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.This is one of the problems. There is no firm ground in the evangelical theological world. Everything is relative with no fixed point of reference. So it becomes a fight over terms. What is liberal? Who gets to say?
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.This is interesting. He is making CS Lewis into a point of orthodoxy. Why? From a rhetorical point of view it is because his audience will mostly accept it. But what is the theological reason? Is there anything infallible about CS Lewis? No. He just takes us back to a time where there was agreement about many issues that no longer have agreement. CS Lewis expressed that agreement well. Yet does that mean what he expressed gets set in stone? In Catholic circles that could happen if he was the pope. When does it happen in protestant circles? I thought the answer was never but McDermott seems to want to make an exception.
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.
This is the point. Every liberal has the reformation as a precedent. If we can change the traditional teachings of Christianity once then we can do it again. The conservative evangelical has no reply. He cannot say the reformation was an error. He cannot offer a principled reason why this liberal idea is different. Yer he knows in his bones that it is so. Why? Because deep down inside he is Catholic. He knows certain truths are infallible. We must not question them. Yet he cannot express it in protestant terms.
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.”You can say nice things about creeds all say long. At the end of the day the liberal will only have one question. Are they fallible or infallible? A non-Catholic has to say fallible. Who is this Machen guy anyway? Just one more human opinion. One more guy I disagree with. Why should I lose sleep over that?
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?He is totally right in his instinct. But what made Chalcedon right? It was not a consensus. I mean there were a lot of Arians and Coptics at the time. It was a council based on the authority of the bishops and the pope. It was not based on consensus.
He then goes through a list of doctrines where modern evangelicals are disagreeing with what Lewis and Machen said or what he assumes Lewis and Machen would say. The problem is they don't have any authority. In his mind they have a lot of authority but they don't have objective authority that no evangelical can dismiss.
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.This is sounding more Catholic yet. Who are the orthodox community? Who were the orthodox community at the time of the reformation? What if God never let that orthodox community be led astray? What if, when they said something about the Eucharist or about the nature of the church they spoke truth? That would mean applying the position he has just stated consistently. If you did that you would end up Catholic.
They do and they don't. They want to think with a human tradition they call "the Great Tradition." They don't want to think with sacred tradition. That is the greatest tradition because it is not just a human tradition. It is from God. We are great at calling others to obey tradition when it lines up with our opinion. What about when it is us that has to submit our individual interpretation to that of the wider and longer orthodox church? If we take it all the way and submit ourselves totally to the widest and longest and most orthodox church then we will end up Catholic.
If you asked McDermott why he is not Catholic my guess is it because of one of those individual interpretations of Scripture that he is condemning here. He has the right principle but he does not dare push it past his comfort zone.