A new battle is brewing over the future of Evangelical theology. Roger Olson, Evangelical theologian at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, protests in a recent article that some Evangelicals (especially me in a recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) misunderstand “liberal theology.” We think, he says, that liberal theology “is a good label for any deviation from orthodoxy.” So we wrongly label, he says, “any deviation from or attempt to re-form orthodox Christian tradition as ‘liberal.’” Instead, he argues, liberal theology is that which makes modernity rather than Scripture its norm.
Yet there are troubling signs that Olson and his self-styled “post-conservative” Evangelicals approach Scripture and tradition in ways that are more modernist than orthodox. They refuse to let the Great Tradition (the Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox consensus which C.S. Lewis dubbed “mere Christianity”) ever trump an individual’s interpretation of Scripture. This is what can be called nuda scriptura—the idea that the Bible is self-interpreting, needing only the Christian individual to make sense of it. In contrast, Martin Luther’s sola scriptura used the great creeds to fight for the primacy of Scripture over late medieval tradition.
Olson asserts that the Great Tradition has been wrong in the past, which just goes to show that all tradition is “always . . . in need of correction and reform.” Evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests. The creeds are simply “man-made statements.” They all need to be re-examined for possible “revisioning of doctrine” based on a fresh reading of scripture. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is on the table. Only the Bible is finally authoritative. But even that is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which in reality consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of the Bible. Post-conservatives tend to reject the idea that the actual words of the Bible are inspired, and often prefer to speak of “dynamic inspiration,” in which the biblical authors but not their words are inspired.
J. Gresham Machen, author of the classic Christianity and Liberalism (1923), was a Great Tradition Evangelical who prized the early church creeds for their authoritative guidance of biblical interpretation. “According to the Christian conception,” he wrote, “a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”
The post-conservative view of tradition and scripture, in which Scripture is self-interpreting (Olson’s view), raises new questions. If we can overrule tradition because of Scripture, but the words of Scripture are neither the Word of God nor inspired, then how do we decide which concepts behind the words are the Word? And who decides? If the biblical authors were culturally-conditioned, and the Great Tradition is culturally conditioned all the more, what prevents the post-conservative theologian from being just another culture-bound interpreter? Are we really free to say that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds never get a veto? Or the Chalcedonian consensus? Or that the development of the Trinitarian doctrines was only man-made and not guided by the Holy Spirit?
That modern culture is indeed guiding the biblical interpretation of post-conservative Evangelicals is apparent when we survey their recent pronouncements. Mark Baker and Joel Green reject the classic evangelical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. They deny that God’s wrath had to be appeased or “that God had to punish Jesus in order for God to be able to forgive and be in relationship with God’s people.” In his battle with theological liberals one hundred years ago, Machen faced a similar revulsion towards talk of God’s wrath and the cross as propitiation. Machen agreed that God was not waiting coldly for a price to be paid him, and argued that God himself made the sacrifice for sin. But he also insisted that “the New Testament clearly speaks of the wrath of God and the wrath of Jesus himself; and all the teaching of Jesus presupposes a divine indignation against sin.”
Post-conservative Evangelicals such as Rob Bell, Robin Parry, and Thomas Talbott are opting for the universal salvation of all. Machen attributed the rejection of hell to liberal theology. Although universalism is common among mainline Protestant theologians today, and a hopeful universalism was proposed by Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the notion was never a part of mainstream orthodoxy and was always regarded as unorthodox by the mainstream Evangelical tradition.
Olson includes “open theism” within the big tent of evangelical orthodoxy. This is a school of evangelical thought that holds that God does not know our future choices, for such knowledge would mean we are not free. It is likely that Lewis and Machen would regard this as a serious departure from orthodox tradition, which has held that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future.
Other post-conservative Evangelicals are now following the Protestant mainline in accepting the theological legitimacy of homosexual practice and marriage. There is no doubt that Lewis and Machen would have considered this to be beyond the pale of orthodoxy—and a capitulation to modernity.
The lesson Evangelicals should learn from this new dust-up over evangelical theology and modernity is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy. Only a “single-source” view of scripture and 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.
Post-conservatives claim conservative Evangelicals elevate tradition—both evangelical tradition and early church tradition—above Scripture. But Great Tradition Evangelicals say they want to submit their individual interpretations of Scripture to those of the wider and longer orthodox church, and interpret Scripture by thinking with the Great Tradition.
Gerald McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and Research Associate at the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa (University of the Free State, South Africa). He is the author of an extended essay on evangelical theology in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2013).