What is a “theologically conservative Christian”?
September 25, 2014
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)