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Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology

Roger E. Olson
Published by Baker Academic in 2007

J. M. W. Turner, the renowned British landscape painter of the late 18th and early 19th century, renders the powerful forces of nature in dramatic fashion, evoking an array of moods from contentment to trepidation. In a similar way, Roger Olson paints a dramatic scene from the contemporary evangelical theological landscape by attempting to articulate the constitutive elements of a postconservative evangelical theology. His thesis “is simple but controversial: it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative” (7). Much depends on how Olson unpacks terms like “evangelical,” “conservative,” “postconservative” and the like, which he acknowledges, as he sets out to define them in the introduction and elucidate them further in subsequent chapters.

Olson recognizes an emerging sociological, political, and ethical diversity within evangelicalism captured in Jim Wallis’s book, The Politics of God: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Olson, however, is interested in the evangelical theological landscape. He makes note of the diversity among evangelicals regarding secondary doctrines like church government, eschatology, worship styles, and the ordinances. Yet, most “evangelicals who think about theology assume that in theology ‘evangelical’ and ‘conservative’ are inseparably conjoined” (8). This conjunction is the chief premise upon which Olson’s entire argument hinges.

The term “evangelical,” for Olson, centers on four core commitments as defined by the evangelical historian, David Bebbington: “biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism (cross-centered piety), and activism in evangelism and social transformation” (26-7). Olson adds one other element to this core in Chapter 1: the ministerial role of traditional Christian orthodoxy where Scripture is the norming. These core convictions serve to identify a familial resemblance among all evangelicals, conservatives and postconservatives alike. Are these core convictions, though, enough to identify someone or some organization as evangelical, or are there additional tenets that must be added? The answer to this question, Olson contends, begins to reveal the differences between conservative and postconservative theology.

Conservative evangelical theology, according to Olson, consists of two broad camps—the biblicist and traditionalist—that have ten common features among them. Biblicist evangelicals believe divine revelation to be primarily propositional which, when discerned from Scripture, can be marshaled together in a reasonable and understandable form to formulate a systematic theology. Traditionalist evangelicals identify the ecumenical creeds of the early church fathers and the magisterial Reformers as a source of authority for buttressing and defending evangelical doctrine because the church has already resolved these essential doctrinal matters.

What do these two types of conservative evangelical theology have in common? Olson identifies ten common characteristics, while acknowledging that not all conservatives will exhibit each one nor in the same degree. These characteristics are crucial to Olson’s thesis as later he paints postconservative theology in contrast to them. First, orthodox doctrine is considered to be the essence of evangelical theology to which one must adhere rigidly. Second, divine revelation is considered to be primarily propositional, minimizing the personal and revelatory power of the biblical narrative. Third, some form of tradition rises to a magisterial level that often usurps biblical authority. Fourth, this traditionalism makes conservatives leery of the constructive task of theology, rejecting new or revised doctrinal formulations as suspect and detrimental to the gospel. Fifth, evangelicalism is defined in terms of boundaries so that people are either with or against them. Sixth, these restrictive doctrinal boundaries are designed to narrow the fold to prevent evangelicalism from becoming too broad and thin. Seventh, modernity and postmodernity are viewed as highly suspicious philosophical winds to be avoided. Eighth, they tend to construe doctrine as timeless principles unencumbered by historical, social, or cultural factors. Ninth, despite refutations of the sectarian and anti-intellectual aspects of fundamentalism by conservatives, they remain close to fundamentalism because of their “harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominem arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree” (25). Tenth, theology is done to prevent evangelicalism from the slippery slope of liberalism.

If these are the marks of conservative evangelical theology, what does postconservative evangelical theology look like? In Chapter 1, “The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology,” Olson cites two major principles derived from the Reformation—sola scriptura andreformata et semper reformanda. Sola scriptura is the formal principle that “stands as the final source and norm of theology so that every doctrinal formulation, however ancient, is subject to correction by Scripture” (45). The material principle, reformata et semper reformanda, continually reforms, revisions, and even reconstructs evangelical orthodoxy “in light of faithful and fresh biblical understanding” (45).

Chapter 2, “Christianity’s Essence: Transformation over Information,” finds common ground with conservatives by affirming divine revelation as the subject matter for theology that has been communicated to humanity supernaturally, apart from which God remains unknown. The difference lies, according to Olson, in the purpose of divine revelation—to transform rather than inform. This does not mean that postconservatives reject the propositional or informational aspect of divine revelation. Rather, divine revelation is more than these cognitive elements; it is for personal transformation, making doctrine subservient to experience (78).

Conservative evangelicals would agree with the critical task of theology to rid Christian theology of false gospels and to determine what is essential to the gospel (dogma) while allowing for diversity in secondary matters (doctrines) and opinions on other interesting theological discussions. Olson contends in Chapter 3, “The Word Made Fresh: Theology’s Revisioning Task,” that conservatives have difficulty, though, with the constructive or revisioning aspect of theology’s task as well as the contents of what is dogma, doctrine, or opinion. It is at this point that Olson chides conservatives regarding their traditionalism. Postconservatives, on the other hand, are open to doctrinal change in light of Holy Scripture because theology is second-order construction limited by our fallenness and finitude, which requires us to revisit what we have said to ensure its fidelity with what God has said in his Word.

Postconservatives find aspects of postmodernity helpful because of its critique of modernity, which has exposed evangelical theology’s theological dependency upon modernity. Most conservative evangelicals would agree. Yet, as Olson asserts in Chapter 4, “The Postmodern Impulse in Postconservative Evangelical Theology,” they fail to excise modern tendencies like epistemological foundationalism, which esteems rational certainty, propositions, and coherent systems, from their ranks because of their strict adherence to traditionalism. Although there is no unified epistemology, postconservatives seek to find an alternative approach—a postfoundationalist approach—where “absolute certainty must be replaced with the proper confidence of faith” in the story of the Gospel as the “best account of reality” apart from some neutral, universal, objective criterion (136). In doing so, absolute truth is “what God knows. Our access to it is limited by our finitude and fallenness,” requiring a humble and critical-realist spirit that remains open to reproof by the Holy Spirit speaking through Holy Scripture (137).

Postconservative theology’s rejection of epistemological foundationalism leads many of them to affirm narrative theology as Olson describes in Chapter 5, “Postconservative Revelation: Narrative before Propositions.” By emphasizing narrative as a bearer of truth, postconservatives believe theology can have both information and transformation through the “disclosure of a reality that transcends direct apprehension through the senses or reason and that transforms persons by absorbing them into a great epic story” (168). Evangelical theology becomes more biblically and contextually relevant as it shifts its emphasis from the communication of information to participation in God’s dramatic and transforming action.

Both conservatives and postconservatives value Christian tradition. What role, though, does it play in theology? In Chapter 6, “Tradition and Orthodoxy in Postconservative Evangelical Theology,” Olson contends that conservatives understand tradition to be settled, evangelical orthodoxy “impervious to challenge and change” (188). This view establishes set boundaries to prevent theological drift, setting, perhaps unintentionally, tradition in a magisterial role that extinguishes theological creativity and innovation. Postconservative theology, though, aims “at an orthodoxy that is critical, generous, progressive, and dispositional” and receives tradition with respect, seeking to further the current understanding of orthodoxy without elevating tradition to a magisterial level or dismissing it as irrelevant (193).

Olson uses, in the final chapter, “New Horizons in Evangelical Thinking about God,” a contemporary example of theological tension among evangelicals (for instance, the doctrine of God) to illustrate the characteristics of his understanding of postconservative theology. In doing so, he highlights various contemporary trends in evangelical theology like open theism, Miroslav Volf’s embracing God, and Stanley Grenz’s social God. Not only does Olson attempt to explain why postconservatives are revising the doctrine of God, but he also cites the vehement resistance by conservatives to such revisions, serving to make his case for what characterizes conservative and postconservative theology.

Olson attempts a daunting task by offering a depiction of an emerging dynamic trend, postconservative evangelical theology. Because of the provocative nature of his thesis, his definitions, depictions, and assessments will be contested by both conservative and postconservatives alike. His portrait of the evangelical theological landscape aptly reflects several contemporary issues facing American evangelicals like postmodernity, the authority of tradition, and the nature of Scripture. How evangelicals respond to these concerns will chart the course for evangelicalism well into the 21st century. He is right to keep these issues in the fore of the evangelical mind. Olson’s understanding of theology as second-order discourse is also important as we attempt by the power of the Spirit to articulate the judgments of Scripture faithfully, using Christian tradition ministerially to guide interpretation.

Olson’s most important contribution is his sense in which these discussions should take place, with a humble spirit that acknowledges our fallenness and finitude. Such charity in the midst of criticism demonstrates the efficacy of the evangelion that evangelicals profess and desire to take to the world, which should be characteristic of all evangelicals.

Taking Olson on his own terms reveals a false dilemma, though, between his descriptions of conservative and postconservative theology. Conservative “denotes firm adherence to tradition and unwillingness to consider new theological ideas even in the light of fresh and faithful interpretation of Scripture,” thus “being conservative is contrary to the spirit of evangelical faith, which elevates the Bible above tradition” (17). Examining his definition closely reveals several inconsistencies.

First, do postconservatives not adhere firmly to tradition? In fact, the aforementioned formal and material principles of postconservative theology are rooted in the Reformation tradition as Olson rightly observes (17, 39). So are postconservatives willing to revise these traditions? Probably so, but Olson’s variety of postconservative theology would lose its “soul.”

Second, if it is a matter of “willingness,” it seems that conservatives are willing to alter tradition. Olson mentions John Feinberg’s recent work, No One Like Him, as an example, dismissing Feinberg’s revisions, though, as minimal and still regurgitating orthodoxy. So what constitutes change? How much does one have to change a doctrine in order for it to be considered “real” change? Furthermore, Don Carson is willing as Olson notes, yet he dismisses Carson’s willingness because he continues in the line of orthodoxy (44). To say, then, that conservatives have not changed or will not change is not accurate. What seems to be the issue is one’s threshold for change. Olson and others like Clark Pinnock, John Franke, and Stanley Grenz perhaps have a lower threshold while those like Carson, Millard Erickson, and Thomas Oden have a higher one. Exploring these lines would have proved more fruitful than the either/or Olson poses.

Third, Olson’s concept of change seems to follow modern notions of human epistemological advancement. “Real” change, for Olson, seems to be change in kind rather than change in degree or in presentation. Olson would probably place Feinberg and Erickson in the latter two categories, saying that Feinberg’s changes are in degree (211-12) and Erickson’s are in presentation (44, 70). The changes made by Pinnock, Grenz, and Franke are in kind because of the uniqueness of their proposals due to the “new light” that God is breaking forth from the Scriptures. This “fresh” new light, though, presumes a status of epistemic privilege because of progress in human knowing, which often demurs previous interpretations as arcane(191). Thus, our theology will continue to improve as new light breaks forth from the Scriptures. Such assumptions follow modern notions of human progress common at the turn of the 20th century, which Olson wants to reject. To be sure, tradition misinterprets the judgments of Scripture and is in need of reform, but it also interprets it correctly at times. Theology needs humility and wisdom to know the difference, staying faithful to the gospel handed down to us (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

The final reason for Olson’s false dilemma resides in an off-hand comment regarding Kevin Vanhoozer and the apparent lack of criticism he receives from conservatives (121). Olson identifies correctly several aspects of Vanhoozer’s theology that resonate with his understanding of postconservative theology: revelation as more than propositional that seeks to transform rather than merely inform, evangelicalism’s indebtedness to modernity regarding theological method and notions of language, and theology as second order discourse that needs scrutiny in light of Scripture because of our fallenness and finitude. One of the key differences, though, that distinguishes Vanhoozer from the type of postconservative theology Olson describes is his dramatic metaphor, which is a substantively different alternative to Olson’s either/or alternatives (See Kevin Vanhoozer ’s Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology). For example, the dramatic understanding of revelation calls for “fittingness” of doctrine to the Script rather than within a web of beliefs, giving primacy to God’s voice in Scripture rather than subsuming it among the polyphony of voices within the web of beliefs (152). Moreover, the performative element of the dramatic metaphor is more than informative discourse and more than descriptive discourse (read here narrative theology). All biblical genres, not merely propositions or narratives, communicate the way things really are. In doing so, the participant needs both information and description in order to act fittingly within God’s drama of redemption. Where information and description require no action, performance is a must within Vanhoozer ’s dramatic metaphor. These differences may be “structurally the same” as Olson’s postconservative theology, but the substance of the dramatic metaphor reveals an entirely different alternative to Olson’s depiction of contemporary conservatives and postconservatives, thereby exposing Olson’s false dilemma (178).

Olson’s book gives shape to the contemporary evangelical scene in the United States and the challenges they face. It is best read alongside works like Stanley Grenz’s Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era and Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, edited by Millard Erickson, et al. that provide context and perspective to Olson’s analysis. Taken on its own, Olson’s work provides a “fuzzy” sketch for those who are interested in understanding postconservative evangelical theology broadly, citing primary works, he considers, that express the “mood” of postconservative theology (16).

Cite this article
Stephen M. Garrett, “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 169-173

Stephen M. Garrett

Stephen M. Garrett earned a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.