Theology Spectrum

What do Baptists have to do with Anglicans?

Bethel Seminary in San Diego, a Baptist school, offers a program for Anglicans preparing for ministry. Does this make sense? Is this part of some new 21st century reality?

I’m noticing that theology trends today don’t line up with denominational histories.

Historically, the great streams of Protestant theology coincided with the rise of denominations. Lutheran. Presbyterian and Reformed. Baptists, Mennonites, and Quakers. Episcopal, Methodist, and Pentecostal. The Lutherans started this in the 1500s; the Pentecostals wrapped it up in the 1900s.

The theologies of these movements often followed dynamic theologian/leaders. These leaders started a renewal movement, and soon that leader’s followers settled into a denomination that preserved his theology.

I’ve been toying with new ways to organize these traditions.

But the link between denominations and theologies has weakened. So very conservative Lutherans (like WELS) share more with fundamentalist Baptists (like GARB). Progressive Presbyterians (like PCUSA) share more with progressive Lutherans (like ELCA) than they do with conservative Presbyterians.

(Don’t worry if the alphabet soup doesn’t make sense. The point is that theologies just don’t line up with denominations.)

Let me propose a way of organizing theological views on a continuum from fundamentalist to liberal.

The spectrum I’ve been playing with starts on the most conservative end with fundamentalist. Moving across the line are spaces for conservative, then centrist, progressive, and finally liberal.

A fundamentalist tends to interpret the Bible very literally, to see moral issues in very stark, either/or terms (legalism), and to avoid cooperating with anyone who doesn’t share their fundamentalism. And fundamentalists—whether Lutheran or Baptist or Methodist or independent, it doesn’t seem to matter—fundamentalists seem to share these qualities.

Centrists carve a niche between conservative and progressive.

Advocates for the five stances need to define their space, so to speak. But I’ve been thinking that perhaps a centrist stance might be most challenging to define.

On the one side, a centrist might say (against conservatives) that a woman should serve as a senior minister if she is gifted, qualified, and called to that role. Centrists would never say, without qualification, that women should be senior pastors. But they’d argue that only those who are gifted, qualified, and called should be pastors. They might say that such persons, be they female or male, should be senior pastors … as a matter of faithfulness to God.

On the other side, a centrist might say (against progressives) that anything the Bible genuinely teaches must command our allegiance. In other words, the Bible is fully authoritative.

I still don’t know whether all the spots on the spectrum can be marked out clearly.

Not long ago I saw a survey that asked people to describe their theological perspective as either conservative, moderate, or liberal. I feel quite sure that this threefold continuum is just too limited. There’s much more nuance on the theological spectrum. (And there are other relevant nuances of cultural identify and generational identity, and so on.)

I’m going to keep pushing to see whether the five spaces are really distinct. I’m more confident that the threefold continuum is too limiting than I am that my fivefold continuum is really helpful. I think it’ll require looking at test cases to see whether I can spot a set of characteristics that really define each stance. And I’ll have to test it in the different denominational families. So I admit my initial suggestion for a theological continuum needs a lot more work. I’d be happy for any guidance.

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