A Final Word (Hopefully) about the McDermott Article and My Alleged “Meliorism”

A Final Word (Hopefully) about the McDermott Article and My Alleged “Meliorism” October 3, 2013

A Final Word (Hopefully) about the McDermott Article and My Alleged “Meliorism”

If you have not read my two previous (and recent) blog posts about theologian Gerald McDermott’s article “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:2 [June 2013]) this third one will not make much sense to you. I urge you to read those first, if not the article itself.

Since the second post, I have received many e-mails about the article and about my objections to it. Some friends (and others) think I over reacted to McDermott’s characterizations of my theology. Others were more supportive and sympathized with my reaction. Others simply had points of information or opinion to share. All have been valuable and helpful.

Most importantly, McDermott himself e-mailed me and offered an extremely helpful clarification that sheds light on the whole matter. While I still object to some statements he made in the article (I quoted those in my previous posts) and think them blatantly false (e.g., about our alleged belief that doctrine must be amended due to the historical conditioning of Scripture), the whole picture is now coming into clearer light—light that causes me to reconsider where our differences really lie.

I assumed that McDermott and I are on the same general “page,” so to speak, about theology’s sources. I believe ONLY Scripture is supernaturally inspired and infallible. I take that to be THE standard evangelical Protestant view. Tradition is also a source and norm of Christian theology, but it is a “normed norm” while Scripture is our “norming norm.”

However, now I realize (as I did not before) that McDermott, an Anglican priest, believes in “one source”—Scripture and tradition together (according to his recent e-mail to me).

Here is how McDermott expressed it in his article (which he helpfully pointed out to me):

“The lesson evangelicals should have learned is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy.  Only a ‘single-source’ view of             tradition in which hermeneutical authority is given to the mutual interplay of Scripture and orthodox community—the method that the church practiced for most of Christian   history–can protect evangelical theology from going the way of all flesh, to liberal Protestantism.”

So, apparently, McDermott believes that there is some extra-biblical deposit of tradition that is, for all practical purposes, equal with Scripture in terms of inspiration and authority for Christian belief. I do not. Neither, I judge, have most evangelicals. Most evangelicals, I included, respect tradition, but the standard evangelical view of tradition is that everything outside of Scripture is subject to Scripture’s authority.

Interestingly, so it seems to me, by defending that view of Scripture and tradition McDermott is breaking from the evangelical tradition which is to defend sola Scriptura. And, to my way of thinking, anyway, that leads right toward Roman Catholicism. Why? Because without an authoritative magisterium such as the Vatican, and without an infallible pope, it’s difficult if not impossible to say exactly what counts as incorrigible, authoritative tradition.

Also, I find it interesting to contemplate the fact that it is those Protestant traditions that have been most creedal that have succumbed to liberal theology. “Bible only” traditions, non-creedal ones, have, overall, not succumbed to liberal theology as quickly or decisively as have the magisterial, creedal Protestant churches. Apparently creedalism is no guarantee or guard against liberal theology.

Also, I question the logic of the claim that sola Scriptura is necessary but not sufficient. The whole point of sola Scriptura, its very meaning, is that Scripture is sufficient—as the only final court of appeal, so to speak, when there is a conflict over doctrine. To say it is not sufficient is to deny it. That is not to dismiss tradition as a guide; it should be—for every right thinking Christian. But to elevate it to a level of authority equal with Scripture (which is what functionally happens when it is made the necessary interpretive “lens” for reading Scripture and when it is made a criterion equal with Scripture for settling doctrinal controversies) is to deny sola Scriptura.

What McDermott calls my “meliorism” and argues is dangerous because it leads down a slippery slope toward a kind of “anything goes” approach to theology is simply my attempt to make sola or prima Scriptura explicit and practical. SOME evangelicals, I believe, have been treating SOME extra-biblical tradition (e.g., the “ancient Christian consensus”) as sacrosanct, as equal with Scripture itself. That shows in how they react when someone, whether it be Clark Pinnock or N. T. Wright, dares to question some part of that received tradition—even in light of fresh and faithful biblical research and interpretation.

I argue that the “growing divide” in evangelical theology is between those of us who remain faithful to the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and actually practice that and those who, explicitly or implicitly, place some extra-biblical deposit of tradition on a plane equal with Scripture.

I would even go so far as to question whether anyone who does embrace a two-sources of truth approach (which McDermott calls “one source”) is really fully evangelical in terms of fitting the ideal type of evangelicalism which, as Noll and Bebbington have argued, historically, theologically, and sociologically places Scripture above every other source for determining faith and practice.

I’m not the pope of evangelicalism and don’t want to be. I’m simply talking here as a scholar of the evangelical movement and its form of life. Sola Scriptura has always been held very high by evangelicals. And those of us in the free church, baptistic wing of evangelicalism especially do that. That is, it is a favorite emphasis of ours. I welcome into and within evangelicalism those who wish to place orthodoxy, tradition, on a par with Scripture but I regard them as the innovators, not those of us who hold to sola Scriptura and regard tradition as a secondary guide only.

So, when McDermott calls me a “meliorist” and implies that it is I who am moving away from historic evangelicalism, I have to call that into question. I believe I am simply holding to and practicing what all evangelicals have claimed to believe and practice and baptists have especially valued and attempted to practice.

Again, I ask, isn’t McDermott’s complaint about me REALLY that I am baptist? I think so. He should admit it and stop calling me a “meliorist” which, in his description of it, anyway, appears to be a slippery slope toward liberal theology. It isn’t. Again, I ask, which Protestant churches have been “slip sliding away” (to quote Paul Simon) toward and into liberal theology? Mostly creedal ones.

Two footnotes.

1. McDermott and I disagree about “liberal theology.” I regard it (with Claude Welch of Yale University) as “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology. In other words, it is not any and every acknowledgment of development of doctrine. It is development of doctrine with modernity as authoritative source and norm. I think this is the standard definition of liberal theology. I don’t even recognize any other one as valid; others, I believe, are simply ad hoc meanings of “liberal.”

2. McDermott and I disagree about Luther’s attitude toward tradition. He regards Luther as a creedalist who held extra-biblical, orthodox doctrines as necessary and (my word here) incorrigible. I think Luther was inconsistent in this. When he was facing toward the Roman Catholic Church he relativized tradition, leaving everything extra-biblical as at least theoretically open to correction by the Bible itself. After all, when Luther stood before the emperor at Worms he appealed to Scripture and reason, not tradition (of course). He said that he would not be swayed by appeal to the creeds and councils as they often contradicted themselves. The Catholic church and its theologians then did not make fine distinctions between the great classic doctrines carved out at Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon and their medieval view of salvation. They saw Luther as attacking ALL of tradition when he broke with the medieval (and some would say ancient) Catholic doctrine of salvation. I still have not found any source before Luther teaching simul justus et peccator. Luther drew that from Scripture and threw it against the whole of prior Christian doctrine about salvation. But when he was facing the radical reformers he considered “false brethren,” Luther appealed to tradition in a way that, in my view, contradicted his own approach to Scripture as the sole supreme source of doctrine. They, especially the Anabaptists, were the ones who carried Luther’s Scripture principle forward consistently. They were the ones who stood up to Luther (and Zwingli) and said, about baptism, for example, unless they could be convinced by Scripture and reason their consciences were held captive. There they stood; they could do no other. And Zwingli and other magisterial Protestants fully supported their being tortured and killed for that. Luther did not advocate the murder of heretics, but neither did he speak out against it as he should have (knowing that he was one, too—from the Catholic perspective). (Now—please don’t throw Luther quotes at me. One can find almost anything in Luther if they look hard enough. I have a massive volume entitled What Luther Said that contains thousands of Luther quotes many of which contract each other.)

McDermott’s quote above raises this question: Did Luther and/or the Anabaptists pave the way toward liberal theology? Conservative Catholics would say yes. Perhaps he would say yes about the Anabaptists. But they certainly were not “meliorists.” They were “Scripture above tradition” Christians. And to blame them for the later rise of liberal theology seems ridiculous. It arose, after all, primarily among magisterial Protestants in Europe. Schleiermacher, after all, was a minister of the state church of Prussia. Many of us McDermott labels “meliorists” and blames for a mythical slide of evangelical theology into liberal theology are really simply baptists who, with the radical Reformers, place Scripture above tradition without throwing everything of tradition aside completely. Many of the Anabaptists also held portions of tradition in high regard—as a secondary source and norm, a guide, but not as incorrigible and necessary for understanding Scripture.

"Thank you for enjoying The Story and mentioning it here. I don't think any fence ..."

“Something There Is That Doesn’t Love ..."
"To me "male" indicates biology and physiology (including a particular DNA structure). I don't attribute ..."

Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
"Yes, I wonder this, too (having co-authored a declaration that got well over 100 signatures ..."

Does God “Embrace All People Regardless…?”
"I don't use that language (viz., "extracting a pound of flesh"). Please stick to what ..."

The “Judge Judged in Our Place”: ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim Reisdorf

    The lesson evangelicals should have learned is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy.

    This, it seems to me, is similar to the silly Israelites that demanded a king. “Sola Theos” was insufficient for them. Likewise, it seems that McDermott wants to hold to more than Scripture alone in his theology. Could it be that the boundaries of the Christian faith presented in the Bible are too expansive for his comfort?

    • Dan

      I seem to recall reading in one of the early fathers the comment that quoting scripture in dealing with heresy was problematic in that the heretics just quoted scripture as well. The issue then, as today, is even if we agree that scripture is authoritative, whose interpretation is correct? For me, I just find it helpful that most of the big questions have already been asked and debated, and I don’t really need to question whether the Trinity or the Deity of Christ is a valid interpretation. The vast majority of believers, the baptismal formulas, the creeds, the worship references all point to one interpretation. Does that make tradition equal to scripture? No. It is just a long consensus on what scripture teaches.

      Which is not to say every theological issue is settled. Just a few of the big ones. The other ones we still have to wrestle with, which in my mind is why we needed a Reformation. Sacramentalism had become a “tradition of men” to a degree that required a big debate about soteriology. And that debate continues.

      • Roger Olson

        But why are they “settled?” What settles them? I am arguing they are “settled” only because and insofar as Scripture supports them and they say in other words what Scripture says. If that were not the case, I would not consider them settled. And I still consider them settled only insofar as they agree with the Bible. I’m really struggling with why people aren’t understanding this. McDermott and traditionalists like him seem to think the creeds hang in mid air, so to speak, apart from Scripture as equal in authority with it.

        • Dan

          I think the answer I would give is that what “settles” them is the weight of biblical evidence first and the affirmation of a wide range of believers agreeing that scripture is clear on the issue second. Seems what brought certain issues into clear definition was the particular challenges of the early “heresies”. Maybe soteriology did not get settled because there was never a raging controversy until the reformation. Maybe eschatology cannot be settled until after the future unfolds.

          But I think I understand that you don’t see a magisterium or a papacy in the Evangelical way of doing things, so “enforcement” of “orthodoxy” becomes something of a problem. All I’m saying is I find the Vincentian “always, everywhere and by all” the best proposal I’ve seen for sorting things out and finding a place to build from. “Me and my Bible” was the bane of the modern era, and “me and my little radical interpretive community” in the postmodern era might be worse.

          • Roger Olson

            I see two equal dangers. The first is the one you identify–an individualistic approach to Scripture that attempts to bypass tradition entirely. The second is the traditionalist approach that elevates tradition to a status of authority equal with Scripture. Both are problematic. I accept the Wesleyan Quadrilateral while emphasizing it is not an equilateral.

  • cowboybob

    Luther’s writings are much like the Bible. Scripture lawyers can apparently find just about anything to prove their positions. The Apostle Paul mentions tradition several times in his epistles, reminding both Timothy and the Thessalonians to stand fast to the traditions he taught them. In his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul wrote: “Take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say, in faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (1:13-14). Later, in the same letter, he further instructs Timothy, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:1-2). It seems clear that the apostolic Tradition, the oral teaching of the apostles, was to be preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. The Apostle Paul doesn’t write to Timothy and say, “This is all you need for salvation”; rather, he writes Timothy to entrust to other faithful men, who will be able to instruct others, what he preached, and Timothy heard, before many witnesses.

    In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul is just as explicit: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2:15). Either by word of mouth or letter.

    Were the brethren to stand firm and hold the oral Tradition that the Apostle Paul taught only for that one generation? Did the Holy Spirit decide to safeguard the transmission of only the written record of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings? Obviously not! Those who decry Tradition as having no role in matters of faith and who wish to return to a “primitive New Testament” Church have no grounds for quoting Scripture. The “primitive New Testament” Church relied on the oral teaching of the apostles and their successors.

    • Roger Olson

      You caricature my view. I have never said extra-biblical tradition plays no role. Nor do many of us who believe in sola scriptura. But that role is a guide, not an absolute authority. I take very seriously, for example, the theology I find in Irenaeus. What’s ironic is that most of those who tout tradition as authoritative do not! Irenaeus was clearly, unequivocally premillennial in his eschatology and that was clearly for him not a hunch or a guess. It was what he was taught by Polycarp who was taught it by John. And yet virtually none of the churches that promote extra-biblical tradition as authoritative are premillennial. How ironic.

      • Dan

        You mention pre-millenial several times in the comments. I find that interesting, so this is not an argument, but just an question. Did the church councils ever debate this issue? Is this one of those “on the non-essentials, liberty” issues? I see the councils and creeds primarily concerned with Theology and Christology and to a lesser degree ecclesiology. I see the Reformation dealing with soteriology and sacramentalism. I don’t think eschatology has ever been an issue where there has been much of a consensus. Am I wrong?

        But if some “traditionalists” make it an issue, I agree, they shouldn’t.

        • Roger Olson

          My point was simply that I find it ironic that traditionalists set so much store in post-apostolic church tradition but jump from the second century to the fourth century ignoring the consensus of the second and early third century fathers (except Origen) about premillennial eschatology. I’m not arguing it should be an essential of the faith. I’m just curious when the traditionalists (like McDermott) think what the church fathers believed became required of us. Apparently the first four ecumenical councils and the creed they promulgated and defined (e.g., at Chalcedon) bear that weight while the consensus of the church fathers of the second century, for example, about eschatology does not. Why are they not more impressed that Irenaeus was a premillennialist? Why do they feel it’s okay to interpret Scripture differently than Irenaeus did? Where was that crucial cutting off point? Does that fact that all the bishops the emperors approved gathered at the first four ecumenical councils make them authoritative? What does?

      • cowboybob

        Historic premillennialism is so called because it is the classic form which may be found in writings of some of the early church fathers , although in an undeveloped form. Dispensational premillennialism is that form which derives from John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and dispensational theology. It is dispensational premillenialism that FIRST taught the notion of a pre-tribulation rapture.

        Historic premillennialists reject the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture and the uniquely Jewish nature of the dispensationalist’s millennial kingdom . It is often assumed that all premillennialists are dispensational in their theology. This is a confusion that should be avoided. Historic premillennialists such as George Eldon Ladd are consistent Calvinists who did not accept the basic tenets of dispensationalism.

        • Roger Olson

          I blogged all of that a year or two ago. Yes. I agree.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very interesting discussion Roger. Here’s what I get from it, along with some questions that this understanding raises.

    Certain interpretations (from which praxis has been derived) have been around for a very long while (tradition). These must be highly respected, but not held equal to Scripture. Where does that leave newer interpretations of Scripture? Or, as is often the case, very old interpretations of Scripture that differ somewhat from other very old interpretations? It seems fair to say that you defend the practice of continually testing interpretations, of any vintage.

    And related to this, it is true that, often, the impetus for this testing/reevaluation comes from discoveries unrelated to Scripture or tradition. This is a problem for many who think these are inappropriate motivations for questioning our interpretations. Metaphorically, Scripture remains the foundation but the house can be remodelled. The general shape of the structure will be a constant (no new bits added to the foundation) but the house can be changed in various ways over the centuries, for various good reasons. The question to traditionalists then becomes, given this unchangeable foundation – must there really be parts of the house that cannot be challenged or changed? And the even more important corollary, what exactly is the foundation? I like the suggestion by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 2:2. Hyperbole true, but close enough.

    • Roger Olson

      As usual, we agree–at least about “foundational” issues (pun intended :). Many things can force us to reconsider traditional interpretations of Scripture; nothing can force us to reconsider Scripture itself as inspired and authoritative. “Tradition” has so often turned out to be wrong.

  • I saw somewhere the idea that a Christian believer may have as many as 4 primary sources of authority in their life: Scripture, tradition, personal experience, and reason (humorously I’ll describe it as an (existential) “quadrilateral sourcing”…. For without a label how can a poor Evangelical act or think?! lol).
    The task today amongst profs, pastors, and congregants, is to honestly admit that too often the Scriptures are actually secondary to (1) one’s faith traditions mixed with one’s social heritage, (2) personal experiences (many Christian experiences seem to fall into what I call the “mystical-magical” view of Scripture reading), and (3) quasi-reasoning apart from proper biblical resourcing.
    Which gets to the nub of the question – “What is your hermeneutic?” Nowadays many are beginning to accept a form of “critical realism” (simplistically, bible + science) with aspects of an “anthropolic hermeneutic” that reads “us” back into the bible’s interpretation (e.g., existentialism + phenomenologicalism). That is, how can I be sure of my interpretation unless I first question my own perspective of it? Have I read too much of my own prejudices and preferences back into its passages? Without a proper hermeneutic that is open enough (to account for time and distance) we get a static faith and ungracious dogma in its place.
    Simply put, we have a hard enough time trying to figure out God’s Word as respecting its own historical contexts and theological meanings, but this task becomes infinitely harder when we, the reader, attempt the task of making God’s Word relevant to our contemporary society and personal lives. Many times the Bible means what I think it means rather than actually standing back and questioning our interpretation of it through our own lenses. And since many can’t or won’t, we next go with what our pastor says, our church says, our tradition says, or what our culture around us says, rather than make waves and question all.
    The quadrilateral view of sourcing is helpful only to the extent that we know how to balance it against the authority of Scripture. Though heritage, experience, and reasoning are necessary – and even valid – ultimately Scripture rules all. Thanks.

  • M85

    Sounds to me like a very nuanced way of saying that tradition pretty much decides everything and all was decided in the major creeds (early church and protestant) while at the same time giving lip service to Sola Scriptura. If we were to follow McDermott’s vision of the faith i believe we would risk enshrining the traditions of men instead of following Christ. It’s all very reminiscent of the Roman Catholic vision of the faith to me only that the guiding tradition is anglican.

    • Roger Olson

      My feelings exactly. All they need is a pope. And without one they will never feel secure enough.

    • Dan

      Not speaking for McDermott, but maybe the creeds have value because they are in fact a summary of what scripture was understood to be saying. So sola scriptura can still hold, the creeds have authority only insofar as they are derived from scripture. They are not equal to, but derived from and in that sense should not be rethought every generation.

    • Clay

      “If we were to follow McDermott’s vision of the faith i believe we would risk enshrining the traditions of men instead of following Christ.”

      I have questions about this statement. How do you define “tradition of men”? What makes something a man-made tradition instead of a Holy Spirit inspired tradition? What makes the canon of Holy Scripture an inspired tradition and something else, say a creed or a decision of a council, a “man-made” tradition?

      • Roger Olson

        We Protestants believe the church recognized the canon; it did not create it.

        • Clay

          I understand that, and I agree. But it still doesn’t answer my question. Stated another way, do you believe the church was infallible in it’s recognition of the canon? Or do you hold the possibility that there may be mistakes in the canon, either books included that shouldn’t have been or vice versa? If the Church was infallible (granted, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) in it’s canon recognition, why couldn’t it have been infallible in some of its other traditions? For example the decisions of the ecumenical councils – those were eventually understood to be infallible decisions by the church catholic – why would you allow for infallibility with the recognition of the canon (assuming you do) but not infallibility with regards to doctrines established in Ecumenical Councils. This is an honest question, I’m not trolling or trying to pick an argument.

          • Roger Olson

            Only God is infallible. The canon works. We need to leave it alone for practical reasons.

          • Clay

            “Only God is infallible” – I can certainly agree with that.

            “The canon works” – Not sure about that, at least not without an interpretive consensus. Case in point, the ongoing splintering of protestant Christians, those who place the most reliance on the Bible.

          • Roger Olson

            Most of the splintering has been over fairly minor stuff–stuff about which the just isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be. The only way to prevent it would be to grant some human magisterial authority. Oh, right, there is a church like that. Outwardly it is united by threat of excommunication, but inwardly it is quite divided.

      • M85

        I pretty much agree with what Dr. Olson says in his answer to John Osborn above. Ultimately the Spirit is the final authority that allows us to differentiate qualitatively between tradition and Scripture. That being said i agree with a lot of what the early creeds say i just don’t believe they are equal to Scripture in authority. I also believe that God always has new light to break forth from his Word in every generation and we have to be careful not to quench that.

  • Dan

    Helpful clarifications. I wonder… is there a valid position between your “baptist” view and his “Anglican” view. I’m thinking of folks like Tom Oden and D.H. Williams. If I understand them, tradition is NOT equal to scripture, but on the other hand creedal “consensus”, what Christians have always seemed to believe, is a necessary hedge against novelty. Again, if I understand Vincent of Lerins’ viewpoint, it is true that the early church could have erred, so on one hand you are correct in that every generation needs to be willing to think through doctrine, even long established ones. But if “tradition” is seen as a history of exegesis, which is how Oden often describes it, then there is a great burden of proof necessary to overturn doctrines that have a long history of acceptance. And one would need to be persuasive enough to win a new consensus across a wide swath of believers. Tradition then is not an infallible second source, but it is an accumulated wisdom that should guide us.

    I think the reason many look to the past these days is because of the proliferation of denominational squabbles that seem to characterize the Protestant/Evangelical heritage. Too many evangelicals do seem to read the Bible in isolation as if nobody in 2000 years had ever asked the same questions. is a “meliorist” then, someone who reads the bible in isolation and is thus more susceptible to the winds of novelty? Just asking.

    And yes, mainline denominations that have been creedal have fallen toward liberalism, but my feeling is that we can’t blame tradition or creeds for that – they abandoned scripture, tradition and creed in favor of rationalism. Many who describe themselves as evangelicals today I think are leaning in the same direction, meaning scripture is not really authoritative, scholarship is.

    • Roger Olson

      My point was that MERELY HAVING creeds, and claiming they are authoritative, is no automatic guarantee against liberalism. The only guarantee, apparently, is to have a pope. My own personal opinion, which I have expressed in Reformed and Always Reforming, is that paleo-orthodox Protestants are inconsistent. They SAY they believe in sola scriptura but as soon as someone offers a new interpretation of Scripture that goes against what they think is the “ancient Christian consensus” they dismiss it as invalid for that reason alone. Oden, for example, even goes so far (in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy) as to claim that “re-baptism” (what baptists do with persons baptized as infants) violates orthodoxy because that issue was “settled” in the early church. That leaves all baptists as heretics. And yet I doubt that Oden is a premillennialist. If you go back far enough in studying the ancient Christian consensus (2nd century) apparently ALL post-apostolic Christians were premillennialists. When is that “golden age” when orthodoxy was settled? After that but before when?

      • Dan

        Re-baptism is not the same as adult baptism, is it? Meaning if someone is baptized as an infant, it is unnecessary to baptize again even if one shifts to another theological tradition? I don’t think Oden makes this any sort of a make or break issue, he is just saying the question is not new – we’re not approaching it without some guidance, correct?

        I still think the issue is balance. Lean too far toward Tradition you have the possibility of freezing something in place that may not be exactly right or needs to be rephrased because of the inevitable shifts in language. But lean too far in toward scripture “in isolation” we run the risk of just repeating the mistakes someone else has already made.

        Early church prior to Augustine was pretty committed to free-will.
        After Augustine and after Calvin and Luther, not so much. One example, I think of how the early church is helpful, especially for an Arminian who attends a free church where the pastor is a committed Calvinist. We get along fine, for the most part and I appeal to the early church on occasion to bolster my view.

        But he and I agree this is not a “settled” issue, whereas the Deity of Christ is, not because it is in a written creed, but because Christians have affirmed it for centuries as the teaching of scripture.

  • Rob

    Given that most evangelicals are completely ignorant of tradition and tradition plays almost no explicit role in their theology at all, does your position of tradition being a secondary source of authority practically differ that much from McDermott’s? I think he would be happy for tradition to play ANY role in evangelical thought compared to its current absence.

    • Roger Olson

      No, that is my position. His is that something he calls tradition (I’m still not clear exactly what it is) is equal in authority with Scripture in that it is beyond challenge and change–even from Scripture.

  • icthusiast

    This was one of the issues the Remonstrants faced at Dort. Arminius had called for a synod at which Scripture would be the only unimpeachable source. A major sticking point holding up the calling of the synod was the status of the confessional standards – Arminius said they should be open to revision in light of Scripture, those who opposed him considered them sacrosanct. And we all know what happened when the Contra-remonstrants eventually go their way!

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, this has been an ongoing debate among Protestants from the beginning. So far as I can discern ONLY the Anabaptists (among first generation Protestants) really held to the Scripture principle. Other Protestants paid lip service to it.

  • labreuer

    Also, I find it interesting to contemplate the fact that it is those Protestant traditions that have been most creedal that have succumbed to liberal theology. “Bible only” traditions, non-creedal ones, have, overall, not succumbed to liberal theology as quickly or decisively as have the magisterial, creedal Protestant churches. Apparently creedalism is no guarantee or guard against liberal theology.

    Fascinating! Perhaps this would be worth its own blog post?

    I could concoct a hypothesis like the following, but I don’t know the historical evidence very well at all. Perhaps the stages of death, imposed by the cage of extra-biblical writings being made equal to (or even above!) scripture, include a path through liberalism. Perhaps it’s more gentle to go from belief in fact to belief in metaphor on one’s way to belief in nothing, than to outright reject belief in fact. But I’m sure it’d be more interesting to see a scholar’s take on the above than some random layman’s. 🙂

  • Mere Christian Radio

    Isn’t sola scriptura itself extra-biblical? I do not mean this to be snarky in any way. I have long wrestled with this issue, having been all over the map (I now belong to an ACNA church). It seems to me that if sola scriptura is true that it can’t be known through scripture alone.

    As for the affirmation of scripture and tradition as both being authoritative leading to Rome, why can’t it lead to Orthodoxy or Anglicanism?

    • Roger Olson

      Because what the traditionalists seek (among evangelicals, for example) is control.

      • Dan

        I think that is a bit uncharitable. What all ought to seek is holding to the faith once delivered. Guarding the deposit, as Paul instructed Timothy. The rub is determining what is essential and what should be given liberty. I think without at least hearing the early church we have a harder time of it. On the other hand the early church didn’t wrestle with soteriology as much, hence the Reformation…

  • rvs

    McDermott wants to be the Pope; that’s the simple way of putting it. You do not want to be the Pope, at least not yet.

  • Tim Chesterton

    Hmm – but there is apparently one article of tradition which you accept as authoritative, Roger – that is, the list of books that make up the Canon of Scripture.

    • Roger Olson

      But that does not compel me to accept every doctrine agreed upon by some group of early Christians or later reformers as sacrosanct.

      • Tim Chesterton

        Indeed. But it does mean that you aren’t really relying on Scripture alone, because it is the voice of Tradition that tells you what is the actual content of Scripture.

        • Roger Olson

          Also the Spirit witnessing to my spirit. I find no such witness outside of Scripture.

  • Paul

    I struggle with issues of tradition. On one hand, I do think it’s important that Christians are trained within the great Christian tradition (e.g., of understanding the Trinity) how best to approach the Bible–a tradition I think must remain flexible in definition unlike the Catholics or Orthodox. I struggle with Baptists I know who want absolutely nothing to do with Nicaea or tradition (though still believe in the Trinity and the canonical scriptures). At the same time, it seems important to put these beliefs up against the earliest, inspired Christian writings themselves as much as we can (e.g., critical realism being assumed here). Some evangelical “traditionalists,” as it were, seem to want to be very selective on all this—i.e., they want to beat everyone over the head with the tradition on omniscience but then often do not accept what I understand to be the early traditions of exegesis on communion as sacrifice or bishops as absolutely normative for everyone (perhaps McDermott does, but then he would definitely be more Anglo-Catholic than Anglican-evangelical and I would wonder why he’s even putting articles in JETS). I’m Anglican myself (though I don’t always fit comfortably), but in the end I like Wright more—keep the Christians tradition/s but also critically examine them.

    • Roger Olson

      As I keep pointing out, an example of this is the ancient Christian consensus (2nd century) of premillennialism. What happened to that? Few of the paleo-orthodox evangelicals I know are premill. So what they are doing is simply choosing some “golden age” (325-451) and baptizing it as containing orthodox tradition equal with Scripture. What’s also interesting to me is that, in his article, McDermott complained about evangelical departures from penal substitution theory of the atonement–as if that were not a theory but established Christian orthodoxy that cannot be questioned. When did that happen?

  • Timothy

    I am not sure that McDermott need be quite suggesting a two source authority or that scripture can be trumped or controlled by tradition or the magisterium. I suspect his concerns are similar to those of Stanley Hauerwas who has argued forcefully (as always) that private individual interpretation is to be regarded with suspicion even by the private individual. Interpretation should not be an individual task but a community one.

    Quite how that operates so that the magisterium is properly held to biblical authority is open to discussion and Stanley’s career might function as a useful case study in this respect.

    I am not quite sure how McDermott is holding these things together but the challenge to him must be how does he protect the authority of scripture from the corruption of the sinful community of the church. So there seem to be two things to be kept in tension. First the authority of scripture over the community and the responsibility of the community to act as a community as it seeks to interpret scripture. From all that I have seen, it seems peculiar of him to see some of the ‘meliorists’ as failing in this regard. Rather, it seems that confessionalists are flirting, if not more, with subjugating scripture to their theological system.

  • Dan

    Discus was not cooperating yesterday, but I attempted to offer that I think there is a mediating view. I have appreciated D.H. Williams approach to Tradition as well as Thomas Oden. I don’t think they would put Tradition on equal par with scripture, nor would they say doctrine is so utterly fixed that it should be assumed that creeds are infallible. Even the Canon of Vincent of Lerins seems to state that antiquity could be in error, so it is theoretically possible that even creedal statements could be revised, just highly unlikely and needful of a very high burden of proof.

    Oden often speaks of a “history of exegesis” when he refers to “orthodoxy”. So I think he is saying that scripture is authoritative, but the consensus of interpetation, particularly when consensus crosses the borders of time, space and denomination, ought to be given a lot of respect.

    I like that balance, because as one who has lived through multiple petty congregational splits, lived through plenty of 70s era wranglings about eschatology, sign gifts, worship styles and more, and wrestled with the bewildering proliferations of denominations, I do think evangelicals too often take the approach of “me and my Bible” trump everything else. If tradition has authority, it is authority that must be derived from the text and cannot stand outside it. Which is why I remain an evangelical protestant.

    My failed post mentioned the drift of the mainline, the creedal denominations you mention that fell to liberalism, but I doubt it was the “creedal” commitment that led them there. In modernity and postmodernity, there is a tendency I think to look to scholarship not as a tool to serve the text, but as a tool to “get behind” the text and find out what it “really” meant, in the end subverting the Biblical text, in a sense a “tradition” that stands outside the text. I do think a “long consensus” approach helps avoid trendiness and novelty, whether it comes from the bottom up or the top down.

    In the end, though, my hunch is you and Gerold McDermott are ultimately not all that far apart, maybe just approaching the same issues from different vantage points.

    • Roger Olson

      I suspect we are not as far apart as it seems. Where we are far apart is his claim that my theological method, which I would call baptistic and he calls “meliorist,” leads inexorably to liberal theology. There’s no middle ground there. He’s just wrong.

  • Bob Wilson

    I think this distinguishing issue is real. Last summer, Eastern’s Dr. Chris Hall lectured at Regent, Vancouver that all sides in the great debates point to Scripture. Thus a sure faith requires trusting the tradition’s creeds, such as the church’s Spirit-led consensus at Nicaea. I responded that Dr. Mark Noll (in the audience) had just emphasized in his class on World Christianity that half of the flourishing church (east of our western tradition’s center in Rome) had refused to endorse Nicea. My perception was that his answer required much nuance and backtracking.

    • Roger Olson

      I love Chris! He and I coauthored a book on the Trinity. I get the feeling we are not as far apart as it may seem. Or it might just be his irenic spirit in these conversations. He doesn’t go so far as to accuse those of us who disagree with him of being on a slippery slope to liberal theology.

      • Bob Wilson

        Yes, Chris has a dear ecumenical spirit, and I can’t picture him accusing someone like you who differed with him of going liberal. But with both his full lecture on this and my personal discussion with him, it seemed clear to me that he doesn’t magnify your ‘Baptist’ emphasis here, but is much more comfortable with a patristic emphasis on trusting that the church’s tradition and creeds are vital for providing the clarity that the Bible cannot.

        • Roger Olson

          Yes. Chris and I had a very irenic debate about this at a special meeting (I think hosted by IVP?) at AAR some years ago. And that was just after CT published my article about evangelical traditionalism. (CT titled it “The Tradition Temptation” and they included a brief profile of Chris along with my article.)

  • cowboybob

    In regards to the German Luther being on both sides of an issue, he had conversations with the German Rabbis and the Talmud is noted for having both sides of the argument, hence the complexity. Scripture Lawyers each come up with their Scripture to support their position, it is all in the meaning of the Scripture that they differ. Scripture is written evidence, Tradition is oral evidence. If we can’t all agree on the writing(judges interpret writings one way, and than the Appellate Court can reverse the judges interpretation), it is even more difficult to figure out what the oral evidence means. James Kugel (How to read the Bible) mentioned the various schools throughout history on the interpretation of Scripture. Roger, remember your roots, the Pentecostals have everybody beat with 1John 2:27, “The Holy Spirit lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true, for the Spirit teaches you all things. So continue in what he has taught you, and continue to live in Christ.” Some people believe that the Apostle John was something of a mystic, at times.

  • Peter Kirk

    Roger, you are saying important things here which aren’t directly about “the McDermott Article and My Alleged “Meliorism””. I would suggest that you write up the larger part of what you wrote, about “the “growing divide” in evangelical theology” and about Luther, into a separate post with a title likely to attract greater attention.

  • John Osborn

    Dr. Olson,

    It’s intriguing that some evangelicals are apparently becoming more Catholic as a reaction to liberalism. I would have a hard time placing too high a value on tradition for the reason that I think tradition got eternal hell-fire wrong and that this was a really serious mistake. However, I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments for a higher view of tradition. The issue of canon is the point I struggle with the most. It seems the canon was settled by the church at least over 250 years after the last book in the Bible was written, and it was apparently decided by a council just like the creeds. So the question is how can saying “Only this set of books settled upon by a late 4th cent. council is authoritative…” not be somewhat self-contradictory? How is it consistent to think the council was infallible in making this decision, but quite wrong and possibly even apostatized on other points? Also if there’s was no canon until long after the Bible was written, there was no Sola Scriptura as we know it, which means Sola Scriptura is itself a principle outside of the Bible, and that could be considered self-contradictory.

    I’m working on a paper that tackles some of these questions from the writings of the Reformers. The idea I have so far is that the Sola Scriptura principle was ultimately a secondary principle that was derived from the Reformer’s convictions on the material principles of the reformation: Sola Christus, Sola Fide, Sola Gratias, etc…In other words, the reformation wasn’t inspired by a doctrine of Scripture, but by an encounter with the Christ of Scripture as savior and this encounter led them to see the need to challenge tradition because it had obscured Christ’s role as savior. So while Sola Scriptura might not make sense as a very starting principle, it may make sense in the context of trying to clear away everything that obscures the ultimate of authority of Christ as savior. Of course, this would also mean challenging some flat hermeneutics of fundamentalists which may obscure the centrality of Christ. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Roger Olson

      I agree with the reformers that the solas are all intertwined. But let’s look at a metaphor. Sure, the American founding fathers wrote the US Constitution. Does that make it not authoritative over later laws and court decisions? Even over the founders’ own writings–insofar as we have to settle law and public policy? No. So we must have and do have an authoritative document. What is its grounding? Not the church but the Spirit. True, the Spirit led the church to recognize it, but the Spirit must also lead me to recognize it and he does. Unless we regard it as our supreme authority the mess we call “tradition” becomes our authority. People like McDermott who claim Scripture requires tradition for its interpretation have trouble telling us exactly what “tradition” they’re talking about and why tradition itself doesn’t need an authority to interpret it (e.g., the Vatican). The same church/councils/bishops that decided on the canon made many mistakes in other areas of theology. The Spirit leads me to agree with this decision. The Spirit has led my faith tradition to agree with this decision–that these books are inspired as no other. When I read the creeds I do not hear the voice of the Spirit. I hear the voice of my ancestors doing their best to pass down a valid interpretation of Scripture. That’s what they would have said they were doing. It’s true, I believe, because it is Scriptural.

      • John Osborn

        Thanks for responding Dr. Olson. Martin Luther made a similar case in the one place I’ve found where he directly discusses this issue. He compares the Fathers’ recognition of the canon to a subject recognizing the authority of his ruler or a child recognizing the authority of parents and points out that this does not make the child or subject to be over the king or parent. This is a good argument, but it seems it must still be recognized that in practice we’re still ceding to the authority of the community over the individual even if we’re placing the authority of Scripture over the community. I would guess, we all have books that we personally struggle to hear the Spirit in more than other books, but we still accept the community’s consensus, rather than making our own personal canon. So perhaps it can be seen as a hierarchy with Scripture at the top, then the community, and the individual, but the individual can challenge the community on the basis of Scripture when the two are clearly in conflict. Of course, that then leads to the complex issue of who to count as the community.

        • Roger Olson

          Very well put. We have to always be open to God using a prophetic individual to challenge his or her community’s interpretation of Scripture (as in the case of Luther).

  • Marius Lombaard

    i’ve been pondering:

    1. if scripture was born out of the apostolic tradition, then how is scripture suddenly above the tradition?

    2. if the assumption in (1) is correct, then is it not the tradition that interprets the scripture? (note: i don’t mean a pope or anything, but generally that the traditon, as passed down via apostolic succession and as a preserved culture/ethos among church elders, should contextualize and interpret the scripture. not sure if i’m clear enough, that is currently the best way i can express/articulate this thought)

    3. if (1) and (2), then doesn’t it make sense to re-interpret some things in the bible according to culture (like female leadership in churches etc) without changing essential doctrines, and while also retaining the ethos within the tradition.