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!]
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]