According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Neo-Fundamentalism, Part 2

Another Hallmark of Neo-fundamentalism

by Roger Olson
July 6, 2011

I’ve been writing a series of posts here about the phenomenon among evangelicals (especially evangelical scholars and those under their influence including certain influential pastors and authors) that I call “neo-fundamentalism.” I’ve already identified several common (perhaps not universal) characteristics or hallmarks of this movement (if it can be called that).

First, let me reiterate that I’m not claiming there’s some kind of secret cabal or conspiracy at work. Rather, I think I detect a relatively new ethos among conservative evangelicals that feels a lot like the fundamentalism “the new evangelicals” supposedly left behind in the 1940s and 1950s. (In its broadest sense “evangelicalism” includes fundamentalists, but beginning with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and then taking off with the founding and growth of the Billy Graham ministries including Christianity Today (CT) in the 1950s a “new evangelicalism” struggled to distinguish itself from the fundamentalist movement led by men like Bob Jones, Carl McIntire and John R. Rice.)

This neo-fundamentalism consists of (mostly) men who claim to be part of the new evangelicalism and are usually so identified but who seem to be turning back to something more like fundamentalism in terms of their attitudes and approaches to evangelical theology and ministry. But there doesn’t seem to be any unifying organization tying them all together even though they do tend to huddle together in certain organizations.

The one hallmark of the older fundamentalism not shared by these neo-fundamentalists (who prefer the label “confessional evangelical”–a label I can’t give over to them because we postconservative evangelicals confess a lot!) is the doctrine of “biblical separationism” and especially “secondary separationism.” However, even these seem to be returning to some extent among these neo-fundamentalists. (I’m thinking for example of the SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance.)

One hallmark I don’t think I’ve talked about here before is the neo-fundamentalists’ tendency to publish ONLY scholarship aimed at “correcting” doctrinal drift or declension among fellow evangelicals. For them, theology should not be creative or engage in reconstruction. Apparently, anyway, God does NOT (for them) have new light to break forth from his word. They are defensive of whatever they perceive as “the received evangelical tradition” and pump out books and articles attacking those evangelicals they regard as somehow departing from it. It always turns out that they see all those straying evangelicals as “on a liberal trajectory.” They (the neo-fundamentalists) are obsessed with liberal theology–as if it still poses a huge threat. (In fact, although it is still around, it has almost no real influence except in some of the mainline Protestant denominations.) Fellow evangelicals like N. T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, the late Stanley Grenz, and numerous others I might mention are treated very harshly by the neo-fundamentalists merely for daring to push the envelope of tradition so as to rethink some traditional doctrinal formulations.

I am not against polemics, so long as they are practiced in a civil and respectful manner. But what puzzles me is why these seemingly brilliant neo-fundamentalist scholars, many of who teach in very respectable evangelical institutions, don’t get to work on something more constructive theologically than criticism of fellow evangelicals. They seem always to be waiting and watching for an evangelical to write or publish something they consider less than fully orthodox so they can jump on it and write another book attacking it.

This current evangelical situation reminds me of Karl Barth’s response to the question of possible universalism in his theology. In The Humanity of God (p. 62) he wrote: “One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept [viz., universalism] gradually surrounded. What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy? Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself? This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”

I think Barth’s comment there speaks powerfully into the ongoing debate over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. And into the plethora of publications attacking moderate and postconservative evangelicals for daring to engage in fresh and faithful biblical research in order to test whether time honored (but still human) traditions are valid. We have too many “morosely gloomy” evangelical theologians today. I’d like to challenge them to take a year off from their inquisitions to write something positive and constructive.

Additional Comments and Notes

Thirsty says
Roger, one of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last year is to try to get a handle on evangelical Protestantism — in the main through reading what I can, through attending services at a local and thriving evangelical Anglican church, and through talking as much as possible to evangelical friends and friends-of-friends. Your blogs have been very helpful in this regard, but there’s one thing I keep wondering about.

You evidently envisage evangelical Protestantism as a kind of spectrum, with neo-fundamentalists at one end, and moderate and postconservative ones at the other. While labels can be limiting, they can be helpful too, and so I’m wondering where exactly you would place individuals such as Don Carson, John Piper, Rick Warren, Philip Yancey, and England’s John Stott, Steve Chalke, and Steve Jeffery? Indeed, where would you place yourself?

I’m having difficulties grasping the realities of the contemporary evangelical map, and I think some kind of pointers in this regard might be helpful.

I ask largely because friends at the local evangelical church have muttered gloomily about divisions between what might be termed the Chalke and Jeffery camps, notably talking of conventions splitting over Chalke’s views; one also has spoken unhappily about attending conferences where he’s been told that all books for sale there have been vetted in advance so only books completely in line with the conference’s doctrine are available. Feeling that we shouldn’t just read to validate our views, this bothers him.

Roger says
Well, watch for the forthcoming book The Evangelical Spectrum: Five Views. I, for one, don’t like the “right/left” spectrum. It operates from the assumption that all evangelical views are tied somehow to modernity. The spectrum I prefer is determined by attitudes toward tradition.

Fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists are those who highly value militant or aggressive defense of something they perceive as a sacred hermeneutical and doctrinal tradition such that it is considered heresy or at least very dangerous even to question any part of it. These people tend to sanctify an entire systematic theology (in most cases in the U.S., anyway, somehow related to Charles Hodge’s and B. B. Warfield’s theology) as authoritative for authentic evangelicalism.

Postconservatives are those evangelicals who take more seriously sola or prima scriptura such that it is always worthwhile to question tradition insofar as fresh and faithful biblical research indicates it.


Charles says
"what puzzles me is why these seemingly brilliant neo-fundamentalist scholars, many of who teach in very respectable evangelical institutions, don’t get to work on something more constructive theologically than criticism of fellow evangelicals.”

Maybe these guys have hemmed themselves in. They know from their own behavior how ready certain folk are to criticize anything new, to excommunicate, as it were, anyone who deviates from the conservative evangelical script. Therefore, these “scholars” have no freedom to say anything fresh or new. There are haunted by the fear that they themselves have generated.

Roger says
I think you’re on to something there!


I don’t understand how Rob Bell’s opening shot — calling the traditional understanding of hell “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love,” “a cheap view of the world [and]of God,” and “a shriveled imagination” — escapes the charge of criticizing fellow evangelicals.

Roger says
The difference is he doesn’t name anyone or aim at their throat so as to ruin their reputation and even get them fired from their teaching positions.


Barry says
There is no question that there is always more to be learned about God because our understanding of what he has revealed is not fully correct. That being the case, theology always needs further development.

The problem, as I see it, is to develop in the right directions. Bart Ehrman, for example, is not trying to develop a better understanding of God (IMHO). He is trying to cash in by saying the most destructive things possible to Christian faith. Rob Bell may, or may not, be trying to do something more positive. I’m not sure, but I think he may be tinkering with some things that don’t really need the kind of development he is exploring.

It is also clearly a fact that the neo-fundamentalists, as you call them, are vigilant to shoot down anything that sounds the least bit unfamiliar to them. That probably means they are going to hit some real errors as well as some possible improvements. I think you are saying that they should not be so fast on the draw and should ease up on their ferocity. But I’m not sure because you name no names.

I’m uncertain how you can be sure that allowing more free-flowing development in theology will not lead to really serious harm in certain cases. I feel sure there are developments in theology that you think are really headed for trouble. What is the right way to approach those cases?

Roger says
Good insights and questions. I don’t worry about theological innovation so long as it is tethered securely to the authority of Scripture. Where neo-fundamentalists see “unfettered theological experimentation” I often see faithful evangelical interpreters of Scripture doing their best to examine tradition critically in the light of God’s Word and unleash that new light God always has to bring forth from it. I get worried when a theologian, identified as evangelical or otherwise, begins to speculate apart from submission to Scripture. The problem is that neo-fundamentalists have trouble distinguishing between Scripture and their particular traditional interpretation of Scripture. I find it to be the case, often, that neo-fundamentalists have canonized the theology of Charles Hodge and confused it with God’s Word.

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