Tag Archive | Clark Pinnock

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part IV

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART IV:  THE HERMENEUTICAL KEY

The dual subject view of biblical revelation obviously raises questions of how we should understand what the Bible is disclosing to us and how we may use Scripture to theological ends.  Witherington proposes that, in reading Scripture, we need to ask the question “in what sense, and in regard to what subject, is this text telling the truth?” He sees value in distinguishing between genres as a starting point for understanding the subject of revelation:  “In oracles [prophetic words], we can expect the will and character of God to be most clearly reflected.  Prayers and songs that come from the human heart may well tell us the truth about ourselves rather than about God’s character.  And narratives can reveal both of these sorts of truths.” (25) While this is moving in the direction of the approach I am advocating, I’m not certain that these broad strokes are completely helpful.  First, prayers and songs may indeed reveal God’s nature or plans, not merely human experience.  Second, Witherington’s generic distinctions still leave the largest portions of Scripture, which are narratives, in an ambiguous position.  Finally, sometimes we find false prophets speaking in oracles, so even the trustworthiness of prophecies require some level of discernment.

Pinnock points to the classical rule of context in hermeneutics:  “We must pay attention to who is speaking and what is being said to us in each place [in the Bible].” (84) However, if we put our confidence exclusively in the character of the speakers, we may find that sometimes those who are opposed to God may end up revealing truth (e.g. the pagan prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24 or the Jewish high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52) while those who are God’s prophets may utter something questionable.  An example of this is found in Aaron’s commendation for the Hebrews to worship the golden calf he had fashioned as YHWH.  We also find in Habakkuk 1:2 and 1:13 an example where the prophet, speaking in an oracle, says that God does not listen to his cries for help and that God’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil, and…cannot look on wrongdoing.”  Although we may say this reflects a human emotion or desire to lift up God’s holiness, it is uttered in a form where we would expect it to be theologically accurate—yet we can see that God did hear Habakkuk’s cries and in fact does see evil and wrongdoing.  So sometimes where we may expect to find corrupt fallible humanity, we may actually discover divine truth; where we expect to hear God’s perfect voice, we may find the truth of human longing, pain, or other experiences.

Sometimes, even an ass can speak the truth (painting by Rembrandt)

Though this dual-subject theory of revelation adds a great deal of tension to our biblical interpretive strategies, there does exist a key that may help us understand and clarify the revelation of humanity and divinity in Scripture:  the God-man, Jesus Christ.  As we saw in the original analogy of the mirror and the telescope, we may see Jesus as the mirror in the telescope—perfect humanity who is near to us, revealing the perfect divinity of the transcendent Godhead who is far off.  Pinnock uses this analogy himself as he proclaims, “in Jesus Christ, the divine nature is mirrored.”  In a lengthier quote, he says

Jesus Christ is and must be the centerpiece of the Christian revelation, because in Jesus God entered our world within the parameters of a human life…The Scriptures exist to bear witness to him (John 5:39), and he is the sum and substance of their message.  No mere emissary of the prophetic sort, the Son is God incarnate, dwelling among us, the revelation of God without peer.  Of all the forms of revelation, this is the best. (Scripture Principle, 36)

As we consider the human and divine subjects in the totality of Scripture, we can measure them against the One who was perfectly human—understanding our experiences and tendencies while remaining sinless—and who was also perfectly divine—the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).  So, for instance, when we look at Psalm 137 and wonder if smashing babies’ heads against rocks represents God’s desire for humans, we can look at the words and actions of Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).  As Jesus exemplified true humanity, we can derive our understanding of the anthropological ideal from him and discern whether other Scriptures reveal true examples of fallen human behavior or examples of redeemed human character which we should emulate.

By the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we must undertake the project of properly understanding revelation as God both making himself known to us, as well as revealing the truth of our own humanity to us, by using Christ himself as the hermeneutical key to distinguish between what is true of humanity and what is true of God (and conversely, what is false about both).  While this is not a simple operation, I believe that this provides the best basis we have for understanding the anthropological and theological dimensions of Scripture.  How do we do this exactly?  I’m not fully sure.  This is indeed the experiment which I am seeking to undertake:  re-reading the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, and discerning between human and divine subjects, with Christ as the hermeneutical touchstone (while also necessarily leaving room for some unanswerable, ambiguous passages along the way).

In his book, Incarnation & Inspiration, Peter Enns describes what he calls a “Christotelic hermeneutic” for reading the Old Testament (which deals with the New Testament use of the OT).  I echo the sentiments he shares about pursuing his method as I contemplate the dual-subject approach outlined above; he writes that a coherent reading of the OT using his hermeneutic “is not achieved by following a few simple rules of exegesis.  It is to be sought after, over a long period of time, in community with other Christians, with humility and patience.” (170) I would love to read alongside any others who are willing to consider this approach and together rediscover, perhaps more accurately, what the Bible has to say about God and humanity in its pages.

Works Cited:

  • Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1994).
  • Peter Enns, Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
  • Carl F.H. Henry, “Revelation, Special,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1021.
  • I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration, (1982; repr., Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004).
  • Clark H. Pinnock and Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible 3rd ed., (1984; Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009).
  • Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2007).

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part II

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART II:  THE NEED FOR REVELATION ABOUT HUMANITY TO HUMANITY

[Part I available here]

Before delving into the issue of how we may make distinctions between claims about the divine and human subjects of Scripture, we must address the question of why we would need to have revelation about humanity, particularly since part of the intrinsic concept of revelation is that it is “the disclosure of what was previously unknown.” (Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 1031) It is obvious that we need God to reveal himself to us because he is outside of our common experience, his nature and being are not evident to us, and as YHWH himself says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8).  In contrast, we have a great deal of understanding about humanity:  we ourselves are humans, we see evidence and examples of humanity all around us, and we have created our own reflections on the human race in philosophy, history, and cultural artifacts.  So why would we need for God to write down an inspired account of humanity for us in the Scriptures?

Subliminal shout-out to Gregg TenElshof's book, I Told Me So

First, we tend to lie to ourselves about ourselves.  The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  The apostle Paul asserts that in our human wickedness, we have suppressed the truth, become futile in our thinking, and our minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).  Though Paul specifically refers in this passage to deceiving ourselves about God’s person, it seems reasonable to believe we do the same with our own self-knowledge (cf. 1 John 1:8).  We need revelation about the human subject because we need God to show us hard truths about ourselves that we are often unwilling to acknowledge.

Second, revealing the truth about humanity, particularly our sinfulness and inability to fully obey his commands, ultimately exposes our deep need for the Gospel and for holistic transformation.  In this light, an accurate anthropology both plays a part in the overall biblical story of redemption, as well as offering an unvarnished portrait of fallen humanity to which we can relate (for we do not only see examples in Scripture of perfectly holy people who do not make the same errors to which we seem prone).  This reason for revelation about humanity would explain the presence of lies, wickedness, and bad theology cited in our introduction.

Third, and more positively, disclosing the truth about humanity reveals occasions where persons do respond in faith and obedience, which we may imitate, as well as many other instances where God still chooses to use and bless people who are living contrary to his desires, which demonstrates his love, patience, and grace toward his creation.

All of these reasons make the inclusion of humanity as a subject of revelation a somewhat non-controversial addition to our understanding of Scripture.  What is more problematic, and likely more unsettling for the conservative, is the question of how to distinguish which parts of special revelation are about God and which are about humanity in the biblical texts.  The difficulty of parsing between theological claims in Scripture that reflect humanity’s perspective on God (such as Job’s friends) and those that accurately reflect Divine truth becomes a daunting proposition.  Indeed I. Howard Marshall despairs at the attempt:

The books of the Bible contain what are clearly regarded as the words of human actors telling about human actors and on occasion reporting what people said to God.  They also contain what are identified as the words of God [including divine communication to humans and prophetic announcements].  In many cases it would be hard to decide just where God stopped speaking and the human author took over—and indeed meaningless and futile to try to do so.  How could one distinguish between the more personal expressions of Paul’s emotions and his more direct statements of what he believed to be divine revelation? (Biblical Inspiration, 21)

This reticence on Marshall’s part may be due to his feeling that if one begins to identify human aspects in Scripture, then the “inspired” notion of the Bible becomes unintelligibly bifurcated into some parts human and some parts divine.  Clark Pinnock is more comfortable with dividing Scripture into levels of revelation:  “In the so-called ‘Writings’ of the Hebrew Bible…there are far fewer claims of divine revelation [than in prophetic works], only occasional references at best.”  Pinnock goes on to assert that “in the Old Testament collection there are different kinds of literature, some that make a powerful claim to divine origin and others that do not, some that stand on the high ground of revelation and others that occupy a little lower position.” (The Scripture Principle, 62)

While Marshall is reluctant to potentially split the inspiration in Scripture, Pinnock is willing to sort between “kinds and degrees of inspiration” (64) in biblical revelation; however, the approach I am proposing contends that indeed all of Scripture remains inspired, it simply reveals inspired truth about different subjects.  What we must distinguish is between the Divine or human subjects of revelation and not whether the things written in Scripture are fallible human statements or inerrant divinely inspired words of God through human authors.  We cannot limit ourselves to Donald Bloesch’s approving citation of the notion of a biblical “double truth” that must be held when he says, “the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and the human writers’ inspired testimony about God.” (Holy Scripture, 67)  We must instead say that the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and humanity, and the human writer’s inspired testimony about God and their fellow humans.

In a simple example of distinguishing between the two, we can clearly tell that the fool who says “There is no God” in Psalm 14:1 is an instance where a human perspective of bad theology is accurately and truthfully revealed in the biblical text, thereby evidencing that humanity is the subject of this portion of revelation.  However, when Moses says, “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” in Deuteronomy 6:4, we may be sure that it is not Moses’ human opinion that is evident, but rather an instance of an inspired truth claim regarding the Divine subject.  We trust that Scripture provides us with some tools to distinguish between a fool and a prophet of YHWH.  Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to distinguish as in these two examples!  Indeed, we must face a greater deal of the complexity in the hermeneutical enterprise this position advocates, which we will do in Part III by looking to several passages from the Psalms.

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part I

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART I:  TOWARDS A DUAL-SUBJECT APPROACH TO BIBLICAL REVELATION

Here is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance:  The Bible is filled with lies, wickedness, and bad theology.  [Pause]  Now before you begin gathering wood to burn me as a heretic, it must be said that this sentence is an accurate assertion that any signer of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” could affirm.  Of course, there is some equivocation in the phrasing:  I should say, “the Bible is filled with examples of lies, wickedness, and erroneous theology.”

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt...as the flames rose to her Roman nose.

We see lies in Scripture, accurately recounted, from the beginning until the end:  in Genesis alone we see deception in the words of the serpent in the Garden, as well as from the mouths of Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, and many more.  Examples of wickedness in Scripture include murder, brutality, rape, gang rape, incest, incestuous rape, and attempted genocide.  We may also find many examples of bad theology in the form of worship of idols (sometimes led by Israel’s leaders, such as Aaron in Ex. 32:4-5), false prophecies from those who claim to be true prophets of YHWH, and even the claim in Psalm 14:1 that “there is no God” (don’t worry, we’ll qualify this later).

The existence of these elements in the Bible is unquestionable; however, the purpose they serve in the text may sometimes perplex the thoughtful reader, particularly when one considers the classic concept of Scripture as “revelation.”  Most Christian definitions of “revelation” look similar to what we find in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:  “the term is used primarily of God’s communication to humans of divine truth, that is, his manifestation of himself or his will.”

The question then is how do examples of lies, wickedness, and bad theology serve to reveal a “manifestation” of God or his will to us?  How does the presence of these disturbing aspects in the written “Word of God” act as divine self-disclosure?  In order to answer that question, I would like to argue that the Bible actually has two subjects of its revelation:  God and humanity (see footnote 1 below).  To use an analogy, Scripture acts as a mirror and telescope:  it is a mirror that accurately depicts and evaluates the human condition; and it is also a telescope, revealing the transcendent, eternally “other” Divine Being.  And ultimately, Christ serves as the mirror in the telescope, perfectly imaging near to us the fullness of God in heaven.

How a reflecting telescope works...

While many treatises on revelation focus primarily on the Divine subject, there are some theologians who have noted the significance of the divinely inspired revelation of the human subject in Scripture.  Ben Witherington poses the idea that “maybe the Bible is meant to be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character, and how the two do and should interact.” (Living Word, 24)  Although this is more of an aside for Witherington, his comments touch upon the need for students of Scripture to reconsider what it is exactly that we see the inspired Word as revealing to us: only God’s nature, or humanity’s as well.

I believe that we need to make more of Witherington’s conjecture that the Bible is indeed “as much” about humanity as it is about God, for the simple reason that as we consider the whole of Scripture, we see that large sections, particularly in the historical works and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, focus much more on revealing humanity than divinity.  For instance, God tells Job’s friends that “they have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); does this then cast much of this book’s contents into theological suspicion?  Being that the reader has seen what caused Job’s suffering in the prologue, we know at the very least that their accusations against Job are faulty—what about their theological ideas?  Could it be that Job’s friends serve as examples of bad theology, but they speak in ways which still accurately reveal authentic human perspectives?  This example suggests that we must distinguish in Scripture between theological source material (what we can say about God) and anthropological source material (how we see human beliefs and experiences depicted).  Furthermore, we must differentiate accurate theological ideas from erroneous ones (i.e. persons may say something about God in Scripture, but it does not mean it is true), as well as between accurate or positive anthropological material (including those Biblical figures we should emulate) and false ideas about or negative examples of humanity. (Footnote 2)

[In Part II, we will explore why it is that humans would need revelation about…humans.]

Footnotes:

  1. Of course there are more subjects in Scripture, such as animal and plant life, the cosmos, angelic beings, etc. but God and humanity are clearly the primary subjects of revelation
  2. It must be said that the Bible exists as more than informational “source material;” it also “performs” God’s covenantal actions (as Kevin VanHoozer has suggested) as well as transforming us into people who are “on mission” with God to heal and redeem the whole creation (as N.T. Wright has proposed).

See PART IV for Works Cited

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]

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I: “Who in the What Now?”

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium for evangelical theological identity (closing off fresh theological reflection & revisioning of doctrines).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. A tendency to regard the “evangelical tent” as relatively smaller than the number of those who call themselves evangelicals.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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]