Recently, I came across a very interesting article by Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. It was entitled, Games (Some) Theologians Play. Olson is basically challenging some of the unfortunate ploys (or games) that he finds amongst some theologians.
I want to, first, quote the 3 games he notes. Then I want to add some of my own thoughts along a similar vein.
First, some theologians, like other scholars and academics, have enormous egos which show in one or both of two ways. Either they attempt to go “one up” over other theologians, considered their rivals, or they sniff around in other theologians’ writings until they find a flaw and then pounce on it and attempt to discredit them with them. All this is, either way, supposed to make them heroes. Fame and reputation are the goals. Theologians are no more gifted with intellectual humility than other scholars, unfortunately.
Christian theology ought not to be done this way. It may be standard, expected behavior in the academic world, among other scholars, but it is a disservice to the kingdom of God and the churches. Theologians ought to collaborate, congratulate and congregate, not compete.
Second, some theologians attempt to make names for themselves by being extreme in some way. It’s well known that books sell and followers flock when a theologian writes and speaks in strange “tongues”—proposing radical ideas previously unknown or at least undared (by Christians) and/or using shocking language. An obvious example, of course, is the 1960s “death of God” theology (so-called “Christian atheism”), but there are many other examples—both conservative and liberal. Especially since the 1960s theologians have competed with each other to shock audiences. A current example is the rise of “queer theology.” All one has to do is peruse the program book of the American Academy of Religion to see theologians and religion scholars attempting to outdo one another with shocking paper titles proposing theological ideas that would make the church fathers and reformers (to say nothing of the apostles!) spin in their graves.
Third, especially among conservative theologians, some take on the mantle of “self-appointed Grand Inquisitor” and become heresy-hunters in order to get pats on the back and upwardly mobile careers. This is especially effective for them in certain neo-fundamentalist circles and institutions. One conservative evangelical theologian invented quotes and attributed them to rivals and theologians whose reputations and careers he wanted to damage. (I know this because I was one of his targets and he attributed a damaging quote to me in a press release when I never said that or anything like it. His intention clearly was to damage me and the institution where I taught and to boost his image among fellow neo-fundamentalists.) Another conservative theologian writes books and articles mainly about alleged heresies hidden in plain sight (according to him) in fellow conservative theologians’ books and articles. He has gained a reputation as especially “discerning” among constituents, raking in much support for his “ministries.”
Note: The highlighted parts are my emphasis, not Olson’s.
It is sad when we see such strategies. As Roger Olson notes: Theologians are no more gifted with intellectual humility than other scholars, unfortunately.
I’ve been recently thinking about some of these points myself, mainly part of Olson’s point #1 and his point #3. This has become a very common practice as of late. It even unfolds in such a way as to see people fired from their theological college or university. Such cases would be Michael Licona, Michael Pahl and Jarvis Williams.
The interesting thing to note is that all 3 of these folk are quite conservative in their theology. Yet, all 3 were either dismissed or their contract was not renewed because something in their writings or personal theology was called into question.
Though it was of a little different nature than the aforementioned 3 theologians, one of the biggest and most problematic cases arose in 2008 with regards to Peter Enns’ and Westminster Theological Seminary. The seminary board voted 18-9 to suspend Enns due to some of his theological positions expressed in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. This was even more interesting considering the previously held 12-8 vote in favour of Enns that was taken by the faculty of Westminster. In the end, Enns and the seminary parted ways, while a total of 9 board members resigned following this situation.
A similar situation arose earlier this year when some called into question Eric Seibert’s thoughts on the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. Seibert is Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College and his books get down into the nitty-gritty of the Old Testament portrayal of God and whether he would actually command the Israelites to slaughter thousands, including women, children and babies. He argues this is more of an ancient near eastern explanation and understanding, rather than being in line with the true God we know in Jesus Christ.
Now, if theologians want to have exchanges, even in blog posts, regarding variances of theological opinion, that is perfectly acceptable. But when theologians start posting articles that call into question certain debatable aspects of theology, questioning so much as to challenge whether a theological college/university should fire that professor or not, that is, I believe, stepping over the line. This was done to Seibert.
Such ploys, or games, are sad. Heresy-hunting is never helpful.
However, here is another thing I’ve noticed. Whereas some conservatives take up the position of ‘self-appointed Grand Inquisitor’ (to use Roger Olson’s words), I also see an aspect of, what I might term, ‘conservative-hunting’ coming out of the more progressive wing of Christianity.
What appears to be happening is that some progressives seem to follow every tweet, blog post and sermon given by some evangelical conservatives. And once something is said that is unwise, unhelpful or could be taken as theological arrogance, these progressives jump on it. Within a few hours or a day, they have their own article up pointing out the tragedy of such words spoken/written by the conservative.
One person who has continually been under fire is John Piper.
While I don’t agree with everything John Piper says, especially some of his responses in the midst of natural disasters, I think it exceedingly immature to pounce on his every statement. I know it draws in the crowds, the comments on our blog posts, the hits on our blog sites, etc. But it’s simply not worth it. Not to mention that John Piper has given a lot into the evangelical church across America.
Another such case happened to reformed pastor, Jerod Wilson, regarding his post about sexuality. Jerod Wilson was quoting the words of another reformed pastor, Doug Wilson, those words coming from Doug’s book, Fidelity: What It Means to Be A One-Woman Man. Again, I didn’t agree too much with either Jerod’s or Doug’s perspective. But the backlash wasn’t very helpful from those on the ‘other side’.
Both are tragic examples of immaturity!
I even say this as one who doesn’t always find myself agreeing with theological conservatives and their approaches. But both sides can be guilty, using their popularity and/or positions to move a whole host of Christians (and non-Christians) to come down on those holding to opposing theological positions.
It’s got to stop!
Now, at times, things need to be called into question. So here are some helpful pointers of how this could be played out in a healthy way.
1) Prayerful reflection. Yes, this might mean we aren’t able to get our article of concern or outrage posted within a few hours. It could mean that we might not be the first to post on such a tragedy and miss some of those extra site hits on our blog. But we just need to take a step back and reflect. I’ve been reading James a lot over the past couple of weeks and I simply love his words in 1:19-20: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human angerdoes not produce the righteousness that God desires.
These words provide a wealth of wisdom into this situation, and life in general.
2) Context accountability. We need to consider how accountability will work out within a given group and context, even if we don’t think it will work out like we wish it would. Give some space. Addressing issues doesn’t always happen within an hour, nor 24 hours, nor by the end of a week for that matter. I know the tweeting, Facebooking, blogging internet-world helps us forget this. But give some space for things to happen.
3) Personal email, personal phone call. If one is so convinced they need to be the one to point out wrong theology or perspectives, whether it be conservatives towards progressives or progressives towards conservatives, personal contact is the best place to start. And, here’s another important thing to remember: That might be where you need to stop – one email or phone call. You’ve done your best. Leave it into the hands of our Father.
4) Do nothing. Well, do nothing in the sense of tweeting, blogging, contacting, stirring, etc. Follow-up with #1, which is continuing in prayer. But you might not need take any action. I know that sounds terrible, right? For one side, it’s about protecting the sheep from evil. For the other, it’s about crying out for the weak and disenfranchised. But sometimes we have to remain silent, all that we might listen and learn.
I could go on. But I appreciated Roger Olson’s timely thoughts for our world today, our Christian world. It was in line with quite a few things that had been on my own heart these past couple of weeks.
We’ve got a witness to provide, one that reminds the world of Christ. It’s not a mushy, ooey-gooey feeling of ‘love’. It’s the real, faithful, committed love of serving one another, laying down our lives for own another, even being wrong so that we might be right.
There is a better way than to play these games.