If we are to engage in the "honest dialogue" to which Roger Olson calls us, we must ask: Is the traditionalist/ reformist distinction the best way to name the conflict? Or does the deeper difference lie in inordinate accommodation to the assumptions of dying modernity over against the determination to grasp the opportunity of grace amid a dying culture? I think the latter is a more penetrating distinction.
THE WRONG TYPOLOGY
Olson's attempt at typological fairness actually has deep affinities with what he calls reformism. This is a somewhat tendentious typology that conservative evangelicals will find only partially illuminating but probably not perennially useful. For instance, Olson typifies traditionalism as having the view that "God has revealed doctrines." Classic Christian teaching is not best defined as unchangeable language or fixed propositions but as the living tradition of apostolic teaching that is always the same even as it penetrates various new cultural assumptions and languages. What is revealed in the Son is the Father's own merciful heart, not doctrines about mercy. Our vulnerable thoughts, language, and doctrinal reflections are always finally accountable to that revelation.
No evangelical could feel accurately described by the caricature of a "traditionalism" that views "historical doctrinal confessions as absolute boundaries," for the only absolute boundary to which evangelical confession can appeal is the apostolic testimony concerning God's own coming in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection as a midrash upon Hebrew scriptures. The ecumenical councils play a role only insofar as they help identify long-agreed-upon, consensually received boundaries against false interpretations of Scripture. Since Marcion it has been impossible for Christians to ignore the Hebrew Bible. Since Arius it has been impossible for Christians to say that the Son of God is not co-eternal with the Father, according to Scripture. These are landmarks that remain for Christians of all subsequent times and places, since once challenged they had to be met with serious exegetical debate and consensual definition of Christian truth, which is orthodoxy.
No evangelical I know elevates the "one person in two natures" formula to the same plane as the affirmation "Jesus is Lord," however true to Scripture the former may be. Nor would any patristic writer exalt the conciliar decision to parity with Scripture. Chalcedon itself constantly places its language and formulations under the sovereign judgment of Scripture. If this is doubted, please read the text!
TRADITION ENERGIZES REFORM
It is precisely the classic Christian tradition that is the best energizer of reform. Hence the polarities Olson proposes are, in my view, somewhat deficient, although well intended. Pitting tradition against reform is not sufficiently dialectical.
Tradition enables reform. Reformists often imagine that they can improve on the apostolic teaching. Evangelical reform does not come by removing the landmarks but by observing them anew in the present situation. Indeed, new light is always breaking forth from God's Word.
But this does not mean that the original apostolic testimony is itself incomplete or subject to being amended and corrected by the new light that the gospel is always newly refracting. The revelation of God the Father through the Son, finished on the cross and validated in the resurrection, does not stand in desperate need of further modern insight to make it sufficient for our justification. The completeness and fullness of truth in the apostolic testimony always seeks to become freshly appropriated in new hearts, new cultures, and ever retranslated into new languages and symbol systems. For the Spirit is working throughout history in all times and places to bring the incarnate eternal Word into our hearts effectively.
A HYPER-AMERICAN TILT
There is indeed in the whole history of orthodoxy a contest between reformist and traditionalist tendencies (or, I would prefer to say, accommodative versus resistant tendencies), but Olson seems interested almost exclusively in its most recent history and its immediate future. This gives his description a hyper-American tilt that seems dated and biased from the viewpoint of the Two-Thirds World of evangelical Christians.
Olson is right about the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the recovery of evangelical theology, but he seems less interested in beholding the history of the Holy Spirit as the ground for assessing and grasping the present activity of the Spirit.
The bigger tent to which Olson does not refer is the communion of saints of all times and places, praising God in all languages and symbol systems. The Holy Spirit speaks all languages, as Augustine quipped. The tent of the consensus fidelium is vast and multicultural but not lacking boundaries. It is not very well understood by using Euro-American categories only.
The risk of dialogue with faithful Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics is of a very different order than with waning theological liberals. The Evangelical-Catholic and Evangelical-Orthodox dialogues are a necessity and a requirement for our times. The liberal dialogue is largely a dated temptation and backward-looking accommodation to a dying modernity. The death of modernity is an opportunity to proclaim the truth of the gospel.
A PIETISTIC BIAS
Olson shows a decidedly pietistic bias when he defines the enduring essence of Christianity not as God's grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, but as the human experience of conversion. And a lingering pietism surfaces in his annoyance with "theological correctness." His polarities may also have the unintended consequence of tending to keep the evangelical theological dialogue trapped in the Protestant scholastic versus pietistic quarrel between doctrine and experience.
Evangelical teaching worthy of the gospel will frame both salvific experience and sacred doctrine as derivative from revelation, from God's own merciful presence in history. Revelation is not first thought then experienced but first occurs in history, and only then thought and experienced.
As a newcomer to evangelical theology, I am humbled to find Olson viewing my efforts as hopeful for the future of what he calls an irenic traditionalism, and pleased to be counted along with Stan Grenz as reaching across the evangelical divide that Olson so deplores.
Although I am viewed by some as a traditionalist, I feel more at home with his definition of reform as "a mindset that values the continuing process of constructive theology seeking new light breaking forth from God's Word," provided God's Word itself is the judge and constant reference for the new light. There is no need to be afraid of constructive theological reasoning if it is solidly grounded in the Word of God as the norm of truth for Christian belief and practice.
I have no anxiety about the theological projects of Grenz and Pinnock as long as they remain centered in the apostolic testimony and not fixated upon modern accommodation. That is their intention, as I see it. Yet Olson may stretch their intention when he says of Grenz and Pinnock that "rather than look to the past for unchangeable landmarks and confessional standards they look to the future and seek change within continuity" (italics added). Both, as I see it, look to the Scriptures earnestly and, to some degree, though less sufficiently, to the history of exegesis. But I find neither of them simply or compulsively looking "to the future" as if away from the past.
BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY TO NOVELTY
If "reformists" insist on keeping the boundaries of heresy open, however, then they must be resisted with charity. The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds ("I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come"; Isa. 46:10a; cf. Job 28; Ps. 90; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1), as it has been in the history of exegesis of relevant passages. This issue was thoroughly discussed by patristic exegetes as early as Origen's Against Celsus. Keeping the boundaries of faith undefined is a demonic temptation that evangelicals within the mainline have learned all too well and have been burned by all too painfully.
Whatever values may result from supposed reformists and revisionists, they cannot function long or intergenerationally without the boundaries set long ago in relation to the challenges of Marcionism, Arianism, and Pelagianism. It would be folly to try to reform those boundaries that have been celebrated for two millennia and repeatedly confirmed by the Reformers and revivalists themselves! Although I concede that there are other tasks more important than the exposure of heresy, I warn: If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy. I speak as one who was once a lover of heresy.
The Babylonian captivity to novelty is the temptation of all modern reflection. It is invading evangelical leadership at an alarming rate in ways disturbing to evangelicals in the mainline who have suffered from its bewitchments for two centuries.
Olson is more concerned than I would be about deepening conflicts among evangelicals. I do not regard polemics as a bad word. The tension Olson describes is intrinsic to the gospel. It is the perennial tension between memory and imagination, tradition and renewal, gift and task. Hence the tension is not something to be averted or circumvented but faced candidly. Could it be that one of the strengths and gifts given to North American evangelicalism by the Holy Spirit is the freedom to confront, challenge, argue, debate according to conscience under the Word? I am less afraid of that conflict than the lack of it. I would like to see more astute, well-informed, sharper polemical efforts among young evangelicals. A theology that serves the grace of repentance needs to nurture good, tough, honest polemics, but good means charitable and accurate, and tough does not mean irascible.
I see little evidence of a fundamental split in the Evangelical Theological Society. There indeed remains a great gulf between the ETS and the Wesleyan Theological Society, which needs to be overcome with much patience and empathy.
I find myself in deep sympathy with Wells, Packer, Horton, Sproul, and others who call for deeper grounding within the Reformation faith and landmark documents, yet not without recognition that Luther and Calvin were themselves formed by patristic exegesis of Scripture passages that enabled them better to challenge certain distorted forms of medieval scholasticism. I regard these bold evangelicals as reformers of evangelicalism, not merely backward-looking traditionalists bound to unchanging or absolute formulations that do not allow for contextualization of the gospel within the collapse of modernity.
FOLLOWING THE SPIRIT
Evangelical theology today is being reformed by the Spirit so as to listen to the history of the Holy Spirit. My wish within evangelical theology is to bring evangelicals to an awareness of how powerfully God has acted in the centuries between Paul and Luther to enable belief and confession and community in Christ.
I do not wish to look only to the past, as Olson defines the fixed habit of traditionalists, but to look to the work of the Spirit in the present and the future as illumined by the history of the mission of God the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit in the whole church. Without an awareness of how God the Spirit works in history, however, we cannot rightly behold the work of God in the present. In any case, Olson is right to call those whom he too undialectically names traditionalists and reformists to listen to one another and challenge one another in love and dialogue.
Thomas C. Oden is professor of theology and ethics at Drew University and editor of the forthcoming Ancient Christian Commentary series to be published by InterVarsity. He is currently on sabbatical leave in Oklahoma City.
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