Derek Olsen: Thornton’s The Rock and the River


I’ve no time to properly blog about this wonderful post of Derek’s in which he discusses the critique leveled by Martin Thornton on the newish trends in theology post WWII and their general lack of explanation about how one actually goes about achieving the enlightened states they describe as the proper way to live our Christian lives.

But I so resonate with this point that Derek makes that I wanted to point toward it with the hopes that you’ll follow the link below and read his whole essay.

“As I look around at the beginning of our brave new century, I see that the direction of the New Theologians has only accelerated. So many of the laity and laity-who-become-clergy seem to have seized on the popularizing works of Borg, Crossan, Pagels et al. as the only alternative to fundamentalism or a rote unquestioning orthodoxy. And these folks take the existentialism and iconoclasm of the New Theologians and push them to new extremes.

I think Thornton’s point is still true: many of the icons they think they’re breaking are not icons at all but golden calves against which orthodoxy has always warned; many of the psycho-religious states these books advocate are again not contrary to classical orthodox teaching—but in rejecting traditional expressions of faith, they have jettisoned the tools through which we attain them.”

Read the full article here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Thanks for posting this, Nick. As I was reading it, I kept saying to myself that Thornton clearly does not know Bonhoeffer. To even bundle him with Tillich is odd. And Bonhoeffer clearly advocates the same Rule of Three Thornton does, albeit not grounded in the BCP. Derek eventually notes this in his allusion to Life Together. I wish Derek had named the New Theologians he means, because Protestant theology has branched considerably since the era in which Thornton wrote, and his allusion seems to paint all contemporary theologians with an iconoclastic brush. Do you know to whom he refers?

  2. I would “ditto” Craig’s reply above and also thank both you and Derek for your posts.
    As someone who has found substantial meaning in their works and has read most of what they have published in the “popular” forum (I do not read Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc, so it is my only access to this type of scholarly work), I would suggest that we not characterize Crossan, Borg and Pagels as “theologians,” as they are historical biblical scholars, primarily. Of the three, only Borg has strayed more extensively into “theology” as he tries to incorporate the conclusions of historical Jesus research and higher biblical criticism into Christian religious life. All three of them (2/3 are Episcopalians, of course) have never, as far as I know, said anything against religious _practice_, (in Derek’s post, “rejecting traditional expressions of faith” and thus having “jettisoned the tools” to allow us to “experience” or, I would prefer, “incarnate” religious belief). What “jettisoned the tools” was, I believe, the loss of the ability to see our religious narratives and beliefs as story/myth/parable/allegory/mystery and an associated insistence on logical literalism. This was the result of enlightenment thought rather than “the new theologians” of the 20th and 21st century.
    Derek is right, of course, about the “breaking of icons,” I believe. Much of traditional orthodoxy has resisted making “idols” out of any singular formulation of religious belief and practice (like reducing the essentials to a laundry list of fundamental beliefs such as our 39 articles-sorry, I couldn’t resist that “dig”). I would argue, however, that the historical biblical scholars and the new theologians are allowing us rather to break out of the “modern” paradigm of literal/factual belief and move back to metaphor, mystery and experience. As for practice, we Episcopalians have a great primer for “technique” in “achieving the psychological states”–the BCP. I don’t think that we need for the historical biblical scholars to “teach us to pray.”

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