Roger Olson vs. the “neo-fundamentalists”

According to Roger Olson, the reaction of many conservative evangelicals to open theism “was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.” He’s particularly irked that these critics routinely associated open theism with process theology and accused them doing things of limiting God, diminishing God’s glory, and undermining the atonement. He contends that open theism does none of these things, and that these conservative evangelical critics should have known better. And, this response demonstrates that “many conservative evangelicals are not really evangelicals in the post-fundamentalist, post-WW2 sense but really fundamentalists (which might be unfair to many fundamentalists!).”

Instead, Olson suggests that open theism should be viewed as “a legitimate evangelical option,” and states that he’s willing to stand alongside his open theist friends “over against the neo-fundamentalists who seem to be largely controlling the evangelical establishment today.”

On the one hand, I think Olson’s right. I thought at the time that many of the criticisms being leveled against open theism were not entirely fair. The argument that open theism is basically process theology in disguise was particularly pernicious – tarring open theism with a whole raft of positions that they all explicitly denied. (I don’t think they helped their case, though, by spending as much time as they did discussing process theology. Of course, their point was to demonstrate that they were not process theologians. But, the unintended consequence was to demonstrate to everyone that they were quite familiar with process theology. It was a short step from there to the implication that they were in fact influenced by process theology.)

On the other hand, though, we should recognize that the rhetoric flew strongly in both directions. As with many arguments, the intense heat of the debate led proponents of both positions to be less than fair to the opposite side. I well remember the frustration of reading and listening to the open theists’ blatant caricatures of classical theism, neglecting the best that this tradition has to offer, and focusing instead on its weakest aspects. (Note well, when critiquing another position, do not pit your strongest arguments against their weakest ones. If that’s the only way you can win, give up now.) So, focusing only on the missteps of the evangelical “establishment” is not entirely fair either.

I’d also be curious to hear more from Olson on what he thinks qualifies as real “evangelicalism” vs. “neo-fundamentalism.” Presumably he wouldn’t object to someone engaging in heated theological discourse (he does it all the time). And, I don’t think rhetorical “fairness” is really the issue, despite his focus on that problem in this essay, since we see those problems on both sides. I think it actually has more to do with drawing “boundaries.” At the end of his essay, he states that he sees both open theists and 5-point Calvinists as both being “within the evangelical movement” (despite the fact that he really does not like 5-point Calvinism). His real problem with these conservative evangelical critics, then, is their attempt to exclude, to draw the boundaries of evangelicalism such that open theists are declared nonevangelical. And, I think this boundary-drawing is Olson’s real concern; that’s what harkens back to the separatism of the fundamentalists.

But, of course, if we’re not supposed to be drawing boundaries, how does Olson explain his claim that these critics are “not really evangelicals”? That sounds a lot like a boundary to me. Maybe Olson has some fundamentalist leanings of his own.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 23, 2010, in Theology Proper and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I have often wondered if the word “fundamentalist” simply operates as a pejorative.

    • I think that’s probably true most of the time. And, the same is true with “liberal.” There’s no real content behind the label, just the intent to insult.

      But, I think Olson has more in mind here. Given the historical relationship between the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century and American evangelicalism, I have to assume that Olson is trying to draw a real connection when he uses these terms in this context. I’m just not entirely clear on what he means by them.

  2. Sounds a great deal like our debate in Greek Fathers about whether or not Arius and those who were converted to Christianity in Arian churches were really Christians at all. The problem is that there are certain “lines” drawn as to what is considered orthodox and what is not. It just depends on which side of the line you’re standing on.

    Do you think Roger Olsen would argue that orthodox lines don’t need to be drawn at all; OR just that that they don’t need to be drawn between these two groups, which he considers as evangelical?

    • I could be wrong, but I think Olson would want to separate the questions of what it means to be orthodox and what it means to be evangelical. I’m pretty sure he’d say that they are labels that function in completely different ways. Orthodoxy has to do with a set of beliefs whereas evangelicalism is a “movement” that has more to do with ethos and action than doctrinal commitments. If I’m right, he’d be more comfortable with boundaries in a discussion of orthodoxy (though even here he’d probably want to nuance the discussion considerably), than in a discussion about evangelicalism.

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