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]