Reformed and Always Reforming, Part II: The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology

So what exactly does “postconservative evangelical (PCE) theology” look like?  Some inclinations were hinted at in the “10 features of conservative evangelical theologians” in Part I of this series and Olson begins in his next chapter to sketch six features that will give a sense of the “mood” of PCE theology (you can see already the desire to elude rigid categorization, can’t you?).

Before he lists these characteristics, he delves into the issue of whether some in the Conservative Evangelical Establishment (CEE–my term, not Olson’s) would question whether PCE theologians are indeed “evangelical.”  Olson answers this by proposing two “controversial theses”:

  1. Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian (do you wonder if he was being ironic with the word ‘controversial’?)
  2. An evangelical theologian is someone who claims to be evangelical, is generally regarded as working within the evangelical network, and adheres to five cardinal features of evangelical faith–biblicism, conversionism, cross-centered piety, activism in evangelism and social transformation & respect for the Great Tradition of Christian belief

The second thesis might cause controversy among some in the CEE because they are uncomfortable with the confusion that exists as to who are truly evangelicals, as well as dismayed at the “rampant diversity of interpretation among evangelicals.”  Olson points out a distinction that CE thinkers (such as D.A. Carson in The Gagging of God) would like to draw between “sociological evangelicalism” (those people who participate in evangelical churches, organizations, etc.) and “authentic doctrinal evangelicalism” (detailed theological orthodoxy).

While Olson acknowledges the legitimacy of concerns with doctrinal pluralism and the contemporary “desertion of the cognitive substance of faith” and he also admits that CE theologians are correct that “authentic evangelical faith includes a strong commitment to orthodox doctrine,” he holds that they are wrong “insofar as they elevate doctrinal orthodoxy to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal with divine revelation itself” (which Olson sees in CE “traditionalism that enshrines [the intellectual content of] Protestant orthodoxy as it was developed in the post-Reformation period by Protestant scholastics and especially by the Old Princeton School theologians in the nineteenth century”).

Olson sees the only way to keep from raising doctrinal formulations to peer status with Scripture is “to leave a door open to doctrinal reconsideration and revision in light of Scripture [by defining] the evangelical attitude toward orthodox doctrine as one of respect and deference but not slavish adherence.”  He proposes that “what makes a theologian evangelical is not strict faithfulness without mental reservation or reconsideration to doctrinal orthodoxy [but rather] that he or she works enthusiastically from within and embodies the ethos or the evangelical movement” (as defined in his 5 cardinal features above).

Olson delves briefly into a section on the two predominant approaches to American evangelical faith, or the “dual inheritance” of the “two strands of Protestantism that flowed together in the Great Awakening,” which reveals a great deal about the tension and turmoil in the contemporary Western evangelical community.  The two approaches are:

  1. Puritanism that was publicly focused, scholastic, and whose outlook on salvation was Reformed or Calvinistic, exemplified in Jonathan Edwards & influencing contemporary Reformed movements such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
  2. Pietism that was more inwardly focused in its experientialism, with a view of salvation that was influenced by synergism and more Arminian (though predating Arminius to Melanchthon and the Anabaptists), exemplified in John Wesley & influential in the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s, the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, as well as the emerging churches network and the house church movement

Olson points out that the “vast bulk of evangelicalism lies somewhere between these expressions, combining aspects of each” and reflecting the two often conflicting impulses of “evoking experience of God” (Pietism) and “inculcating correct beliefs” (Puritanism)  He also suggests that PCE theology is “by and large a derivation of the Pietist side of the evangelical movement” and CE theology (and the fundamentalist movement preceding it) has arisen out of the Puritan ingredient.

Some of these limbs wish they had a saw...

Now we finally move to the six features of the postconservative style of doing theology (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these paragraphs):

  1. PCE theologians consider the main purpose of revelation to be transformation more than information (Note: while CE theologians would agree with the transformational goal, they would see revelation as primarily as the communication of information/facts for the purpose of creating knowledge, while PCEs wonder if knowledge is the only or best means of transforming persons).  PCEs do not reject a propositional, factual, and informational aspect to divine revelation, but stress that revelation is given primarily for the purpose of redemption through personal encounter and relationship, and that nonpropositional aspects of revelation can be useful for theological endeavor.  They see the Bible as not as a “book full of timeless truths” but as a vehicle that contains many types of revelation, all of which support that which is primary in Scripture:  narrative.  PCEs are generally enamored with narrative theology, which emphasizes the power of story to transform people in a way propositions do not, and they worry that CE theology is too caught up in the idea of cognitive Christianity to the neglect of transformation and relationship with God.
  2. They see theology as a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest and hold that the constructive task of theology is ever unfinished–there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology.  A few quotes from the late PCE theologian Clark Pinnock will illustrate this point:  “Why do conservatives assume that the received doctrinal paradigms created by human beings like ourselves are incapable of improvement?” and “How awfully easy it is for people who think themselves in possession of God’s infallible Word to transfer some of that infallibility to themselves.  And how easy for them to respond to anyone who questions any aspect of their fortresslike position with righteous anger and adamant rejection.”  PCE thinkers believe that taking risks in theological endeavor with thought experiments is not a sin and also appreciate the role of imagination in theological work.
  3. They evidence a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of CE theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought.  Alister McGrath points to the covert modern influence on CE theology: “Certain central Enlightenment ideas appear to have been uncritically taken on board by some evangelicals, with the result that part of the movement runs the risk of becoming a secret prisoner of a secular outlook which is now dying before our eyes.”  PCEs are concerned that conservative foundationalism and propositionalism elevate something alien to revelation above revelation as the criterion of truth, reducing Christianity to a philosophy.  They believe that some forms of postmodern thought can help liberate evangelical theology from the Enlightenment.
  4. They view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than as a set having boundaries.  This means that the question is not who is “in” or “out” of evangelicalism, but who is nearer to the center and who is moving away from it (the center being Jesus Christ and the gospel & reflecting the 5 core elements above).  There is no evangelical magisterium to decide who is in or out of the movement.  The issue of how you can have an identity with a fuzzy boundary is responded to with the following clarification: an organization has boundaries (such as a nation, i.e. Who is an American?  Any US citizen.), but a movement does not (i.e. Who is a “Westerner”?  Not all Europeans or Americans are truly Westerners culturally and many people living in Asia are Westernized!).  So it is with an evangelical–there is no test for determining who is an evangelical and yet we all know that not everyone who claims the label deserves it.  In this, PCEs are more comfortable with possible ambiguity as to who is truly an evangelical.
  5. They have a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief.  Stanley Grenz argued that evangelicalism is a vision of the Christian faith expressed primarily in a distinctive spirituality, a shared experience of “convertive piety” that manifests itself in a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and is expressed communally in shared stories/testimonies, hymns, witness, and worship.
  6. They have a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief, even as they subordinate it to revelation and consider it at most a guide.  Kevin Vanhoozer agrees, noting “Sola Scriptura means at least this: that the church’s proclamation is always subject to potential correction from the canon.”  Two terms that could be used to describe this tendency would be “generous orthodoxy” and “critical orthodoxy.”  While not eschewing doctrine, propositions, or tradition, they believe that all of these ideas are subject to the greater authority of divine revelation in Jesus Christ and in Scripture, which may at any time break forth in new light that corrects what has always been believed and taught by Christians.  The PCE style demands humility, generosity, and openness of spirit in conducting the work of theology and handling the cognitive content of the faith.

These are merely sketches that Olson goes on to fill out in subsequent chapters…any thoughts on these features from our intrepid readers (i.e. those who read through to the end of this post)?

[Part III available here]


10 thoughts on “Reformed and Always Reforming, Part II: The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology”

  1. Hey Greg!

    A few brief thoughts for you my friend:

    Uno – If nothing else, this leg of your theological journey proves conclusively that you need to be part of the Covenant church. I kid (a little) because I selfishly want you to be part of the ECC, but at the same time I’m totally serious – I think we are your theological home. We come from Pietistic roots, are deadly serious about living out Christ’s mission in all its forms (and consequently, we approach our theology through a missiological lens), and we very much take a centered-set approach to theology. What’s more, we’ve been doing this for 100 years. It’s not a new experiment – it’s the way we live.

    In practice this means (a) Cov pastors hold strong biblical convictions, yet (b) don’t separate over differences on secondary issues. Unity is valued over minutiae. It means living with a certain degree of tension and messiness, but we prefer that to a unity based on agreement on every jot and tittle.

    Dos – I haven’t read very much of Olson, so I have to be somewhat general in my remarks. I feel a little sensitive in what I have read to possible straw man descriptions of CE, but I may be wrong about that. I’ve read a handful of those he lists in the PCE camp, and some fill me with joy (Newbigin, Vanhoozer, McGrath, Volf, Grenz, Clapp, Boyd to an extent – I think he is wrong on open theism but takes a very biblical approach to getting there, if that makes sense) while others I find I do not align with well (Pinnock, Sanders, Murphy, sort of Franke, and increasingly and sadly I find myself at odds with McLaren too).

    All this to say: as with any approach to theology, we do well (in my humble opinion) to eat the fish and throw out the bones. We will find great ideas and poor ideas, great innovations and poor ones. Don’t approach PCE as one looking for a new theological system so much as one looking for a new dialogue partner to help you refine what God has given you already.

    Tres – The Puritanical and Pietistic streams need one another. There is no shortage of greatness in CE theology. As the PCE side speaks to you, work to hold it in tension with the other. My counsel would be to date but not marry. Let this stream be a conversation partner, and continue to invite the CE side to the conversation too.

    I tend to a centered set approach in my theology, which obviously I think is healthy. But the danger here is that we become sloppy in our thinking about issues at the periphery. This is no bueno. When working well, a centered set approach should engender a generous, inclusive spirit toward brothers and sisters who love Jesus and seek a biblical, orthodox faith, yet have reached differing conclusions on some aspects of that faith. A centered set approach is becoming dysfunctional when it no longer cares to think robustly about theology beyond the center.

    Happy reading, and thanks for inviting me to the conversation.

    1. Tim,
      First of all, thank you for being our first celebrity commenter–anyone who hasn’t checked out Tim’s book “Embodying Our Faith” should “tolle lege” it straightaway!

      Secondly, your balanced approach to CE/PCE, Puritan/Pietist, & fish/bones is very appropriate and speaks well to my current disposition. Your comments on the centered set do reflect my hope as well…

      Lastly, I think you are dead right on the Covenant being a perfect fit for my theological inclinations and desires in a Christian community. Keep a space on the pew open for me!!!

      Blessings brother,

  2. Greg,

    It took me too long, but I finally got to this post. I have (not surprisingly), a few thoughts:

    (1) I really appreciate a lot of this. I like the emphasis on transformation (seems biblical) and the refusal to entirely throw out the importance of biblically-based right belief, even if we rethink some of how that shapes up. I also agree with Tim that the Pietism/Puritanism poles need each other, and from this it seems like Olson isn’t necessarily disagreeing. So thanks- I’m going to re-read this at some point here and keep thinking.

    (2) The statement that narrative is the “primary” mode of revelation in Scripture is hard to sustain. Narrative, obviously, is huge- I won’t doubt that. But put it up against the Law, Prophets, Psalms, Wisdom Lit, and Epistles, and it seems that there is more balance. Further, mixed into the Narratives themselves and the surrounding canon are interpretation of the Narratives. For the sake of this discussion, this seems important. We CE’s need to listen closely to those who emphasize story while all the while being sure to note the story’s and its interpreters’ emphases. The stories, of course, are trying to tell stories. But they are also trying to say something about God through that mode. We are both inside and outside the story in these respects. Think C. S. Lewis, I suppose.

    (3) Statements like this: “[Olson] holds that they are wrong ‘insofar as they elevate doctrinal orthodoxy to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal with divine revelation itself'” don’t seem helpful to me, mostly because I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do instead (even after reading the six points below).

    On the one hand, I get it. Doctrine isn’t Scripture. Fine enough. But if we believe that infallible Scripture reveals something- especially something that is “core” doctrine (you know what I mean), that the church has been almost unanimous about for 2,000 years, and that seems to be all over Scripture- shouldn’t we hold to it with everything we have? Shouldn’t we elevate it to the status of “necessary for true Christianity”, or else risk muddying the waters of what Christianity actually is?

    More simply, here is the question for me on this: where does the rubber meet the road for statements like this? What doctrines are we holding too tightly to? How do we express these convictions in such an unhelpful way? That would help me.

    (4) Some of this is funny to me, because beneath it there is this strange “personalness” about the approach. What I mean is that most folks who are into PCE are really into the importance of community and theology in community. Good on ’em, I say.

    But then Olson comes along and talks about how we should hold tradition lightly (and what is tradition but historical community?) and emphasize personal spiritual encounter. Some of this I’m quite alright with, but it just strikes me as unexpected.

    Anyway, thanks for this Greg. This is really helpful as a summary of an approach, and as some insight onto your thinking as a friend.

    Christians in Context

  3. Andrew,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response & questions. Exactly the kind of engaging dialogue one is looking for here…

    1) It may be that Olson’s informational/transformational contrast sets up a straw man version of CE’s as robotic theological analysts who have no true spiritual depth, except that I KNOW THESE GUYS! Once, I once endured a gentlemen I was on a leadership team with bemoaning the fact that pastors these days couldn’t even name all of the kings of Israel/Judah on demand. BUT, I’m sure there’s a spectrum here…

    2) I would agree that there are both large chunks of scripture that do not fit neatly into “pure” narrative, and also that there is commentary. The issue of narrative theology is one into which I need to look more deeply. However, doesn’t it seem that the prophecies, many psalms, wisdom lit, and epistles were all written within some sort of framing narrative? While there are clearly didactic portions of scripture, finding ones which stand out as “narrative-free” is much more difficult. It’s a point worth reflecting on though…

    3) I want to interact with your thoughts here specifically…
    Andrew: “Statements like this: “[Olson] holds that they are wrong ‘insofar as they elevate doctrinal orthodoxy to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal with divine revelation itself’” don’t seem helpful to me, mostly because I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do instead (even after reading the six points below).”

    Greg: I think Olson was perhaps referring to a more “comprehensive” orthodoxy rather than just some essentials (i.e. an all or none inerrant doctrinal orthodoxy), but I’d have to go back to support that. The next post in the series elaborates on the point that the essence of Christianity is more about a personal transforming relationship with Christ (including our experience) than doctrinal correctness. If that sounds like a false dilemma, hopefully I can clear it up in the summary of that chapter.

    So what are we supposed to do if we can’t say our doctrinal statements are infallible? Perhaps the answer is to simply trust in relationship we have with the person of truth, Jesus, revealed in our lives and look to the Spirit to continually clarify the message of Scripture?

    Here’s a quick (somewhat related) thought experiment: could we have a relationship with Christ if no one had ever recorded specific words in writing, but merely passed on to us the story of Jesus and what he had done to reconcile us to God (again, not in “inspired words” but just the general story)?

    Andrew: “On the one hand, I get it. Doctrine isn’t Scripture. Fine enough. But if we believe that infallible Scripture reveals something- especially something that is “core” doctrine (you know what I mean), that the church has been almost unanimous about for 2,000 years, and that seems to be all over Scripture- shouldn’t we hold to it with everything we have? Shouldn’t we elevate it to the status of “necessary for true Christianity”, or else risk muddying the waters of what Christianity actually is?

    Greg: You’re right that there are certain things that do seem to be essential to claim that we are somehow “Christian.” That is almost one of the most important questions to consider–what belief (and corresponding posture/orientation) is essential to salvation?

    This is where I get hung up on some of the “unanimous for 2,000 years” type stuff. Because you look at the Apostle’s Creed…on the one hand, it seems a no-brainer. But upon closer inspection, you have a few questions pop up:
    A. Do all Christians believe that Christ descended into hell?
    B. Where is the heaven he “ascended into”? Outer space?
    C. Are ALL people granted life everlasting? If conditionalists like John Stott believe that the wicked are annhilated and actually do not indeed have life everlasting (even in a state of punishment) is he not of the company of believers?

    I only bring these up to say it’s not always as simple as looking at the main doctrines of the people of God over history, but we may have been off on some things from the very start…is it not logically possible for finite, fallen believers to have enshrined some beliefs from their cultural vantage point when they should not have (same goes for us too!)

    Thanks for these good, good questions and thoughts. Does my response make sense, or is it unclear how this could actually be a legitimate issue?

    Blessings bud,

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