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.

My boy MILLARD's classic one-volume systematic...

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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!]

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8 responses to “Reformed and Always Reforming, Part III: The Essence of Christianity”

  1. Greg says :

    PS I’ve added a few books written in response to PCE thinking to my Amazon wish list:
    -Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times by Justin Taylor, et al.
    -Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservati​ve Evangelicals and the Emerging Church by Gary L. W. Johnson, et al.

    Has anyone read these? Which would be best to start with? Any other recommendations?

    While I don’t find myself wanting to jump on board the “emerging church” it does seem that Olson and Grenz have influenced that movement quite a bit. Personally, I’d like to GO BACK to these guys and start over again and hopefully not end up in the same situation that seems evident in the emerging church…

  2. Andrew Faris says :

    Greg,

    This has been a remarkably helpful series of posts for me. I appreciate so much of what Olson has to say that I wonder if it’s time for me to bite the bullet and go buy it.

    One thought, by the way, on reading critiques: I wonder if the best place to start isn’t with book length treatments, but with reviews of his work in journals. I bet there’s stuff out there.

    What I find most interesting is certainly the issue of the relationship between Christian experience and Christian belief. At one point I found myself thinking, “So what about Mormons?”, but then I read this addendum: “provided that movement in the right [doctrinal] direction is clearly discernible.”

    But that’s a sticky wicket, isn’t it? In these few words, Olson admits that right doctrine is a necessity for experience to be real. But this line gets blurry faster than he makes it sound here.

    And I think that might lead to one of my biggest questions: isn’t at least some of this doctrine/experience dichotomy fabricated? Maybe even in an ironically Enlightenment way, in that it proposes clear, distinct categories for the two. I’d suggest that doctrine shapes experience enough to where it becomes difficult to draw the kinds of lines he is drawing here. I’m having trouble articulating this, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.

    Still, I’m really drawn to the emphasis on experience. I don’t know if it’s my Vineyard background or if it’s that I’ve struggled with the same sins for long enough to know that my analytical self needs experience with God for me to ever grow, but either way, if we really believe that the Holy Spirit is real, then how can we not emphasize Christian experience? But then, there I go proposing a premise and drawing a logical implication. So CE of me.

    One last thing: I wonder if some of this straw mans CE. What I mean is that there are certainly those CE’s who will emphasize doctrinal correctness over experience in bad ways. Plenty do that. But there are also a lot of them (at Biola/Tablot, think of guys like Thoennes, Arnold, Wilkins, Berding, Lunde, and so on) who emphasize Christian experience and a changed heart constantly. I suppose if we flipped it, it would be me taking people like McLaren and Tony Jones and saying, “All you PCE guys are crazy effing relativists who never use your brains”. Only, you know, nicer.

    Thanks again for these posts. I’m loving them.

    Andrew Faris
    Christians in Context

    • Elijah says :

      Faris,

      Something you’ve written (the part about the Mormons) makes me think of something else we all know but don’t really talk about. Say you know me, Elijah. You don’t know everything about me, but there is a certain amount that one must know to really consider me a friend. If you insisted I was 6’8″, 250 lbs and that I played small forward for the Cavs I would not consider you my friend.

      Such a simple treatment is how we can determine that knowing [at least some of] the right things about God is important in how the Church relates to him. Perhaps the PCE camp can adopt a watered-down orthodox position to call their own which lays out some of the necessary principles for who God is and what one must ‘know’ to be a member of the kingdom of God.

  3. Greg says :

    Andrew,
    You are such a sweetie, busting out with the affirmations on both ends of the comment–it really does make the medicine go down so much easier! Here are some responses to your quite valid questions…

    ANDREW: “What I find most interesting is certainly the issue of the relationship between Christian experience and Christian belief. At one point I found myself thinking, “So what about Mormons?”, but then I read this addendum: “provided that movement in the right [doctrinal] direction is clearly discernible.”

    But that’s a sticky wicket, isn’t it? In these few words, Olson admits that right doctrine is a necessity for experience to be real. But this line gets blurry faster than he makes it sound here.”

    GREG: I might have this wrong, cause I am processing on the fly here, but I wonder if there is some sense that Olson would say there isn’t a experience/belief dichotomy, but the believer’s experience of an encounter with the God of Scripture’s story IS the substance upon which doctrine is the commentary. For instance, when it says in Psalms that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” do I first have to understand the doctrine of God as omnipotent creator and transcendent sovereign power of the universe, or do I experience this in gazing upon the heavens and reflect on it in doctrine? When Paul speaks of the power of the gospel, is it referring to the transforming impact of an receptive encounter of the salvific story or to a complete understanding of atonement, justification, etc.? I mean, I’m pretty sure my mom is a tri-theist when it comes to understanding the trinity, but this doesn’t lead me to question her salvation…I know she’s headed in the right direction cause of her convertive experience, but some of the “doctrine” may be off just cause it’s so hard to conceptualize. You’re right that it get blurry and that’s where the whole “comfortableness with ambiguity/tension” comes in. You may not like the blurriness…that’s why you would prefer to stay CE, right?

    I think the PCE view is just saying that Christianity is more about relational encounter through story than propositional assent. Olson says, “Doctrine matters, but it can be no substitute for experience.” This is what makes “convertive piety” the ESSENCE and doctrine the second order explication of the essence. Plus, there’s this element of the “performativity” of the Gospel proclamation–it doesn’t just SAY something (which can be reduced to facts), it DOES something (which requires relationship…more on this later).

    However, in regard to Mormonism, we do need to be clear which story of the gospel we are lining up with. Perhaps I should have included more in there about the story/experience content Olson had laid out…I was assuming that you would take as a given that it is the Christian story, the Biblical account, etc. However, I actually would be open to Mormons having an authentic faith if it is an experience of convertive piety in the gospel of Christ and not in a testimony to the Book of Mormon. But that may be more seldom than frequent. There have been some Mormon/Evangelical books out that interest me in this question…

    As to your sticky wicket, I wonder if the right relationship/story/authority is essential for the experience, but the “factual/cognitive” explication (i.e. doctrine) of this is not essential. It does seem hard looking at this to parse between doctrine & “relationship/story/authority” but I feel like there’s a difference. Maybe it’s like my experience of loving relationship with my wife. Do the vows that I wrote out for our wedding ceremony precede/define my love for and commitment to her? No, they are a reflection of the experience prior to putting them into propositions. It’s not to say they are not important, but are they essential or is the experience essential/first order?

    ANDREW: “And I think that might lead to one of my biggest questions: isn’t at least some of this doctrine/experience dichotomy fabricated? Maybe even in an ironically Enlightenment way, in that it proposes clear, distinct categories for the two. I’d suggest that doctrine shapes experience enough to where it becomes difficult to draw the kinds of lines he is drawing here. I’m having trouble articulating this, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.”

    GREG: I don’t know if it’s artificial–maybe I’d say it’s the narrative/personal vs. the propositional/objective. It’s a good question, because like Elijah said, there are factual aspects to our encounter with God. He is not a big black obelisk or a bag of heroin. He is this and not that. But then, sometimes I even feel like he’s had to condescend SO MUCH to reveal himself to me, that I just need to cling to what he’s given me and done in me than to get too caught up saying all of these factual statements about who he is. When I was young, I affirmed God’s immutability because I was told that this was the correct doctrine. However, when I got older, I didn’t experience this as totally consistent in ALL I was told it contained as I looked at and listened to the God in the Scriptures. The incarnation seemed to speak to some kind of change, passages seemed to reveal a more flexible conversation partner (God creating a sentence itself seemed to indicate more change than I had thought) and I actually sensed that there was something fishy about that classical conception of God based on my intuitive experience and prayer for spirit-empowered illumination. But I’m still processing what that experience means doctrinally…

    ANDREW: “Still, I’m really drawn to the emphasis on experience. I don’t know if it’s my Vineyard background or if it’s that I’ve struggled with the same sins for long enough to know that my analytical self needs experience with God for me to ever grow, but either way, if we really believe that the Holy Spirit is real, then how can we not emphasize Christian experience? But then, there I go proposing a premise and drawing a logical implication. So CE of me.”

    GREG: Sanctification is indeed one of those areas where experience (of discipline, of grace, of love, of God’s pleasure) seems quite significant. It makes sense for you to draw a premise and logical conclusion…AFTER your experience. But maybe it DOES happen the other way around too…

    ANDREW: “One last thing: I wonder if some of this straw mans CE. What I mean is that there are certainly those CE’s who will emphasize doctrinal correctness over experience in bad ways. Plenty do that. But there are also a lot of them (at Biola/Tablot, think of guys like Thoennes, Arnold, Wilkins, Berding, Lunde, and so on) who emphasize Christian experience and a changed heart constantly. I suppose if we flipped it, it would be me taking people like McLaren and Tony Jones and saying, “All you PCE guys are crazy effing relativists who never use your brains”. Only, you know, nicer.”

    GREG: Yeah, I get that. Olson makes all sorts of qualifications, caveats, commendations, etc. that I am not including. But he is getting polemical, trying to convince us, so he’s drawing distinctions that we all know are not comprehensive. And BTW, those emerging guys are making some crazy statements. My friend told me that they are not trying to be “authoritative” in what they are writing, but processing/experimenting in writing. And there are PLENTY of books coming out saying just what you said about them, so maybe it’s a tit for tat. That doesn’t make it commendable though…

    I’ve just said a bunch of things I may disagree with in a matter of minutes myself. I’m in process too!

    Thanks for your sincere feedback/insights…

  4. Andrew Faris says :

    Considering how the comments tend to go on these posts (i.e. mostly the 3 of us), sometimes I think, “Is Lost in the Cloud really just an elaborate scheme for Greg and Elijah to convince me to be less CE? It’s all a facade, I’m the only reader, and in fact, the only person who has been granted access to the page. Like a blog version of the Truman Show.”

    I’m guessing not, but just in case I’m right, know that I’m beginning to sniff this thing out…

    More on actual content at a time when I didn’t promise my wife I’d clean the apartment.

    Andrew

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