What is a “theologically conservative Christian”?


Last week, Rachel Held Evans began her blog series on Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, the latest and most acclaimed popularization of the “open and affirming” position within the church. When I was discerning this issue, intensely, a few year ago, popularizers like Vines did not exist — though Jack Rogers’ 2009 book is very similar. I read Martti Nissinen and Eugene Rogers, the sort of scholars that Vines makes accessible.

As most of you know, I am “traditional” on marriage and sexuality in general, for reasons relevant to specifically Christian content. I see marriage as an icon of the gospel (Eph 5), with a distinct material form (Gen 1:27). And I am not an iconoclast.

But for this post, I just want to analyze Evans’ statement that Vines is “a theologically conservative Christian who holds a ‘high view’ of the Bible,” which is also Vines’ own self-estimation. She begins her second entry this week in the same way. A few problems immediately strike me. Most importantly, it implies that liberals hold a markedly low view of the Bible, somehow significantly different from Vines’ (and Evans’) own view. In reality, the average liberal within the churches and seminaries where they thrive — mainline Protestant — believes in a God in line with the creeds. They believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and they exegete these doctrines from the Bible. In other words, the Bible is authoritative for them.

Everything that I have read from Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Vines, Peter Enns, and all the current starlights of the progressive sorta-evangelicals is exactly what you can find in any mainline classroom. Exactly. None of this is even remotely surprising. Peter Enns, whom Evans extolled in a recent post, is about 50 years (or 150 years) late to the party. Like Vines, he is gifted in his ability to communicate to an otherwise still-biblicist contingent of evangelicals. But, also like Vines, he is merely repeating a given set of long-held convictions. “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” Yawn. Welcome to the mainline, Professor Enns.

The Bible is authoritative for Vines. It is the sole source for knowledge of God in his saving revelation to mankind in Jesus Christ. Until proven otherwise, I have no reason to doubt Vines. So, of course, Vines has a “high” view and “authoritative” view of the Bible in that sense. But, so does nearly everyone else. Vines is not a “conservative” in any distinct sense that would differentiate him from the average, run-of-the-mill liberal in the mainline. And every mainline Protestant knows this, which is surely amusing when they see Vines and Enns and Evans on the “cutting edge” of theology! Hardly.

My point is simple. The liberal view of the Bible, in its most representative Christian form, is a view of the Bible that believes in its unique authority for the church. In the mainline Protestant churches, this liberal view of the Bible is no different than the “theologically conservative” view ascribed to Vines (and self-ascribed by Vines). So, what precisely makes Vines a theological conservative? If he is, then so is the National Council of Churches.

I do not care to actually answer the question in the title of this post. I am not invested in maintaining or defining the boundaries of “conservative.” But when it is used in a context that makes it functionally indistinct from its purported foe, “liberal,” then I call foul.


Image: Matthew Vines (source: AP)



  1. I share your frustration. You are, of course, right: [keeping to Enns and bracketing the human sexuality issue] the Enns project is a bit of a biblical “yawn” because hardly “cutting edge” (at RHE’s blog I sometimes feel I’m in a time warp). But surely Enns himself knows this. The problem is that those for whom he is writing are inerrantists stuck in a benighted biblical Egypt out of which he trying to lead them the towards the promised land of a discussable hermeneutics. I actually admire Enns’ Sisyphean patience and persistence. I think his intentions are admirably pastoral.

    Why, however, insistently claim the shibboleth of conservatism? Does Enns want to have his cake and eat it too? Maybe he’s being tactical. Maybe he’s concerned abut maintaining some loyal continuity with his roots? But then is it true that “liberals” are as credal as you say? I guess it’s different in the US, for here in the UK there are plenty of “liberals” who are only nominally trinitarian, and who believe in neither a biological virgin birth, nor a physical resurrection, nor a (Nicene) second coming. But then it’s not a package deal is it? For any decent theologian, labels are libels. You are right not to answer the title of the post.

    Of course, living in the UK, I find the whole tribal more-evangelical-than-thou posturing to be adolescent and unseemly, and I observe it rather like an anthropologist on Mars.

    • From my perch in a mainline US denomination (ELCA) as a relatively recent (3 years-ish) grad of its largest seminary, Kevin’s description of “liberal” seems dead on. On occasion, you might encounter a quiet questioning of the virgin birth. But as a rule, the creeds are unchallenged and scripture is held as the highest authority. Questioning the resurrection would not often receive a friendly response.

      On the other hand, relation to the Lutheran confessions and Reformation theology generally can be a flash point–there is open disagreement on that front. So the points of conflict are, in my estimation, quite different among the various mainline denominations. I heard a UCC seminary prof. friend and colleague remark recently how different the approach to scripture is between his denomination and the (“liberal”) Lutheran congregations he speaks at–and both different still from PCUSA churches. Given that, what could “conservative” be but a tactical move?

    • Yes, there is John Shelby Spong and his kind among the liberals in the mainline. But, I don’t think they represent the majority of mainline Protestants. It’s a bit odd for me to “defend” liberals and the mainline, since I left the mainline two years ago. But I think clarity and accurate representation are lost within these debates. For the time being, Enns’ view of the OT — which I believe is unsustainable, however admirable when contrasted with the equally unsustainable Chicago Statement — is the same as the average professor within the biblical studies departments of mainline Protestant seminaries. My OT professor told us to “preach against the text” when dealing with the conquest of the Levant, to give one memorable example, and much else. The students — future mainline pastors — barely winced. Yet, in regard to the credal statements, they have no interest in demythology, probably because of the formative influence of the liturgies within the mainline. Of course, many are apathetic about all of this and just want to “love on” people, as they like to say.

      And, yes, I am sure that Enns is fully aware of where he stands within the history of biblical interpretation. There are surely tactical reasons here. This is most obvious with Evans. She begins both of her posts on Vines with a declaration of his theological conservatism and “high view” of the Bible, because that is how most of her readership gauges themselves or those they wish to persuade. My point, as you know, is that these labels are rendered meaningless and, as I should have further argued, can only serve tactical ends.

  2. Good post Kevin. I would say the Mainline I see is at times closer to the RHE, et all group, but I would say a larger contingent share the Richard Rohr/Brian McClaren understanding about the creeds and the future of Christianity (which of course bleeds into how they read the Bible). But I’m on the West coast.
    Why I was really commenting is because I want you answer the question in title: What is a “theologically conservative Christian”?

    • Well, as Kim said, labels are libel. But here goes:

      If I had to define “theological conservatism,” we can reasonably definite it in relation to “conserving” past theological statements that are being challenged. The challengers, by contrast, are those wanting to modify or wholly substitute these past theological statements and are therefore “liberal” (free/liberated) in doing so. As such, most of us, especially theology students, would hesitate to identify with either conservative or liberal, since we are both…in differing measures and depending upon the doctrine in question.

      Furthermore, the method and the conclusions are frequently confused and collapsed together, and this is my biggest problem with the “conservative” and “liberal” labels. A conservative conclusion is often presumed to have resulted from a conservative presupposition that already pre-determined the conclusion. Likewise, a liberal conclusion is often presumed to have resulted from a liberal presupposition that already pre-determined the conclusion. In the former case, the presupposition is a deification of the past; in the latter case, the presupposition is a deification of the present. This does happen, far too often. But, it easily elides the complex justifications which order one’s mind toward the conclusion in question, at least for most of us.

      But, in regard to the pragmatic use of “conservative” and “liberal,” when applied to concrete scenarios and positions, then the labels are unavoidable. I use them too, as I did with “liberal” in this post. For example, if someone wants to label me as a conservative on the virginal conception of Christ, then, yeah, I’m a conservative — I am conserving this doctrine. And, further, it is not unreasonable for someone to label my overall theology as more conservative than liberal, recognizing the presence of a spectrum and the complexities mentioned above.

      • Also, what’s conservative or liberal changes depending on how wide or narrow a time frame you look or even just on the contingencies of history. For example, absolute prohibitions on alcohol in the church are “conservative”, even though it’s a pretty recent position. The officials in the Soviet Union who opposed Gorbachev’s reforms were “conservatives”, even though they were to his left

        In American politics, opposing gun control used to be a radical left thing and is now a right-wing thing. Is foreign interventionism conservative or liberal? Who knows, it’s changed so many times!

      • Those are all good examples — the alcohol example, in particular, is handy when talking with Southern Baptist neighbors! One time, I tried to explain how Baptists were part of the radical left-wing of the Reformation!

  3. I dislike employing labels like “conservative” or “liberal” (or any over-generalizing terms), though it is hard at times not to resort to them.

    Just like in politics, they are often bandied about with the definitions being determined by where along the conservative-theological spectrum the speaker/writer sees themselves as belonging. For instance, my evangelical in-laws would all label me as a “liberal” due to my views on gay marriage, the Bible, evolution, the historicity (or lack thereof) of the flood, etc. Whereas for me, I think of someone being a “liberal” if they reject a trinitarian view of God or an actual resurrection of Christ. In other words, when I think “liberal” I think of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf Harnack, but when my in-laws think “liberal” they are thinking of someone who accepts evolution, doesn’t believe in an inerrant Bible, etc.

    I would suspect that a reason why RHE might say that Vines is
    “a theologically conservative Christian who holds a ‘high view’ of the Bible” is because for evangelicalism (and thus a large part of her audience), a supposed ‘high view’ of the Bible is the litmus test for determining whether someone is theological conservative or liberal. So if you say someone has a high view of the Bible, then that may make what they have to say more palatable to the audience.

    So what is a theologically conservative Christian? Easy. It is someone who disagrees with me on doctrines that I deem to be critical to the Christian faith 😉

    • a supposed ‘high view’ of the Bible is the litmus test for determining whether someone is theological conservative or liberal.

      Yes, that is what is happening, even though the mainline liberals have just as “high” a view of the Bible as Evans and Vines. I disagree with them, on this doctrine at least, but I wouldn’t go around claiming to be a “theological conservative” in order to assuage fears.

  4. I read Enns and Evans and have no idea what they’re saying half the time. I think their real project is to render lengthy, sustained argument obsolete.

    Stupid liberals. I’m going back to reading dusty books about persons, nature, and ousia.

    • The twitter generation meets theology. I can barely read Evans’ blog with all of the bolding and italics. I guess she assumes that her readers are not very bright and have short attention spans.

      • I guess she doesn’t know how to emphasize and underscore what she has to say without using lots of what Milton called “barbaric devices.”

  5. As someone who grew up in a very conservative tradition, I can see why RHE labels Vines as conservative with a high view of scripture. In my evangelical circle anybody who had a position to the left of us had a low view of scripture. “They” didn’t really trust the Bible. So, if you were an egalitarian favoring women in leadership you had a low view of scripture (even if you taught at Gordon-Conwell). If you accepted an old earth or (gasp) evolution, you didn’t believe in God or the supernatural, let alone God’s Written Word.
    I went to an evangelical seminary where nearly all of my classmates shared this sort of view. However, I interned in a “liberal” PCUSA church (great way to get my classmates to hold me in prayer). It was there I learned that so many of the so-called liberals had relatively high views of scripture (as you mentioned). No, they weren’t evangelicals enamored with innerrancy but they didn’t throw the whole Bible out either. I was even surprised when the liberal pastor suggested we pray before the worship service. Heck, I thought he was just pretending to believe in God so he could have a pension. So why was he actually praying?
    I imagine that for RHE and the audience she imagines, Vines is a lot closer to the conservative view than the perceived liberal view. Enns may have a similar audience in mind although he surely must know how broad the field is between conservative and liberal. It would be great if the blogosphere contained a distinction between views of scripture and conserving the tradition. I’m not holding my breath, however.

    • Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Paul. I love this line: Heck, I thought he was just pretending to believe in God so he could have a pension. As a former PCUSA member and current seminarian in a PCUSA seminary, all the while being self-identified as an evangelical (with nuances!), I understand these tensions very well. I have very close friends in the PCA, and they definitely see aspects of my theology as “liberal.”

  6. I agree with most of this mate.I’m of the view that we must not allow theology to fall into servility to any ideology. Such as the exegetical fallacies that laid behind the acceptance of “Positive Christianity” in Germany throughout the 1930’s. I’d just add to what you’ve said by saying that you don’t have to be a progressive to be for progress. The shaming techniques used in identity politics is rife and outright wrong. Even the left/right metaphor (as people like Lutheran author Gene Veith have pointed out) is limited in helping theologians/the church frame a ”right response”. Especially in regards to certain very loud flag-bearers who seem to demand conformity, whilst at the same time deriding as a great evil anyone who aligns themselves with the very strong, rational conservative argument on these issues. The sad fact is that despite how loving a “no” we may provide, such disagreement will be viewed as betrayal, ignorance, intolerance and bigotry.

    • I’d just add to what you’ve said by saying that you don’t have to be a progressive to be for progress.

      I agree 100%. And I have complained about identity politics to everyone I know!

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