Am I a “Liberal Christian” (According to Roger Olson)?

Am I a “Liberal Christian” (According to Roger Olson)? February 11, 2013

Roger Olson

Roger Olson recently posted a piece on why he’s not a “liberal Christian.” He said that he came to this conclusion after reading a bunch of liberal/progressive Christian blogs. Roger’s a great blogger, but one of his failings is that he never provides hyperlinks. This post is no exception. He doesn’t name the blogs or tell us who is a liberal blogger, in his opinion, and who is just getting over their fundamentalism (like he is).

Probably some readers think I’m hanging out on the far left, but you only need to read the comments to find a bunch of liberals who think I’m a raving conservative (on some issues). That’s why I’ve fought repeatedly to be listed among both the progressive Christian bloggers and the evangelical bloggers here at Patheos.

(Excursus: It bugs me that in the Patheos channel listings, “Evangelical” is its own category, but “Progressive Christian” is the name of the other channel. Why not “Evangelical Christian” or “Progressive.” This isn’t just a grammatical plea for parallel construction — I think it says something.

A lot of us know that neither “progressive” nor “liberal” is quite right. That’s why I waged a campaign to be called “Incarnational Christians.” Let the conservatives have “evangelical,” but let’s use a similarly theological signifier for ourselves.)

Since Roger doesn’t tell us who is who in his list, I’m left to guess about myself. I was never a fundamentalist, and I was only vaguely evangelical — anyone who attended Fuller Seminary when I was a student will tell you that my relationship with evangelicalism was an uneasy one. So I’m left to go through Roger’s rubric to see if I am, indeed, a “liberal.” Here’s his list, and my responses:

First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

I am suspicious of present-day miracles, and, as I’ve written, I don’t believe in demons. But I wholeheartedly affirm the historic, bodily resurrection of Jesus. The thing is, I probably don’t affirm that for the reasons that Roger thinks it’s important. In the end, I think this: God is capable of interaction with time and space as we know it; I just don’t see any evidence that God does that anymore. And I sure don’t think that there is a metaphysical reality that’s different from our reality. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

This is a false dichotomy, and it shows a real naïveté regarding human perceptions. The only way that you or I or Roger or any human being can talk about so-called “special revelation” is either 1) as pure speculation, or 2) by talking about our experience of it. To assert that there is some special revelation that is known to human beings independent of human experience is metaphysical hogwash. Again, if there is a God, then God is capable of all things — including revelatory acts in the space-time continuum. But those acts are only knowable through the scrim of human perception. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is itfunctional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

I have repeatedly defended an orthodox incarnation. I think that arguing over the “preexistence of the Word,” while interesting to debate over a beer, is overly beholden to Greek philosophy. That may have overshadowed Nicaea and Chalcedon, but it’s not what keeps me up at night. Again, it’s pure speculation, which interests me very little. I do think that the key to Christology is the Trinity (which I’ll spell out in a new book). So, Roger, am I a liberal?

Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Honestly, to say that God is the “author” of the Bible is a shocking sophomoric statement from a theologian of Roger’s stature. One can claim that the Bible is sacred — that it uniquely conveys truth, primarily the truth of Christ — without having to resort to the fideist claim that God wrote it. The Bible is a book unique in its revelation of God in Christ, but God didn’t write it. So, I’m affirming its uniqueness, which is what Roger seems to want, but not in the way that he wants it. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

I honestly do not know a single Christian — conservative or liberal — who thinks that salvation comes by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor. Even the most liberal Christian thinks that salvation — whatever it is — is a gift from God. I think Roger is caricaturing liberals here. So, Roger, am I a liberal?

Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

I have come to know lots of Preterists — they do not think that Jesus is coming back. But that doesn’t make them liberal; in fact, they are usually quite conservative. I believe that Christianity — like Judaism — is a fundamentally messianic faith. That is, Christianity is about hope — hope for a more peaceful future, hope for a savior, hope for salvation. I do not know what form that future will take, but I’m confident that Jesus will be a part of it.

So, Roger, I ask again: Do you think I’m a “liberal Christian,” or not?

PS: James McGrath has a nice response; he also responds to Frank Schaeffer’s post about how to fix mainline Christianity, and I’ll be responding to Frank on Thursday.

Since Roger likely won’t respond, I’d love for you to respond. According to Olson, am I a liberal Christian? Are you?

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