Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Conversing with Postconservatives

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Conversing with Postconservatives

Over the course of the next few weeks I will be dialoguing with a book that deals with postconservativism. Roger E. Olson is a Rice University Ph.D graduate and professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is a self-proclaimed postconservative and has written a book called “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.” This subject is of immense interest to me so I will be spending some time wrestling with the issues Olson raises in his books. My goal is to approach his method with an open mind while not sacrificing what I consider to be non-compromising issues; it should be noted that I consider myself to be a conservative evangelical. I will be using terms that might not be familiar to the general Lair readership out there, so I will try to define things as I go along.

Olson writes a rather lengthy introduction to his book, almost 30 pages, in which he outlines the thrust of his argument. In fact, the introduction can serve as a Cliff Notes version of the entire book. His thesis is very simple and he clearly states it in the first sentence of the introduction: “The thesis of this book is simple but controversial: it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative.” Olson, rightly so, spends a good deal of time defining what he means by “conservative evangelical.” He contends that the word “evangelical” and “conservative” have been inextricably linked both in the popular mind and among scholars that to be evangelical is to be socially, politically, ethically, and theological conservative. He is right. Last year I had an email exchange with my sister-in-law in which I was describing my position as an evangelical but not necessarily a fundamentalist, at least in the way that term is commonly defined. Her reply asked how I could be an evangelical and not be a fundamentalist. Of course, I am mixing words here as well, for being a conservative is certainly not equal to fundamentalism, but nevertheless, the words evangelical, conservative, and fundamentalist all seem to overlap in popular thought. Olson quickly mentions how there have always been authentic evangelical leaders who have been liberal politically and socially, citing current writers Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. From the inside, evangelicalism has become a diverse group with varying outlooks. Olson says that “simply to define oneself as evangelical is no longer sufficient; there are too many types and styles of being evangelical in the world.” So, in order to “pin down” what kind of evangelical one is, many have added the modifier “conservative” before the name evangelical. All of my professors at SBTS would call themselves conservative evangelicals.

Olson gives a brief history of the phrase “postconservative evangelical” by which he begins to establish the difference between that and conservative evangelicalism. Put simply, postconservativism is an attempt to move beyond the limitations of conservative theology without rejecting everything about it. What then follows is an exposition on what conservative evangelicalism is all about and the common features it holds. Tradition is the key word for Olson in defining conservative evangelicals. Olson’s definition is that “conservative evangelical theology is the style of doing theology that relies heavily on authoritative tradition and rejects or consciously neglects the critical and constructive tasks of theology except insofar as ‘critical’ means rejecting new formulations and revisionings of beliefs.” A list of common features includes 1) a tendency to treat correct doctrine – or orthodoxy – as the essence of Christianity and evangelical faith. 2) Revelation is primarily propositional. By this he means that conservative evangelicals believe it is possible to move from biblical exegesis to sound doctrine without the aid of other sources, such as philosophy or culture. 3) Elevates tradition to the status of magisterium for evangelical theology identity. 4) Conservative evangelical theology is done in the grip of fear of liberal theology.

Finally, the heart of Olson’s message, which he will spend the rest of the book describing, is that “postconservatives tend to regard the essence of authentic Christianity and evangelical faith as transforming experience and a distinctive spirituality rather than correct doctrine. In other words, orthopathy (right experience) is prior to orthodoxy in defining true Christianity.

Much of my engagement with Olson’s arguments will come from his subsequent chapters, but I will make two comments here.

First, I agree that conservative evangelicals are not perfect. Where I believe Olson makes a fundamental mistake is by combining authentic conservative evangelical beliefs with its tendency to misstep. In other words, it is true that conservative evangelicals consider revelation as primarily propositional as he mentions in #2 above. Those who identify themselves as conservative evangelicals would have no problem affirming that description. However, Olson’s next point is that they elevate tradition to a place of authority, even above Scripture at times. No conservative evangelical would affirm that point. Now, that is not to say that Olson is wrong; indeed many of us, and perhaps all of us have been guilty of such a crime. However, Olson needs to be clearer as he lists “common features” between those things conservative evangelicals would affirm as their position and those things that might very well be true, but are not who conservative evangelicals would want to be. In other words, conservative evangelicals would say that if we have elevated tradition to that status, we need to fix it. In Olson’s defense, he would counter and say that conservative evangelicals might give lip service to the fact that tradition does not hold as high of a place as Scripture, but that they never do anything about it, therefore they are by default affirming that position.

Second, I disagree with Olson that right experience is prior to right thinking/teaching. This will be the primary point of departure between us. As Olson defines himself more in later chapters, this place of separation will become more evident, but for now, I belief that the only way we can affirm proper action/experience is by placing it against proper belief/teaching. Olson would deny this, but there is a taste of existentialism in his position.

To conclude the introduction, I found it a bit ironic when, during the last paragraph of the introduction, Olson is identifying some areas that set him apart from typical conservative evangelicals. One of those areas is that he supports women ministers in the church. What evidence does he give for such a belief? He writes that “I grew up with women ministers all around me!” So what? If postconservativsm does not elevate tradition to authority, then that should make little difference. Anyway, we will tackle chapter 1 in a couple of days. Blessings!


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