Learning from Evangelicals

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Mike Gottschalk

March 31, 2009at 12:41 pm

Hi Clayton,

I just found your website a couple of days ago while searching through emergence science. Though I begin my thinking/exploring as a theologian, (‘evangelical’) science has become for me just as formative; the line between theology and science is more like a permeable membrane.

I agree with you about the scriptures; I think one thing that we miss in the idea of revelation, is that a being more sophisticated, is limited by the sophistication of his hearer when it comes to both content and manner of communication. As an illustration, I point to the three year old who asks her daddy how a car works; a proper response is, ‘well honey, you stick the key in here, turn it and it goes bbbrrooom’ as you rumble your lips together. While this moment would be an improper one to launch into the relevance of thermodynamics, we would hope that at the age of twenty, she would need answers along these lines and beyond vroom.

This illustration points to the difference between our understanding of God maturing and the nature of God changing. I’ve found that the understanding I derive from the scriptures, has only grown richer and more satisfying when I let in the understanding that I learn from science. (Not the science produced by Christian institutions constituted to prove God.)

I’m joining you in your effort to transform theology and I look forward to following your posts.

Regards, Mike Gottschalk

Thomas Oord

April 28, 2009at 10:31 am

Thanks for this, Philip! I really like your three points. They get at some of the things I most appreciate about my life as an evangelical.

May I suggest a fourth point — and one with which I think you’ll heartily agree? Evangelicals — unlike some mainline folk — constantly talk about God. The doctrine of God , what God is like, what God is doing, etc., — these are important topics to Evangelicals.

We Evangelicals are realists in our theological discourse, although we often must remind ourselves to be humble realists. Admittedly, we sometimes come across as knowing too much about God. But Evangelicals prefer bold claims about God.

In sum, most Evangelicals are unafraid to talk about God and think that the language they use really captures something true about the God in whom the believe.


Philip Clayton

April 28, 2009at 12:14 pm

Mike, I appreciated your post and your joining in the work and the conversation.

Tom, thanks for your fourth point. What I don’t get — and what I want to push the more liberal theologians on — is why mainline folks think they aren’t allowed to talk about God as well. Is the doctrine of God to be the property of evangelicals only?

I can imagine mainline theologians being more reticent about claims about physical miracles or a high christology and things of this nature. But why can’t they agree with you about the need for humility, tolerance, and a non-judgmental attitude … and THEN go ahead and try to formulate what they believe about God? There are, to my mind, no serious reasons to think that all talk of God is forbidden.

Mainline folks and evangelicals don’t need to agree on all beliefs; there is room in the church universal for differences. But surely we can share the project of formulating our best understandings of the divine nature and of God’s involvement with the world, and then “testing” them in constructive conversations with one another. Why should the mainline exclude itself from this exciting and valuable project?

— Philip

Thomas Oord

April 28, 2009at 12:50 pm

Thanks for the response, Philip.

Surely there is no a priori reason why liberals should be reticent to talk boldly — yet humbly — about God. And I agree that differences between Evangelicals and liberals should be expected.

Here is a bit of speculation: Perhaps liberals have learned better than Evangelicals that a measure of tolerance is required if humans are to coexist. (I happen to think that generally this is the case.) And in learning this, they have thought that tolerance means talking less about what might offend those who would disagree. Better to keep silent than potentially offending. If such liberals want to avoid conflict, perhaps this makes them less likely to spend significant time formulating a complex and plausible doctrine of God. After all, why devote significant time to something that one would rarely bring up on a conversation for fear of offending those who may disagree?

Of course, my comments do not apply to all liberals. You are an example of a liberal who takes theological construction very seriously, and you boldly — yet with humility — propose some ways of talking about God that you think might really tell us something true about the divine. I commend you for this!

And may other liberals follow your lead…

Bruce Paolozzi

May 1, 2009at 3:35 pm

Dr. Clayton,

Are there any specific ways in which evangelicals can come along side and assist you with this project in the near future? Are there currently any student groups in Claremont who are exploring “our best understandings of the divine nature and of God’s involvement with the world, and then “testing” them in constructive conversations with one another?”


Philip Clayton

May 1, 2009at 7:08 pm


Exactly this is the mission of the “Rekindling Theological Imagination” project . In 2010 we plan to do regional meetings around America where this kind of conversation will take place. We’ll also do a special session at Tony Jones’s big Emergent Church meeting in Chicago on this topic.

But yes: why not in the LA area as well?!

— Philip

Bruce Paolozzi

May 1, 2009at 7:52 pm

Dr. Clayton,

Thank you for your swift response!

I have been looking at the Transforming Theology site and getting excited about what you are doing. Of course, any genuine dialogue should be two way, with both parties experiencing change. It would be interesting to see how far evangelical theology can stretch without abandoning core concerns of Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Activism (social and evangelical), and conservation of theological tradition. Not that there is any single evangelical theology any more than there is one single progressive theology.


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