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]