Saturday, July 16, 2011
Liberalism, Evangelicalism and Emergence
A friend of mine recently posted this article by Truett Seminary prof Roger Olson to my Facebook wall, asking for an emergent's take on it. Since I'm blogging again (for the moment), I thought I'd cross post my reply to him here as well.

Though you should read the whole article, here is the section of it that I especially had in mind in my response:

I think the liberal theological ethos is best expressed in a nutshell by liberal theologian Delwin Brown (a convert to liberal theology from evangelicalism) in his dialogue with Clark Pinnock in Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue. There Brown asks THE CRUCIAL QUESTION of modern theology: “When the consensus of the best contemporary minds differs markedly from the most precious teachings of the past, which do we follow? To which do we give primary allegiance, the past or the present?” Brown rightly gives the evangelical answer: “We ought to listen to the hypotheses of the present and take from them what we can, but ultimately the truth has been given to us in the past, particularly in Jesus, and the acceptance of that is our ultimate obligation. Everything the contemporary world might say must be judged by its conformity to biblical revelation.” (Of course evangelicals differ among ourselves about WHAT biblical revelation says, but all evangelicals agree that the revelation of God given in Jesus and the biblical message takes precedence over the best of modern thought WHEN THERE IS AN UNAVOIDABLE CONFLICT between them.)

Then, Brown speaks for all liberal theologians when he gives the liberal answer to the crucial question: “Liberalism at its best is more likely to say, ‘We certainly ought to honor the richness of the Christian past and appreciate the vast contribution it makes to our lives, but finally we must live by our best modern conclusions. The modern consensus should not be absolutized; it, too, is always subect to criticism and further revision. But our commitment, however tentative and self-critically maintained, must be to the careful judgments of the present age, even if they differ radically from the dictates of the past.” (p. 23)
Here's what I had to say:

Olson (whom I've met in person on occasion) is absolutely correct in his description of the liberal tradition as being significantly more specific and defined than the sloppy way we tend to throw around terms like "liberal" and "conservative." What I've discovered attending a mainline "liberal" seminary is that what is considered "liberal" within evangelical circles is still rather "conservative" within the mainline world. For instance, in the mainline world, neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jurgen Moltmann, etc. are considered to be on the conservative edge of things, whereas evangelicals wouldn't even consider reading these folks until just recently because they were thought to be too "liberal".

As for the "emergent" take on it, I can really only speak for myself, but I think that a lot of us would say this whole argument about "past" vs. "present" in terms of truth and sources of authority sort of misses the point for us. What ever happened to "All truth is God's truth?" If it's true, then who cares whether it comes from the past or the present. And if God reveals God's self in more than just scripture, if truth can be found in the world and in common and ordinary human experiences (i.e. what ever happened to "common grace" and "natural theology"?) , then why should we act as if there is some kind of competition between this truth and the truth of scriptural or incarnational revelation?

Furthermore, I think that Olson's dichotomy between "biblical revelation" and the "hypotheses of the present" frames the issue in entirely the wrong way. It makes it seem as if what we have to choose between is "God's truth" and "human speculation" (and framing it this way, who could possibly want to side against God's truth?) But that places too much faith in human ability to rightly interpret scripture. The real choice we face is between past (humanly created) hypotheses about how to interpret scripture (and other sources of revelation), and more recent (humanly created) hypotheses about how to interpret scripture (and other sources of revelation). It's all just human speculation. None of us, evangelical or liberal or emergent, has any right to claim unfiltered access to divine revelation by whatever means. The difference I see, then, between evangelicals and liberals is that evangelicals are those who are less willing to alter their previously held hypotheses and interpretations of the Bible in light of other, newer sources of truth, whereas liberals are those who are willing to do so.

Where the emergent Christian differs with both of these, IMHO (and just in my personal opinion), is in our relative comfort with ambiguity. Both conservative evangelicals and classically liberal Christians are involved in the pursuit of some sort of unshakable foundation for religious belief - whether in a supposedly inerrant biblical text, or a supposedly universal religious experience. The postmodern, emergent Christian, however, has given up on this Quixotic quest for certainty. We know that all of our attempts to get at deeper, religious truths - whether based on scripture or on modern learning - are limited and perspectival and error prone, AND WE'RE OKAY WITH THAT! We don't see that as such a bad thing. It's simply a part of the human condition, and it is one of the prerequisites of genuine faith, which is based not on certain knowledge but on hope and trust despite our lack of certainty. It is also a prerequisite of ethical action in the world, which requires not to impose our own absolutist visions of "the way things ought to be" on everyone else apart from a more specific and tangible concern for real human people, but rather to listen and learn from the Other in order to truly understand what it would mean to love them in the way they actually desire to be loved.


posted by Mike Clawson at 11:37 PM | Permalink |


At 7/19/2011 09:08:00 AM, Anonymous Mo Johnson

Really good post Mike. Very helpful to me in sorting out the conservative, liberal, emergent labels. Thanks!


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link