Reformed and Always Reforming, Part III: The Essence of Christianity
Sorry to delay the next installment of this series so long (also see part I and part II), but I’ve been busy wrapping up the end of my seven years on staff at Biola University, so now I can TOTALLY come out of the closet as a raging liberal (kidding…kind of?). On the note of “liberals*,” namely those people of whom many at conservative institutions like Biola would say are not actually Christian (perhaps a little residual “phantom limb” reflex from the amputated Bible-thumping arm of our fundamentalist heritage), Olson explores in the next section the idea of what truly constitutes “authentic Christianity.”
Postconservative evangelicals (PCE) “believe that conservative evangelicals (CE) tend to place too much emphasis and value on facts” and that “authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information” and the “propositional nature of revelation and the cognitive aspects of Christian discipleship.” Olson is quick to point out that PCE thinkers AGREE that there is an important cognitive and propositional content to our faith–it is simply that many CE thinkers have overemphasized and indeed become obsessed with this dimension as THE essence of true Christianity.
He cites examples of this from the works of two CE theologians, Millard Erickson & D.A. Carson, whom Olson expresses admiration for even while disagreeing with their elevation of “cognitive knowledge and affirmation of correct doctrines as the hallmarks of authentic evangelical faith.” Olson points out that the CE view tends to “highlight the didactic side of Scripture and interpret revelation as primarily communication of information about God.”
Olson quickly points out the common ground between CE & PCE thought: “both believe that there is a gospel supernaturally communicated to human beings by special divine revelation and that apart from this gospel people cannot know God as they should.” The difference lies, he says, in whether the transcendent source of of authority for believing and living, as well as the Christian identity it creates and preserves, is primarily a content of information or a means of transformation. (He concludes that it is indeed BOTH, but that the CE view is out of balance in it’s overemphasis on the informational component.)
Olson continues by digging at the dual roots of contemporary evangelicalism: Puritan Reformed theology, with its emphasis on confessional preservation of orthodox belief & the Pietistic/Revivalist emphasis on the experience of God’s transforming power. He describes how a growing awareness of this duality led to the two groups beginning to “snipe at each other and take potshots at each other in print” (pointing specifically to Carson’s The Gagging of God & David F. Wells No Place for Truth).
Olson begins to defend the PCE view, and in particular his friend, the late Stanley Grenz, from the attacks and suspicions of CE thinkers, specifically refuting any “shallow interpretations” that would try to link the PCE movement to liberal theology and the ideas of the first liberal theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher, who emphasized feeling and experience over reason and ideation. Indeed Olson says PCE’s have “no interest in being liberal” but rather desire to free evangelical theology “from captivity to the Enlightenment culture’s rationalism and obsession with ‘facts’ to the exclusion of truth in experience and personal knowledge.”
While acknowledging the role of information in the Christian life, PCE’s “do not believe that facts constitute the essence of authentic Christianity or true evangelicalism, both of which are primarily expressions of the transforming power of a relationship–the relationship between God in Jesus Christ manifested through the Holy Spirit and the person in community.” In this perspective, doctrine is the “second-order language of the church that brings to expression this [supernatural] transforming experience.” Doctrine serves experience, and not vice versa.
A quote from Alister McGrath points in this direction (though McGrath does not go as far as identifying experience as the essence of evangelical faith):
It is a travesty of the biblical idea of ‘truth’ to equate it with the Enlightenment notion of conceptual or propositional correspondence, or the derived view of evangelicalism as the proclamation of the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine (from A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism).
More explicitly, Stanley Grenz pointed toward the concept of “convertive piety,” which is “a certain experience of God that is supernatural, personally transforming, and centered around the cross of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the holy spirit.” Olson goes on to point out, and this is what makes some squirm, that “a person who has this experience may be a real Christian–and an evangelical–without yet being orthodox doctrinally.” While “doctrinal systems have their value,” it is “a distinctive spirituality that forms evangelical Christianity’s essence.” Grenz succinctly stated in his groundbreaking 1993 work, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, that “the truth of the Christian faith must be personally experienced truth.”
Grenz points out that while “doctrinal systems and worldviews inevitably arise within communities and shape individual identity and group knowledge…[they] cannot replace or stand in for spiritual experience [but are] expressions of it.” In Grenz’s view, “the ultimate authority for developing Christian belief and life is the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the context of the community shaped by a common spiritual experience of convertive piety.”
So what about doctrinal correctness? Olson replies that while it is important, correct doctrine does not trump the experience of a converted believer. “Apart from the transforming experience, authentic evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present. And where right experience and right spirituality are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present-provided that movement in the right direction is clearly discernible.”
The difference between CE and PCE thinking on this point may be hard to detect…Olson lays out a few areas of competing emphasis:
- CE proponents “assert that the basis of our Christian beliefs must not be experiential because experience is subjective.” For them, “the basis of our [faith] must be reason grasping divine revelation [and that] the system of beliefs drawn from [divine revelation] is rationally superior to all competing systems of belief.”
- PCE thinkers (and allies such as McGrath) fear that CE theology is “turning evangelical faith into a philosophy and the Bible into a book of facts to be organized into a coherent system.” (I’ve seen this mentality at work many times in my experience with the CEE.) PCE thinkers hold narrative up as an alternative to CE overemphasis on the propositional. “Narrative is meant to transform and does transform; it creates identity in a way factual statements do not…The point of this announcement in story form is to transform people; it is a story about salvation and brings about salvation.” The cognitive dimension is not dismissed, but is rather relegated to secondary status.
This does allow for more uncertainty and ambiguity as to who is “in or out” of evangelicalism and makes heresy hunting a bit more difficult, but PCE’s are comfortable with this tension without becoming “relativists.” Rather, Olson says they are “critical realists”: “Absolute truth is what God knows; our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and falleness.”
This emphasis on intellectual humility is one of the aspects of the PCE that appeals so much to me and I find myself willing to live with greater tension and ambiguity as I look at other people who claim to follow Christ. Do you find, however, that too much is lost in making an experience of “convertive piety” the essence of Christianity rather than assent to a set of doctrinal propositions? I’d love to hear your thoughts…
*[update: I just finished two classes where we explored in a bit more depth the history, methodology, & theology of classical Christian liberalism and its modern descendants…goodness & mercy, I am no liberal!]