the meaning of procrustean the other day, but you got me today with Patripassianism. The full OED has some great quotes pertaining to this belief. One from Hippolytus and Callistus I share for what it reveals about our language “A little while ago she (the Church) was patripassianly disposed” (my spell checker is smoking! )

    More to the point of poor Horace’s woes, the New Englander January 10, 1881 said of some poor fellow: 

    “He was called at once, a Unitarian, a Sabellian, a Partipassian and a Panthiest.” 

    The OED doesn’t say who was so maligned – could it have been your Horace? A little further research makes it very likely that it was. There is a 40 page article on Horace Bushnell in that issue. The article was written by one Rev. Henry W. Goodwin and a photocopy of the text is available at:;cc=nwng;rgn=full%20text;idno=nwng0040-1;didno=nwng0040-1;view=image;seq=0015;node=nwng0040-1%3A2

    I wish we had had this Internet thingy when we were in grad school. 🙂 It took longer to write this than it did to find the information.  🙂

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure it was meant about Bushnell. He was vilified by right and left in his day in New England. To me that’s a sign he was largely right.

  • J.E. Edwards

    …..”It would encourage the ongoing process of devout and faithful theological research that critiques and reconstructs traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time holding firmly to the basics of the faith “once for all delivered.”
    I’ve read these 3 posts with interest, mainly because I haven’t looked into the studies of most of these progressive/liberal-leaning theologians. I’m still not sure what the benefit of your quote (posted above) is for the church. Doesn’t this somewhat fit what Paul told us in 2 Tim. 3:7 “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth”? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not speaking of being mindless, but we do have warnings. 2 Tim. 4:3-4 also, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Why are we so afraid of straight forward interpretation? It seems the deeper one gets into theological education/discussion, the more words and meanings become slippery and evasive. That is the very essence of guile, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong I strongly dislike extreme hyper-fundamentalism as much as anyone, but we don’t need to move toward another extreme. This post on the Desiring God blog was very helpful on this subject.

    • rogereolson

      One person’s “elevated vagueness” is another’s intellectual humility.

      • J.E. Edwards

        I guess what I’m saying, is that we don’t need new avenues of doctrine. Most of us don’t truly wrestle with what we already have. What we do know isn’t so we can wage the war within, but to make us comfortable and settled. That doesn’t mean we need to seek out new ideas, because if we are serious when we do seek, I believe it will bring us back to what we already have. There is a kind of seeking out of things doctrinal that has a tendency to lead toward a name for myself and is concerned with what kind of legacy I will leave behind. My goal in life is to be the most unoriginal (not mindless, thoughtless, lazy or careless) believer I can be. If the greatest thoughts I ever think are someone else’s, then so be it. However, if I have to creep into philosophy or science to give Scripture support, I feel I’m on shaky ground. I guess my question is, why do you feel this desire to be progressive?

        • rogereolson

          in order to be more thoroughly biblical which tradition may or may not be.

    • John Inglis

      It is not that the “words and meanings become slippery and evasive”, or that we make them so, but rather that we recognize the fact that such is the inherent nature of words and meanings. It is a shallow understanding that assumes one’s own interpretation–or someone elses’–is correct because it is “straightforward” and safe from “slipperiness”. Furthermore, much of what fundamentalist evangelicals believe is “straightforward” and not “slippery or evasive” is merely the tradition that they have received, a tradition that post-dates Paul and so falls within his “time . . . when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths . . .”

      What Roger seeks, and what I understand him to be saying about Bushnell, is that we must continue to go back Scripture and seek to understand it on its own terms, that is, in the manner that God intended his Words-given-via-his-apostles to be understood. This is an ongoing task, not only of building on the shoulders of saints who have gone before us, but re-examining what they wrote to see if it appropriately expresses God as he intended to be understood. Fundamentalist evangelicals seem, to me at least, to reject substantial reexaminations of the shoulders on which they stand. It therefore seems to me to also be a fearful faith that worries that God cannot handle every ages’ tests for truth and truthseeking, and so huddles below the shoulders of their tradition. To shake these shoulders is to shake their faith.


      • rogereolson

        Welcome back and well said! I couldn’t have said it better. Also, it seems to me Piper (or whoever the commenter was referring to) is more guilty of making words “slippery and evasive” when he talks about God’s “love.” I don’t recognize his God’s “love” as love at all. He redefines it so that it is compatible with anything and everything and therefore loses all meaning.

      • J.E. Edwards

        …”It is a shallow understanding that assumes one’s own interpretation–or someone elses’–is correct because it is “straightforward” and safe from “slipperiness”.
        I wasn’t referring to my own interpretation in the strictest sense, because what is “new” is simply being re-hashed–even my own ideas and those here. That’s what makes this discussion interesting. Not that it doesn’t need to happen, but that it will probably be worked out by serious thinkers in every generation. It is a really necessary kind of discussion, but it also necessarily begins to render the place where one stands.
        Here’s something else I find interesting. It’s that liberal-leaning people have to sound conservative to gain acceptance from the majority. It’s like that even in politics. That’s what I mean by slippery. It’s when people assume someone is saying one thing and find out that it’s another. But it’s not by their words that they find this out but in how they live them out (or in the case of politics, how they govern). That’s why liberal-leaning Christians need to seriously consider the effects of what they believe and teach on the church, because it will affect Christian living. A more straight-forward use of language (not shallow) will lead to a more straight-forward (not shallow) life. The uses of language lead to a different mindset and therefore to different ways of living. Just because someone is able to be slippery doesn’t mean they are a more serious thinker or even being intellectually humbler.

        • rogereolson

          I see it the other way. Neo-fundamentalist evangelicals use words like “inerrancy” in ways they would never be used in ordinary language, but don’t explain that to their followers. I cannot tell you how often (hundreds of times) in my 30 year career of teaching theology I have had to show students that their favorite theologian’s real meaning of “inerrancy” is NOT what they thought it was. They always assume it means technical, scientific accuracy and even literal interpretation. When is a leading conservative evangelical theologian going to go on youtube and post a video of him (it’s always a him, of course) really laying out what “inerrancy” means and does not mean with all the necessary qualifications? They don’t do it, in my experience. They are being slippery, in my opinion. But another example is “love” used of God. Leading Calvinists talk about God’s love, but rarely explain that it means nothing at all like what most people think love means at its best (based, for example, on 1 Cor. 13). They’re being slippery. My experience has been that it is conservatives who try to sound open-minded and progressive when they’re not. And over the years I’ve had numerous guest speakers from many Christian (and even non-Christian) traditions come to my classes. A common experience is that they become as much like their perceived audience as possible and hide their offensive beliefs. Calvinists have been the worst about it. I have to drag out of them what they really believe. Then the students are shocked. Then I have to tell the students what most classical Calvinist theologians really believe and sometimes they can’t believe it because they never heard it from Piper, for example. (Although I admire Piper because he goes on youtube and just lays it all out there. And he says those things in his sermons at Passion conferences. But many, many students who have heard him and read him somehow miss what he’s saying anyway. I think they just can’t believe it and they assume he means something other than he’s saying.) My point is–slipperiness is just as common, if not more so, among conservatives than among liberals.

  • This is definitely a “tribe” that I can relate to. The unfortunate polarization of Christian doctrine makes people who want to explore a “flexible evangelicalism” feel alienated by both sides. This is definitely inspiration!

  • M. 85

    Dear Dr. Olson, thanks for the insightful post. What do you make of Bushnell’s opposition to women’s suffrage and his ambivalent (and ambiguous) attitudes towards racism?

    • rogereolson

      Unforgiveable (by me). But that’s why I believe in purgatory. I’m sure by now he is well aware of the errors of his ways, like Luther about the Jews.

      • Purgatory? Are you being metaphorical or are you stating an actual belief you feel is biblical? If it’s the latter: doesn’t purgatory include one paying for ones own sin?

        • rogereolson

          Okay, this is something I wrote about here a long time ago. I hate to go back over it all again. See my response to another commenter today. No, I don’t believe in purgatory in any medieval sense of the word (which is the only sense most people know anything about). Nor do I believe in it or anything like it as penal. I believe in a part of paradise that includes correction and spiritual formation. It is something those who find themselves there will rejoice in even if they are humbled by it.

  • John Inglis

    Upon being introduced to Bushnell as herein, I have taken time to read him and about him. It seems to me–even from my limited reading–that he is an apt figure to represent the progressive or moderate evangelicalism that seeks to go beyond fundamentalist clinging to secondary doctrines, but yet not so far as to give up faith in a historical Christ who rose from the dead in real time and space. I say this on account not only of what Roger says about him, but also because Horace himself selfconsciously tried to achieve this middle way and saw it as an important process for uniting all under Christ:

    “One thing is clear, that the highest form of piety can never appear on earth until the disciples of Chlist are able to be in the Spirit, in some broader and more permanent sense than simply to suffer those local and casual fervors that may be kindled within the walls of a church, or the boundaries of a village. The Spirit of God is a catholic spirit, and there needs to be a grand catholic reviving; a universal movement, penetrating gradually and quickening into power the whole church of Christ on earth. Then and then only, in the spiritual momentum of such a day, when the Spirit of God is breathing inspirations into all believing souls, and working graces in them that are measured, no longer by the dogmas of sect, but by the breadth of his own character-then, I say, feeling the contact, every man, of a universal fellowship, and rising with the flood that is lifting the whole church into freedom and power, it will be seen what possible heights of attainment-hitherto scarcely imagined-what spiritual completeness and fullness of life the gospel and grace of Christ are able to effect, in our sinful race. Partiality of movement involves a limitation of power. ”

    (from “God in Christ. Three discourses delivered at New Haven, Cambridge, & Andover, with a preliminary dissertation on language”, By Horace Bushnell)


    • rogereolson

      That quote catches Bushnell’s spirit/ethos perfectly. Thanks.

  • John Inglis

    At the risk of being prolix, I provide another quote from Bushnell in which he gets to the heart of what divides evangelicals still: the nature of language and its use in seeking truth. Bushnell argues that approaching the Bible as if every word was to be taken literally ignores the fact that many words bear no direct relationship to anything factual, that is to what we can detect with our physical senses. Rather, many words are inherently figurative because they refer to things that are not physical: concepts, thoughts and teh like. What we must do, therefore, in approaching Scripture is to recognize that much of the reality of which it speaks is nonmaterial and hence only expressable by figurative language. At a simple level this means that Christ is not a piece of granite even though he is the rock of our salvation. But it goes much beyond this simplicity. In Bushnell’s words, an error is made by those who

    “attain to a conviction that every word has a physical root, if only it could be found; and yet the natural necessity, that all words relating to thought and spirit should be figures, and as such, get their significance, they do not state. They still retain the impression that some of the terms of thought are literal, and some figurative. This is the manner of the theologians. They assume that there is a literal terminology in religion as well as a figurative, (as doubtless there is, in reference to matters of outward fact and history, but nowhere else,) and then it is only a part of the same mistake to accept words, not as signs or images, but as absolute measures and equivaJents of truth; and so to run themselves, by their argumentations, with a perfectly unsuspecting confidence, into whatever conclusions the logical forms of the words will carry them. Hence, in great part, the distractions, the infinite multiplications of opinion, the errors and sects and strifes of the Christian world. We can never come into a settled consent in the truth, until we better understand the nature, capacities and incapacities of language, as a vehicle of truth. ”

    It is quite exciting to read the works of a man of a past age who addresses not only the spirits of his age, but those that we experience now. As one with a linguistics degree, it is intriguing to read a non-professional linguist who writes so much that is true about words and our understanding and use of them. Bushnell is not God, and so is not inerrant, but he seems to write much that can profit us in our day.


  • John C. Gardner

    This series is quite enlightening and so worthwhile.
    Query: Do you believe in purgatory in the way Pope Benedict seems to which is almost instantaneous at least from one perspective?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know because I haven’t read Benedict on purgatory. I hesitate to say I agree with any pope about anything! (I live in Texas among Baptists. 🙂 So let me just say that I don’t like the word “purgatory” at all. What I believe in is an educative process (I’m agnostic about its details) in paradise by which justified persons, already fully forgiven, are brought “up to speed,” so to speak, about their errors and are corrected about them. As I said earlier here, it’s the only way I can imagine Calvin in paradise.

  • Joshua Penduck

    Once again, thank you Prof. Olson for such an enlightening and fascinating miniature series! It might be of interest to note what is happening in the British (specifically Anglican) scene, as this is also quite a hopeful prospect, theologically at least. Whereas in the 60s-70s there was a huge split between the hyper-conservative evangelical wing of the Anglican church and the increasingly liberal catholic (High-Church) wing, there is now increasing convergence in the middle. Although this comes from both sides of the divide (Rowan Williams is a great example of a progressively Orthodox theologian on the catholic side), I can imagine it’s the evangelical side which interests you most (as it does me)! In terms of positions of influence, three of the five key bishops in England (the Archbishop of York, [John Sentamu], the bishop of Durham, [Justin Welby], and the bishop of Oxford, [John Pritchard]) are out-and-out ‘Open Evangelicals’ (the Anglican phrase for what you have described as ‘Progressive Orthodoxy’, specifically from the evangelical wing of the Anglican church), whilst the two leading ‘contenders’ to be next Archbishop of Canturbury (John Sentamu and Christopher Cocksworth, the bishop of Coventry) are also Open Evangelicals. Although having figures such as Rowan Williams, Sentamu and Cocksworth as the Archbishop of Canterbury is in a sense to reconcile the hyper-conservative African church with the hyper-liberal Episcopalians, it is also a sign of a rising frustration with the continuous extremes and the turn towards the middle. Indeed, the current leading theologians within British Anglicanism are in the middle, in particular those from the evangelical wing (David Ford, Christopher Cocksworth, Oliver O’Donovon, Tom Smail – [who sadly died earlier this year], Richard Bauckham, Alister McGrath, Walter Moberly and Jeremy Begbie, to name just a few). I noticed earlier that you had mentioned N.T.Wright as a prominent postconservative, but within British Anglicanism himself, Wright is only one (albeit a very influential ‘one’) of many Evangelical postconservatives. (I do recommend a few of these theologians, if you get a chance: David Ford is particularly influential – and I imagine you already have read some McGrath!). On top of this – and this is what brings me most hope in an increasingly militantly secularised Britain – the fastest growing churches within British Anglicanism are those whose ministers tend to have emerged from postconservative seminaries. I hope this brings you some hope over the increasingly vitriolic divide in the US, in that the huge division that once existed in British Anglicanism between conservatives and liberals is increasingly broken down through the emergence of a Progressive Orthodoxy (indeed, both hyper-conservative and hyper-liberal wings seem to be becoming increasingly marginalised at the present time).

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for that round up. I have met some of those gentlemen. I consider Tom Wright a friend. A couple years ago I spent some time with Richard Bauckham and he told me he is one of my postconservative evangelicals. (He had read Reformed and Always Reforming.) In spite of his admiration for Packer, I think McGrath is a postconservative or progressively orthodox evangelical. I’m sorry to hear about Tom Smail’s death; his book The Forgotten Father was helpful to me. I’m curious what you can tell me about Michael Green. Is he still alive? Writing? Tom Wright told me once that this whole centrist evangelical tribe in the Anglican church was founded and early on led by John Stott. What do you think? Unfortunately, the U.S. is so different from the UK IN THIS SENSE–that the center seems unpopular in both politics and religion. We have become largely a society that loves extremes (so long as they don’t go too extreme). Calls for moderation and centrism are usually met with loud scoffing. “Moderate” equates with “mediocre.”

      • Joshua Penduck

        As far as I know, over the last few years Michael Green is still well, and continues to write books. At the moment, I believe he is still a research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, though I don’t know what his theological stance on that college still is (nearly ten years ago, Wycliffe went through what I feel was a drastic and unfortunate shift to ‘the right’ of the Evangelical spectrum after Alister McGrath left as Principle. Indeed, whilst in the 1990s it was the centre point for Postconservative Evangelical theology, it is now widely seen as a sowing ground for Neo-fundamentalism, and is thus increasingly marginalised).

        I would very much agree with Tom Wright concerning John Stott. Whilst in the 50s Michael Ramsey (then bishop of Durham, I believe) criticised Stott as being a fundamentalist (in that he was an Evangelical, and in those days Evangelicalism equaled fundamentalism), his theological openness concerning matters such as Annihilationism, and his public criticism of Lloyd-Jones’ call for Evangelicals to leave mainline denominations, paved the way for an Evangelical re-engagement with the heart of the Anglican Church. However, at the same time there is a sense in which the re-emergence of the Puritan wing (i.e. Wycliffe Hall) a decade ago also has its roots in John Stott, mainly in the latter’s heavy criticisms of the charismatic movement.

        • rogereolson

          When I was still trying to be charismatic I found Green’s books extremely helpful. I often thought I could remain charismatic if I were in Great Britain.

  • Rob

    Are there any Christian colleges that you could characterize as progressive orthodox or post-conservative? Or is just individual theologians at this point?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t think those labels apply to institutions except in the sense that an institution permits or even encourages progressive orthodox/postconservative thinking in theology. Fuller Seminary comes to mind. As for colleges, I think (I could be wrong) that Messiah College in Pennsylvania at least permits it. I’m sure there are others, but I hesitate to name ones that might not appreciate it. Fundraising can get difficult if deep pockets perceive an institution to be too progressive.

  • Steve Seipke

    Thanks for the posts on Bushnell. Also, I am looking for a good biography on Horace Bushnell any recommendations?

    • rogereolson

      Many were written, but most are no longer available. The best available one, which focuses on his theology, is Bushnell Rediscovered by William R. Adamson (United Church Press, 1966).

  • Jesse Reese

    I continue to be very confused as to where I would put myself in your categorization of things. I typically would just describe myself as sitting in the broad “Ancient-Future” movement of evangelicalism, but concerning whether I am theologically postconservative or paleo-orthodox I am at a loss. Paleo-orthodoxy is, if you will, the framework of my thinking, so I am often dissatisfied with the role that postconservatives/progressive evangelicals give tradition. But I am often quite as turned off by the attitude of Oden that he aspires to simply reproduce classical opinions and produce nothing new. Augustine and Aquinas sought to safeguard the consensus of the Church when it spoke with a relatively unified voice, to be sure, but did they stop there? I’m not sure that I can read the Summa and describe Aquinas as seeking simply reproduction and not development and contribution. I do not think that the two should be held apart, it seems to contradict tradition itself to not seek progress or new insight. Am I a… I don’t know… progressive paleo-orthodox thinker? I’m a little frustrated by this divide and I wish that the parties worked closer together. Perhaps my openness in this sense is due to the fact that I came from conservatism/fundamentalism rather than a liberal background, and thus fear the “slippery slope” far less?

    • rogereolson

      I have often thought (and suggested here) that one’s approach to modern/contemporary theology and especially constructive theology has much to do with his or her theological/ecclesiastical context. If I were at a theological pluralistic institution that highly valued theological innovation I might lean toward paleo-orthodoxy. My contexts have always been primarily surrounded by and threatened by fundamentalism of some kind. (Not the institutions I’ve taught at but their constituencies or self-appointed watchdogs within their constituencies.) Therefore, my “pull” has been toward the progressive (without throwing the baby out with the bathwater).

      • Jesse Reese

        I think that is a very helpful perspective. I have always thought of my religious background as populated by people with very narrow, conservative theology, but without any respect for historical grounding or perspective. So I tend to see history as both a source of orthodox grounding for our present conversations and perspective in terms of our own hangups in the many areas where there is much historical diversity (for instance, the atonement).