Home Reading Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 1 of 2)

Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 1 of 2)

I recently read Roger Olson‘s book Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), mostly because I wanted to hear how someone else was describing postconservative theology.  For a while I’ve had an interest in exploring the outskirts of evangelical theology, and postconservatism is one of the movements with which I feel some level of identification.  Olson identifies six characteristics of postconservative evangelical theology in his first chapter:

“First, postconservatives, like conservatives, presuppose revelation, but they consider its main purpose to be transformation more than information” (53).

Similarly, Olson discusses a focus on the Bible as narrative over propositions.  I appreciated the narrative vs. propositions emphasis more than the transformation vs. information emphasis.  Olson discussed Vanhoozer’s “dramatic approach” to revelation, which is based on speech act theory but otherwise doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar from Wright’s “a troupe of Shakespearean actors making up the fifth act to a long-lost play of Shakespeare’s of which we have only recovered the first four acts” idea.  I’m sure there are important distinctions, but not having read Vanhoozer, I don’t yet know what I’m missing.  Anyway, I agree with the idea that the Bible can’t be treated as a systematic theology textbook.  But I’m not certain I like the “transformation” vs. “information” distinction.  Isn’t information (about God, about God’s work, about ourselves, etc.) what transforms us?  If we didn’t know who Jesus is, how could we be transformed?  I worry about a focus on experience that neglects the intellect, and I’m not certain postconservative theology must prefer experience in this manner.

“A second common characteristic of the postconservative style of evangelical theology is a certain vision of what theology is all about.  For postconservatives theology is a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and a conquest.  Also, for them the constructive task of theology is always open; there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology” (55).

I agree in large part with this point.  Postconservatives exist only because they have been willing to venture beyond the bounds of conservative evangelical theology, questioning what has not previously been questioned.  I am not certain, however, if this is a characteristic of postconservative theology as much as a characteristic of the individual theologians who have moved in postconservative directions.  I think postconservatives have been willing to change their minds in order to preserve academic integrity and avoid cognitive dissonance more than they have specifically been seeking to move new theological places.  And once they arrive in certain new theological places, they are often unwilling to leave.  For example, how many postconservatives who have abandoned inerrancy would be willing to reconsider that issue?  How many people who have ceased to believe in a historical Adam will one day decide Genesis 1-11 should be taken literally after all?  Postconservatives may be willing to explore new theological possibilities, but they also form new commitments along the way.

“A third characteristic of postconservative theological work is a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of conservative evangelical theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought” (57).

I think this is a very important part of what it means to be postconservative.  Olson talks a great deal about postfoundationalism, critical realism, McIntyre, etc.  It was practically like sitting in on Nancey Murphy’s class again (fond memories!).  It is being postfoundationalist which allows postconservative theology to cease committing bibliolatry, using presupppositional apologetics, etc.

“A fourth common characteristic of the style of evangelical theology called postconservative is its vision of evangelicalism itself…  Postconservatives view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than a set having boundaries” (59).

I  think this is simply necessary for anyone who wants to continue using the evangelical label after becoming postconservative.  If evangelicalism has rigid boundaries or if the Evangelical Theological Society determines who is in and out, then most postconservatives can no longer be called evangelical.  But if evangelicalism is a centered set with fuzzy boundaries, then people can continue to use the evangelical label (because they want to change its connotations or because they feel it’s important to honor their roots or whatever reason might apply) even as they move past what some more narrow-minded folks might call “evangelicalism.”  Considering evangelicalism a centered set is legitimate—and maybe even best—but it is admittedly self-serving for postconservatives who still want to think of themselves as evangelical.

“A fifth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and therefore the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief” (61).

This is the idea of Olson’s about which I am most skeptical.  Isn’t the point of theology to define what we believe?  I would say spiritual experience is important to consider someone’s faith genuine, but an experience with God is not automatically Christianity.  Similarly, Christianity cannot be Christianity without some theological basis.  I would prioritize theology but say that theology truly internalized produces fruit in terms of experience and action.

As for “the core of evangelical faith,” it doesn’t even make sense for this to be defined as “spiritual experience” because this—at least without clarification as to the kind of spiritual experience—seems to say that being evangelical and a “real” Christian are synonymous, which is preposterous.  It seems here that Olson’s definitions of evangelicalism are rather messy.  Yes, maybe evangelicalism should be a centered set, but there is a point at which some Christians are not close enough to that center to be called evangelicals.  It doesn’t mean they haven’t had any spiritual experiences or that they’re not real Christians, but they don’t deserve the evangelical label for either theological or sociological reasons.

“A sixth common feature of postconservative evangelical theology is a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief” (63).

In some ways this is merely another way of stating that nothing is set in stone and that postconservatives are willing to change their minds about things.  I worry a bit about a deemphasis of tradition and wonder if there must be firm lines between paleo-orthodoxy and postconservativism as Olson implies.  Unfortunately, I think a more thorough exploration of postconservative and paleo-orthodox evangelical theologians is necessary before I can answer that question.

Want to continue reading?  Go on to Pt. 2!


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