If Gerald McDermott is right, Martin Luther is the person ultimately responsible for liberal theology (“Evangelicals Divided,” April). Like those evangelicals McDermott labels Meliorists (a term none of us uses), Luther dared to challenge time-honored and settled traditions. Of course, I disagree with McDermott that fresh and faithful biblical research that challenges traditional doctrinal formulations inclines toward liberalism. True liberalism is, according to nineteenth-century theology scholar Claude Welch, “maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity.”
McDermott’s Meliorists (post-conservative evangelicals) are the true Biblicists in the divide among evangelicals that he describes. We do not advocate accommodation to culture; we regard Scripture as the sole ultimate norm for doctrine and practice. For us that means everything outside of Scripture is at least in principle open to revision if fresh and faithful interpretation of Scripture demands it.
I reject McDermott’s characterizations of my approach to theology, as I’m sure most, if not all, of those he calls Meliorists do for theirs. In fact, as a committed Protestant, I can only regard his elevation of tradition to functional infallibility as an accommodation to Catholic theology.
Roger E. Olson
GEORGE W. TRUETT THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
What I find most frustrating about Gerald McDermott’s analysis is that it elaborates on a distinction between Traditionism and Meliorism within evangelicalism apart from the more fundamental question of where evangelicalism as a whole, to the degree it can be successfully defined, stands with regard to these categories. (I am not criticizing the writer for not addressing my concerns, but his article does take for granted assumptions I do not share.) What progress in understanding is being made if Meliorism, in the face of an acknowledged Great Tradition, is found to be a trait of even the most conservative evangelicals, and their accusing the progressives of untoward progressivism isn’t much more than an exercise in the pot calling the kettle black?
Many identified in this piece as Meliorist evangelicals are more easily and usefully defined, once their teachings are isolated and clarified, as garden-variety heretics. They should be salted away as such, their teachings straightforwardly condemned, their predictable bawlings ignored. With the loss of these distractions, far larger and more important questions about the better sort of evangelicalism can perhaps come to the fore.
S. M. Hutchens
Gerald McDermott’s description of evangelicalism as divided between “Traditionists” and “Meliorists” would be improved by recognition of the huge divide between so-called “Biblicist” and “paleo-orthodox” versions of “Traditionism.” Traditionists who regard the Reformation as normative are necessarily Meliorists with regard to important aspects of the pre-Reformation tradition. Protestant Traditionists who regard the pre-Reformation tradition as normative are necessarily Meliorists with regard to certain aspects of post-Reformation Protestantism. There are certainly those (like Tom Oden) who attempt to create a pan-Traditionist position that explains away the apparent conflicts between the Reformation and previous tradition. But that is itself one position on the spectrum. (I don’t find it a convincing position, but that’s not the point here.)
McDermott’s description of Traditionism as an essentially unified perspective assumes the truth of Oden’s position and thus does not function well as a description of the actual evangelical theological spectrum, in which those of us who emphasize the authority of the early Church often find ourselves just as much at odds with staunch proponents of the Reformation as with those who wish to relativize all traditional authorities.
Edwin Woodruff Tait
Gerald McDermott’s reflections led me to three distinct but inextricably related conclusions. The first is that, absent midwifing by a magisterial authority, Protestantism was from birth an ineluctably fissiparous organism.
The second is the futility of his attempt to transmute sola scriptura into prima scriptura so that though Scripture is primary, his “Great Tradition” will be the authoritative guide to its interpretation. And the reason for its futility is the remaining issue of who has the authority to define the Great Tradition and how its interpretive role is to be exercised. In contrast, Catholics have always had a scripturally based “buck-stopper.”
The third is the yawning, dogmatic gulf separating even the most traditional evangelicals from large-C Catholics. The characteristic “spiritualizing interpretations” of the Eucharist in The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath, whom McDermott says exemplifies the most traditional of evangelicals, is a case in point. McGrath expatiates on four significations of the Eucharist. Not surprisingly, he does not include among them the only one given to us at its institution: that it is the reception of the physical body and blood of the God-Man, Jesus.
To all such Protestants of any denomination, I can only respond as did the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, who remarked that if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.
For now, I can only hope and pray that McDermott and his confreres will discard their arms and brave the Tiber.
Thomas J. Kleist
Movements shouldn’t last forever. With all due respect to Gerald McDermott’s thoughtful analysis, I suggest that what could be called his “doctrine of perpetual evangelicalism” is theologically dysfunctional. He credits evangelical theology as one that begins from sources “outside their experience”: the Word of God and a transcendent God. How can this be true given the historic mantra of evangelicals to “accept Jesus into your hearts as your personal Savior”?
From its evolution out of fundamentalism, evangelicalism has been an individualistic, subjectivist, and pietistic project. Evangelicalism’s inherent flaw itself—its focus upon a book, the Bible, instead of Christ—leads to a weak Christology which results in deficient (or absent) ecclesiology. These factors and its ahistorical bent account for its disregard of ecclesiology. Evangelicalism possesses no ecclesiology and that absence is the real issue, not the conflicts between its subdivisions.
McDermott gives evangelicalism another twenty years before it becomes unrecognizable as such. But evangelicalism has never been recognizable. It has had no ontological identity; it is codependent upon a Church that it has left and has erroneously called itself a church. In sum, McDermott’s probing analysis of history, tradition, and orthodoxy never calls the issue what it is: Evangelicals can’t define or describe the church beyond personal piety.
While he maintains hope for its future as a reform movement within the church, he fails to observe that evangelicalism has taken on a life of its own outside the church. But these religious organizations, large and small, are conglomerates of individuals defined by subjective experience, not historic, orthodox, and even biblical ecclesiology. A healthier body of Christ will find relief in its excretion of evangelicalism while ingesting a historic Trinitarian-based ecclesiology, taking shape in a visible organism that gathers to worship and serves the other, since its God so loved the world.
Paul O. Bischoff
As much sense as Gerald McDermott’s survey of the contemporary evangelical theological landscape makes, it also exhibits a weakness that explains why evangelicals will never be united along either the Meliorist or Traditionist lines he describes. His classification completely ignores the denominational or churchly affiliation of any of the leading evangelical theologians.
For Protestants to talk about the importance of the church may be like a drug dealer talking about the value of twelve-step programs. Still, I do wonder why he fails to mention the communions in which these theologians work and worship, and why their congregations or denominations (or even networks) do not provide oversight and correction. Without such discipline (in its good and bad senses), evangelical theologians and scholars who study them are free to describe trends or affinities among born-again Protestants. But removed entirely from the church (even a congregation), such ideas are almost complete abstractions.
This observation leads to another, which is why the church—both in its ministry of witness and worship and in its membership—has so little relevance to the task of evangelical theology. To be sure, academic theologians are not known these days for scholarship that has a direct benefit to believers and the communions to which they belong. Still, evangelical theologians have the reputation of being closer to Scripture and to God’s people. So why is there no evangelical ecclesiology or pastoral theology?
Would the doctrine of the church fix what ails contemporary evangelicalism? Probably not. But if evangelicals could start to identify with and submit to the discipline of ecclesial bodies, then at least the initial herding of their feline theologians could commence. Short of that, evangelical union will have to await the eschaton.
D. G. Hart
Gerald McDermott replies:
Roger Olson suggests I am a crypto-Catholic, which is ironic considering that Hutchens and Kleist think I am anything but. But if I am indeed accommodating to Catholic theology, then so was Luther in his belief that the ecumenical creeds and principal councils faithfully explicate the gospel meaning of Scripture.
Olson wants to claim Luther for his own project of “challeng[ing] time-honored and settled positions,” appealing to the Reformation in defense of what I called Meliorism. Yet Luther was not about challenging time-honored positions generally, but defending the Great Tradition against little defective traditions that had distorted it. For some years now, a raft of distinguished scholars (Heiko Oberman, David Yeago in this journal, Bruce Marshall, Christine Helmer, and Paul Hinlicky) have been showing how Catholic the real Luther was—contrary to the portrait of Luther used for polemical purposes by too many evangelicals and even Lutherans.
For example, in his “On the Councils and the Church” Luther criticized the legions of defective councils that distorted or obscured the teachings of the “universal or principal councils” which he esteemed: Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus I, and Chalcedon. He added that there were several other councils that he thought “equally good.” He accepted the three ecumenical creeds and used them against the anti-Trinitarians. Luther was a Traditionist.
Olson says he wants only to use Scripture as the sole ultimate norm and be open to fresh and faithful interpretation. But this begs the question: How do we know what is faithful interpretation? If experience is more important than doctrine, and no doctrine is immune to revision—both of which are conclusions of Olson’s postconservatives—how do we know that our fresh readings are not derived as much from our experience as from the biblical text? Particularly if postconservatives locate revelation not in the words of the text but somewhere else.
Liberal Protestants in the last two centuries also claimed to use Scripture as their sole norm, and over time came to distinguish revelation from the words of the Bible. They imagined, as Olson’s postconservatives seem to, that they stood above or outside tradition, ignoring the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of hermeneutics: that all research is affected by unproven presuppositions and personal involvement. It was no surprise that their quests for the historical Jesus found not icons but photographs—of themselves.
Those evangelical theologians who privilege experience over doctrine, as postconservative Meliorists suggest, cannot avoid what has been called the Hinduization of the faith, in which doctrines don’t matter as long as there is contact with a certain spiritual atmosphere, since after all, true divinity is beyond words and concepts.
If Olson does not accept my characterization of his theology, then I might have erred. I know it was not his intention to produce liberal disciples, and I don’t think I was wrong to say that his conclusions are typically orthodox, or that he cautioned fear and trembling when about to revise the Great Tradition. But I am puzzled, frankly, where I strayed in outlining Meliorist method. Was I inaccurate to say that he and his fellow postconservatives privilege experience over doctrine? Or that they separate revelation from the words of the Bible? Or that their final authority is found in their own estimations of what revelation communicates? Olson does not say.
I agree with Darryl Hart on the need for ecclesial correction and discipline. But I am not sure that it is as absent as he suggests. Some evangelical denominations, among fundamentalists and the Reformed, exercise real theological discipline. And while there may not be a single ecclesial body to correct the Rob Bells of the evangelical world, Christianity Today and a legion of websites have surely offered correction. We shall see if these informal but theological admonitions are less effective than the Catholic bishops’ recent formal correction of Elizabeth Johnson.
I agree in principle with Hutchens, Kleist, and Bischoff that the Achilles’ heel of evangelicalism has been its ecclesiology—or more precisely its “ecclesial atomism,” in Ephraim Radner’s phrase. Some Calvinist evangelicals talk about a Federal Vision in which the worldwide church of Jesus Christ is an objective spiritual reality. But the history of evangelicalism has been dominated by the view of the church as a free-will association of like-minded believers.
At the same time, I wish the Catholic critics were a bit less triumphalistic. When the clergy abuse scandal has sent multitudes of Catholics to swim the Tiber away from Rome to either liberal or evangelical Protestantism, and the church is beset with both clergy and parishioners who ignore or defy Rome, one would hope for a bit of ecumenical modesty.
Besides, who can deny that God has blessed the preaching and sacraments and ministry of evangelicals in Latin America, Africa, and China—contributing at least as much as Catholics to the conversion of sinners and building up the saints in holiness? Like the Church in Jerusalem listening to Paul and Barnabas, we must listen with a certain humility to what God has done. God retains his sovereign freedom to call “No People” his people and a church, even while those with better ecclesiologies say they are not a church.
Finally, a few more pointed comments. Hutchens makes no sense when he claims even the most conservative evangelicals are Meliorists, for all conservative evangelicals reject at least two of the three parts of the Meliorist method. Bischoff claims a contradiction between the Word outside experience and the indwelling Christ, but this pairing of doctrines is a staple of all orthodox theologies. So is the recognition that a book has been given by God as a vehicle of revelation. He perpetuates the oft-repeated myth that evangelicals worship the Bible. I appreciate the distinction made by Tait, but he confuses “Meliorists” as “improvers” with the Meliorists I defined as using a three-fold method.
JUDGING THE JUDGES
Patrick McKinley Brennan’s review “The Forms Behind the Laws” (April) begs fundamental questions of interpretation, blurs the distinction between legislating and judging, and proposes a mode of judicial interpretation that would, in its practical application, be indistinguishable from judges who make decisions based on personal preference. Brennan mocks Justice Roberts’ famous comparison of a judge to an umpire who calls balls and strikes as “risible” and something that “nobody believes.” He states: “Everybody knows that when the Court announces unenumerated constitutional rights . . . the judges are looking at more than an existing body of law.” With this statement, Brennan assumes the question that animates the debate over the proper role of judges: whether judges should be announcing “unenumerated” rights in the first place.
Of course language is imperfect. Interpretation is imperfect, and it is impossible for judges to apply the law perfectly. It is a long and damaging leap to go from here to the conclusion that it is “facile” and “falsely objective” for them to even try. Contrary to Brennan’s dismissive wave, many thousands of practicing attorneys believe what Justice Roberts said. We want our judges to call balls and strikes and not to make policy.
Brennan leaves the impression that he sees little distinction between the act of judging and the act of lawmaking. He criticizes textualism (a mode of judicial interpretation) by citing the author’s attempt to “show how lawmakers are engaged in the creative work of ensuring that natural law . . . is given effect in our human living.”
Is it too simple a criticism to point out that judges are not lawmakers? The school of legal realism, the dominant view in law school faculty lounges, has made it received wisdom among many—including, apparently, Brennan—that the act of judging is more about the policy preferences of individual judges and “social norms” than application of the law to the facts. Indeed, the claim that one can apply the law to the facts is seen as nothing more than a cover for judicial lawmaking.
Once the point is conceded that judges are engaged in lawmaking by different means, it is naive to assume that we can stem the tide by asking our judges to rule in accordance with natural law. Who is the arbiter of natural law in a given case? Brennan’s review contains its own refutation on this point. He obviously has a strong affinity for the author’s views. Yet the author concludes that her jurisprudence requires legal recognition of same-sex and plural marriage, and Brennan concludes that her jurisprudence does not even allow it. One does not have to leave the pages of Brennan’s review to see that, in practice, the suggested natural law jurisprudence would be indistinguishable from judging based on personal preferences.
This is not to say that our legislators should not be guided by natural law, teleology, and human flourishing. It is to say that when we cede responsibility for lawmaking to judges, particularly unelected federal judges, we have moved from a republic towards an oligarchy; we have deprived our laws of the legitimacy and consensus that comes from the democratic process; and we have become less free.
Joseph E. Viviano
MT. CLEMENS, MICHIGAN
Patrick Brennan replies:
Upon reading Joseph Viviano’s charges against me, I had to ask myself: Who is this Brennan that “proposes a mode of judicial interpretation that would, in its practical application, be indistinguishable from judges who make decisions based on preferences?” I hardly recognized myself in the accusations.
I said nothing in my review, not a single word, about what exactly the judicial role should be in our constitutional democracy. I did observe that, as a descriptive matter, our judges give constitutional effect to unenumerated rights and that, as a descriptive matter, no one believes that the judges are looking only to the law when they do so. My only normative claim, however, was that human lawmakers should be giving effect to the natural law. Space limitations did not allow me to address what would be a prudent division of lawmaking functions between legislators and judges in our culture.
Elsewhere, I have indeed defended a judicial role that Viviano would reject. This is not, though, because I have frequented faculty lounges. My reasons are hardly trendy or politically correct. As Viviano’s final paragraph insists, “we” must decide who makes the laws—and our Anglo-American legal tradition has never excluded judicial creativity from the judicial function. The role of judges in lawmaking has always been disputed in our tradition, but a call entirely to eliminate creativity from that role is a call for radical reform.
More important, it just won’t work. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hobbes, to name but a few, have recognized that those who faithfully apply the legislator’s enactments in the act of judging cannot be mere slaves of “text.” If Mr. Viviano remains in doubt, he would do well to study the legal reasoning of the majority opinion in the recent case Snyder v. Phelps. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by those freewheeling constitutional interpreters Justices Scalia and Thomas (among others), engaged in judging practices familiar from the common law. Chief Justice Roberts did not just call balls and strikes.
On opening the April issue, it was great to learn in “The Public Square” of “The disappearance of socialism as a live political option in the West.” But my glee was short-lived as I recalled Obamacare, “green” jobs, and the panoply of socialist programs on the books and in the playbooks of the Democrats (and some Republicans). Who is editing the Editor?
James Nuechterlein replies:
If Mr. Segermark has his way, the word socialism will no longer mean what it has always meant—public ownership and control of the means of production—but something along the lines of “left-wing programs I do not like.” This will not be an advance in political discourse.
Fr. James Martin’s statement “Your deepest, most heartfelt desires are God’s desire for you” is not Pelagian, as you say in the April While We’re At It section, though perhaps Martin must share some blame for the misunderstanding in trying to reduce an important idea to a “spiritual tip.” What I believe Martin wished to communicate is something along the lines of what St. Augustine had in mind when he said that longing makes the heart grow deep.
C. S. Lewis also speaks of these deep longings, referring to them as “joy.” Our deepest desires, what we most deeply long for, often provide a very real connection with God. The problem is that we don’t always know what it is we most deeply long for. My college-age students think what they want is beer and sex, but they have hardly discovered their deepest longings. St. Ignatius of Loyola said it this way: “God builds his hopes in our desires.” This, I think, is Fr. Martin’s point.
Wilburn T. Stancil
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI