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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.

Tips for the ThM – Part 2 (strong arguments)

Many of the Th.M. research papers that I read manifest a common problem; they lack a clear, strong argument. Instead, students seem to prefer research papers that are more summative or explorative. Papers like this will sometimes explicitly declare their intent to “explore” a topic: “This paper will explore John Calvin’s view of predestination.” Others, will take a more indirect route and just start summarizing out of the gate. (Biblical Theology and history papers are particularly prone to this.) Either way, rather than staking out a position, these papers just summarize data.

There is nothing wrong with providing a good summary. Indeed, that is often critical for writing an effective paper. If you are dealing with a complex issue on which there are multiple perspectives, you need a good summary to orient yourself and your readers on the topic. But, a good summary is not enough for a quality research paper. That’s only the first step. The more significant part of the project comes when you identify the position that you will take.

That’s why writing a thesis statement for your paper is so important. The thesis statement clearly communicates what your are doing with the paper. If you have a weak thesis statement (“I will explore…” or “This paper will look at…”), you will have a weak paper. A strong thesis statement, on the other hand, makes an explicit claim that must then be supported and defended through the course of the paper. Something like, “I will argue that John Calvin’s view of predestination was more biblical and less speculative than that of later interpreters like William Perkins.” Or, “In this paper, we will see that Richard Muller’s arguments regarding the faithfulness and accuracy of Calvin’s later interpreters are correct.” If I took a little more time, I’m sure I could come up with better examples of strong thesis statements. But, you get the point. Make a claim. It doesn’t need to be a new claim, but it does need to be one that you will argue and defend in the paper.

A good Th.M. research paper, then, should clearly stake out a position, interact with the primary data/opinions that both support and contradict that position, and conclude with a statement of how all of this leads to the conclusion drawn in the paper. Don’t get cute. These are not creative writing classes. A good research paper can serve as the foundation for a more creative writing project later. For now, focus on developing a solid argument that is clearly explained and well defended.