I am currently reading Roger E. Olson’s ‘Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.’(1) It is an excellent book, tying together the various postconservatives evangelical theologians and showing how they differ from conservative evangelicals. Having grown up in a Pentecostal evangelical church I was always aware that there was a certain uneasy alliance between the dominant Calvinism and “fringe” groups like Pentecostals and other Arminian denominations. The tension between the majority evangelicals and minority voices within it have been at odds for a long time. Which brings me to Olson’s book.
Olson identifies a number of beliefs that postconservatives find problematic with the conservative wing of evangelicalism. They find the basic epistemology of conservatism lacking, that is, the reliance on inerrant original documents and the reduction of revelation to propositional truths, tending “to place too much emphasis and value on facts; authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information. That is, conservative evangelicals, in varying degrees and with some exceptions, underscore and highlight the ‘propositional’ nature of revelation and the ‘cognitive’ aspects of Christian discipleship. When attempting to determine whether a person or group is Christian, they often turn to examination of doctrinal beliefs.”(2)
While many conservatives such as Millard Erickson agree that the gospel message must be contemporized to meet new generations, the general consensus among them is that any new understanding of what are viewed as ‘timeless biblical truths’ leads to pluralism and relativism.(3) For D. A. Carson his major problem with the budding Emerging Church movement is that he sees it as placing ‘experience’ above biblical revelation: “Truth itself, ‘rightly understood,’ may correct experience, but not the other way around.”(4) Typical, however, of conservatives, the “truth” of biblical doctrine is as traditionally interpreted by conservatives. By ‘experience’ conservatives are basically talking about a distrust of claims of personal ‘relationships to Christ,’ especially if they don’t line up with traditional truth claims. This is one reason the work of the Holy Spirit seems to take a back seat to the propositional nature of Scripture amongst hardline conservatives.
One characteristic of conservatives listed by Olson stuck out recently for me as being especially true of conservatives: that of ‘fence building.’ As I have briefly shown above, biblical ‘truths,’ as defined by conservatives, becomes the yardstick for determining authentic Christianity. Where did the interpretation and codification of these truths come from?, the fundamentalism of the Old Princeton School of Theology. Contemporary conservatives still appeal to the Enlightenment epistemology of foundational truth claims. Without getting into the problems of both modernism, which conservatives are influenced by, and postmodernism, which postconservatives are influenced by, I find that the inevitable result of attempting to build a universal system of absolute truths is that the creators of such a system become too attached to their system, in a sense becoming prisoners to their own status quo. Once a ‘truth’ is declared ‘absolute,’ questioning of it becomes heresy. Walls go up to delineate Orthodoxy, to keep the faithful in and the unfaithful out.
Besides keeping people out, a lack of humility and understanding of our human limitations, as well as a loathing to question assumed universal truths creates a situation where reform becomes very difficult. As Olson puts it in ‘Reformed and Always Reforming:’ “The essence of conservatism in theology is a determined—if often implicit and unacknowledged—adherence to tradition. It is the establishment of a magisterium, whether formal or informal, that exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology. Very few evangelical theologians admit that they recognize or follow such a magisterium and most deny it. But their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine by appeal to what has always been believed by Christians generally or by what evangelicals have traditionally believed.”(5)
This was made very clear recently when Eugene Peterson, in an interview, initially supported Gay marriage.(6) As a result of the subsequent firestorm and the threat of his ‘The Message Bible’ and devotional books being pulled from Christian bookstore shelves, he recanted his statement.(7) This seems to be the all-to-common conservative reaction to any attempt to reassess conservative understandings of church teaching; panic mode sets in, the wagons are drawn in a circle and the offending party is essentially burned at the stake. Lifetime friends sever relations, speaking engagements and book deals cancelled and teaching positions ended. As the Christian ethicist David Gushee recently remarked: “Eugene Peterson discovered painfully that the evangelical establishment will immediately seek to destroy anyone who breaks with their understanding of orthodoxy on LGBTQ issues. Nothing he did before mattered. Nothing else he believes mattered. The guns were turned on him, posthaste, in a choreography of rejection as public and painful as possible. This has happened so many times before that the real wonder of events last week was that Rev. Peterson somehow did not anticipate that it would happen to him.”(8)
This conservative knee-jerk reaction is not a sign of a healthy church. It stifles what Derek Flood calls ‘faithful questioning’ of Scripture.(9) Olson, in rebutting the 1989 Evangelical Affirmations conference that attempted to establish adherence to a basic doctrinal structure, says: “This way of identifying who is an evangelical theologian and what justifies calling a theology evangelical is problematic in that it closes the door to reform of the doctrinal structure and adds an extrabiblical content to the canon of divine revelation…How is continuing reform of evangelical faith and life possible if being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content? That is, if being evangelical necessarily includes being orthodox, how can orthodoxy itself be reformed by evangelicals?”(10)
Olson and other postconservative evangelicals have not given up hopes of having meaningful dialogue with conservatives over their differences, but like David Gushee, I have my doubts. Partly because postconservatives are, in large, barely distinguishable from progressive Christians, who are viewed as ‘liberals’ by most conservatives. Although being labeled a ‘fundamentalist’ is a badge few conservatives would apply to themselves, the theology espoused is virtually the same.
2. Roger E. Olson, ‘Reformed and Always Reforming,’ p. 67.
3. Ibid., pp. 70-71.
4. D. A. Carson, ‘Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,’ p. 219.
5. Olson, p. 17.
10. Olson, p. 39.