1. The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology

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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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]”

  1. Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian
  2. 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]:

  1. The normative value of Scripture in the Christian life
  2. The necessity of conversion (whether or not dramatic or even remembered)
  3. The cruciality of the atoning work of Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity
  4. The imperative of evangelism, of proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation to a lost and hurting world
  5. 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.


32 thoughts on “1. The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology

  1. Nick,

    Hey man. I like your blog. I think we’ve bumped into each other in the blogosphere before.

    If I link you on my blog, can I link you under Arminian Blogs & Resources, or should I put you under Other Blogs?


  2. Billy: Thanks. Yeah, we’ve bumped into each other on Ben’s blog, and I think once or twice over here as well. I’m an Arminian through and through so you can put me on that list if you choose to link to my blog.

  3. There are some big problems with what Olson says.

    First, his claim that “postconservatives . . . presuppose revelation, but they consider its main purpose to be transformation rather than information” is Barthian (and, as such, is a far cry from what Scripture says). I’m praying for the day when readers of the Bible will see that revelation is *not* a soteriological, ethical, or halakhic category, and that it is *not* the organizing principle for Christian theology in any way, shape, or form. (If Olson wants to decry “idols” that have crept into evangelical theology, how about the idol of “Karl Barth”?)

    Olson approvingly quotes McGrath’s claim that “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”. I also tire of this old line. There are different types of “foundationalism”, which should basically be divided along the lines of the difference between “knowledge” and “truth”. The only one that is truly problematic is the type of foundationalism based on knowledge, because epistemology can never escape the hermeneutical circle. Foundationalism based on truth, on the other hand, is *not* a problem–and it is *based on, and comprised of, propositions*. Folks, the theology of the New Testament is *propositional* through and through!!! (Could anything be more obvious? Why can’t people see that?)

    I wonder if Reformed types have more difficulty seeing the difference between foundationalisms of knowing and foundationalisms of truth, because they have inherited a doctrine of Scripture (from both Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy) which combines the realms of truth and knowing in a rather confusing way. For traditional Reformed theology, it’s almost like Scripture wouldn’t really be “Scripture” if it didn’t come with an apparatus for understanding it properly (which, for the Reformed, is the Holy Spirit).

  4. John:

    Folks, the theology of the New Testament is *propositional* through and through!!!

    I agree completely! In fact this was one of my criticisms, I don’t know how I forgot to work it into the review. “Jesus is Lord,” “Christ is risen,” “There is one God the Father,” “God is love,” etc… — what are these if not propositional truths?

    I have some other problems with Olson’s position but they’ll probably have to wait until the conclusion of the review.

  5. Nick, good review, and great observations. I also finished this chapter the other day.

    But I had to stop reading because I could not find my highlighters. I need them to mark certain topics, headings, and things that I agree/disagree, etc. Without them I am lost, and I don’t have the mental capacity to remember the location/chapter of what caught my interest and why. Thank God I found them!

    Oh the consequences of the drugs I did when I was young ;-)

    I’ll be reading more in the next couple of weeks while I am off on vacation and hope to be a bit more engaging.

  6. Robert: Thanks. I know what you mean about the highlighters. If you can see my copy it’s all marked up with pink highlights. I’d never be able to get a review done without them.

    Oh, and are you sure that the lack of mental capacity has to do with the drug use of your past and not the old age of your present? ;)

  7. Nick – hahahaha – well there is that too.

    The other day I was driving with my son and wife, and I lifted up my hand to say something, and paused for about 15 seconds. My son who is tack sharp right away said “Mom look, Dad froze, he needs to get rebooted!” It was so funny.

    Then I also blurted out a statement out of the blue “I didn’t eat nothing last Sunday” Again in the car, my son and wife just started laughing. I was thinking about it, and then just blurted it out without any context what so ever.

    So yes, it is very possible that old age is catching up with me. Which will be great, I plan to have a lots of fun with it.

  8. John, if you hold to a “foundationalism of truth”, on what grounds do you know that your foundation is actually truth? Without that certainty your foundation is sitting on shifting sand. See my post on this subject.

    Nick and John, while “the theology of the New Testament” in the sense of a theological system built on the NT may be “*propositional* through and through”, this is certainly not true of the actual NT text. Yes, parts of it are propositional, such as the propositions Nick quotes. But the four gospels, Acts and Revelation contain rather little propositional material. Even Jesus’ teaching is rarely propositional, although more so as presented by John, but much more in terms of narrative e.g. parables. There is of course a lot of propositional content in the epistles, but even they are hardly “*propositional* through and through” as there is a lot of other material in them, especially hortatory.

    And of course the Old Testament, which is also commonly mined for propositions, is even less propositional. A particularly horrendous example is when David’s poetic prayer of confession in Psalm 51 is turned into a set of propositions about original sin etc.

    The problem is that both of you have learned, presumably from more or less fundamentalist teachers, to read the whole Bible as if it is a collection of propositions. Go back and read the Bible as it was intended to be, basically a collection of stories and poems with a little bit of propositional teaching added on almost at the end.

  9. Peter,

    You ask, “if you hold to a ‘foundationalism of truth’, on what grounds do you know that your foundation is actually truth?”

    The answer is: I don’t know, in any absolute empirical way. But that’s the whole point! We are not called to “know” the gospel in that sense before we believe it. Rather, we are called to accept the testimony of the apostles that the gospel is true. It’s about faith–not about knowing. (The whole thing about “certainty” is another Reformed hang-up.)

    But the truth structure of that gospel is propositional. In other words, to say that the gospel is true is to say that the Christ event was a matter of spacetime actuality. It is true, in that way, without anyone *knowing* it. Actually knowing about it belongs to a whole different order.

    When you object that most of the Bible is not propositional, you are speaking in terms of the style of its expression. But when I say “propositional”, I mean the structure of the underlying alethiology (= theory of truth). In other words, the truth aspect of a given passage is a matter of its correspondence to the real world. Thus the narratives of the Bible are just as propositional (alethiologically speaking) as Paul’s letters. (None of this is meant to imply an inerrantist or infallibilist view. Whether the propositional aspect of Scripture is 100% true is another question altogether.)

    In that sense, Psalm 51 is just as propositional as any other part of Scripture. (Perhaps you are confusing “propositional” with “prescriptive”.)

    I don’t have time right now to get into every aspect of narrative theology’s attempt to sideline or marginalize the propositional aspect of Christian theology, but the problems are many, and they all run very deep. Narrative theology is a very serious threat to Christian theology, as serious as any brand of Gnosticism.

    And, no, it isn’t that I’ve learned to read the Bible as a collection of propositions. It’s that I’ve learned to read it according to what the authors intended–which is the only sensible way to read it–and it’s plain that the authors intended their writings to be read as alethiologically propositional writings.

  10. Robert: Ha! That’s great! I’ll get there in a few years I guess.

    Peter: I agree with John that your objection seems to be one against form rather than substance. I never intended to say that there were only propositional statements in the NT, but I stand firm in claiming that the Gospel (and NT theology) itself is propositional, and I agree with John that propositional truth underlies the narrative.

    I’d argue that these propositions (i.e., Jesus is Lord, Christ is risen) are the foundation of the experience that Olson holds in such high esteem. Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Paul’s proclamation in 1Cor. 15, etc. are full of propositional statements that stand as the very foundation of the faith.

    I also find it very telling that some of the earliest creeds/hymns/confessions of Christianity are propositional, e.g., Romans 10:9-10; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 1Timothy 3:16; and *possibly* John’s prologue (1:1-18 ).

    John: I hope that when you do find some extra time you’ll be able to delineate some of the problems with narrative theology. Perhaps I could even convince you to write a guest post.

  11. John, I agree that there is a need for faith as the foundation of one’s theological epistemology. But for me that faith has to be in God and not in any created thing, even the Bible. Having faith in the Bible or the Gospel message, in itself apart from God, is idolatry. The basis of my epistemology, as explained in my post, is not the inerrancy of Bible but God and my ongoing relationship with him.

    John and Nick, I am confused because I think the two of you are talking across one another. Nick, I agree that there are significant parts of the NT like the ones you list which consist of specific propositions of theological significance, but I would hold that together they make up a minority of the Bible, probably even a minority of the NT. As for the rest of the Bible, certainly narrative consists of propositions with truth value e.g. the statement that Abraham went from Haran to Canaan, but these historical propositions do not have immediate theological significance. Hortatory discourse, prayer, and much poetry does not have truth value in the same sense but can also be reduced to a set of linked clauses sometimes known as propositions. But all this takes us a very long way from where we started, with Nick’s small set of theologically significant statements about God. These are indeed important for theology but they are not the whole of it. We can go further only by going beyond the propositional truth e.g. about Abraham’s journey to the significance of it which comes out of the whole narrative.

  12. Peter: I think we got side-tracked with the shift from ‘theology’ to the ‘bible.’ We all affirm that the Bible is not made up entirely of propositional statements. My point (and I think John’s as well) is that propositional truth stands behind the narrative.

    But back to my problem with Olson’s seeming denigration of propositional truth statements and elevation of experience; I have a problem with this because it effectively says that one experience is as valid as the next. While Olson tires of conservatism’s insistence on talking about who’s “in” and who’s “out” it is necessary to do so (if not in evangelicalism then at least in Christianity). We have to have something with which to say that the Mormon or Muslim experience is not the Christian experience, and if that something is not propositional truth, then what is it?

  13. What do y’all mean by propositional truth? I see it thrown around quite a bit but I’m not sure how everyone defines it.


  14. Bryan: Basically a proposition is nothing more than a statement or assertion. Since I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, I define truth as that which corresponds to the way things actually are. So ‘propositional truth’ in my usage is a simple statement that something comports with reality.

  15. Bryan: Sure. I’ll give you two from the Bible. In Acts 2:32 Peter says: “This Jesus God has raised up…” That’s a proposition. He then appeals to their being ‘witnesses’ of the risen Christ in support of this proposition, as if to say, “look, we’ve seen it so we know it corresponds to the way things actually are.” Paul’s proclamation in 1Cor. 15 is pretty much the same. The proposition is that Christ died, was buried, and rose, then the supporting appeal is made to his appearing to the apostles, James, and 500 brethren at once.

  16. Can I ask doesn`t the propositional view that you suggest is slightly eisegiestic in reading the Nt we are reading narratives from which propositions may be formed rather than the other way round. N.T. Wright in his work suggests that it is better to come to an understanding of a world-view of the Second Temple Israelite beliefs out of which Christianity and Judaism formed than to see propositions. It is difficult from our Modernistic world-view to access these world-views but that is part of Biblical Study. The Modern world-view sees propositions as the starting point whereas in the 1 C.E. narrative and an understanding God redeeming the world through that world-view was more dominant. To pursue this further a good text is Kevin Vanhoozer`s `I there a meaning in this text`.

  17. Andrew: I don’t think it’s eisegetical at all. Even with what Wright proposes, he has to start somewhere. Whether we start with Yahweh as creator or Yahweh as Israel’s redeemer, we begin with a proposition. I believe that the only reason we can draw propositions from the narrative is because they stand beneath it.

    The foundation of Israel’s faith was “I am Yahweh your God who rescued you from the land of Egypt… I am Yahweh, beside me there is no god…” This is propositional. The foundation of the Christian faith is “Christ is risen; Jesus is Lord.” Again, propositional. The Gospel presentation specifically and NT preaching in general is propositional.

    I find the claim that propositionalism is somehow a result of modernism or the Enlightenment (Olson’s position) to be unconvincing. So I’m going to have to disagree with Wright on this one, and since Olson (who I disagree with) includes Vanhoozer in his camp of postconservatism and quotes him approvingly throughout the book, I’m going to have to disagree with him as well.

  18. Nick, you are going to have to disagree with me as well on this one (not that I put myself on the same level as Wright and Vanhoozer). You wrote:

    We have to have something with which to say that the Mormon or Muslim experience is not the Christian experience, and if that something is not propositional truth, then what is it?

    I agree that we have to have something, but for me that something is not the propositional truth which I affirm but the Mormon or Muslim does not, but the genuine relationship with the true God which I have through Jesus Christ but the others do not have. Or perhaps they do have it, in which case I would suggest tentatively that they are saved through Christ despite the false propositions which they might assent to.

  19. Peter,

    You say that we should have faith in God rather than in the Bible. While that sounds right (Who shouldn’t have faith in God?), the fact is that the apostles were entrusted with the message of the Christ event, and we are called to believe it. (If you’re worried that we’re then putting faith in *someone* other than God, I would say that you need to differentiate between faith in *someone* and faith in *a particular message*. Indeed, the apostolic kerygma ultimately comes from God, in that God allowed them to be eyewitnesses of the Christ event.)

    I would also say that Nick is 100% correct to challenge all these easily flung around charges that propositionalism is an “Enlightenment” thing, and that applying propositionalism to a pre-Enlightenment writing is anachronistic. Let me say one very programmatic thing: 99% of what you hear about the Enlightenment vis-a-vis how things were before the Enlightenment is pure crap. If you don’t believe me, then the next time you read that the Enlightenment invented something (say, the notion of authorial intention), do yourself a favor and go see whether you can find pre-Enlightenment writings that claim that hermeneutics is about recovering the author’s intention (or whatever else is claimed not to have existed back then). You’ll be surprised: authorial intention and other supposed Enlightenment notions are all over the place in pre-Enlightenment writings.

    The problem is that those who make these overarching claims about the Enlightenment’s inventiveness simply assume that if the Enlightenment made a big deal out of something, then that something didn’t exist before the Enlightenment. (It’s a very uncritical form of mirror-reading.) But they never actually go check it out. (Hans Frei is the biggest offender on this score, and he unfortunately influenced an entire generation of scholars.)

  20. John, thanks for your comments.

    To be honest, I don’t really care whether pre-Enlightenment thinkers outside the Bible thought in some particular way, if Enlightenment thinkers also thought in that way and it is also not biblical. And it is characteristic of some post-Enlightenment thinkers (and maybe some earlier ones), but not biblical, to codify the Bible into a set of propositions about God.

  21. It all depends, of course, on what you mean by “set of propositions”. And I’ll admit, therefore, that there’s a sense in which you’re right–the immediate purpose of many biblical writings was not to relate a set of propositions about God *per se*, as if the God is meant as a “facts on file” about God. Yet even in the case of narrative writings, the truth structure of the implicit claims that are being made about God is propositional, by which I mean that the truth claims are not intended to be subject to the reader’s interpretation. In the philosophical sense of the word “proposition”, the entire Bible lies under that rubric.

  22. I forgot to say thanks Nick for expounding on what you mean by propositional truth and giving some examples. I’ll reserve my thoughts on that issue for later as I’ve been doing some reading on it lately and I’m trying to formulate my thoughts on the issue.

    BTW I didn’t really think you would like this book (I know you’re not finished with it but I’m not holding my breath). I don’t know why but it seems like it wouldn’t be something you would dig. However I’ve been reading Stanley Grenz’s “Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era” which is probably really similar to this book, but more descriptive and a lot less polemic, generalizing and it uses specific examples when discussing the different views in evangelicalism instead of broad characterizations when speaking about conservatives (he makes the issues a bit more nuanced and focused). I’ve been really into this book (it’s his best I’ve read so far) and think you might like it more than Olson’s. Although I realize someone would probably have to give you a copy for you to read it and I’m not about to part with mine. Still you might want to keep Grenz’s book in mind if you walk away from Olson’s book with a bad taste in your mouth.


  23. Bryan: No problem, and thanks for the book recommendation. I might give Grenz another try somehwere down the road, but his book on the Trinity was terribly boring. I might try to read some articles that he’s written before diving into another book just to see if it was a one time deal or if that’s just how he writes.

  24. Honestly I think it’s just hit or miss with Grenz. Some of his stuff is too academic or theoretical and some of it is just great and easy to get into. This is a good example of the latter. Definitely his best book I’ve read yet and one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.


  25. Bryan: Yeah, I guess it’s like that for a lot of authors. It just sucks that my introduction to Grenz had to be a miss. It put a sour taste in my mouth.

  26. Nick read N.T. Wright`s address at the Lambeth Conference it addresses much of what you discuss.

  27. Nick,

    Good review. I’m writing up a paper that critiques the contemporary Evangelical landscape, but views Olson’s position (as stated in “Reformed”) as going overboard. I’d like to cite your review.

    David Feiser

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