When Does Mere Christianity Become Less than Mere?

Last month Roger Olson posted an article on his blog arguing for greater modesty in theology: “Theology and Speculation.” He followed this up with a piece on divine timelessness as an example of unwarranted speculation. Theologians typically engage in a great deal of speculation, he avers; that is to say, they make “truth claims without clear warrant—reasonable grounding in relevant data. In theology ‘relevant data’ are revelation/Scripture, tradition, reason (logic) and experience” (Wesleyan quadrilateral, anyone?). Given this broad definition of relevant data, one might be excused for wondering who among well known Christian theologians can be accused of speculation, but Olson tightens up his criteria to mean “clear exegesis of Scripture and tradition using reason and experience as guidance mechanism and tools of interpretation.” This is still fairly vague, though. I imagine that most theologians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, would maintain that by this standard their theological reflections qualify as nonspeculative. We are, after all, dealing with 2,000 years of “tradition.” Olson proceeds to clarify further what he has in mind: “Over the years I have gotten in the habit of reading every book of theology with a kind of critical principle about speculation: ‘Is this truth claim made by this theologian actually warranted by revelation/Scripture?'” In other words, genuine theology is biblical theology, presumably of the kind that has been done by Protestant theologians and exegetes over the past five hundred years (excluding perhaps the Protestant scholastics and liberal modernists). If not sola scriptura then perhaps prima scriptura.

At this point I’m still pretty much in the dark. It seems to me that Olson has snuck all sorts of speculative notions (especially of the hermeneutical variety) into his understanding of what qualifies as “biblical.” The Bible, after all, is just a collection of ancient documents, and even if we accept this particular collection as divinely given, it does not, and cannot, tell us how to properly read and interpret itself as Scripture.  Perhaps the following examples of alleged speculative teachings will bring greater clarity:

The Holy Spirit as the bond of the Holy Trinity.

The distinction between the economic and immanent Trinities.

Theories of atonement.

The eternal decrees of God.

Divine timelessness.

At this point I’m seriously wondering if we need to toss into the bin just about the entire theological and dogmatic tradition. Olson does not reject speculation out of hand. “I love theological speculation,” he remarks. “I’m sure I do it!” But what he wants theologians to admit right up front is that they are principally involved in guesswork. A modicum of modesty would go a long way, he believes. Who can disagree? It sure would make for more cordial theological discussion.

It may sound like Olson is arguing for a some kind theological agnosticism, but this is not the case, as evidenced by his published material. He has strong theological convictions and is prepared to advance them forcefully. He does not believe that Christian doctrine is “endlessly flexible.”  Yet his position does have a reductionist feel to it, doesn’t it?  When does mere Christianity become less than mere?

Let’s take a look at how Dr Olson handles divine timelessness. Perhaps that will give us a little insight how to properly do nonspeculative biblical theology.

(Go to “The Speculated God of Roger Olson“)

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17 Responses to When Does Mere Christianity Become Less than Mere?

  1. “At this point I’m still pretty much in the dark. It seems to me that Olson has snuck all sorts of speculative notions (especially of the hermeneutical variety) into his understanding of what qualifies as “biblical.””
    That was interesting you observed this as well. I had asked Olson the same exact question about whether such position on the notions of hermeneutics (primarily Biblicism) was not speculative. Of course, he dodged the question. I’m wondering though how, in light of the tradition, Biblicism can not be anything other than speculative though. It’s not like the Church fathers in the most ancient churches had any clue what their “final trump card” (as one Evangelical friend of mine explains Biblicism) was. They had the texts, but not the canon. Is not the canon in and of itself mere speculation according to Evangelical Protestant standards?

    “revelation/Scripture, tradition, reason (logic) and experience” (Wesleyan quadrilateral, anyone?).”
    I was reading in the The Hauerwas Reader that there is a critique on the Wesleyan quadrilateral being essentially modern and non-Wesleyan.

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      What exactly is the Wesleyan quadrilateral and where did it come from? Thanks.

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      • Here is the wikipedia page on the Wesleyan quadrilateral which explains it better than I:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesleyan_Quadrilateral

        It’s based on a reading of John Wesley and his influences no doubt but many Wesleyans who reject the Wesleyan quadrilateral generally note that Wesley never himself gave this method as a road map to interpreting or understanding the scripture and generally reject it. Wesley seems to me to hold to a position much closer to that of church infallibility than a quadrilateral.

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  2. RVW says:

    Could it be that part of the problem is that we assume that theology is a science in the Enlightenment mold? That is, we are to be separate, objective, neutral observers of the phenomenon of God? Science, through Kuhns, Polanyi, Heisenberg, and others has somewhat abandoned this conceit (it lives on in Hawkins, Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, and other “popularizers”): theology, largely, has not. So we need data points, etc. to say anything positive about God and theology. I wonder, though, as a Protestant, what would change if we accepted St Gregory Palamas’ theology — that to know God is to experience God through theosis (or, at least, theoria). The ramifications for academic theology are immense.

    Regardless if that is route we go, the ancients were on to something foundational when they articulated “lex orandi, lex credendi” — by its very nature, theology must have an effect on the theologian; what we worship is what we believe and, therefore, how we live.

    I look forward to your further posts on this.

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    • I would hypothesize it has more to do with the background of Evangelicalism arising from the more fundamentalist schools of thought in the 20th century that they don’t want to be as separationist as their fundamentalist predecessors. Hence, they don’t want to elevate anything that cannot be “proven” to the level of dogma.

      Regretfully, this attitude seems to backfire on them leaving them both disorganized and stabbing each other in the back over what is “non-speculative” and what-not. It seems to be a big flip-off to the overall tradition of the Church and what the fathers had fought so hard for in their struggles to define Christianity.

      It is very easy to say “the canon of the scriptures” (under this definition of speculative theology) is mere speculation. If the canon of the scriptures is speculation, than by virtue, everything is speculation.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, RVW. I have not read enough of Olson to judge how he does theology or what he thinks it is.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The more I think about your question, the more I suspect that Olson cannot be accused of “scientific” theology. He’s quite critical, e.g., of Protestant scholasticism. And being a Wesleyan, I imagine that he is quite open to the experiential dimension, though he perhaps would be resistant to de fide experiential assertions.

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      • Olson is actually a Baptist. Even his own Arminian theology is not in full agreement with Wesley. He disagrees with Wesley’s proposition of universal prevenient grace. The only Wesleyan thing he has is the quadrilateral and we’re still not certain that’s even Wesleyan.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Daniel, I need to ask you to document your claim that Olson disagrees with universal prevenient grace. This does not sound right, and it expressly contradicts what Olson writes about Arminian Theology.

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          • “Shelton strongly affirms the idea that through the cross event all people—past, present, and future—receive sufficient assisting but resistible grace to believe and be saved. While I recognize that many of my fellow Arminians are convinced of this, I’m not as certain of it. Romans 10:17: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” It seems to me that even if some measure of prevenient grace is given by God to all people, sufficient faith to believe and receive the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ is especially tied to the gospel message and its proclamation in some form. I would prefer to say that the gospel message is made available to many people in some form, even to those who are not reached by Christian evangelism.”
            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/10/arminian-theology-prevenient-grace-and-total-depravity-including-a-review-of-a-new-book-about-prevenient-grace/

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Interesting piece by Olson. Given the context, (viz., a book review) it’s unclear to me, first, whether Olson is expressing his personal conviction about the nature of prevenient grace or is correcting the assimilation of Arminius to Wesley, and, secondly, even if he is expressing his own convictions, whether his words should be interpreted as a denial that sufficient grace is given to all. Such a denial would be inconsistent with Olson’s affirmation of God’s universal salvific will.

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      • Allow me to push back a little here. Protestant Scholasticism predates Enlightenment Scientism by a good stretch: one can be fully committed to seeing theology as a science (necessitating the collection of ‘objective’ data points, forming hypotheses outside of ‘bias’, testing, etc.) and be against scholasticism. From what I’ve read of Olson (admittedly little), he seems to be committed to Enlightenment categories, especially in the reconstruction of a purely “biblical” God, de mythologized from any tradition. Maybe Bultmannian would be a better description of what I’m trying to say?

        RVW

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I think you may be right about Olson’s commitment to Enlightenment categories, particularly his project to rethink God apart from any specific ecclesial tradition. He would probably disagree with that judgment, though. On his blog he distances himself from liberalism, which he says as a full embrace of modernity. Of course, who of us aren’t profoundly shaped by the Enlightenment?

          Thanks for your comment.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      RWV, I would say that to accept St. Gregory Palamas, one has to accept a full and complete sacramental notion of life in the Church and in the world. Just a thought.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I agree, Michael. I would also throw in the dogmatic tradition, too. Although Orthodox often speak as if there is some kind of pure, prelinguistic religious experience, I believe that our experience of God is necessarily informed by our theological and liturgical traditions.

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  3. Yes. AK and RVW have nailed it. In his datum/inference construct, Roger Olson is confusing the requirements of a scientific philology with those of systematic theology. I like Olson, but look forward to Aidan Kimel’s own views on this (and indeed most things).

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