Long confused with fundamentalism by most of the academy and dismissed as intellectually inadequate, evangelical theology has in the last two decades become one of the liveliest and most creative forms of Protestant theology in America. Not long ago the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten noted that “the initiative in the writing of dogmatics has been seized by evangelical theologians in America. . . . Most mainline Protestant and progressive Catholic theology has landed in the graveyard of dogmatics, which is that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology.”
Evangelicals generally believe theology is reflection on what comes from outside their experience as the Word of God. For that reason—that they talk not primarily about themselves but about a transcendent God whose self-revelation must be wrestled with—they not only have more to say than mainline Protestantism, but more interesting things to say.
Most evangelicals believe that they are bound by the Word of God understood as a transcendent, authoritative revelation. But not all are so convinced, and therein lies a problem for the future of evangelical theology and the future of evangelicalism. The rising generation of evangelicals is not as socially or theologically liberal as has been thought (See Byron Johnson, “The Good News About Evangelicalism,” FT, February), but their theological leaders are splitting in ways that threaten the future integrity of their movement and the source of its theological creativity.
Evangelical theology has long been divided between those who emphasize human freedom to choose salvation (Arminians) and those who stress God’s sovereignty in the history of salvation (the Reformed). Now this old division has been overshadowed by a larger division between new opposing camps we may call the Meliorists and the Traditionists. The former think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy. The latter think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it. Most of the Meliorists are Arminian, and most of the Traditionists are Reformed, though there are exceptions on both sides.
This new division has developed from challenges by some of those who call themselves “post-conservatives.” Led by Meliorist theologians like Roger Olson and the late Stanley Grenz, they argue that “conservative” theology is stuck in Enlightenment foundationalism, which seeks certainty through self-evident truths and sensory experience, sees the Bible as a collection of propositions that can be arranged into a rational system, believes doctrine to be the essence of Christianity, and, because it does not realize the historical situatedness of the Bible, constructs a rigid orthodoxy on a foundation of culture-bound beliefs. Responding in part to evangelical excesses in the inerrancy debates of the 1970s, post-conservative theologians developed an understandable distaste for rationalistic, ahistorical, and un-literary readings of Scripture.
In Reformed and Always Reforming: The Post-Conservative Approach to Evangelical Theology, Olson suggests that this brand of evangelical theology is fundamentalist in spirit because it chases heretics out of its “small tent.” He calls his “post-conservative” brand of evangelical theology the “big tent” version.
Olson divides the conservatives—which we would call Traditionists—into two camps, “Biblicists” (a derogatory term suggesting simple-mindedness) and “Paleo-orthodox” (another derogatory term, implying a refusal to face modern realities). The Biblicists, who include Carl Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler, and D. A. Carson, see revelation as primarily propositional and doctrines as facts. But most importantly, Olson claims, they regard doctrine as the “essence” of Christian faith.
The Paleo-orthodox include Baptist D. H. Williams, the Reformed author-pastor John Armstrong, Anglicans such as the late Robert Webber and Christianity Today’s editor David Neff, and the Methodists William Abraham and Thomas Oden. For them, the ancient ecumenical consensus is the governing authority that serves as an interpretive lens through which Christians are to interpret Scripture. The critical and constructive task of theology is conducted in light of what the ecumenical Church has already decided about crucial doctrinal matters.
Olson’s division of conservatives into these two camps is partly right and partly wrong. It is true that when interpreting Scripture some conservatives look to the last few centuries of evangelical reflection for authority, and others look to the Fathers. But the post-conservative suggestion that both the so-called Biblicists and Paleo-orthodox are foundationalist is dubious. Few among the Biblicists just named—and none of the Paleo-orthodox—would affirm the possibility of intellectual certainty based on self-evident truths or sensory experience. Neither group would say doctrine alone is the essence of faith, but all would insist that experience should never be privileged over doctrine.
Meliorists such as Olson think that another basic problem with Traditionists is that they give too much weight to, well, tradition. They believe Biblicists pay too much attention to the evangelical tradition, and Paleo-orthodox to the premodern consensus. These traditions, Olson asserts, have been wrong in the past. “All tradition is in need of correction and reform,” he says, and evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests.
The creeds, for example, are to Olson 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. And even the Bible is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of Scripture. Meliorists 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. For most Meliorists, the Bible’s authority is primarily functional. God speaks through it when He chooses, and only at those times can we say the Spirit speaks through it with authority.
As a result, Meliorists can be ambivalent both on the words of Scripture and on tradition. Olson sometimes says that the Bible’s words are inspired and is typically orthodox in his conclusions, but seems to prefer the newer “dynamic” approach to inspiration. The late Clark Pinnock, another leading post-conservative, while urging “steadfast loyalty to the doctrines of classical Christianity” and advising evangelicals to “drop our prejudice against tradition,” argued that our commitment to “revelation in Scripture . . . may at any time require a revisioning of doctrine.”
Olson accepts the Great Tradition (the consensus on “mere Christianity” among the Fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Reformers which for most conservatives is authoritative) as a “Third Testament,” which can be ignored “only with fear and trembling,” and warns that “whatever overthrows the Great Tradition is likely to be heretical.” He further insists that “no post-conservative evangelical wishes to discard tradition” and that all post-conservative theologians “respect” the consensus of the Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers. Yet, he says, “respect” does not mean “slavish adherence,” which, in his view, is inconsistent with the Great Tradition itself.
Other Meliorists show less respect for the Great Tradition, and some of them are challenging it in significant ways. Theologians like Steve Chalke, Joel Green, and Mark Baker declare penal substitutionary atonement “inappropriate” for this culture because it seems to justify violence and encourage selfishness. Others are reluctant to speak of damnation and give fresh support for universalism (for example, Robin Parry, who writes under the penname of Gregory MacDonald). Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist argues that “all can, and ultimately will, be saved.” Gregory Boyd and Pinnock, the most prolific proponents of Openness of God theology, insist that God does not know what we will decide in the future because then our choices could not be free. God has decided to limit himself so that our choices would not be hindered.
Others challenge the Great Tradition’s moral teachings. Brian McLaren, a post-conservative guru of “emerging” churches, does not want to identify his position on precisely the point at which moral orthodoxy is under siege today: homosexual unions. Tony Campolo, in a book he coauthored with McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point, dismisses Old Testament strictures against homosexual acts by saying they are part of the purity code we now call “Kosher rules,” and suggests that Paul “was not condemning homosexuality per se” but simply pederasty and those heterosexuals who “choose homosexual behavior as a new, kinky sexual thrill.” He admits that Christian tradition condemned gay eroticism, but adds that “if we yielded to Church tradition on all points, women would not be allowed to teach Sunday school or serve as missionaries.”
These post-conservative evangelical challengers seem to have even less of Olson’s “fear and trembling” about revising the Tradition. And even those Meliorists who say they respect the Tradition insist that every bit of it is “man-made”; it “always” needs correction and reform. It always gets a vote, but not even the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds or the Chalcedonian consensus get a veto.
The problem with post-conservative Meliorism is not just what its leaders are now saying; it is that their approach will lead both themselves and their students further and further afield from historic orthodoxy. There are three reasons for this. First, Meliorists exalt experience at the expense of cognitive understanding or doctrine. Olson says that the essence of authentic faith is a distinctive spirituality “rather than” correct doctrine. Orthopraxy is “prior to” orthodoxy, the main purpose of revelation is transformation rather than information, and doctrine is “secondary” to evangelical experience. Leading Meliorist thinkers speak of experience as “confirming” belief rather than supplying it, but this exaltation of experience over doctrine may lead them to look to experience as a source of doctrine, thus travelling by the experiential expressivist route to liberal Protestantism.
Second, there is a new hesitation among Meliorists to support plenary inspiration, the view that the words of Scripture are inspired. Olson reports on post-conservatives who see “the words of Scripture as more the human authors’ than the Holy Spirit’s,” and who accept Bernard Ramm’s Barthian view that the Bible itself is not the Word of God but a culturally conditioned “witness” to the Word of God. Meliorists insist on the final authority of Scripture. But if Scripture is a human, culturally inspired witness, and the words themselves are not inspired, how do we decide which concepts “in, with, and under” the words are the Word? And who decides? If the biblical authors were culturally conditioned, and all of the Great Tradition is culturally conditioned, why isn’t the theologian just another culture-bound interpreter of spiritual experience?
These questions point to the third problem: the Meliorists’ lack of a clear view of authority. The Great Tradition, as noted, is respected but never has a veto. Scripture is said to be authoritative, but its words are not inspired. Since the Word is hidden among phenomena clouded by ancient cultures, only those who recognize this and have knowledge of those cultures can have any authority: charismatic Meliorist scholars and writers. But even they disagree with one another, so we are left with no authoritative word at all.
The logic of the Meliorist approach would lead evangelicalism to follow the path of mainline Protestantism over the last decades, as it continued to proclaim the authority of Scripture and respect for tradition while rejecting the Tradition (and in particular its reading of Scripture) at precisely the points where the culture was at war with biblical teaching. In moral theology, for example, if the words of Scripture are culture-bound and not inspired, the particulars of Levitical or Pauline sexual admonitions must give way to the true Word behind the words—love and non-judgmentalism—when confronted by the experience of committed love and presumed new knowledge.
Although claimed by Olson as a fellow post-conservative for his rejection of foundationalism and the view that revelation is purely or primarily propositional, the redoubtable Kevin Vanhoozer denies the Meliorists’ false bifurcation between doctrine and experience and shows a way forward that takes seriously the challenges post-conservatives have tried to address while retaining the Traditionists’ commitments.
Vanhoozer, who stands with Alister McGrath as among the most respected evangelical theologians, suggests in his Drama of Doctrine that in their dismissal of the “conservative” view of doctrine, Meliorists simplistically emphasize the cognitive dimension of doctrine at the expense of the “phronetic” (imparting sound judgment). Christian doctrine is not only scientia (knowledge) but also sapientia (wisdom). It gives us not simply understanding of God but also a way of being in the world—not simply showing us who God is but by the Spirit joining us to Him even while in this world.
Vanhoozer also has a helpful way of thinking about how the Bible works as authoritative Word. For most Meliorists, the Bible’s authority is primarily functional. But Vanhoozer insists that Scripture has ontological authority. God uses the words of Scripture to speak to us, but the giving of the canon itself is a divine act speaking to the world. The Spirit is active not only on those occasions when particular parts of the Bible are illuminated for us, but was also already active in the formation of the words of the canon.
In these ways and others, Vanhoozer shows in a post-foundationalist way that experience and doctrine are intrinsically tied up in one another, and that the Bible’s words (not just concepts) are given by God just as He gives them afresh every time they are read or preached. The Meliorists’ exaltation of experience over doctrine is a false dichotomy, and their dissociation of revelation from biblical words slights God’s work of revelation in history.
As Vanhoozer’s response to Meliorism suggests, what finally divides evangelical theologians is not their view of foundationalism but their attitude to tradition and Scripture. Meliorists say the historic Church’s understanding of Scripture should be closely scrutinized. Some of them profess respect for the Great Tradition, but because of their slippery approach to biblical inspiration and subordination of doctrine to experience, their relation to that Tradition is tenuous. Because the meaning of the Word is found not in the words of the Bible but in the theology of the Meliorist interpreter, sola scriptura can become—despite the best intentions of its leading thinkers— sola theologia, with the charismatic theologian the final authority.
Traditionists also affirm sola scriptura, but in a manner that is really prima scriptura: Scripture is primary, but the Great Tradition is the authoritative guide to its interpretation. Because Traditionists see doctrine and experience not above or below but inextricably bound up in one another, they allow the Great Tradition a veto. They are ready, as Meliorists are not, to say that not only the words of Scripture but also significant segments of the unfolding of the Great Tradition were guided by the Spirit.
What does all this bode for the future of evangelicalism? Present divisions between Meliorists and Traditionists will widen along two tracks: theological method and the nature of Scripture.
On method, the issue is differing interpretations of the historic evangelical appeal to sola scriptura. Disagreements on this issue have spawned repeated divisions from the first evangelical awakenings in the eighteenth century, and the question is how those disagreements will be addressed in our time. The lesson evangelicals should have learned is that sola scriptura is a necessary but not sufficient principle 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.
Overreacting to evangelicalism’s often rationalistic, a-historical, and un-literary reading of Scripture, Meliorists have separated revelation from the biblical text, and located a so-called Christian essence in religious experience fundamentally removed from the text’s words and concepts. Vanhoozer offers a far better response. He is not afraid to call Scripture “inerrant,” but he reads it in terms of its different biblical genres and ancient literary conventions. He knows that ancient historiographical standards were different from ours.
A better response still is the return of many Traditionist theologians to the medieval “four-fold sense” that restores a theological reading of Scripture, rejecting the modernist assumption that every biblical text has only the precise univocal meaning intended by its human author. More and more Traditionist theologians are recovering this theological reading of Scripture as the foundation of systematic theology, finding the “literal” sense that corresponds to what we call the literary but not literalistic meaning.
Meliorism and Traditionism describe two broad approaches evident throughout the history of Christian theology, but which have become especially sharply divided in the last two centuries as liberal theology increasingly diverged from the general orthodox consensus. Which will now prevail in this most recent division within evangelicalism? The answer depends on whether evangelical leaders and theologians will follow mainline Protestantism in its Meliorist accommodation to culture or Roman Catholicism in its Traditionist insistence on the priority of the Christian tradition. In the last half-century particularly, mainline Protestant theologians have wandered far afield. They followed the father of liberal Protestantism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who like the Meliorists defined true religion as experience that is not intrinsically tied to any specific doctrinal formulation. The result was then and is now a faith that is curiously non-definable and hyper-attentive to prevailing contemporary assumptions.
Catholics have by and large followed a different path. After the theological tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, strong leadership from Rome prevented later Catholic theology from ignoring its orthodox and traditional claims. In 1984 Thomas Sheehan wrote about two Catholicisms, traditional Catholics in the pews and liberal Catholic theologians, but in the same year a survey of Catholic theologians and parishioners found considerable overlap between the two groups, with theologians tending to understand religious beliefs in a more nuanced but still traditional manner. If some Catholic theologians have struggled with the Vatican’s conservative leadership on both dogmatic and moral issues, Rome’s orthodoxy has nevertheless dominated the theological conversation in American Catholicism.
If history is a guide, the present divisions between Meliorists and Traditionists will widen. In another twenty years, Meliorists may not be recognizable as evangelicals, and, like the liberal Protestants they resemble, will likely have trouble filling their pews. Traditionists will grow in numbers and continue to challenge Catholic doctrine even as they learn from it while they explore the Great Tradition.
The only evangelical theology likely to survive and flourish will be that which renounces the triumphalism that has heretofore treated Church history as little more than darkness before the Reformation, the eighteenth-century awakenings, or the postmodern movement of the late twentieth century. But the future is still uncertain. It remains to be seen whether evangelicalism as a whole, and its theologians in particular, will adopt an attitude of intellectual humility willing to submit to a vision of the whole that can be found only by living in the whole (theological) tradition.
That will be difficult because evangelical theologians, like other orthodox thinkers, are susceptible to the peculiarly academic sort of ambition that seeks acceptance and recognition by their liberal colleagues. We want the academy’s approval, and so we are tempted to write and teach a theology that will be consistent with its moral and theological sensibilities.
But the way to renewal requires a conscious rejection of Meliorist accommodationism and the assertion of what I have called Traditionism, particularly its willingness to be instructed by the Great Tradition. As Donald MacKinnon once observed and William Abraham has reminded us, the great orthodox creeds are the ordinary Christian’s protection against the ingenuity of the wise and intellectually superior. These days the most common temptations are to argue in neo-pietist fashion that doctrine and morality are finally unimportant as long as believers experience warm feelings about Jesus and engage in ministry to the world, and to reduce Scripture to the human expression of religious experience, finding revelation somewhere other than in the biblical text itself. This reduction suppresses Scripture’s own claim for itself as “words taught not by human wisdom but by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
If evangelical theology succumbs to these Meliorist temptations, and does not exercise the kind of intellectual humility required by Traditionism, it will not survive. But in turning evangelicalism to the Great Tradition and reasserting its connection with all of Christian history, Traditionism can supply the resources evangelicals need for their own renewal. The evangelical movement as a whole will strengthen itself and preserve itself against internal dissolution if it then sees itself as a reform movement in the Church catholic. The monastic movements, the Clunian reform movement, the Dominican preaching revival, the Franciscans, and the Reformation itself thrived and influenced the universal Church by relating to and learning from it.
If the evangelical movement does not learn from that experience, it will risk disintegrating into ever more subjectivist and individualistic sects, many of them neither evangelical nor orthodox.
Gerald McDermott, the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, is editor of The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology and coauthor of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford).