Olson, Roger E.
Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 247. Paper. $24.00.
Olson continues with his treatment of conservatism and postconservatism by unpacking his definitions a little more in this chapter. He begins by proposing what he considers “two controversial theses” [p. 38]”
Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian
An evangelical theologian is someone who claims to be evangelical, is generally regarded as working within the evangelical network, and adheres to David Bebbington’s four cardinal features of evangelical faith plus one.
Those four features plus one are [p. 42-43]:
The normative value of Scripture in the Christian life
The necessity of conversion (whether or not dramatic or even remembered)
The cruciality of the atoning work of Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity
The imperative of evangelism, of proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation to a lost and hurting world
Deference to traditional, basic Christian orthodoxy within a higher commitment to the authority of God’s Word in Scripture as the norming norm of all Christian faith and practice.
Olson criticizes conservative theologians as not being able to continue reforming evangelical faith by asking how such a task is possible if they believe that “being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content?” [p. 39] He also summarized the conservative evangelical belief of what it means to be evangelical by saying that it “ought to be a concept heavily invested with cognitive content; Christian orthodoxy ought to be part of its very definition and that orthodoxy should be fairly detailed.” [p. 41] To summarize Olson’s argument in Pentecostal talk: conservatives are all head and no heart (although admittedly he doesn’t take it quite this far).
Olson traces evangelicalism back to European Pietism which “tended to be inwardly focused in its experientialism [with an] outlook on salvation heavily influenced by synergism” [p. 47] and British Puritanism which “tended to be more publicly focused and its outlook on salvation was definitely Reformed or Calvinistic.” [p. 47-48] Because of these roots Olson describes evangelicalism as being “full of tension” and “an unstable compound.” [p. 48] To state things once again with Pentecostal speech: Puritanism is concerned with the head and Pietism is concerned with the heart, but Olson acknowledges that they have to some degree or another influenced each other.
The postconservative style of theology is largely influenced by Pietism while conservatism is largely influenced by Puritanism. It’s not that each doesn’t have elements of the other, but they’re largely differentiated by their distinct emphases. Olson says that “postconservatives, like conservatives, presuppose revelation, but they consider its main purpose to be transformation rather than information [noting that] this emphasis colors everything else.” [p. 53] He continues saying that:
[P]ostconservatives worry that conservative theology is too caught up in the idea of cognitive Christianity to the neglect of Christianity as a personally transforming and personally involving relationship, rooted in revelation as God’s self-giving by means of a complex of dramatic actions, including but not limited to communication of truths. [p. 54-55]
Olson then describes a second characteristic of postconservative theology saying that it “is a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and a conquest.” [p. 55] For postconservatives “the constructive task of theology is always open; there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology.” [p. 55] Later on he quotes Clark Pinnock to the effect of asking why conservatives think there is no room for improvement on man-made doctrinal paradigms. He goes on to discuss the irony of conservative theologians decrying the Enlightenment and modernity while at the same time relying on the categories and philosophy of both. He turns to Alistair McGrath’s identification of the Old Princeton School of Reformed theology as being especially guilty of this, saying:
According to McGrath, these and other conservative evangelicals have worked with an Enlightenment-inspired philosophical method known as foundationalism that prizes rational certainty and elevates propositions and coherent systems almost to idols. [p. 58]
Olson continues saying that “[p]ostconservative evangelical theologians have raised red flags over this issue and declared that evangelical theology needs to be liberated from the Enlightenment and that some forms of postmodern thought can help in that liberation process.” [p. 58] The fear is that this foundationalism and propositionalism has elevated something as the criterion for truth that is foreign to Scripture.
The final three characteristics of postconservative theology that Olson highlights in this chapter are: (1) the postconservative view of evangelicalism itself, i.e., not seeing it as a tent in which people are either “in” or “out” but rather as having a center that individuals can be closer to or further away from [p. 59-60]; (2) spiritual experience rather than doctrinal belief as the core identity of evangelical faith [p. 61-62]; (3) lightly holding to tradition while respecting the “Great Tradition of Christian belief” [p. 63-64].
While I respect what Olson is saying with regard to experience, I’m not convinced that his criticisms of conservatism are entirely justified. Although he mentions here and there that conservatives do not completely rule out experience, I can only describe his argument as a reduction of conservatism down to a mere propositionalistic system concerned with mental ascent to doctrinal orthodoxy. Let’s take Calvinists as an example of conservative evangelicals for a moment. Olson’s argument of ‘information over transformation’ wouldn’t work because in the Calvinist framework, if a person bears no fruit of a life transforming (i.e., regenerative) experience with Christ, then they were never saved. In fact, they go so far as to teach that even if a person does bear such fruit for a time, but does not endure to the end that they were never in fact saved. Now my disagreement with this view aside, I don’t think we can say that there isn’t a focus on transformation.
The scattered references of postconservatism’s focus on “spiritual experience” over doctrine and orthodox belief grates a bit on my nerves because it undermines (in my opinion) the importance of doctrine. It’s also worth mentioning that as a Charismatic-Pentecostal I’ve been fighting such a characterization of my beliefs for the last few years. As important as these things are, there’s more to the faith than what I feel or experience. One should necessarily lead to the other. And if Scripture is to be the “norming norm” as Olson suggests, then we have to recognize the manner in which it speaks of doctrine (see e.g., 1Tim. 6:1).
I’m also uncomfortable with the charge that conservatives somehow believe that there can be no improvement upon man-made paradigms of belief. I’d say that they’re open to the possibility but would like to be shown first where the improvement could be made. I also think that the postconservative thinker needs to begin by showing that such an improvement is necessary in the first place. I have to admit that so far I’m not convinced by Olson’s arguments against conservatism, and I find postconservatism less attractive as I read on.