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.
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“)