I read a book recently that I’d like to summarize and commend: Roger Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming. It’s part of a larger movement coming to be known as “postconservative evangelicalism” or postconservative evangelical theology. I may be blogging more about it in the weeks to come. (I may also write about labels in general — theological and otherwise.)

Olson sets the stage by laying out the common four marks of evangelicals, plus one that he hopes to work into the semi-standard mix.

  1. Authority of Scripture
  2. Necessity of conversion
  3. Atonement through Christ’s crucifixion
  4. Commitment to evangelism (and social action)
  5. Deference to Tradition

Broadly speaking, these five marks characterize most who live under the label “evangelical.”  (1) We aim to hold Scripture in highest regard as God’s appointed means of revealing himself truthfully. Through the Bible he has spoken, and through the Bible he continues to speak. As such, Scripture is our reliable guide and authority. (2) We believe that God’s work in our lives necessarily involves a moment where God injects new life into us through his Spirit as we surrender all to him in faith and love. (3) We believe that God has saved us specifically through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, without and apart from which we remain lost in sin. (4) We have a strong sense of being called to spread this good news of God’s grace in Christ to anyone and everyone. We try to embody our witness to Jesus in good deeds of service, especially to people in need, and we always aim to bring others to saving faith in Jesus. (5) Though committed to Scripture above all else, we nevertheless respect and in some sense answer to the broad sweep of “Tradition” discernible — in general if not in detail — through the 2000+ years of church history.

All of these claims are highly complex and each opens up a world of questions, but generally speaking this is what identifies us as evangelicals. With all this Olson wholeheartedly aligns himself.

However, he also argues that typically the word “evangelical” is associated with a way of viewing Christianity, and by extension doing theology, that goes by the name “conservative.” This is generally true both within and without the movement itself. While affirming much of conservative evangelicalism, he wants to create space for a new way that builds on this foundation, but is genuinely different in many respects. This other sister he calls “postconservative evangelicalism.”  (He uses “post” not in the sense of anti- nor in the softer sense of simply after, but in the sense of taking the best of something while moving beyond or away from certain parts of it.)

The book has much to commend it, and if you’re a theological type or a teacher or pastor who cares enough about truth and your people to discipline your thinking in such ways, I very much recommend it. It’s not a perfect book of course, but it helps clarify quite a few things. For the rest of this post, I’ll summarize what Olson sees as the primary differences between “conservative” and “postconservative” evangelical theology. Each of these is given a chapter in the book.

1.  Conservative evangelicals see the essence or center of Christianity as reliable information revealed by God in Christ. Postconservative evangelicals see Christianity’s essence or center as transformation through experienced encounter with God in Christ. Both groups consider both information and transformation as crucial, but each tends to emphasize one over the other.

2.  Conservative evangelicals treat traditional orthodoxy–whether classic or evangelical–as basically closed and functionally infallible. Postconservative evangelicals remain open to doctrinal reform and correction based on new insight from Scripture. For postconservatives the “constructive” theological project is always alive and ongoing.

3.  Conservative evangelicals hold to foundationalism which requires that all valid knowledge must be logically linked to undeniable, self-evident facts. Postconservative evangelicals posit a critical realist epistemology which says that while truth is by definition objective and absolute, our knowledge and reasoning are always finite and limited. We have been graced with access to truth via revelation, but we still only see through a glass dimly. Knowledge of all kinds always requires a measure of faith.

4.  Conservative evangelicals focus on factual statements drawn from Scripture as the primary content of revelation, and good theology rationally organizes such propositions into intelligible logical order (or systems). These timeless propositional truths form the basis for the Christian faith. Postconservative evangelicals approach Scripture as a narrative and see the content of revelation primarily as a disclosure of reality that transcends direct apprehension or complete rational presentation. Scriptural revelation comes to us as a story that rightly redescribes the world; theology imperfectly seeks to clarify and communicate this truthful story in a particular setting.

5.  Conservative evangelicals in practice elevate “orthodoxy” to the level of Scripture, not leaving room for creative or constructive theological work. Postconservative evangelicals tend to more often see orthodoxy as potentially departing from Scripture, and thus in need of revision or correction. They seek an orthodoxy that is critical, generous, progressive, and dispositional. (This one strikes me as very much a spectrum that has to do with leanings and tendencies, which are hard to quantify. It is also very similar to–if not the same as–the second difference mentioned above.)

All this can be seen in the way certain specific doctrines have been revised or corrected by some within the evangelical family. Some examples Olson mentions include justification by faith, open theism, inclusivism, and annihilationism. Or to put them in battle terms, NT Wright vs John Piper, Greg Boyd vs John Piper, and Rob Bell vs John Piper and all his friends. 🙂

All have become to different degrees controversial within our evangelical family, and all deserve serious attention. I think Olson is very wise in helping us see that in addition to the specific arguments on each issue, we’ll be well served if we back up and notice larger differences in the way these groups are approaching both Scripture and the theological task. Otherwise we’ll keep talking past one another. Also, I think Olson is wise to remind us that all of these debates are 99% of the time intra-family disputes. In other words, think what you want about Rob Bell being right or wrong, but he’s still an evangelical.

After I’ve had some time to think through all this a bit more, I’ll try to place or label myself in terms of these things. Feel free to offer your thoughts if you’re a commenting type.