The Challenge of Conservative Theology

by Peter M. Schmeichen

Dr. Schmiechen is dean of Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 9, 1980 pp. 402-406Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Since Christian theology is by definition evangelical, it is both natural and arrogant to suggest that theology is evangelical only when it fits into a particular position.

At the very time when ecumenical Protestants are drawing closer to Roman Catholics, the rift within Protestantism is growing wider. The ecumenical and neo-orthodox movements, as well as joint participation in graduate theological education, have not brought the different traditions together. In fact, the gap between conservatives and the neo-orthodox and liberals is growing wider and deeper. What I find most disturbing is that conservatives are not content to represent one branch of Protestantism but explicitly lay claim to the entire Reformation heritage. Indeed, their claim is even more imperialistic: by appropriating the word "evangelical," they present themselves as the only ones who are Christian. Putting aside all the rhetoric regarding the significance of church membership statistics and the future of conservatism, the widening gap represents a theological schism in American Christianity of the first order.

Theological debate is always complicated and becomes deeply personal when one side lays claim to an essential term. The word "evangelical" is indispensable for Protestantism and, for that matter, for all Christians. There is something deeply disturbing, therefore, about a theological movement that declares that it represents evangelical Christianity and suggests quite pointedly that other movements are not evangelical. Since Christian theology is by definition evangelical, it is both naïve and arrogant to suggest that theology is evangelical only when it fits into a particular position. We may wish to ponder the development of less pretentious ways of defining ourselves.

Competing Conservative Positions

The debate is further complicated by the variety of competing positions among conservative Protestants. There is no agreement among the so-called evangelicals. Terms such as fundamentalist, orthodox, biblical Protestant, conservative and evangelical are sometimes used interchangeably, while at other times they express slightly different nuances.

Harold Ockenga has suggested that in the conservative tradition there has been a movement from fundamentalism to neo-evangelicalism and ultimately to evangelicalism. My general impression is that all of these distinctions are overdrawn.

Basically, we are talking about conservative Protestantism in the United States, which is in general derived from three traditions: (1) conservative Lutheran and Calvinist groups, (2) the pietist traditions, and (3) indigenous American churches. The second and third of these are characterized by the impact of the American frontier, revivalism, a rather low-church liturgical style, and fundamentalism. Despite the distinctions Christians of these traditions would make among themselves, there tends to be a common theological position regarding the Bible and certain basics. Much attention is being given to the attempt to go beyond fundamentalism, but the "new evangelical" theology still tends to sound like either Protestant scholasticism or fundamentalism. Indeed, in a panel presentation, Harold O. J. Brown, former associate editor of Christianity Today, admitted that the evangelicals are "nothing but fundamentalists."

There are some notable exceptions that strike me as important. In regard to the Bible, one group of writers has sought to move away from the rigidity of fundamentalism to a position basically akin to the neo-orthodox view. These writers admit that there may well be biblical inaccuracies, and that the inerrancy of every verse can be challenged. The historically relative situation of the biblical authors is accepted, with full recognition of the problem this creates for interpretation. They resolve the problem by means of two carefully worded affirmations: either one affirms that the Bible is inerrant whenever it speaks on its intended subject in its own way, or one holds that inerrancy and infallibility really mean that the Bible is reliable/trustworthy regarding the gospel.

Such proposals are obviously quite equivocal. Whether or not such was the intention, they dodge the crucial issue while sounding the code words of conservative rhetoric. The first proposal is disturbing because it simply restates the problem. The second is but a return to the idea of a canon within the canon. That these two solutions can be offered at all indicates a considerable movement on the part of many conservatives toward a less constricting view of the Bible. Yet one senses that it is difficult to set forth revisions of that view in the face of the ritual warfare within conservatism and its accepted rhetoric.

Opposition to Liberalism

By far the most complicating factor in the debate is that conservatism lives and dies as the antithesis to liberalism, the modern Antichrist. Conservative theology is defined in opposition to the godlessness and skepticism of liberalism. Everyone to the left of conservatism is lumped together; no matter how many gradations may have existed among liberal Protestants, they are usually treated uniformly and equated with the rationalism and skepticism of the Enlightenment. Neo-orthodoxy is seen as a bankrupt subcategory. Indeed, one must be impressed by the paucity of categories for describing the problem: on the one side, we Christians stand arrayed against the liberals on the other side.

For example, Harold Lindsell states unequivocally: "Basically, we come to the Bible in one of two ways. Either we approach it with trust and belief or we come with suspicion and distrust." John H. Gerstner would sort things out as follows: "If the term evangelical can include Karl Barth as well as Carl Henry, Emil Brunner as well as Jonathan Edwards, Oscar Cullmann as well as John Wesley, then we must give it a definition so broad as to be somewhat meaningless."

Or look at some article titles that are fairly typical of Christianity Today: "The Lusts of Modern Theology" and "Six Modern Christologies: Doing Away with the God-Man."

It is disturbing to find an entire theological position composed in such a polemic key, assuring the faithful that conservatism represents the last great hope of Christianity. An example of this style comes again from Harold O. J. Brown in his review of Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God (Christianity Today, March 14, 1975):

Like so much that is written by people of his stature, it is brilliant but unreliable, indeed fundamentally unsound. There is much in it that the evangelical should take seriously and yet it is characterized by what seems a perverse refusal to accept the authoritative Biblical witness without first subjecting it to existentialist and other historically conditioned mutations.

Those taken aback by such rhetoric must ask whether neo-orthodox Protestants, for example, write with the same polemics and hostility against liberals, Catholics, conservatives or secularists. Sooner or later, all of us are going to have to pay for our excessive rhetoric and for the ways in which we misrepresent our opponents in a desire to create straw men or to perpetuate the ritual warfare that goes on between rival theological positions. At some future point the theological agenda must include the laying of foundations for a reconciliation of opposing camps.

The Reformation and Authority

The challenge of conservative theology does not lie in its commitment to the evangelical mandate; indeed, to the extent that it is rooted in the gospel and the quest for true religion found in all Christian communities, that theology will always be a strong and positive force. Rather, the challenge lies in its tendency to equate the gospel with characteristics of the conservative mind-set and one view of the Christian faith -- an especially dangerous tendency in light of the problematic elements this view contains.

In defining what we understand the word "evangelical" to signify, I adopt the perspective of Luther and Calvin as they interpret the New Testament through the ecumenical creeds and the influence of Augustine. The Reformers proclaimed that the sovereignty of God was both a critical word against the world and a gracious act of deliverance. This affirmation of God’s sovereignty and the principle of salvation by grace led to a series of criticisms against all worldly authorities that claimed to usurp the power of God, be it an authoritarian church, an infallible Bible or a mechanical sacrament that offered salvation in a simplistic way.

While the Lutheran-Calvinist Reformation affirmed the authority of Scripture, it nevertheless insisted that faith is always directed to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. It refused to treat the Bible in a simplistic or mechanical way. Witness the emphasis on a canon within the canon, Luther’s response to the Anabaptists on the question of infant baptism, as well as both Reformers’ insistence that the Word always stands in juxtaposition to faith and that neither is possible without the activity of the Holy Spirit.

It was the genius of both Luther and Calvin to insist that the certainty of our salvation rests with God and not in any human institution, or any claim regarding the sacrament or the Bible. The bridge between heaven and earth is none other than Jesus Christ and the new covenant which gathers into the peace of God the faithful from all lands. Thus, the believer stands before the gracious activity of God in Christ, trusting only in that grace. Believers have put aside all trust in themselves and in worldly powers -- even the powers of religious institutions. Before the sovereign God, they forsake all authority other than that certainty found in the living Word. To be sure, the believer is edified, nourished and supported by church, sacrament and Bible, but these cannot become the objects of our ultimate loyalty.

But it is precisely at this point that conservative Protestantism and the American free churches have never fully accepted the reform of Luther and Calvin. While they welcome the assault upon an authoritarian church and the rejection of sacraments efficacious in and of themselves, they have resisted the Reformation logic as applied to doctrine and to the Bible. In this resistance lies the problematic character of conservative theology, and it takes three forms.

The first is the tendency to substitute doctrine for the saving work of God in Christ as the object of trust and loyalty. This occurs whenever confessional statements or a set of fundamentals is declared to be the absolute standard for Christian faith. It must be admitted that there is something quite logical about a doctrinal test: if there are essentials to the Christian faith, then we should be able to state them. Speaking generally, it is quite correct to seek the boundaries of faith, especially when confronted with a truly heretical claim. The church of the early centuries closed the gap between possible and actual doctrinal tests on several occasions. At the same time it is instructive to remember that these creeds speak mainly to the doctrines of God and the person of Christ. The ecumenical church did not fix a position regarding anthropology, sin, the work of Christ, church and sacraments.

While logic suggests that the gap can and must be closed, we do well to remember the hazards involved. Every confessional test of faith is inevitably the product of a given tradition and historical-social context. To make absolute claims regarding such doctrinal statements gives too much weight to specific formulations of doctrine. Moreover, the establishment of doctrinal tests suffers from both an intellectualizing of faith and the reduction of it to doctrinal assent. Since faith is the act of trust in and loyalty to God, it cannot be reduced to doctrinal tests, for they misdirect it and therefore divert one’s vision from the One who is the source of all true faith. Yet the persistent tendency of conservatives to rely on doctrinal tests raises the question of whether they agree with the Reformers’ insistence that the church itself must submit to the judgment of God and must avoid an imperial and authoritarian stance.

Faith, the Bible and Salvation

The second problem is the tendency to substitute for the living Word of God the Bible as an inerrant or infallible book. Most of the debate on this subject focuses on whether the Bible is in fact inerrant and infallible. But more attention should be given to the theological problem of whether the Bible should be asked to bear such a claim. The conservative view of the Bible is not one arrived at after historical-critical study, but one held before such study. This view is a theological premise regarding the certainty of faith. Conservatives argue that if God is absolute, then the Bible itself must be absolute. The statement of this principle. from the believer’s standpoint, is: If faith is to be certain, it must have an absolutely certain basis, which, the conservative insists, is the Bible.

It simply does not follow, however, that because God is absolute, therefore every detail in the record and witness of God’s revelation is infallible. Nor does it follow that since faith needs a ground of certainty, therefore the Bible must be that ground through being infallible. These syllogisms have a docetic ring. They presuppose that the absolute enters the world in a way that is absolute (i.e., unhidden, self-evident and publicly verifiable). They presuppose that human faith can lay hold of the divine and claim to have an infallible bridge between heaven and earth. Moreover, the use of the word "absolute" is itself problematic because that usage introduces the distinction between absolute and finite, a distinction with strong Hellenistic overtones.

Such language can be helpful if one accepts a paradoxical resolution of the tension between absolute and finite. In the conservative view of Scripture, however, there is no paradox; written words become unequivocally the Word of God -- even without the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. (It is ironic to note that the Roman Catholic tradition uses the same logic as does conservative Protestantism, but in order to defend an infallible church. The conservative is bold to reject such an imperial conclusion in regard to the church, but not in regard to the Bible.) Having drawn the battle line at the Bible, conservatism will be required to exhaust itself in theories and explanations of how the Bible is not only infallible but does in fact, when read correctly, substantiate all the new theories discovered by the modern age.

The third tendency is to make faith itself a saving work. This is perhaps the most objectionable characteristic of the American free-church tradition. Faith has become a mechanical and all-powerful human activity guaranteeing our salvation. Billy Graham can declare to a revival audience that one receives Jesus Christ in the most simple way; just as one receives a polio vaccine as a wafer, so one receives Jesus Christ by coming to the platform.

For others, faith becomes the healing power which will take away all of our physical ailments. It is the source for robust claims about overcoming all of our personal problems and achieving worldly success. This view of faith seeks to reduce the power of God to a merely human technique. An advertisement for one of Graham’s latest books, How to Be Born Again, refers to "the simple steps to being spiritually reborn." Faith of this sort is not the response of the believer standing before the gracious word of God in Christ, but itself becomes the ground of certainty and the saving force. It works ex opere operato. In this sense, these positions come full circle and begin to look like that great ritual enemy of Protestantism; namely, the mechanical view of the sacraments attributed to the medieval tradition.

The Risks of Faith

In his book Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1978) James Barr argues that fundamentalism arises out of a particular religious tradition: the revival experience of conversion and the intensely personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This experience is always in the shadow of an institutionalized church which appears to have lost the true religion. While Barr’s thesis provides much insight, it alone cannot explain the conservative mind-set. Since not all personal conversions lead to fundamentalist views of the Bible, it would be preferable to emphasize a more universal tendency as the origin of conservative zeal: the human quest for absolute certainty.

I am by no means suggesting that a psychological reductionism is the key to understanding conservatives; rather, I want to focus attention on the search for certainty that arises out of human anxiety and finitude. Conservative theology is problematic because it refuses to accept our finitude and the risk of faith. It might be said that the demand for an absolute doctrine, an infallible book, or a wonder-working faith is a form of seeking after signs -- a quest for an absolute certainty which is verifiable and controllable through human effort and rationality. Indeed, it is a proof for God’s existence that surpasses any natural theology. Instead of seeing faith as the act of the trusting heart directed toward God, it seeks after a visible form of certainty to be an irrefutable bridge between heaven and earth.

This drive on the part of conservatives is especially inconsistent since they are well known for championing the view that Christianity involves the personal relation between the believer and Jesus Christ. One would therefore expect conservatives to use this christological base as the framework for theology. Insistence on doctrine or Bible as the infallible base for theology undercuts the christological ground of certainty. To affirm the sovereignty of God and salvation by grace means precisely that we have no self-evident and infallible bridge between heaven and earth other than God’s saving work in Israel and Jesus Christ. (Here we must remember that the evangelical theology of Luther and Calvin questions both the Catholics’ infallible church and the conservatives’ infallible Bible.)

Amid the clamor of rival Protestant groups, one needs a perspective for understanding the conflict. The liberal and conservative mind-sets represent polar tendencies in Protestantism. If the liberal type is less bound by the Bible, creed and tradition and more concerned with the demands of reason and contemporary society, the conservative type tends to be the opposite. The conflicts between liberal and conservative movements can be clearly traced over the past three centuries. In the same way one can trace a mediating theology which has existed in the tension between the rival camps. In our time the mediators have been the biblical and neo-orthodox theologies. This precarious middle ground is precisely where ecumenical Protestants should be. To live in that space requires that we lay claim to the truly evangelical heritage of the Reformation.

As we do so, two factors will be paramount. First, churches in the ecumenical center must forego the temptation to imitate the conservative theology, and style on the assumption that this is what will succeed. Such a strategy will only confuse the public and ourselves. What we need is not imitation but the affirmation of our own heritage as a viable source of identity and renewal.

The second factor required is the development of our own form of piety consistent with the biblical and Reformation traditions. We have come through a period in which we sought to place mission and service in the foreground. It is now apparent that this cannot be done apart from a community of faith rooted in the study of Scripture, in worship and fellowship, and in the care of souls. The church cannot address the question of action until it clarifies its being in the new covenant of Jesus Christ. Here we find the most fundamental challenge from conservatism: to stand firm in our witness to a form of piety that is rooted in Bible and creed, but directs faith beyond them to the Lord of all.