Reformed and Always Reforming (Introduction)

raar.jpgOlson, Roger E.

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 247. Paper. $24.00.

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This is the second Roger Olson book that I’ve read and I have to be honest in saying that I really appreciate the clarity with which he writes.  Reformed and Always Reforming is Olson’s attempt at showing how one can be firmly evangelical without being confined to the boundaries of conservatism.  Although he didn’t state it as such in the introduction, I think it’s safe to say (as the title of the book does) that Olson sees his approach to theology as that which adheres most closely to the Reformation principle of semper reformanda.

Olson spends the introduction mainly defining terms and laying out his general view, to be explained in detail throughout the book.  He is adamant about this being “a book about theology and not sociology, politics, or even ethics [although they] may come into play from time to time…” [p. 7]  He says that “[t]his book attempts to do for evangelical theology what Walis, Sider, and Campolo have done for evangelical social ethics and politics.” [p. 8]

Olson rightly notes that evangelicalism is hardly monolithic, so that it is necessary to define what ‘type’ or ‘kind’ of evangelical one is.  You have your ‘conservatives,’ ‘liberals,’ ‘moderates,’ ‘postconservative,’ and ‘postliberals.’  One of my major pet peeves with the title ‘evangelical’ is that it’s so fluid a term that it can apply to basically anyone and mean almost anything.  But Olson’s delineations are helpful in identifying different types of evangelicals and one would hope that they’d catch on so as to save us all a lot of headache when talking about evangelicalism.

Now onto definitions.  The two main camps (or more properly, ways of doing theology) that Olson treats are ‘postconservatism’ and ‘conservatism.’  He defines them as such:

Postconservatism is an attempt to move beyond the limitations of conservative theology without rejecting everything about it. […] [Postconservative theologians] are willing to subject any doctrine or practice of the churches and of Christians to new scrutiny in light of God’s Word. They do not pay lip service to the Reformation concept of sola scriptura or prima scriptura (Scripture as the supreme source and norm for faith and practice); they are determined to follow it by being open to new ways of thinking about anything insofar as fresh and faithful interpretation of Scripture demands it. [p. 16-17]

Conservative evangelical theology, then, is a style of doing theology that relies heavily on authoritative tradition and rejects or consciously neglects the critical and constructive tasks theology except insofar as “critical” means rejecting new formulations and revisioning beliefs. [p. 19]

Conservatives come in two types.  The first are the ‘biblicist evangelicals’ of whom he says:

Very often, if not usually, they appeal to something like a “received evangelical tradition” of hermeneutics and doctrine to fend off new interpretations and formulations and to consolidate agreement about a fairly detailed list of core doctrines. For them, correct doctrine is the essence of Christianity and evangelical faith. [p. 20]

The second are ‘traditionalists’ who:

[I]dentify an ancient, ecumenical doctrinal concensus–or such a concensus plus the teachings of the magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, et al.)–as a source and norm alongside of Scripture, even if subordinate to Scripture for establishing and defending evangelical doctrine. [p. 21]

He notes that the difference between the two kinds of conservatism is that the second isn’t reliant on “‘received evangelical tradition’ or ‘established evangelical doctrine’ but  the “consensus of early church fathers including ancient ecumenical creeds.” [p. 21-22]  Some also include the Reformers and Reformation creeds where they agree with each other.

To be honest, I find this second type of conservatism to be better than the first in that it is firmly rooted in the testimony of the Church throughout history.  I also find it a better alternative to Olson’s ‘postconservatism’ because he even acknowledges that “postconservative theology [is] a ‘fuzzy’ category defined by a gravitational center without definite boundaries [and] it may be the case that no single individual is completely or perfectly postsonservative.” [p. 16]  Such admissions do not inspire confidence, at least in me.

I also take issue with some of Olson’s descriptions, for example:

[P]ostconservatives tend to regard the essence of authentic Christianity and evangelical faith as transforming experience and a distinctive spirituality (e.g., a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that results in ammendment of life toward holiness) rather than correct doctrine. [p. 28]

But certainly this isn’t something that is unique to postconservatives.  Minus the inidivualistic soundingness of Olson’s “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” (what kind of relationship with a person is not personal?) this has long been the testimony of the Church (see e.g., 1Clement 21.1-9).  And although I’m sure this wasn’t his intention, it makes it sound as if correct doctrine is unimportant, or at the very least less important than a life towards holiness.  But one wonders how we are expected to live such a life without correct doctrine?  Yes, the Holy Spirit lives in us and guides us, but how do we discern when it is the Spirit of God or some other spirit attempting to lead us?

I also find this problematic:

But there are some evangelical theologians whose works reveal a trend away from fundmantalism and traditionalism and toward a desire to make the Word of God fresh in a creative and constructive encounter with culture. They tend to think that the constructive task of theology is always unfinished, and that the call of the theologian is the rethink traditional concepts in every generation and culture. They are not relativists, but they eschew an absolutism that enshrines human formulations of belief in incorrigible terms as if theology were a museum. They tend to be open to postmodernity and work with a nonfoundational approach to theology; they are less concerned with rational certainty than with the blessed assurance wrought by the inner testimony of the Spirit of God. [p. 28]

Well and good, but this leaves the door wide open for every sub-Christian cult to claim the label ‘postconservative evangelical.’  Anyone who has ever spoken with a Mormon knows that they rely heavily on the “inner testimony of the Spirit of God” even if that testimony is contrary to God’s revelation in Scripture.  And what of presuppositionalist Christians?  They can hardly be charged with being concerned with “rational certainty” yet I doubt that many (if any at all) would fit into the ‘postconservative’ camp.  I’m also not sure how to approach the topic of a “nonfoundational approach to theology.”  For starters, what does this even mean?

With these criticisms in mind, I’m looking forward to seeing how Olson fleshes out the rest of his argument throughout this book.  I doubt that by the end of it I’ll be willing to call myself a ‘postconservative,’ but I’m at least looking forward to the attempted destruction of some conservative evangelical idols.


7 thoughts on “Reformed and Always Reforming (Introduction)

  1. Hi Nick,

    I hope when you’ve finished reading, you’ll come back to the way you’ve characterized Olson’s argument here. Particularly in the light of seeing him flesh out the details for the centre-based or gravitational model vs the boundary-drawing and “who’s in and who’s out” model; esp. with regards to the importance of doctrine and its function.

    PS I wish someone would send me free books!

  2. If Olson wants us to be more generous with the category “evangelical” (which I’m not against), then why does the title of his book imply that all evangelicals are “Reformed”?

    I never know whether to say that I’m an evangelical or not. It depends on how it’s defined in any given context. But it’s the times that “evangelical” is defined as a logical extension of the Reformed movement that make me want to disown that label.

  3. John, I see your point – I don’t like the association with being Reformed mostly because of it’s association with Calvinism.

    It seems no body really likes labels, but they are there and I suppose we have to deal with them.

  4. Brian: I’d like to say that I have some postconservative-ness in me (and I probably do), but I’m with Oden in thinking that all the major stuff was dealt with and settled by the early Church. When Olson talks about new approached and fresh ideas, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that all of these supposedly new ideas are just repackaged old ones.

    Jonathan: Yes, I will. This is my starting point, so I’ll be returning to it frequently as I review each chapter. I’m with Olson on there being enough room in evangelicalism for the Greg Boyds and John Pipers of the world, and I’m not opposed to reexamining and rethinking established doctrines, but I honestly don’t think we’ll do any better than what’s already been done.

    John: Ahh… a question for the ages. I prefer to stay away from the evangelical label because as I said in the review, I find it a basically meaningless term. I’m good with ‘Trinitarian,’ ‘Pentecostal,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Believer,’ etc. But to be quite honest with you, had the Reformation never happened, I don’t think I’d be any worse for the wear. I much more concerned with the fathers than with the reformers.

    Robert: Yeah, Calvinism has basically hijacked the term. I don’t so much mind labels as long as they are helpful. I think Olson’s delineations are helpful in distinguishing the types of evangelicals that are out there, but man, what a pain in the butt it would be to actually use all of those all the time in conversation!

  5. Nice far :)

    I was wondering whether I was a postconservative, but as I’m just now reading this book I tend to think I’m pretty conservative. I mostly agree with those Olson calls conservative all though I often seem to be less certain.

  6. kisanri: Thanks. Reading Olson’s book made me even more aware of how conservative I was. I think I would have always identified with the group, but Olson’s descriptions left me a lot less sympathetic to his cause.

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