Why I Prefer “Orthodox” to “Conservative”

Why I Prefer “Orthodox” to “Conservative” August 26, 2022

Why I prefer “Orthodox” to “Conservative”

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Here I am talking ONLY about theology and ways of describing theologies. A recent review of my book “Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity” called me “non-conservative.”

”Conservative” is an indexical term; it only has meaning within a context. I have said and written that I am not a “conservative evangelical.” The context is “evangelicalism,” especially American evangelicalism. Among American evangelicals I am not “conservative.”

However, compared with liberal Christians and most of those who call themselves “progressive Christians,” I am most definitely conservative.

However, I prefer to be labeled an “orthodox Christian” with the small “o.” I am not Eastern Orthodox, so I am not “Orthodox” with a capital “O.”

What does all this mean?

When I think of “conservative evangelicals,” among theologians, they are mostly opposed to any innovative thinking in theology. They TEND to think that the constructive task of theology is finished, completed. There is no “new light” to break forth from God’s Word. They TEND to attack fellow evangelicals like N. T. Wright and Greg Boyd who dare to carry forward the constructive task of theology JUST FOR DOING THAT.

As one conservative evangelical theologian/biblical scholar said to me “If it’s true, it can’t be new and if it’s new it can’t be true.” I wonder what Martin Luther would have thought of that? He knew that his doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone apart from works and especially his “simul justus et peccator” was new—in church history. Well, there is some debate about whether, for example, Jan Hus taught the same thing. I’m not convinced especially about the “simul.” That seems new to me with Luther.

Of course, Luther thought what he taught was straight out of the Bible. But so does N. T. Wright and so does Greg Boyd.

Back to my main point. In my experience, American “conservative evangelicals” TEND to consider the constructive task of theology as finished. When? Well, for most of them, by Charles Hodge. Or, if they are not Reformed, John Wesley. Conservative evangelicals (in America) are mostly traditionalists, who, like Millard Erickson, elevate the “received evangelical tradition” to the status of “closed.” It can be expressed in new ways, but it cannot change.

I am orthodox because I believe in the classic, ecumenical doctrines of orthodox Christianity—the unique incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (even the hypostatic union!), the Trinity, original sin, total depravity, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, Jesus Christ as the only savior of mankind, the virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and all of his miracles, his return in glory to establish his millennial reign on earth, heaven and hell after judgment, etc., etc.

But I do not believe in the “inerrancy of the Bible” AS CONSERVATIVES do; I prefer to talk about the “infallibility of the Bible” meaning that it is “perfect with respect to its purpose.” I believe in the dynamic inspiration of the Bible as opposed to “plenary verbal inspiration.” I believe that the story of Jonah might be a parable, but I believe it doesn’t really matter. I am a theist evolutionist or at least a “progressive creationist.” (The line between the two seems thin to me.)

So, I claim the label “orthodox evangelical” rather than “conservative evangelical” because of my study of American evangelical theology and theologians. I do not find myself comfortable with the Gospel Coalition crowd; they are clearly the “conservatives” among American evangelical Christians. (Which is not to say they are the only ones.)

The key difference is this: Is the constructive task of theology finished or still open? But I am different from liberals who also believe the constructive task of theology is open because I do not consider “the best of modern thoughts” an authority alongside or over holy scripture. I do not consider the Bible simply “our sacred stories.” I think both Jesus Christ and the Bible are different in kind and not only in degree from other prophets and “saviors” and other “holy books” of religious and spiritual “wisdom.”

So, no, I do not consider myself “non-conservative” except WITHIN the cozy cabal of American conservative evangelical theologians and their disciples. I definitely prefer to be called an “orthodox evangelical” and even “progressive evangelical” where “progressive” means “among evangelicals in America” (and probably Great Britain and Australia).

I am open to open theism; I am open to the “new perspective on Paul,” I am open to “inclusivism” (of salvation). I regard my theological heroes among evangelicals as Bernard Ramm, Donald Bloesch, and Clark Pinnock who were all definitely conservative COMPARED with liberals (in theology), but who were doctrinally orthodox but progressive in that they thought of “fresh and faithful interpretation of scripture” as a positive thing, not a negative thing. They were not driven by culture in their theological reflections and reconstructions; they were driven by scripture itself, but they also sought to develop and teach reasonable interpretations of scripture as opposed to what Ramm called “obscurantist” ones. Too many American conservative theologians and their followers are obscurantists.

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