Evangelical Inquisitions

By Roger E. Olson. Original Post Here. 

September 27, 2012

Evangelical Inquisitions

I’ve been actively involved in evangelicalism and especially the evangelical academy (scholarly community) for over thirty years now and I’ve noticed a bad habit among conservative evangelical biblical scholars and theologians. They seem addicted to inquisitions.

It happened to me again, just today. An e-mail from “friends” (an evangelical organization I allegedly belonged to) informing me that I was under investigation (not their words, but clearly their intent) for possibly being in conflict with the organization’s statement of faith. I immediately resigned (assuming I was a member, something I’m not sure about); I won’t be subjected to any more evangelical inquisitions.

So when has this happened before? Well, not that often to me, but often to friends and acquaintances. At the first Christian university where I taught, the chairman of our theology department received a memo from the president. Attached to the memo was a detailed doctrinal questionnaire. Among other questions it asked “Do you agree with Charles Hodge’s interpretation of biblical inspiration?” The president’s memo ordered the chair of the department to have every faculty member in the department fill out the questionnaire and return them to him.

Now you have to understand, that university did not then even have a written statement of faith. The questions were ridiculously detailed (as the above example illustrates) and came at us “out of left field,” so to speak. No one on the faculty had ever been asked about Charles Hodge’s interpretation of biblical inspiration. Hodge was not even indirectly an influence on the university (which was charismatic).

We, the theology department faculty, met and decided to take drastic action. We went together to the provost’s office and laid the uncompleted questionnaires on his desk and informed him we would not be filling them out. We never heard another word about it. But that wasn’t the expected outcome and it isn’t the usual outcome of such evangelical inquisitions. (We didn’t think the president even understood the questions, but we surmised someone he respected gave him the questionnaire and told him he should have us fill them out and then send them to him for analysis.)

Later, when I was on the verge of joining the Evangelical Theological Society, the ETS began its “investigation” of New Testament scholar Robert Gundry over his commentary on Matthew. He resigned from the ETS and I decided not to join and never did join it. Later, the ETS launched its investigation of open theist members Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. I was glad I was not a member; I would have been embarrassed to be associated with that inquisition even only as a member. My advice to my friends who were members was “Come out from among them and be ye separate.”

When I taught at my second (of three) Christian universities (only a college with a seminary then) another inquisition was launched by constituent pastors. It reminded me a lot of the one I observed at the seminary I attended about twenty years earlier. That one was over inerrancy; professors were “asked” to sign a statement of belief in biblical inerrancy or leave. None of them had ever been informed that inerrancy would ever be an issue; it had not been before. Suddenly, they had to sign such a statement to keep their jobs.

The one at my second institutional place of employment was over open theism. Pastors in the denomination banded together to attempt to get my theology colleague fired and some of them threatened to get me fired for supporting him even though I was not an open theist. During that inquisition we (the college and seminary) were forced into holding a heresy trial over something that wasn’t even in the denomination’s statement of faith.

I’ve focused here mainly on evangelical inquisitions that have involved me or at least that I was close to and observed first-hand. There have been many others during those thirty years, though, that I only read about. There was the attempt by one theologian to get another one fired from the seminary where they both taught because the accused theologian (really  a New Testament scholar as I recall) allegedly did not believe in the “physical resurrection.” That controversy was labeled by one leading evangelical periodical “The Mother of All Muddles” (in an article about it). It went all the way to the denomination’s annual convention.

Then there was the inquisition of Tony Campolo when he was scheduled to be a speaker at a large Christian youth event in Washington, D.C. Someone accused him of heresy because he has written that “There’s a little bit of Christ in everyone.” He defended his statement by reference to John 1 and early church fathers such as Justin Martyr (his “logos spermatikos” idea based on John 1) and Clement of Alexandra. Somehow (I don’t remember how this happened) a group of evangelical theologians that included J. I. Packer served as a panel to investigate whether Tony was a heretic. Eventually he was exonerated, but only after being put through a terrible inquisition and his reputation damaged (at least in the eyes of some).

Here’s how these evangelical inquisitions often happen. Some evangelicals simply cannot live with diversity or ambiguity. They detect or only hear that someone in their organization has “liberal tendencies.” That’s usually how it starts, but it may be stated simply as “Is out of consistency with the statement of faith” or “with evangelical tradition.” If that person has written a lot, or has a blog, he or she is subjected to “investigation.” That means some watchdog begins to dog him or her, reading everything they write to try to catch them in some statement that could possibly be interpreted as “in conflict” with some part of the organization’s statement of faith.

Let’s take “inerrancy,” for example. When I joined the faculty of the second Christian university it had (and has) a statement of faith that includes affirmation of biblical inerrancy. Before accepting the position I asked for clarification. That was when I was shown the statement about inerrancy by John Piper that I posted here earlier (and that is at his web site). It basically defines inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose.” I could gladly sign on to that!

Later, however, some pastors and others in the school’s controlling denomination began to insist that inerrancy means something much more precise and specific than “perfection with respect to purpose” and began to insist that open theists, for example, are automatically in conflict with the statement of faith because open theism denies the truth of the Bible. (These people rarely can tell any difference between “the truth of the Bible” and their own interpretation of the Bible!)

If someone affirms “inerrancy” and writes very much about the Bible (biblical commentaries, theology, etc.), you can always find something that can possibly be interpreted as “in conflict” with inerrancy because so much depends on what that term means. And because nobody (to the best of my knowledge and experience) believes every word of the Bible. That’s right, you read what I wrote. Nobody believes every word of the Bible. What I mean, of course, is that the debate over “errors” in the Bible and “literal interpretation” of the Bible is complicated.

Let me illustrate. As a premillennialist who takes Revelation 20 literally (as well as chapters in the Old Testament prophets) I could argue that all amillennialists are in conflict with biblical inerrancy because they don’t believe “the truth of the Bible.” Of course they would simply say I’m confusing “the truth of the Bible” with my interpretation, a literal interpretation, of those passages. But I could argue that by not taking those passages literally, as I think they clearly were intended to be taken, they are in conflict with biblical inerrancy and no matter how much they claim to believe in inerrancy, their disbelief in a literal one thousand year reign of Christ on earth proves they deny the Bible’s accuracy and trustworthiness.

I don’t make that argument, but if I had the habits of some conservative evangelicals, I could and probably would. And I wouldn’t be the first! Let’s see…who did this exact thing with premillennialism and amillennialism. Oh, yes, William Bell Riley when he helped found a large fundamentalist organization. They made premillennialism one of the “fundamentals of the Christian faith.” That left fellow fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen out because he was an amillennialist!

My point is that, if you write a lot and someone is determined to “get you” by proving you are in conflict with some portion of some statement of faith, they can. That’s because no statement of faith actually says, verbatim, everything some people think it means. When it was pointed out to the opponents of my open theist colleague (at a former university where I taught for fifteen years) that the statement of faith we all signed said nothing in direct contradiction to open theism, the opponents who were trying to get him fired appealed to “the penumbra” of the statement of faith—what they think it implies. Of course, by that method, any statement of faith can become a wax nose that any knave can twist to suit his own countenance (as Luther said about inner experience of the Spirit as a source and norm for Christian belief).

So, apparently, at some point on this blog, I said something that someone in the organization I apparently belonged to (or they thought I belonged to [I never held a membership card]) thought was in conflict with their statement of faith. That statement of faith includes belief in the “trustworthiness” of Scripture. Apparently, that includes believing everything the Old Testament records actually happened just as it is recorded. Well, that’s a little difficult as anyone who has attempted to reconcile the accounts of the same events given in Samuel and Kings and Kings and Chronicles can testify. Did God inspire David to conduct a census of Israel or was it Satan? Etc., etc., etc.

My point is that nobody can discuss the Old Testament (at least) in any serious fashion and avoid possibly falling into conflict with someone else’s idea of Scripture’s “trustworthiness.” My definition is that the Bible is “perfect with respect to purpose,” not that the Bible offers a flawless performance in statistics. Apparently, for the organization I resigned from today (assuming I ever really was a member), biblical “trustworthiness” and “inerrancy” mean the same thing. Why not just say “inerrancy,” then? I wouldn’t have joined in the first place in that case. (I admit that I joined the organization and was even involved in its founding; the disagreement is over whether I remained a member.)

And so, on and on it goes. Where it stops…. It’s apparently in the DNA of some evangelicals to conduct inquisitions and “investigate” fellow evangelicals, even their friends, from time to time to prove some point. I resign right now, in advance, from any organization that engages in or will engage in such nonsense—aimed at fellow evangelicals who are orthodox Christians (Christologically defined). It’s a bad habit.

Besides, what I write here, on my blog, are (by the blog’s title) my “musings.” They are not necessarily my firm beliefs. I don’t have firm beliefs about everything. Sometimes I say something here to spark thought and discussion. Some of it is “thinking out loud” as an effort to work through something myself. This blog is not meant to be read as gospel truth or dogmatic affirmations. Sometimes I play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes what I write is tongue-in-cheek. I hope you don’t come here expecting to find out my timeless, unalterable truths, carved in stone, by which I will stand come what may. Sometime I put those things here and sometimes what I write here is of an altogether different genre. Think of it as conversation during which I throw out some ideas for consideration and feedback—such as the “neglected theory of the atonement” I blogged about the other day. I didn’t say that is my theory of the atonement. I merely asked for discussion about it. But, I’m sure some people thought I meant to reveal my theory of the atonement. I’m not sure I have one. I find many images of the atonement in Scripture and some truth in all the theories. I’m more attracted to some than others, but, unlike people, I don’t have one that I would insist is “the” central, comprehensive theory of the atonement to the exclusion of others.

To take something I write here and ask me to “explain it” as part of an investigation of my fitness to belong to an organization is simply to misunderstand the purpose of this blog.


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