Theological method

“Conservative” and “progressive”: Are these our best terms to describe the alternatives?

Recently, I was listening to an Eerdmans interview with Megan DeFranza in which she spoke of the different Christian perspectives on the issue of “transgender.” She distinguished between them as a “conservative” perspective and a “progressive” perspective. Those are common labels in matters like this, and I have probably used them myself, but I have begun to doubt that it is helpful terminology.

I think that “conservative” is a good term for the positions people are generally referring to when they use it. They are talking about a perspective which appreciates and appropriates the traditional perspective and therefore seeks to conserve and perpetuate that position, though not necessarily uncritically. It is the term “progressive” that I find misleading. In common use, it expresses a notion deeply imbedded in modernism, that change is progress, and progress is inherently good. In spite of the vibrancy of post-modernism, the “myth of progress” survives, so the notion that changing things and ideas is “progress,” and that “progress” is always good, is still alive and well.

If “progressive” is a term we would be best to avoid as an alternative to “conservative,” what would be better? Right now, I’m inclined to use “innovative” as my own alternative, since what is dubbed “progressive” is always newer than what is dubbed “conservative,” in the statements I hear. One of the things I like about this alternative is that it allows naturally for a spectrum, without prejudging the merit of positions on that spectrum.

Moving from the conservative to the innovative end of that spectrum, on the far left might be people who grow up in a well-defined tradition, with clearly identified authoritative writings, who have never questioned any of the tenets of the tradition and are critical of anyone who does. On the far right, I suppose, we would have people who despise what is considered traditional and grasp at every new proposal. They enjoy the sort of atmosphere that Luke described when he wrote: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

How we perceive others tends to be informed by where we are on the spectrum between the “extremes,” so classification is a very inexact science. But, in both the academy and the church, one’s welcome can often depend upon where one is located on the spectrum, by the leaders within that community. I am reminded, for instance, of the diverse attitudes I encounter to a theological giant like Karl Barth. I am not as enthused about Barth’s work as some of my friends but, when I was teaching about “modern” theology, I always breathed a sigh of relief when I got to Barth. After the drastic innovations of classic liberalism, which included large scale abandonment of key aspects of the orthodoxy which the church had conserved over many centuries, Barth was a breath of fresh air. He had high regard for both Scripture and the tradition of the church, and the historical theological sections of his Church Dogmatics are very valuable. But when I was first studying theology, the evangelicals I was being given to read generally dubbed Barth a “neo-orthodox” theologian, and it was clear that most of them thought there was too much “neo” mixed with his orthodoxy to make him a safe guide. So, assessment of another’s theology is affected by where we sit on the spectrum.

Looking back on my life within evangelicalism, it is interesting to recall the various names that arose to distinguish the location of individuals, institutions or theological positions on the spectrum from conservative to innovative. Back in 1967, when I was a New Testament major at Wheaton Grad School, “neo-evangelicalism” was being talked about. Charles Horne had just joined the faculty at Wheaton (from Moody) to teach theology, and he was trying to figure out what “neo-evangelicalism” was. He wrote to numerous theologians and church leaders around the world and asked how they understood the term. I recall that both Leon Morris and John Stott told him they had never heard of it, but Stott asked Horne to let him know when he found out what it was. As I recall those days, the desire was for a form of evangelicalism which was more engaged with the world. Carl Henry had made many evangelicals more aware of the need for expressions of the gospel which addressed social problems. But concerns about the “social gospel” made many evangelicals nervous about that sort of ministry, although plenty of it was being done in missionary work around the world. What I recall as “neo-evangelicalism” seems to have been an attempt to move evangelicalism away from the separatist mentality of fundamentalism. The term did not last long because what was “neo” simply became mainstream evangelicalism. It was represented by Billy Graham and Christianity Today. In more recent years, I have sensed a growing fundamentalist attitude within a large part of evangelicalism, but also an appropriation by biblical scholars of ideas which were deemed dangerously “liberal” in my Bible College student days. So I find it hard to say what constitutes the evangelical “mainstream” right now, and even the definition of “evangelical” is in dispute.

Back in May, 1995, discussions were roused by Roger Olson’s article in Christian Century:Postconservative evangelicals greet the postmodern age.” I recognized the mood that he called “post-conservative,” but I was a bit surprised, a short time after that, when Roger suggested to me that I was one of them. Perhaps others would have agreed with him then, or would now, but I was happy to identify myself as a “conservative evangelical” at that time, and I still am. I have a great appreciation for all that the Holy Spirit has taught leaders and teachers of the church in the centuries before we came along.

I realize, however, that conservatism can be stultifying, if it entails an attitude that nothing new is good. I see truth in the suggestion that the “seven last words of the church” are: “We never did it that way before.” Likewise, theologically, I don’t think that we should feel threatened by new proposals. This side of glory, we see truth dimly (1 Cor 13:12), and we can grow in our knowledge of it. So, although not everything new is “better,” nor is everything old. A traditionalism which resists any change, as a matter of principle, is a very unhealthy form of conservatism. Perhaps it was seeing this in my work that prompted Roger to consider me a kindred spirit. I did sign, “The Word Made Fresh: A Call for a Renewal of the Evangelical Spirit,” a statement drafted by Roger Olson and Stan Grenz, and a couple of other colleagues, in 2001. It called “evangelical leaders and thinkers to make room for reverent exploration of new ideas and reconsideration of old ones without assuming too quickly that we know what Scripture clearly does and does not teach.” A short time later, I was asked why I had signed the statement, by a former colleague who disapproved, but I still agree with its intent:

To this end, we call all evangelical leaders and thinkers not to reject out of hand constructive theological proposals that are reverently rooted in biblical reflection, even when they challenge aspects of what some consider to be the “received evangelical tradition.” Rather than a sign of decline, constructive theological endeavor and rigorous debate about theological issues are marks of evangelical theological vitality. Premature closure of dialogue and debate by means of condemnations and threats of exclusion, in contrast, disrupts community and often quenches the Spirit who brings new life and leads us toward ever more faithful readings of God’s Word. Therefore, we admonish all evangelicals to resist attempts to propagate rigid definitions of evangelicalism that result in unnecessary alienation and exclusion. And we call all evangelicals to affirm the genuine diversity and fresh reflection, rooted in the authority of the written Word and centered on the Word incarnate, that has always been the hallmark of the true evangelical spirit.

We need not fear criticism of old theological ideas, as long as we don’t assume that they are sacrosanct simply because they have been believed for a long time by many people. But we should not deem that fact unimportant either. Many people could be wrong, for many years, but I try to move cautiously in suggesting that such is the case, and I acknowledge that the onus of proof will be on proponents of the new ideas.

So, I am conservative, but I try to listen carefully to other people’s innovative suggestions and I try not to judge their merit too quickly. Furthermore, I have made some quite significant changes in my own theology, and some of these have not been favorably viewed by fellow evangelical theologians. Among my moves that some would consider innovative has been my formulation of what I called “middle knowledge Calvinism” (in Providence and Prayer) but later dubbed “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism,” after Paul Helm convinced me that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals need not be “middle” (as per Molinism), if creatures are not libertarianly free. Although I am convinced that the “grounding objection” to middle knowledge is valid, I appreciate the work of Molinists. So I have endeavored to incorporate into a Calvinist framework their core proposal, that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals was and is useful to him, when he decided what to create, and also in his governance of creation.

More troubling to some theologians who had appreciated my work on the providence of God was my affirmation of inclusivism, which I prefer to call accessibilism. Within Reformed Theology, this was certainly not new, but gospel exclusivism had become very widely accepted by Calvinists and there are concerns that accessibilism will diminish the church’s evangelistic fervor. Here again, being “conservative” need not entail being closed-minded. The fact that inclusivism had been most notably championed by Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, who were also Open Theists, made accessibilism suspect to many evangelicals, even some of Arminian persuasion, though I consider accessibilism to be the position most coherent with Arminian soteriology.

Adding  to the consternation of some of my fellow Calvinists may be the fact that I have become convinced from Scripture that God will ultimately destroy the wicked, not torment them for ever, a position commonly called “conditionalism” or “annihilationism.” Here is another theological position which has often been cast in a bad light because its best known proponents were groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, who have only recently been regarded in a friendly way by evangelicals, not to mention the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose heterodoxy is infamous.

Positions which depart from the majority view are naturally viewed as innovative, but in a regressive rather than progressive sense. But that actually confirms my sense that “conservative” and “innovative” are helpful end points on the theological spectrum because neither one can automatically be considered either good or bad, progressive or regressive. I think that methodology is the most critical factor. In my own case, none of the changes which occurred in my theological formulation have resulted from a change in my theological method. Scripture still serves as the primary, and only infallible, source of our knowledge of God, and I deem the history of the Bible’s interpretation very important, but not authoritative. I seek to conserve what is true and good in the theological work of the past, and I have no ambition to be known as an “original” theologian. I seek to know God better and I am, frankly, nervous if I come up with ideas that no one before me has proposed. But I think that a constructive and fruitful conservatism need not be afraid of new suggestions, many of which turn out to be a recovery of what had once been affirmed but had been lost. This puts me squarely in the Protestant tradition, doesn’t it? The 16th century reformers were deemed dangerous innovators, but their appeal to Scripture grew out of a desire, not to innovate, but to recover and to discover the truth that God has revealed to us, some of which had been distorted or suppressed along the way.

The purported “discovery” of truth is often only its “recovery,” an act of conservation not of innovation. My first book dealt with the theology of Irenaeus (Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized). At the time I did my study, I concluded that Irenaeus was an accessibilist, though I myself was a gospel exclusivist. Now I find it interesting that my own way into accesssibilism was quite different from that of Irenaeus, because it was his synergism that led him to accessibilism (as it normally does), whereas I come at it from within a monergist framework. Because of my focus at the time of my study of Irenaeus’ works, I missed the fact that he was a conditionalist, but now I join him on that point too. Annihilationism looks like innovation because of the dominance of belief in universal human immortality, thanks to Augustine, and consequently in eternal conscious torment. But, conditionalism’s roots in Christian theology go back a long way. Likewise, my affirmation of classic moderate Calvinism, after about 35 years of teaching particular redemption (the “limited atonement” that is the L in TULIP), was new for me, so it felt like an “innovation.” And the change was not favorably received by some of my fellow Calvinists, but I view it as a recovery of a line in Reformed theology that is more biblical than the interpretation of strict Calvinism. So this is not theological innovation, but it conserves a different line of the tradition than the one I had been conserving for many years. One of the things I love about doing theology is the journey, the continual quest for more accurate representation of God’s revealed truth.

Sola scriptura and semper reformanda (always being reformed) go together; they are not inherently in conflict.

[P.S., on July 19, 2016

It dawns on me that “innovative” has the same problem that “progressive” has, in our culture. The assumption that what is new is better still pertains. Now, I’m thinking that “revisionary” might be a better alternative to “conservative.” When people depart from the tradition, what they move to is not necessarily innovative; the idea may have been propounded before, as I pointed out in the article. But their new position is a “revision” of the view that has traditionally been widely affirmed.

I think that “revision” does not automatically carry the positive vibe that both progression and innovation usually do. So, it strikes me as a more affectively neutral term.




By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on ““Conservative” and “progressive”: Are these our best terms to describe the alternatives?”

Whatever labels may be appropriate for us, I stand with you in everything you have said here, and I thank you saying it so well.

In regard to the labels, Stan. It dawns on me that “innovative” has the same problem that “progressive” has, in our culture. The assumption that what is new is better still pertains. Now, I’m thinking that “revisionary” might be a better alternative to “conservative.” When people depart from the tradition, what they move to is not necessarily innovative, the idea may have been propounded before, as I pointed out in the article. But their new position is a “revision” of the view that has traditionally been widely affirmed.

I think that “revision” does not automatically carry the positive vibe that both progression and innovation usually do. It strikes me as a more affectively neutral term.

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