Games (Some) Theologians Play

Games (Some) Theologians Play June 4, 2013

 Games (Some) Theologians Play

            If you’ve been following my blog recently, you know that I defend the value and autonomy of theology as a definite discipline for the churches. In a nutshell, when theology (as I described it in my recent series What Is Theology and Who Does It?) is abandoned or neglected, the church gets sick (and by “church” here I mean to include both the church universal and the individual congregation). When it is doing its job rightly and when the church is listening appropriately, theology is the conscience of the faith community especially in matters of belief. It steers the church toward right belief and away from wrong belief. And without that contribution, the church tends to become overly accommodated to culture, losing its cutting edge, or separatistic and sectarian, losing its contemporary relevance.

            Having expounded and defended theology, however, I need to add that, unfortunately, many theologians have given theology a bad reputation. One way in which they have done that is by playing games with a serious subject. With these games they trivialize theology and suck its usefulness for Christians and the churches out of it.

            I’m fond of reminding you that I’ve been involved in theological pursuits for over thirty-one years. That’s not to boost my ego but to explain why I think I have a right to speak about such issues. I’ve been teaching theology full time in three Christian universities for thirty-one years and during that time I’ve edited a well-known Christian scholarly journal (supported by approximately fifty Christian universities), written sixteen books of theology, contributed chapters to numerous edited volumes of theology and written too many theological articles to remember. I’ve served as consulting and then contributing editor to Christianity Today for many years and the magazine has published many of my articles and book reviews. I’ve been in the middle of several theological debates and controversies in which careers were at stake. I’ve served as consultant to several Christian organizations and spoken and numerous Christian churches, colleges, universities and seminaries. Much of that activity has been within the evangelical “world,” but some of it has been in the so-called “mainstream” Protestant “world” as well. I’ve participated in several series of ecumenical dialogues both in Europe and the U.S. I’ve been interviewed on many Christian radio stations and podcasts. I’ve been featured in several Christian magazines—including one in the Netherlands. I’ve been mentioned in the New York Times Books Review magazine and in Stern—the German equivalent of Time. I’ve hobnobbed in various capacities with leading “world class” theologians including Hans Küng, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann. I served as president of the American Theological Society (Midwest Divison) and as co-chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion.

            All that is simply to say I have a lot of experience in the theological “world.” Whether I’ve made my mark there is for others to say; all I’m saying is that I’m no novice in it.

            Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed a great deal of nonsense alongside a great deal of meaningful progress in theology.

            Theologians are human beings and therefore finite and fallen; they are not automatically saints or even ethical people. Often they play the same games other scholars and academics play and make the same mistakes others make. Too seldom does anyone call them on them.

            For all my love of theology, I must admit that some of its bad reputation is deserved insofar as theologians’ behavior is theology. I prefer to make a clear distinction between theology itself and the actual ways in which it is done by theologians. But I don’t expect everyone to recognize or acknowledge that distinction. Many people look at what theologians do and blame theology for that.

            So what are some of these “games theologians play” that bring disrepute on it?

            First, some theologians, like other scholars and academics, have enormous egos which show in one or both of two ways. Either they attempt to go “one up” over other theologians, considered their rivals, or they sniff around in other theologians’ writings until they find a flaw and then pounce on it and attempt to discredit them with them. All this is, either way, supposed to make them heroes. Fame and reputation are the goals. Theologians are no more gifted with intellectual humility than other scholars, unfortunately.

            Christian theology ought not to be done this way. It may be standard, expected behavior in the academic world, among other scholars, but it is a disservice to the kingdom of God and the churches. Theologians ought to collaborate, congratulate and congregate, not compete.

            Second, some theologians attempt to make names for themselves by being extreme in some way. It’s well known that books sell and followers flock when a theologian writes and speaks in strange “tongues”—proposing radical ideas previously unknown or at least undared (by Christians) and/or using shocking language. An obvious example, of course, is the 1960s “death of God” theology (so-called “Christian atheism”), but there are many other examples—both conservative and liberal. Especially since the 1960s theologians have competed with each other to shock audiences. A current example is the rise of “queer theology.” All one has to do is peruse the program book of the American Academy of Religion to see theologians and religion scholars attempting to outdo one another with shocking paper titles proposing theological ideas that would make the church fathers and reformers (to say nothing of the apostles!) spin in their graves.

            Third, especially among conservative theologians, some take on the mantle of “self-appointed Grand Inquisitor” and become heresy-hunters in order to get pats on the back and upwardly mobile careers. This is especially effective for them in certain neo-fundamentalist circles and institutions. One conservative evangelical theologian invented quotes and attributed them to rivals and theologians whose reputations and careers he wanted to damage. (I know this because I was one of his targets and he attributed a damaging quote to me in a press release when I never said that or anything like it. His intention clearly was to damage me and the institution where I taught and to boost his image among fellow neo-fundamentalists.) Another conservative theologian writes books and articles mainly about alleged heresies hidden in plain sight (according to him) in fellow conservative theologians’ books and articles. He has gained a reputation as especially “discerning” among constituents, raking in much support for his “ministries.”

            I have been in professional society meetings where theologians stood up during the Q & A time and attempted to humiliate presenters of papers or panel members by pointing out their alleged ignorance or lack of intellectual acumen. I have known theologians who set out to ruin rivals’ reputations with insults and innuendoes. One world renowned Protestant theologian told me to not write my dissertation on another theologian because “he stole his ideas” from him. I thought the evidence could just as easily point in the opposite direction! At one professional society meeting, during the reception following the presidential address, a well known Protestant theologian interrupted my conversation with a well known Catholic theologian and, to me, in front of him, berated him, using vulgar language. But more subtly, some theologians set out to undermine their imagined rivals in order to boost their own reputations. It’s well known that they often use their graduate students to wage theological war on their rivals.

            All that is to say that, in spite of its value to the churches, theology can be twisted and distorted by being practiced in harmful ways. Unfortunately, there’s no universal oversight agency to call theologians out on such behavior. (I mean “unfortunately” in a relative sense; in an absolute sense I wouldn’t want such a universal agency to exist. However, I think it would be good for the evangelical community to have something like an oversight panel made up of all kinds of evangelicals to call out theologians who behave badly.)

            In my three part series on “What Is Theology and Who Does It?” I described theology (as I mean it) as a “servant discipline.” There should be no room in Christian theology for massive egos that specialize in mastery over others. Many years ago, in some Christian circles, theologians published only with their initials—for this very reason. I am not advocating that, but it illustrates a sensitivity to the true purpose of theology—not personal reputation but servanthood.

            Theologians who are mainly concerned with making a name for themselves, iconoclasm, or heresy-hunting should be called out. I have done that in some cases, where I thought I could have some influence, by approaching them directly—via letters or e-mail messages. I’m advocating public shaming. Here I am suggesting that you, my readers, discern when a theologian is “playing games” such as I have described and avoid them. And suggest others avoid them. One way I have of doing that is by omitting their names from lists of recommended theologians—even if they are brilliant and  influential.

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  • Rob F.

    Thanks for this series. In the last paragraph you say “I’m advocating public shaming.” Given the context, I suspect “not” is missing?

    • Roger Olson

      Right. “Not” is missing there. I’ll try to make that correction in the post if it’s not too late. Thanks for pointing out the error.

      • wisdomhunter

        Actually, I kind of like it the way it is. Certain actions ARE shameful and we all too often have lost our sense of shame. Even Paul felt it important to shame Peter for his bigotry against Gentiles.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ah, academic life! You could also have mentioned red-herring factories, feigned misunderstanding, attempted (sometimes successful) control of publication by current prevailing opinion leaders, the joy of controversy for its own sake, flat out unwillingness to consider another’s point of view, seemingly mortal fear of change ……..

    When secular colleagues wondered how on earth I could support the Church and church life considering all the messes so publicly on view, my answer was to ask if I should also leave the university because of the horrid behaviour so obvious in academic life. Fortunately both of these great institutions stand for so much more that we practitioners are capable of living up to. Your hope that it all might be better policed is widely shared, but there is no clear mechanism. The only measuring stick that seems to work is revealed in Matt 7:15-20

    “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

  • $54672926

    It seems like James 3:2 “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body check.” also applies to theologians. Even if there is a difference of opinion between theologians, shouldn’t respect come first? Honoring Christ should be the goal of theology.

  • Rod

    Thankyou for writing this. Almost brought on a flood; tears of joy.

    • Roger Olson

      Wow; I had no idea it would provoke such a response! 🙂

      • Rod

        Yes. I wrote a piece for my blog last week on academic arrogance. Your post lends some authority to my developing theory surrounding this issue.

  • Matthew James Gray

    The irony of all this, is that theologians are usually experts at doctrines like the incarnation. The incarnation’s kenosis is of the great becoming small, so the small can become great. Good theology – and good theologians – should therefore be about making great and lofty ideas clear and accessible for everybody. More than that, it should be about showing God in all His grandeur (or at least a lot of Him) to people so they can recognise, and appreciate Him. (I will briefly say, that’s precisely why I like your books for my students!)

    The theologian’s arrogance makes the small feel smaller.

    As a “small time” theologian, lecturing in a small Liberal Arts College in Australia, I don’t get to sin in the big ways you’re talking about here, Dr. Olson. But I think this same arrogance comes out for us small timers, when we – I – relegate great Christian Brothers and Sisters to simplistic caricatures: “Barth’s just a universalist”; “Piper’s just a cruel fatalist”; “Augustine was just sexually disfunctional”, etc. We demean them so that we can seem to our students as being above them. Not only is that professionally delusional, it’s incarnationally backwards. Mea culpa.

  • wisdomhunter

    Good article, Roger. Even if you are an Arminian. 😉

    • Roger Olson

      All truth is God’s truth! 🙂

  • Perry L. Stepp

    Point 3 of my prolegomena for theology: If your theology doesn’t make you less of a jerk, it’s useless.

  • Timothy

    One major scholar who belongs in the first category, much disliked in UK by many scholars because he was so good as demolishing other people’s work, but hugely respected for all that, was James Barr. Now obviously he was more of a biblical theologian than a systematic one, and he spent most of his career demolishing biblical theologians if not theology, but his work is relied upon by many now.
    So it is possible for scholars to have huge egos and still make a contribution

  • prodigalthought

    Roger, thanks for pointing out these 3 problems amongst theologians: making a name for themselves, iconoclasm, or heresy-hunting. It truly saddens me when people do thinks to puff up themselves or to heresy-hunt. One of the continued tragedies of recent years is getting people fired (or seeming to try and get people fired) from their Christian college/university. This is greatly appalling.

    I will mention one other thing that I don’t like so much – it’s the converse of heresy-hunting, which would be what I call conservative-hunting. Just as some conservative evangelicals hunt out some who don’t fall within the prescribed conservative thought, there are also progressives & liberals who do the converse to conservative theologians. This makes me just as upset, even if I don’t consider myself a tightly conservative evangelical.

    Do you have thoughts on this last aspect?

    • Roger Olson

      I haven’t heard of any liberals or progressives actually targeting conservatives to get them fired from their teaching positions. I suspect more common is liberals actively trying to prevent conservatives from being hired (to teach) in the first place. But I work in a basically, broadly conservative context (American evangelicalism) and there the problem is, as I see it, conservative heresy-hunting especially among college, university and seminary professors. I don’t know of a single case where a progressive evangelical has invented quotes and attributed them to conservatives in order to damage their careers and the institutions where they teach. I know of such behavior by conservatives.

      • prodigalthought

        Thanks for the comment interaction, Roger. What I had in mind is not that some liberals/progressives try and get conservatives kicked out of their position, but some bloggers jump at the words of people like The Gospel Coalition (TGC), John Piper, etc. It’s almost like they check these people’s tweets & blogs every hour or so to catch them saying something they shouldn’t have, then they post up their own article with outrage at what the conservatives have said. It’s a bit immature at times, to say the least.

        Again, I don’t think TGC and others always say the most helpful things at times after natural disasters, about homosexuals, etc. However, it’s not healthy to sit around to catch the next bad thing they say so you can be the first to post about how bad their tweet or article was.

        I hope that makes sense.

        • Roger Olson

          I think there’s a difference between the behavior you describe, which seems obsessive, and holding them accountable. They certainly do that to those they consider progressive or “too liberal.”

        • asphaleia

          Scott, um… “bloggers jumping on words of… John Piper… with outrage at what the conservatives have said… It’s a bit immature at times, to say the least…”
          Ironically, you are talking to Roger Olson about Roger Olson.

          • Roger Olson

            Ironically, I think he knew that. And my response reflected that I was aware of it also.

          • prodigalthought

            Marv (asphaleia) –

            As I understand it, Olson’s objective is to engage reformed Calvinism, with Piper being a prominent proponent of it, not hit hard and quick at Piper when he tweets following tornadoes in Oklahoma.

            Roger –

            Do know that I have appreciated what you are saying here. In all, I was simply noting what I saw other more ‘progressive’ types do, which I sum up here in my own blog post.

  • Curt Day

    Theologians are certainly human and sinners. I would like to add a couple of other things to the list. First, theologians struggle with syncretism, that is they struggle with mixing God’s Word with favorite tenets that come from their culture which do necessarily agree with God’s Word.

    Second, and this characteristic comes from the political Left where I live and is attributed to the Church in general, the Church is another institution of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo. What has disappointed me is that the more I read or converse with theologians on the web or my own minister at church, the more truth I see in this charge from the political Left. Can you show me some examples of conservative, and preferably Reformed, theologians who are challenging wealth and power? Thank you.

    • Roger Olson

      Oh, yes. There are many. Just to name one…Nicholas Wolterstorff (a philosopher turned theologian also).

      • Curt Day

        I wanted to thank you for the reference. I watched a youtube lecture of his and liked much of what he said.

  • Coming in late to the game, but while I agree with the lamentable state within certain neo-fundamentalist circles, and certainly decry being shocking for the sake of shock value, I take a certain issue with your characterization here. Certainly attacking other individuals as individuals should have no place among Christian theologians, but this does not mean that we fall back into a scheme where we only “congratulate and congregate.” The first point here really misses the point of academic rigor. We comb through other theologians’ work looking for errors because they are precisely that, errors. Advancement of knowledge happens incrementally, not dramatically (or at least, not usually dramatically), and this is certainly true of Christian theology after the close of the NT canon. Such rhetoric, though, should not be taken as a personal attack, but as the slow movement of progress, possibly akin to (but certainly distinct from) Hegel’s dialectic. The conflict of ideas helps to move the discovery of knowledge forward, but it is a slow process and should be entered into humbly. Thus we do well to critically examine others. It’s not just because this is how things are done in academia, but because it is an effective method of moving forward. If we uncritically congratulate each other, we’ll soon find ourselves in heretical waters of a sort (indeed, your first point seems to directly contradict your second point). While I agree with the direction of your second point (we should not be shocking for the sake of shocking) your example is a gross mischaracterization. While I am certainly no fan of the “death of God” theology movement (and it rightfully was displaced), it was not the case of theologians just trying to be shocking. Rather, it was an honest and critical response to the work of Ernst Bloch who popularized the idea that the best Christians are atheists and the best atheists are Christians (of course what he meant by atheism, especially in light of his Utopian Philosophy, may be up for debate). In fact, while the movement as a whole was a failure, and rather depressing to boot, the positive impact of it is still felt as there has been a renewed emphasis on both apophatic theology (seen, for instance, in the via negativa, describing what God is not (i.e. infinite)), and upon other theologies that affirm that God is not an extant object subject to scrutiny in the same way other objects are (else God would not be God). So that is more of a dispute of kind. Finally, while the major thrust within neo-Fundamentalism is certainly negative, I believe you go too far by assuming motives for everyone involved in this. I doubt the majority make these claims for the sake of name or fame, but instead do so because they genuinely perceive themselves to be bulwarks of the faith, defending it against the subtle encroachment of Satan. Be cautious when you assign motives to others (besides, doesn’t the attitude here go against point 1?).