(Fireworks Alert!) My Response to “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” by Gerald McDermott (JETS 56:2 [June, 2013])

(Fireworks Alert!) My Response to “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” by Gerald McDermott (JETS 56:2 [June, 2013]) September 21, 2013

My Response to “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” by Gerald McDermott (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:2 [June, 2013])

This is the second time Professor McDermott has criticized me and other (what I call) postconservative evangelical theologians in print (that I know of). The first time was about a year ago in (I think) First Things. The substance of this article is the same as that one.

McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. We have met once and corresponded two or three times (by e-mail). He was good enough to send me a pre-publication copy of his previous article and I was able to help him put my own theology in a more accurate perspective than at first. Even though I disagreed with much of what he said about me and postconservative evangelical theology (which he labels “meliorist theology”) in that article, at least he took seriously what I said to him by way of response to his invitation to preview that article.

So now, somewhat to my surprise, he is at it again—attacking what he calls “meliorist” evangelical theology and defending what he labels “the orthodox tradition.” He lumps me together with several other “meliorists” in evangelical theology and criticizes our approach as following “a trail blazed by Protestant liberals.” In essence, he accuses us (what I call postconservative evangelicals) of prioritizing experience over doctrine. There’s some truth in that, but he completely misunderstands it. Many of us postconservative evangelicals lean toward pietism; we believe transforming experience of God is closer to the heart, the center, the core of Christianity than doctrine. That is not to say, however, that experience is above Scripture in authority. There’s where McDermott and other critics of postconservative evangelical theology miss the boat entirely.

After a relatively standard discussion of differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, McDermott begins his attack on postconservative evangelicals.

First, he rightly admits that we, whom he calls “meliorists” (I’ve never seen or heard that word before this and I certainly don’t accept it as a label for myself) and whom I call “postconservative evangelicals, “reserve the right to use Scripture as a trump card over tradition when they see conflict between the two. Self-designated ‘post-conservatives’ such as Roger Olson, Clark Pinnock, and the late Stanley Grenz have been the most vocal about the need to be open to further light breaking out from the Word that might compel a reshaping of doctrine or new doctrine entirely, such as Openness of God theology.”

What’s interesting is that, in the paragraph before that one, McDermott also admits that Protestants in general have insisted on Scripture above tradition. So, I ask, what’s wrong with what he calls meliorists and I call postconservatives? Aren’t we just pursuing the Protestant method of prima Scriptura? Yes, and for some reason McDermott objects to us doing it whereas he applauds (I’m sure) Luther for doing it!

Or perhap McDermott thinks there came a point, somewhere in the development of Protestant theology, where the critical and constructive tasks of theology ceased and what had by then become generally agreed on as “correct Protestant doctrine” was no longer open to amendment or addition even in light of fresh and faithful study of Scripture?

If that’s what he thinks, as appears to be the case, then who are the real Protestants? He and his seemingly crypto-Catholic fellow “orthodox tradition” comrades or those of us who, like Luther, dare to question tradition in the light of Scripture and reason?

But here’s where my real complaint against McDermott begins—with his rhetoric that misrepresents what we, meliorists or postconservatives, are saying. He blames us for beginning the “new division” among evangelicals. Hardly. The division was not begun by progressives or postconservatives but by the heresy-hunters and self-appointed inquisitors among those he lumps together as “orthodox” but whom I call “neo-fundamentalists.” They started it by attempted to have open theists (and before that Robert Gundry) expelled from the evangelical theological society.

But here’s where McDermott really goes off the rails in his critique of us. Speaking for us (which he claims to do but doesn’t) he says that according to postconservatives “Doctrine is said to be the essence of Christianity for the ‘conservatives,’ who build a rigid orthodoxy on a foundation of culture-bound beliefs because they do not realize [so we supposedly say] the historical situatedness of the Bible.” That is not what we say. The issue is tradition, not the Bible! We postconservatives have been absolutely clear that we accept the authority of the Bible; we emphasize that tradition is what is historically situated in a way conservatives ignore and therefore is always open to correction insofar as Scripture requires it.

This is a vicious calumny I hear and read often from conservatives, neo-fundamentalists, about those of us I call postconservative evangelicals. They slide from talking about our openness to revision of tradition because it is historically conditioned to talking as if we believe Scripture is open to revision because it is historically conditioned. I challenge McDermott to show where I (or Grenz or Pinnock) ever said that. (Of course, everyone believes Scripture is historically conditioned in someways. It was written in Hebrew and Greek! But the reason for openness to doctrinal revision is not that; it is the fallibility of all human interpretation of Scripture.)

This is not a minor point; it’s major. It is, in fact, we, whom McDermott labels “meliorists,” who are the ones who uphold biblical authority and it is, in fact, they, McDermott and those he defends as the “right kind” of evangelicals, who place tradition on the same level of authority as Scripture—functionally (by making some traditional interpretation of Scripture, some system of doctrines, for all practical purposes above question).

Yes, indeed, this rhetorical twist makes me angry. It’s no minor thing. It’s nothing less than bearing false witness against brothers. All of them who do it owe us (yes, even the now deceased Pinnock and Grenz) apologies. We have all gone out of our way to affirm the authority of Scripture over tradition, experience, culture (which are secondary sources and norms, normed by Scripture).

Then McDermott starts giving examples, digging his hole even deeper. He admits that I, Roger Olson, respect The Great Tradition. In fact, what I have said repeatedly, including in the books he cites, is that in every doctrinal controversy “tradition gets a vote but not a veto.” Only Scripture has veto power and Scripture is theology’s norming norm and tradition is its normed norm. What more can a good Protestant, who doesn’t want to slide into Catholic theological method, say for tradition?

McDermott cites as his “bad examples” of meliorist or postconservative evangelical theologians those who criticize “penal substitutionary atonement.” (He fails to mention that I hold to it or at least to the governmental version of it. At least I am not a big critic of it.) But, is he arguing that the penal substitution theory of the atonement is above biblical criticism, that it is equal with the Bible itself in terms of authority?

It’s one thing to disagree with critics of the penal substitution theory like Joel Green and something else entirely to accuse them of somehow thereby automatically abandoning biblical authority. Which McDermott doesn’t do! But what is he criticizing them for? Does he think the penal substitution theory is sacrosanct? How is that different from elevating it to the status of equality with Scripture?

I’m going to stop with this even though McDermott goes on in his confusion to suggest, if not outright claim, that those of us he calls meliorists elevate experience over doctrine and have a “hesitation” about plenary inspiration, etc., etc.

I think McDermott reads those he calls meliorists with the worst possible hermeneutic of suspicion rather than of charity, lumps all together as if we’re all the same (or at least on the same slippery slope), and confuses tradition with the authority of the Bible itself. In one place he even argues that the early Christian doctrinal developments, orthodoxy, were inspired by the Holy Spirit—putting tradition on a par with Scripture.

Apparently McDermott blames me for being a Baptist. I’m not sure what denominational identity he wears. But theologically he’s a creedalist and what I called (in my article “The Future of Evangelical Theology” in Christianity Today [February 9, 1998]) a “traditionalist”—an evangelical who, wittingly or unwittingly, directly or functionally, elevates tradition over or at least alongside Scripture.

Excuse me, Professor McDermott, for being a Protestant and a Baptist! (And don’t tell me there are Baptists who agree with you. There are many “Baptists” these days who aren’t very Baptist in terms of holding to the primacy of Scripture over traditions of men.)


P.S. The Schleiermacher comparison is nothing other than a cheap shot, low blow and vicious calumny (by implication). Neither I nor any other postconservative evangelical I know sympathizes with Schleiermacher’s theological method “from below” or doctrinal revisions. In my considered opinion, it is simply a sign of intellectual weakness not to be able to tell the difference between evangelical pietism and Schleiermacher’s liberal pietism. For those of us who stand within the evangelical pietist tradition, “conversional piety,” beginning with repentance and faith resulting in regeneration and leading into a life of personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is central to Christianity. Doctrine is important but secondary to being transformed by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. For Schleiermacher, on the other hand, and quite to the contrary, the center of Christianity is not conversion but God-consciousness which, in some degree, is universal. I won’t bother to go on spelling out the profound difference. I’ll just say that anyone who has read Schleiermacher and, for example, Grenz or Olson or Pinnock, fairly cannot miss the incommensurability.

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  • Ian Paul

    Thanks for this Roger. I think you have put your finger on it: “postconservative evangelicals, “reserve the right to use Scripture as a trump card over tradition when they see conflict between the two’. Isn’t that the definition of evangelical?! It’s amazing that ‘Conservatives’ can’t engage with this…

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Thank you for this. I have often been amazed at how tradition bound evangelicals who supposedly believe in the authority of scripture over tradition are. A HUGE number of them have no concept that there’s a difference between scripture and their own interpretation of scripture. And having studied early church theology, I think it’s safe to say that what many evangelicals consider “orthodoxy” would be unrecognizable to early church theologians.

    I long thought of myself as an evangeical due mostly to sharing a high view of scripture. These days I find myself often shoved to the progressive end of the Christian spectrum although there are many, many things which are taught/believed there that I do not hold to and am uncomfortable with. But the reality is that these traditionalist evangelicals have created a split. Those who follow scripture and God away from the traditionalist’s so-called orthodoxies are anathama. Unfortunately, people like McDermott who take any disagreement with their man-made interpretations of scripture as an abandonment of scripture itself. In my case at least, nothing could be farther from the truth.

  • From my limited experience among such fundamentalists, they have a tragic tendency to mold orthodoxy around — conveniently — their own beliefs, without the slightest hint of humility that they could be wrong. They then color their perceived opponents in the worse possible light, using the type of rhetoric as to engender fear in the unsuspecting, thus making converts to their special brand of “orthodox” evangelicalism. From reading the history of evangelicalism in this country, nothing has changed over the last 300 years.

  • Gary

    My experience with Baptist/evangelical
    theology can best be described as a wild Roller Coaster ride:
    a lot of great psychological, emotional, and spiritual highs and a lot of
    deep psychological, emotional, and spiritual lows. Why?

    In Baptist theology, your Justification and your Sanctification—your essence
    as a follower of Christ…if you boil it all down…is really dependent on you
    and your feelings.

    Do I feel saved? Do I feel I really repented
    in my born again experience? Do I feel that I truly had
    faith when I made a decision for Christ; when I prayed a version of the
    Sinner’s Prayer? If I am really saved, why do I feel
    at times that my faith is so weak? Maybe I need to do the born again
    experience again; maybe I need to pray the Sinner’s Prayer again, just to be 100%
    sure that I am saved. I want to know without any doubt that
    I am saved, and if I do not feel saved, I begin to doubt
    my salvation.

    Baptist/evangelical theology tells me that I will always feel
    Christ’s presence and strength inside me, if I am a true believer. But
    what if I don’t feel him there sometimes? If it is true
    that I should always be able to hear God speak to me, in an inner voice or
    feel his inner presence move me/lead me
    to do his will, what is going on when I don’t hear anything or feel
    anything? Have I committed some unknown sin and he is refusing to hear
    me? Or is the reason that I don’t hear or feel
    him present within me… is because I’m not really saved!

    I was so incredibly happy to find orthodox (confessional) Lutheranism and find
    out that my feelings have nothing to do with my
    Justification, my salvation, nor with my Sanctification, my walk with my Savior
    and Lord! My salvation was accomplished 100% by God.

    • Roger Olson

      How do you know that without any feelings (broadly defined) or inward transformation that manifests outwardly? This is perhaps why many Lutherans turned to pietism–to avoid the dead orthodoxy and blind faith of a certain brand of Lutheranism. Luther himself, by the way, described his Tower Experience as “feeling born again.” Read my chapter on Luther in The Story of Christian Theology.

      • Gary

        There is nothing wrong with feelings. The problem is when people base their status with God on how they feel. Our status as God’s children is based on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross ALONE, not on how “filled with the Spirit” I may feel today.
        Luther did say that he felt “born again” but evangelicals should not interpret that statement to mean that, after reading Romans, Luther fell on his knees, prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, and asked Jesus into his heart. Luther believed that he was saved in his infant baptism. You will never find a statement where Luther renounces the saving efficacy of his infant baptism. You will find many subsequent statements by Luther that confirm his belief that God forgives sins and saves in the waters of Holy Baptism, even for infants.
        What made Luther feel “born again” was his realization that he did not need to earn God’s love. He did not need to do good works to reduce his time in Purgatory as Rome was teaching. He was saved by grace! He was given salvation as a free gift! Nothing was required of him to assist in his salvation. His salvation was a settled fact! And for Luther, it was settled in his infant baptism, the purest picture of the helplessness of the sinner to assist God in his salvation.
        I will post a second comment on the issue of grading your spiritual status based on feelings versus based on obedience.

        • Roger Olson

          You’re probably preaching to the choir about this. What thinking Protestant disagrees with you (about our justification not being based on feelings)? Christian affections follow justification-regeneration and signal them, that’s all.

          • Gary

            Ask the evangelicals!
            I had two or three born again experiences, one at age 9 and one or two as a teenager. Why? I repeated my born again experience because I wasn’t sure that I had “done it” right previously. That “doing it right” is assurance of salvation based on feelings, my brother! I would bet that a significant percentage of evangelicals have experienced the same. I have seen one study that states that the number of evangelical teenagers who have had multiple born again experiences is very high. I will try to find it and post it.

          • Roger Olson

            C’mon. I won’t blame all Lutherans for folk Lutheranism (what my wife’s Lutheran relatives believe that isn’t real Lutheranism) if you won’t blame all evangelicals for folks religious evangelicalism. I grew up in “Lutheran land” (upper midwest) and knew lost of Lutherans who feared that unbaptized babies would automatically go to hell. Should I say that’s “Lutheranism?”

          • Roger Olson

            Huh? That just doesn’t make sense. Even Luther knew that. When he was asked by a man who found out he wasn’t baptized as an infant (he thought he had been) whether he should now get baptized as an adult (after living as a committed Christian for many years) Luther said no–that would turn baptism into a work. Even Luther believed unbaptized infants are taken by God to heaven. But he advised Lutheran pastors not to preach this because it might hinder people from having their children baptized. He was very inconsistent about many things–as I find much Lutheran theology to be. You obviously are coming from an ultra-conservative Lutheran perspective (not ELCA I’d be willing to bet!).

      • Gary

        One of the most striking differences I found between evangelicalism and orthodox (confessional) Lutheranism is the primary way in which those two Christian “Churches” view Christ.

        In evangelicalism, at least for me, the emphasis was on Christ as my friend. “Jesus is always there for you. Jesus is your friend in need. Jesus is your best friend. When you are feeling down, come to Jesus and let him wrap his arms around you and tell you that everything will be ok. What a Friend we have in Jesus!”

        Now, don’t get me wrong. Lutherans also believe that Jesus is our friend. There is nothing wrong with the evangelical concept that Jesus is our friend. What Lutherans would have you contemplate, however, are the problems that can arise when Christians make their primary concept of Christ be: “Jesus, my buddy”.

        How does it make you feel when you expect your friend to always be there for you, to have your back, but at times, when life gets tough, he doesn’t seem to really be there? How do you feel when you call on your friend for help, but he doesn’t seem to be listening? How does it make you feel when your friend doesn’t meet your expectations?

        Answer: You get frustrated, down/depressed, impatient, demanding, and even outright angry, AND you will frequently vent your frustrations onto your friend either verbally or in your actions, to let him know how displeased you are with his failure to live up to your expectations.

        Now, go back to the questions in the paragraph above, and replace the word “friend” with the term “Almighty, sovereign Lord” or the word “King”, and let’s see how that changes your response:

        You may become frustrated, depressed, impatient, demanding and angry with your sovereign, absolutist King, but your reaction and behavior to your King will be MUCH different than in the case with your friend. What will be the big difference?

        You will obey your King regardless of your internal feelings! You have been given orders; you have been given work to do by your King, and he expects, he demands, that you do it regardless of how you feel about it!

        The Kingship of Jesus Christ, Lord God of Heaven and Earth, first and foremost demands your obedience to his sovereign will. Your obedience to the King is the focus in Lutheranism, not your internal feelings. The concept that Jesus is your “buddy” is not emphasized. Focusing your Christian life on obedience to God’s Word, rather than your feelings and the current status of your friendship with your buddy, is one of the most liberating and comforting aspects of orthodox Lutheran Christianity, at least for me.

        • Roger Olson

          You’re pitting Lutheran theology (as you understand it) against folk religion. Hardly a fair comparison. Why not look into your own Lutheran tradition and engage with those Lutherans who have emphasized Christian affections as essential signs of justification-regeneration (without the folk religious talk of Jesus as “good buddy)? You’re setting up a straw man and, of course, easily chopping it down or burning it up. But that doesn’t touch the fact that many Lutherans throughout history have emphasized religious affections–namely the classical Pietists such as Spener, Francke, et al. You may disagree with them, but you can’t deny their status as Lutherans!

          • Gary

            I very clearly said “orthodox/confessional” Lutheranism.

          • Roger Olson

            But you keep comparing “orthodox/confessional Lutheranism” with evangelical folk religion–not what evangelical theologians write.

          • Gary

            I guess I don’t get your point.
            There are evangelicals who believe that if you don’t pick up and dance with a rattlesnake in their worship service then you lack true faith. There are evangelicals who do other odd things. Just because some evangelicals practice a strange habit, you cannot generalize that to all evangelicals.
            The same is true with Lutheranism, although there is not nearly as much variance in worship and practice as among evangelicals, and the number of split-off denominations is very small compared to Baptists and other Reformed Churches.
            The pietists were mystics, just as many evangelicals today are mystics. The pietists were wrong! Period. Lutheran or not, they were wrong.
            They were wrong because they introduced a new doctrine, outside the practice of the Christian Church. Paul taught that not only are we to follow his teachings on doctrine but to follow his traditions. Believing that your assurance of salvation can be gauged by how you FEEL, is not a Pauline teaching or tradition.

          • Roger Olson

            So you are the pope of Lutheranism? 🙂

  • rvs

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this below, which might be deemed the playing of the self-appointed pope-card among some evangelicals who cannot endure to hear authentic, joyful views that do not match their own:

    “McDermott thinks there came a point, somewhere in the development of Protestant theology, where the critical and constructive tasks of theology ceased and what had by then become generally agreed on as “correct Protestant doctrine” was no longer open to amendment or addition even in light of fresh and faithful study of Scripture?”

  • Dear sir,
    I was raised Methodist, embraced Pentecostalism, and am now Baptist. When deciding which “stream” of theology I was going to study, it was Sola Scriptura that was ultimately the deciding factor as I was “concerned” with the “weight” given to tradition and experience: everything other than Scripture is open to review as our understanding is ultimately fallible. Where I have “labelled” myself as a Charismatic Arminian Baptist, it is clear that I am going to have to add postconservative evangelical to the mix too now.
    God speed and God bless.

  • labreuer

    I looked up Meliorism and found this bit on Wikipedia:

    Meliorism is an idea in metaphysical thinking holding that progress is a real concept leading to an improvement of the world. It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one.

    Meliorism, as a conception of the person and society, is at the foundation of contemporary liberal democracy and human rights and is a basic component of liberalism.

    I’m reminded of the first public thing Jesus said:

    Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

    The only difference I see between the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven—something we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer—and Meliorism, is whether it is done through human effort or via the will of God. Am I missing something?

    I’m also reminded of dispensationalism, some forms of which believe that the church will be very weak before the pre-tribulational rapture. It strikes me that because they think this about eschatology, they do not think it is possible for the church to be strong, and furthermore, hatred is expressed toward any Christian who would strengthen the church (at least, ‘too much’). Sadly, I’m serious. Roger, I think your effect on the church is to strengthen it, and you are getting attacked for this!

    (I don’t know if McDermott is a pre-millennial dispensationalist. But anyone who arrogantly thinks the church can’t have a solidly positive impact on the world—like Christian meliorists would believe—will express disgust at those who disagree with them.)

  • Steve Marquardt


    I am a student member of the Evangelical Theological Society, and I’ve got to say that I am thankful for your response to McDermott’s article. I recently came across this article in the latest issue of JETS, and I was concerned because of the polemical tone which it took and the manner in which it seemed to promote an “us versus them” mentality. In reading your blog over the last few months I have found a few places where I disagree with you, but I appreciate the tone you write with and your desire to promote a broader understanding of evangelicalism than is sometimes present within discussions in the ETS. Keep up the good work!

    • Dear Steve,
      I’m with you 100% about Roger’s tone and approach. His response (rebuttal if you will) was full of humility.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The wonderful verb ‘ameliorate’ (to make better, to better, improve and secondly, to grow better – OED), is presumably what Meliorists hope to do. How is this a bad thing in theology, if all the important elements (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience) are given their appropriate place? So many theological dust ups seem to stem from imbalances in one or more of these four essentials. Post-conservatives like the ones you mention, as far as I have read, are providing a more balanced approach than traditionalists, conservatives, fundamentalists etc. If balance is not a good thing, perhaps critics of ‘meliorists’ should argue for the ameliorating effects of imbalance.

    Is McDermott in 2013 still as keen on the Vanhoozer option as he was in the 2011 First Things piece? I seem to recall you saying in “Reformed and Always Reforming” that you were not sure why Vanhoozer gets a pass from conservatives. McDermott (2011) seemed downright ready to sign up for Vanhoozer’s approach.

    • Roger Olson

      I find Vanhoozer ambiguous. There are ideas and approaches in his books I like and then he turns toward traditionalism. Stan (Grenz) and I talked about this often. We just couldn’t figure out where Vanhoozer would eventually comedown–on the side of the traditionists (neo-fundamentalists) or the postconservatives. For a while he was calling his theology “postconservative” and then he repudiated the label.I suspect that so long as he works within the TEDS/Wheaton orbit he will have to walk a very fine line very carefully. I’d like to claim him for postconservatism and I think he is often on the right track. But I can see where someone like McDermott can also claim him. The same is true of Alister McGrath.

      • McGrath, being on the British side of Evangelicalism (and without the baggage of ETS or the N. American history) can more easily walk a middle path. As a scientist who believes fully in human evolution, for example, he would not often blend well with American evangelicals at large. (He fits with the Biologos people pretty well).

      • Another British evangelical who fits together with McGrath is N. T. Wright. (Not saying they believe the same about everything, but both are broadly ‘Reformed’ but with lots of interesting particularities to their theologies).

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t know McGrath personally. I do know Wright personally. He communicated to me, after reading Reformed and Always Reforming, that he is one of my “postconservative evangelicals.” And he said as much in his book Justification.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Reading Paul Pilar’s September 20 article in The National Interest entitled “Rouhani’s Message” provided the following quote by Iran’s new president. It seems that those involved in international affairs have problems (and some unworkable solutions) very similar to those you describe for evangelicals. The quote stands on its own:

    “In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.”

  • TerryJames

    You say, “…we emphasize that tradition is what is historically situated in a way conservatives ignore and therefore is always open to correction insofar as Scripture requires it.”

    This seems self-evident. Does McDermott disagree, or just refuses to acknowledge it?

    Isn’t it true that Greek philosophical categories or definitions influenced Augustine to the Reformers and beyond? Isn’t examination and correction necessary?

    • Roger Olson

      My experience of reading McDermott and other evangelical traditionalists like him is that they SAY Scripture is over tradition, but then treat some tradition AS IF it were equal with Scripture–by criticizing anyone who dares to question it.

  • Thank you Roger.

    Re: “The division was not begun by progressives or postconservatives but by
    the heresy-hunters and self-appointed inquisitors among those he lumps
    together as ‘orthodox’ but whom I call ‘neo-fundamentalists.'”

    I want to make sure that I correctly understand this. How do you differentiate “progressives” from “postconservative”?

    • Roger Olson

      No clear distinction. Some prefer one label while I prefer another. The approach to theology is virtually the same.

      • Roger, In “Patheos,” your blog is listed in the “Evangelical”
        category, but perhaps you belong in the “Progressive Christian”
        category? Yes or no? Peace, Jim

        • Roger Olson

          I doubt it. I believe in the unique inspiration of the Bible and its supreme authority over all life and belief. I’m progressive politically and socially, but not theologically in the way they mean “progressive” which is, I think, a favored term for “liberal.”

          • Thank you for helping me to sift through these terms. I agree that “Progressive Christianity” tends to look like liberal Christianity. What do you think of the term “Evangelic left” that some say is synonymous with “Progressive Evangelical”? Do you identify with the Evangelical left? Peace, Jim

          • Roger Olson

            Usually “evangelical left” refers to politically liberal evangelicals–regardless of their theological inclinations. Among them I’d include Ron Sider, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. And, I suppose, if I had to join a tribe politically it would be theirs. I was greatly influenced by the PostAmerican–the precursor to Sojourners. I definitely lean leftward politically.

          • Roger, If I may, I wish to take a step back in this dialogue and comment on theological progress. We both agree with the supreme authority of the Bible because the Bible is the canonical word of God. And we believe that the Bible teaches primary doctrine. Some would then ask, Why is there a need for theological progress? My answer is that the Bible is not a systematic theology but a collection of ad hoc messages while the New Testament addressed issues that arose in the apostolic church. But new issues arose since then while the Bible did not directly address post-biblical problems in the church. Likewise, new generations need to apply the biblical doctrines in new ways unforeseen by the apostolic authors. The new applications should never contradict the biblical teachings, but they nonetheless might appear progressive and outside of conservative evangelical tradition. Perhaps we agree on these concepts but may disagree on specific applications. Peace, Jim

  • Roger Olson

    That’s a great sermon in a nutshell! Thanks.

    • I should mention that I’ve been toying with the idea that Emergent Christianity is pretty much unknown to people (and mostly as a negative) so that when I read of you and others describing “post-conservative evangelicalism” it seems too large a title and again, mostly unknown except to the literate. As such, I’ve decided to describe both Emergent Christianity and PC Evangelicalism as “Post-Evangelic.” It’s a large enough term that can hold both movements (including spillage). Shows forward movement. And as the term suggests, allows for both deconstructive and reconstructive elements to its charters and lecterns.
      Since we live in a postmodern era that is moving towards something else, in the meantime describing Christianity as post-evangelic tells evangelical Christians its time to move on from old arguments and theological conceptions. And to be open to new ideas built upon the church’s very old history, as one would expect in this age of Science and Cynicism.
      What say you?
      ps… this idea could probably run along the title of “What’s in a Label?”

      • Roger Olson

        Yeah. I get that all the time. “Why not just be ‘post-evangelical’?” Because I’ve always been evangelical, still am evangelical–in the truest and best sense. I’m too stubborn to give the label I’ve always worn up just because some howling yahoo neo-fundamentalists have managed to convince most people THEY are the “true evangelicals.” They’re not–in terms of historical theology. They are the heirs of the fundamentalists of the 1930s rather than of the neo-evangelicals (later the”neo-” was dropped) I grew up among and was educated by in seminary.

        • Understood. My support and encouragement to you always. You are in some deep waters which are not unappreciated by your many readers.
          For myself, I must let go and move past my fundamental-evangelical background (sic, GARB, IFCA). by matching my position with my words. Thus, “evangelic” is a label I cannot wear any longer though it bears with it a great appreciation for all that it once had given: a Passionate fellowship, a Love for Jesus, His church, and all people without regard. For now, “Post-Evangelic” will have to do in homage to an evangelicalism that once was, but is no longer.
          Hence my suggestion to all evangelics caught between evangelicalism’s religious ideologies and God’s faithful presence in their faith and life. The word is less clumsy, speaks effectively to one’s progressing (emerging) beliefs, and gives forward movement in exploration of the life of Jesus with one’s faith. Thanks again.

  • Dan

    I read the article in First Things and did not find it to be over the top in tone, even if it was critical and drew some distinctions. It is hard to summarize trends and not lump people together in categories who might not agree on every point. Personally, I do think he is correct in identifying a growing divide between approaches to the question of “interpretation”. One camp (genralizing greatly) sees interpretation as bound by culture to the degree that almost nothing is solid, the other side sees both the text of scripture and a long history of interpretation as providing a level of stability – perhaps not certainty, but a place where larger doctrines are generally settled. If truth is eternal, then certain truths and certain doctrines ought to be unchanging. But if one camps says all doctrine can be subject to “revisioning”, and the other says some truths are unchanging, then there is a divide.

    It may be that it was inaccurate to place one Roger Olson in the camp that he did. I tend to think you, Roger, have been generally clear that you do value creed and doctrine to an extent that I would not even describe you as “post-conservative”. I greatly valued both your “Arminian Order of Salvation” and your two part post that said something not altogether dissimilar to McDermott when you discussed the future of Evangelicalism, dividing camps into “conservative,
    neo-fundamentalist”, “conservative, mediating evangelicals” and
    “postconservative evangelicals”. Perhaps some of those you identified would disagree with where you placed them.

    But I for one, think McDermott’s larger point is correct, that on one side, you have a number of folks like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Steve Chalke, continually “pushing the envelope” on things like universalism, open theism, PSA and sexual morality, and on the other you have a lot of folks saying “the church has taught pretty much the same thing for 2000 years, who are we to change it?” The underlying reasons are perhaps more complex than any single article can address or summarize, But the divide is there. I’ve felt it in my bones for years as a lowly layperson who reads.

    Maybe care needs to be taken to not lump “post-conservative” and “progressive” together on one side and not to lump other labels on the other side together.

    I suppose it is true that if we simply talk about ideas, we inevitably draw lines and nobody likes to be categorized. I’m not sure we can entirely avoid it, but maybe we can attempt to be fair and kind in the process.

    • Roger Olson

      Well, I appreciate your generosity towards me. But I still think a Protestant must remain open to the possibility that new, faithful biblical scholarship will bring about positive changes in what some consider time honored, settled doctrines. Just think back to the Galileo affair. And before him to Luther. As for some of the people you mention that ought to concern us all, well, do they even really want to be called “evangelicals?” I’m not sure. And there is a clear line between arguing for doctrinal revision based on Scriptural research (e.g., N. T. Wright’s work on justification) and revision based on cultural changes.

      • Dan

        Even Vincent’s Canon, which Oden bases his paleo-orthodoxy on recognized the possibility that “antiquity” could be wrong. While it is correct as a Protestant to say that the creeds are not equal to scripture and are not necessarily infallible, I am guessing you would agree that the preponderance of biblical evidence and history of exegesis has led to a consensus on the Trinity and Deity of Christ that new scholarship should not and likely will not overturn.

        As for Luther, I’m not sure the theologians of the earlier church asked the questions about soteriology in quite the way the events that led to the Reformation framed them. If it is true that challenges to doctrine are what lead to clarity, perhaps it is true that the church did not wrestle with grace, faith and works fully until issues like transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the mass, elevated sacramentalism and indulgences forced a confrontation. Oden’s “Justification Reader” does find a lot of support for justification by grace through faith in the Fathers, but maybe it just wasn’t the primary question in the first few centuries.

        But I do think the great divide is over “interpretation”. With the advent of postmodernism, one camp puts most of the eggs in the subjective basket and the other in the objective. One side over-stresses cultural context, the other perhaps over-emphasizes the text, though I’m not sure that is possible. How many eggs are in each basket seems to determine which side of the divide one is on. If truth is primarily a matter of interpretation in a cultural context, then the only constant will be change, and I think that is what the more conservative voices want to avoid.

        • Roger Olson

          I want to avoid that, too. And neither I nor Stan Grenz nor Clark Pinnock ever said anything to suggest that any of us want “constant change.” The hyper-conservatives among evangelicals want to suppress all change unless it’s theirs. This is an intra-evangelical political debate more about who’s “in” and who’s “out” and who decides than about theology, really.

  • Bob Wilson

    Roger, it may be small comfort. But though you and I probably reach different conclusions on ‘evangelical universalism,’ we universalists similarly felt badly understood by Dr. McDermott’s critique of us. Attached is his interpretation, and some of our responses: http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=4428&p=61127&hilit=McDermott#p61127

  • Jeremy Adams

    Yeah, I see folks giving the reformers (but only some of them) the trump card over any newish theological idea but are really defensive of the novel ideas the reformers had. I think how Thomas Oden does it makes sense, since he at least tries to survey all of Christian history, though in the end I don’t know that I agree entirely with his approach. I find it especially worrisome that South Baptists (I am a member at an SBC church) seem to be leaning more towards the confessional/creedal side. In my experience, I think some view the Baptist Faith and Message as binding or close to it which I don’t dig.

  • Roger Olson

    And on it goes…

    • Livin

      After reading a bit I found that meliorism is a term not used till around 1884 and was used to describe naturalistic philosopies relating to free will and determinism.

      • Roger Olson

        Interesting. Can you give the source for that? Whatever it means, it sounds bad. I can’t help suspecting that’s why McDermott chose it.

        • Livin

          Nothing hard yet this link has some info
          From the link
          “Another important understanding of the meliorist tradition comes from the American Pragmatic tradition. One can read about it in the works of Lester Frank Ward, William James and John Dewey”.
          The webster dictionary says the first use was in the 1877 orther dictionaries say similar dates give or take 10 years.
          From the Wikipedia on William James

          In The Will to Believe, James simply asserted that his will was free. As his first act of freedom, he said, he chose to believe his will was free. He was encouraged to do this by reading Charles Renouvier, whose work convinced James to convert from monism to pluralism. In his diary entry of April 30, 1870, James wrote,
          I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—”the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.[22]
          In 1884 James set the terms for all future discussions of determinism and compatibilism in the free will debates with his lecture to Harvard Divinity School students published as “The Dilemma of Determinism.” In this talk he defined the common terms “hard determinism” and “soft determinism” (now more commonly called “compatibilism”).
          “Old-fashioned determinism was what we may call hard determinism. It did not shrink from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism which abhors harsh words, and, repudiating fatality, necessity, and even predetermination, says that its real name is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.”[23]
          James called compatibilism a “quagmire of evasion,”[23] just as the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume that free will was simply freedom from external coercion were called a “wretched subterfuge” by Immanuel Kant.
          James described chance as neither hard nor soft determinism, but “indeterminism”.”

  • Livin

    I have ran across Calvinists lately who claim to be single predestinationists and believe in unlimited atonement. Also Calminisits who are nothing other than Armninians who are afraid to claim the label.
    It seems like eveybody is afraid to be called Arminian even though it is a “Orthodox” protestant theology. They also seem to be mystified that total depravity is also a Arminian stance.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, I’ve complained about that much–evangelicals who are Arminian who don’t want to wear that label. I attribute that to the influence of leading evangelical Calvinists who have demonized “Arminianism” by equating it with Pelagianism. I’m hoping to help turn that around and give Arminian evangelicals permission to be proud of being Arminian. But it’s like rolling a rock up a hill.

  • Matt

    There are definitely some deep ambiguities in McDermott’s article. I especially do not like the slippery slope argument that is at its core. I have blogged about it just today here: