A while back, while outlining my “Reading List,” I promised I would write more about a very important book to me, namely Roger Olson’s 2007 book, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology. I am now making good on that promise; however, rather than writing a short summary praising the book’s merits & interacting with any of its perceived shortcomings, I have decided (to follow Jesus!) to summarize THE ENTIRE BOOK for your consideration, which will require me to divide the posts into a number of parts.
I’m not sure how many of our dear readers would be inclined to read the book for themselves, but I’d love to interact over the specifics of the approach he outlines in the comments section—I will even try to restrict my own editorial opinion to that location—because it is an approach that I am very seriously considering taking on as my own (to some extent). To do this without input from my community would be foolhardy, in my highly-relational opinion. So without further ado, I give you my post: Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I: “Who in the What Now?”
Olson’s central thesis in the book is that “it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative”—speaking specifically in this book about theology, which he defines as “reflection on divine revelation in order to believe rightly and understand what is rightly believed.” He distinguishes between theology and doctrine: “theology is process; doctrine is raw material and product. Theology examines doctrines (beliefs about God) and produces doctrines, often by reaffirming, restating, or revising older ones.” The last action of “revising” is central to the postconservative approach (or “mood” as he calls it) Olson will commend.
In the book, Olson sets up what kind of conservative he is “post” by describing his understanding of “conservative evangelical theology.” The idea of being conservative is clearly connected to “adherence to tradition”—Olson posits that conservative evangelical’s (CE’s) have, perhaps unconsciously, established a “magisterium” that “exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology” and while he acknowledges that many CE’s would deny this, “their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine” by an appeal to received traditional (or evangelical) beliefs.
He sees an example of a CE magisterium in the 1990 volume Evangelical Affirmations edited by Kenneth Kantzer & Carl F.H. Henry. Olson perceives that this was an attempt to preserve “evangelical integrity [by] identifying who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the evangelical club” through establishing “firm evangelical boundaries.” Throughout this collection of essays, “appeal is made repeatedly to…an alleged evangelical consensus” which Olson sees as something that would “be used in evangelical institutions in making decisions about hiring and continuing employment.” In essence, it looks like a power play to consolidate the authority to identify who may call themselves an “evangelical.” The problem with this is that it functionally places “a set of human statements on the same plane with scripture.”
In providing examples of specific conservative evangelical theologians, he divides them into two main camps:
- Biblicist evangelicals: those who “seem concerned to protect the propositional nature of revelation as primary and [who] seem to believe it is relatively easy with training and skill to move from biblical exegisis to establishment of sound doctrine without the aid of other sources and norms such as tradition, philosophy, or culture.” They “tend to follow the methodology of 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge” and Olson includes Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler, D.A. Carson and David F. Wells in this category. Their approach contains the “idea that doctrines are to be mined out of the Bible and that evangelical doctrines are simply biblical teachings and not the secondary language of the church,” as well as a “frequent appeal to an evangelical faith once and for all delivered as a negative norm for ruling out new ideas.”
- Paleo-orthodox traditionalists: those who explicitly identify an “ancient, ecumenical doctrinal consensus” (sometimes including Reformational teachings, but usually based on the early church fathers) as a “governing authority for evangelical theology.” These thinkers include Thomas Oden, D.H. Williams, and Robert Webber.
Olson also offers 10 features that he believes are common among conservative evangelical theologians which are a cause for concern to the postconservative approach (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these sentences):
- A tendency to treat correct doctrine—orthodoxy—as the essence of authentic Christian faith and of evangelical faith, and a response to theological innovations as leading to apostasy.
- A tendency to treat revelation as primarily propositional, glossing over the personal and eventful nature of revelations as well as the revelational power of stories, images, and speech acts.
- A tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium for evangelical theological identity (closing off fresh theological reflection & revisioning of doctrines).
- A suspicion of the constructive task of theology, rejecting or neglecting attempts to construct new doctrinal formulations or reconstruct old ones & a tendency to be defensive of their understanding of orthodoxy, patrolling evangelical boundaries.
- A view of evangelicalism as a bounded set category—within which it should be easy to tell who is in or out & a sense that they should have the authority to strip others of the evangelical label.
- A tendency to regard the “evangelical tent” as relatively smaller than the number of those who call themselves evangelicals.
- A high degree of suspicion towards both modernity (even though they may be influenced by it!) and postmodernity, which they see as relativistic and destructive of authentic Christian faith, which consists of absolutes known with a high degree of certainty.
- A tendency to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by history and culture (antihistoricist), and a recoiling from the idea that every doctrinal and theological formulation or method is culturally embedded, as they believe in and look for a transcultural expression of the gospel.
- A tendency to remain tied to fundamentalist roots (even though they would prefer not to use that term) in use of tactics such as harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominum arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree.
- A tendency to do theology in the grip of fear of liberal theology and insistence on placing every theologian or theological proposal on the spectrum of left to right as defined by attitudes towards modernity, with liberal theology representing maximal accommodation to modernity.
Olson also points to two “mediating evangelical theologians” who don’t totally fit into either camp:
- Donald Bloesch, whom conservatives are fond of because of his strongly confessional stance and defense of traditional doctrinal formulations, but who can also be considered progressive because he denies biblical inerrancy and leans toward Karl Barth in a form of “evangelical neoorthodoxy.”
- Alister McGrath, who is also defensive of traditional orthodoxy and reluctant to express support for theological innovation, but critical of the influence of modern rationalism on theology which craves certainty through empirical-historical evidences or logical deduction from a priori truths (rational presuppositions).
Olson ends his introduction by pointing out two groups which are vying for the attention of a new generation of evangelicals: a fairly aggressive form of Reformed theology with a strongly Puritan flavor, influenced by Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper & Carson; and the emerging church network, led by Brian McLaren.
So now what does the postconservative approach look like? That will have to wait until the next post. However, since I’ve laid out so many names already, I will add those theologians whom Olson labels “postconservative” who are influenced by the last-generation theologians Bernard Ramm and Lesslie Newbigin, as well as philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, including:
- Stanley Grenz (deceased)
- Clark Pinnock (deceased)
- Kevin Vanhoozer
- John Sanders
- John Franke
- Nancey Murphy
- James McClendon (deceased)
- Miroslav Volf
- Brian McLaren
- Rodney Clapp
- Greg Boyd
[Part II available here]