Reformed & Always Reforming: A Postconservative approach to Evangelical Theology by Roger E. Olsen

(Michigan; Baker Academic, 2007)

When I discovered a friend of mine was reading a book I wanted to read but was beyond my present capacities, I suggest he might like to be a guest reddress blogger.  Given that Mick is a redhead it seemed quite appropriate, though he’s not known for donning dresses while reading theology!  Mick is more known for being a Meteorologist and Ethicist, particularly working on climate change issues with Ethos (Zadok/EA).  Thanks for sharing Mick, this is really interesting.

Once upon a time I was a reluctant Calvinist, a confused complimentarian, thought the only model of the atonement was penal substitutionary atonement, and thought I couldn’t be an Evangelical if I varied in these beliefs. I’ve long since shifted in many of my beliefs, and unashamedly so, but had stopped describing myself as Evangelical given its connotations with conservatism. Roger Olson’s Reformed an always reforming has restored my confidence with one adjective, postconservative.

According to Olson, postconservative Evangelicalism is more of a mood than a method. It is the dissatisfaction with the marriage of Evangelicalism with modernism despite its disavowal of it, and the lingering association with Fundamentalism. Conservative Evangelicalism (broadly speaking, being wary of overgeneralisation) is the quest for certainty in the face of modernism. A brief summary would describe it as: viewing the bible as largely propositional, seeing theology as a bounded set rather than a centred set with the goal of excluding (cries of heresy) rather than including, suspicious of innovation because it often elevates tradition (be it the Fathers, Ecumenical councils, Reformers or 19th c. Princeton), intent on building an indubitable foundation (Descartes style) for systematic theology, and a suspicion of experience as forming any meaningful part of theology. One can draw from this the (slightly unfair) conclusions that conservative Evangelicals don’t need the bible other than a source of proof texts for their systematic theology texts and that their Trinity is often reduced to Father, Son and Holy Scriptures.

Olson gives me hope in the term Evangelical because he sees it as reformed and always reforming. Focusing on Biblicism, crucicism, conversionism and activism, postconservative Evangelicalism sees tradition as important but not perfect. Its critical realist epistemology realises that all readings of Scripture, our norming norm are relative and local and in constant need of reform. There are core beliefs to be sure, but nuances change over time, with each generation under or over emphasising parts of theology. Constant rebalancing is needed. This focus on the bible, core beliefs, a more narrative approach to Scripture, and the inclusion of religious experience in the formation of theology (under Scripture) separates postconservative Evangelicalism from conservative Evangelicalism and its fear of change and development. John Piper’s rejection of the New Perspective on Paul with his preference for the Reformers and his grandfather’s gospel over a return to Scripture and the use of first century sources is an example of the elevation of tradition to form a rigid system that remains unchallenged. Likewise, David Wells’ rejection of any innovation such as open theism, inclucivism or the New Perspective as the influence of postmodernism represents the conservative blindspot that it is wedded to modernism, or at least tradition. For many, the Reformation stopped in the 16th century and God forbid any movement towards Catholics (hence Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right). Postconservative Evangelicals are still Evangelical, and while sometimes sharing views with Postliberals, particularly the narrative view of Scripture and the idea of it as a drama to be played out by the church (for a brief and Evangelical articulation of this see Tom Wright’s Scripture and the authority of God), they differ from postliberals in their affirmation of the centrality of the Scriptures and their (largely) historical nature.

Olson’s book is a good review of some of the major postconservative thinkers, as well as those who are without identifying themselves as such, or sit at the boundary. He tries and (as far as I can tell) largely succeeds in his depiction of conservatives. An essential read for those thinking about reforming Evangelical theology.

2 thoughts on “Reformed & Always Reforming: A Postconservative approach to Evangelical Theology by Roger E. Olsen

  1. A timely post in the midst of the furore over Rob Bell’s, ‘Love Wins’.
    One might say that America’s two great “Mars Hill” church leaders (Bell and Driscoll) encapsulate the two poles of contemporary evangelicalism and its struggle with modernism.

    • Yes Angus I agree. And it is the struggle with modernism that is the source of my pessimism. I’m not convinced Evangelicalism has the internal social and theological frameworks within it to move past the Foundationalist frameworks of the Enlightenment. So Olsen is interesting, but forgive me if I take a step back until my sceptisim is proved unfounded!

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