Postconservatism is a growing movement within the larger circle of evangelical theology which is rethinking many aspects of a more Reformed, “conservative” evangelical outlook. A survey and explanation of such a theological approach is delineated by Roger Olson in Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology. The subtitle defines the book’s purpose, which is to illustrate how the postconservative camp approaches evangelical theology. In this post I want to discuss the view of postconservative theology as described by Olson and explain its main themes, its theological methodology, and also briefly argue why evangelical theology ought not to go in such a direction.
Postconservatism’s Main Themes
Olson describes the main themes of postconservative theology mainly in contrast to the conservative (mainly Calvinist/Reformed) approach. Before the specific characteristics of postconservative theology are laid out, however, it is helpful to understand Olson’s view of evangelicalism more broadly. He sees a certain “evangelical ethos” in five primary emphases. Four of these come from Kenneth Collins’ book The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion (Baker 2005): (1) the normative value of Scripture; (2) necessity of conversion; (3) crucicentrism; (4) the imperative of evangelism. Olson himself adds: “(5) deference to traditional, basic Christian orthodoxy with a higher commitment to the authority of God’s Word in Scripture as the norming norm for all Christian faith and practice” (43). Likewise, Olson sees a tension between the Puritan stream and the Pietist stream of evangelicalism, which gave birth to, respectively, conservative evangelicalism and postconservative evangelicalism. He explains that his “thesis is that what I call postconservative evangelical theology is by and large a derivation of the Pietist side of the evangelical movement” (51).
Under this definition of evangelicalism and evangelical theology, Olson describes six distinct themes/characteristics or “family resemblances” (64) of postconservative theology.
- Postconservatives value transformation over and above information (53).
- Postconservatives tend to view the task of theology as a pilgrimage or a journey upon which to embark and not a discovery to be made (55).
- Postconservatives see in “conservative” evangelical theology a capitulation to the Enlightenment/modern notions of thought, especially the epistemological framework known as “foundationalism” (57-58).
- Postconservatives tend to see evangelicalism as a “centered set” rather than a “bounded set.” “That is, the question is not who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ but who is near the center and who is moving away from it [….] The center is Jesus Christ and the gospel, but it also includes the four or five common core commitments [of evangelicalism]” (59-60).
- Postconservatives tend to see “the enduring essence of Christianity and therefore the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than doctrinal belief” (61).
- Postconservatives tend to be much more willing than “conservatives” to reevaluate and modify the tradition of belief and to reconsidering traditional theological formulations (63).
Postconservatism’s Theological Method
The basic element of postconservative theological methodology is the functional primacy given to the Christian’s and the Christian community’s experience of God and Christ. In Reformed and Always Reforming Olson does not lay out a single model of postconservative theology or method, because that would militate against the spirit of the mood by definition. In fact, for Olson and other postconservatives “theology” as such is not the point. “Perhaps the best way of putting all this together,” he says, “is to say that apart from transforming experience (conversional piety), authentic evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present. And that where right experience (orthopathy) and right spirituality (orthopraxy) are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity and even evangelical faith may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present—provided that movement in right direction is clearly discernible” (84).
In spite of this Olson does, however, note a number of illustrations of what a postconservative theological method ends up looking like. His book is something of an illustrative polemic for postconservatism, which is why he has been described as a “publicist” for postconservatism.He outlines several theologians whom he sees as working within the postconservative milieu, and it seems that Stanley Grenz functions as something of the “norming norm” for postconservatism (though Olson would never say that). Olson summarizes Grenz’s view (and thereby, perhaps, postconservatism’s more broadly): “According to Grenz, theology is a conversation between three sources and norms: the Spirit speaking through Scripture, the theological tradition of Christianity, and the contemporary cultural context. This ‘trialogue’ is stated in virtually all of his books” (112). To understand, then, postconservatism’s main inclination in theological formulation, each of these three elements must be examined as Olson sets them forth.
It is telling that Olson puts the chapter on Scripture after the chapter on the postmodern impulse found in postconservative theology, but here it will be treated in the order Olson describes from Grenz above. Postconservative theology, Olson says, views Scripture and Revelation (not necessarily the same thing) as fundamentally a narrative over and against propositions. Postconservatives, he says, “wish to discover whether story might be an irreducible and irreplaceable mode of divine revelation. Perhaps propositions cannot express everything a story can express’ (154). Olson constantly takes conservative evangelicals to task over their view that Scripture is mainly a book of facts which can be broken down into propositional truth statements. He indicts, among several others, Paul Helm and Carl F.H. Henry on this count (159). Olson contends that “humans’ lives and especially their spiritual lives are changed by stories more than by information” (165). The postconservative stream of evangelicalism has been in dialogue and admits the influence of the postliberal school.“For narrative theology,” Olson says, “truth is disclosure of reality that transcends direct apprehension through the senses or reason and that transforms persons by absorbing them into a great epic story” (168). One major function of this is found in the willingness to reinterpret “seemingly clear statements in Scripture” in light of what is seen the broader narrative, such as open theists have done (177).
Olson explains that postconservatives have a high regard for tradition, though for them “when there is a conflict between Scripture and tradition, Scripture trumps tradition. And conflicts are not assumed to be impossible” (192). He argues that conservatives have made evangelical identity a bounded set of dogmatic beliefs in line with the “Old Princeton” school, and that such theologians are not willing to overturn such a “received evangelical tradition”. This aligns with the postconservative commitment to the essence of Christianity as an experience with doctrine being “a secondary, protective language developed to serve the experience of transformation by the Spirit of God into union with Christ’ (192).
As stated above, Olson places the chapter on postconservatism’s postmodern impulse before either of the chapters on Scripture or tradition. All three form Grenz’s foundational “trialogue”, but it is clear that the postmodern culture plays a formative role in postconservative theology. Olson sees postconservatism as influenced by the stance of “soft postmodernism” of Alisdair MacIntyre *and his disciple Michael Polanyi) “who does not deny ontological reality or objective truth but seeks to show that even reason always operates within a narrative context. In other words knowledge may be relative even if truth is not” (127). This is what is termed “postfoundationalism”, which seeks to move away from the classic foundationalism of Enlightenment epistemology.
The upshot of this is that “postmodernity has shown that there are no objectively knowable foundations; all knowledge is value- and theory-laden” (130, describing the thinking of Nancey Murphy). Clearly this influences the very fabric of postconservative theology, especially its doctrine of Scripture and Scripture’s role in theological formulation. Olson says that “even the Bible cannot function as foundation for theology in the sense that foundationalist theology desires; certainty of truth is always embedded with faith and is never a purely objective intuition” (132).
Having seen the dominant themes and methodology of postconservatism, this section will offer a critical analysis of this “mood”. There are many tacks one could take in this regard. For example, Olson consistently caricatures the position of conservative evangelicals as cold and tradition-laded knowledge-mongers. The bifurcation between information and transformation in conservative theology is largely a mirage. Perhaps there is a tendency toward an “information-only” type of faith, but no conservative he mentions would argue that transformation is unessential to true Christian faith. Another example is Olson’s complete lack of clarity on what the Gospel is. He defines the center of evangelicalism as “Jesus Christ and his gospel” (60) but he does not define the Gospel. Such a move would be conservative and categorize evangelicalism as a bounded set. It seems the closest Olson can come to explaining the Gospel is that a person has had an experience of conversion (80).
However, most unhelpful is Olson’s view of culture in postconservative theology, which in turn forges the way in which such theology understands Scripture. He continually says that Scripture drives postconservative theology, but he also denies that it can serve as an indubitable foundation. This flows from the postconservative acquiescence to postmodern paradigms, which was itself an outflow of the post-Kantian world. Consider this statement: “Truth can be ‘out there’ even if our best access to it is not direct, factual information that literally corresponds with it” (164). This is nothing more than the Kantian regulative principle in action. It is ironic that Olson accuses conservatives of capitulating to Enlightenment ideals, when his position clearly works under the assumption of the post-Kantian malaise which separates “what we know” and “what actually is.”
Moreover, when Olson says agree that all knowledge is communally conditioned and that absolute knowledge is impossible (even if absolute truth exists) he undermines the authority of the Bible. But he cannot keep both his feet in this bucket, because he appeals to a non-communal absolute to justify his own position. He says that “such indubitable foundations yielding rational certainty are nowhere to be found in the postmodern world; we now know that all knowledge arises within and hangs on beliefs shaped by perspectives shared by communities created by stories and traditions” (134, emphasis added). When I first read this it surprised me, because it is so clearly refutes itself. I circled the word “know” in bold above and wrote “indubitably?” next to it in the margin. How can communally conditioned communities come to know unconditionally that all knowledge is communally conditioned? Such points are illustrative of the greater poverty of Olson’s view of postconservative theology. Overall, going Olson’s route is a bad idea for evangelical theology.