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Reformed and Always Reforming: The…

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to…

by Roger E. Olson

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Evangelicalism has got too propositional, scripture is not just a revelation of facts which idea binds you to some form of inerrancy but is also a narrative.

This idea comes from postmodernism. Not the radical kind that discounts any ideas as just a power play but the less extreme form which sees all facts, and truths, as culturally conditioned, or influenced, in contrast to modernism which revered facts, as standalone pinnacles of objectivity. Outside mathematics no one seems to be able to sustain that idea now and post modernism is its reaction.

In its devotion to revelation as information, or truths, evangelicalism is in fact tied to the very modernism which it rejects, and also shows an uncritical adherence to one particular crystallisation of Christian theology, the reformed, without admitting that even that is not monolithic and that it might have to change as time moves on.

The origins of evangelicalism were not just in the reformation but also in pietism, which expected a personal feeling of devotion to God, mediated by the Holy Spirit and supposed to work out in a changed life. Post Evangelicalism wants to stick with sola scriptura but says the revelation is as much in act and action as in data. It therefore does not worry much about inerrancy but does focus on the lifestyle outcome of Christian teaching.

I can see how this works out when we study the gospels and a lot of the OT history but how we handle e.g. Romans 1-8 in the light of this I am not sure. ( )
  oataker | Jun 15, 2015 |
I approached this book hoping to be introduced to new theological vistas beyond the received evangelical orthodoxies which don’t always seem to tally with the more diverse and paradoxical picture of God in the Bible. However, rather than a book about theology, this is principally a book about theological method. Roger Olson, a self-identified postconservative evangelical theologian (who seems to have introduced the “postconservative” label to the world at large) attempts to outline the postconservative approach in contrast to conservative evangelical theology. As a result, the book is a defence and apology against what he sees as unfair conservative attacks. At times it enters into polemic.

Rather than describing Olson’s contrasts between conservatives and postconservatives in any detail, it may be better to describe some key points that Olson makes. Firstly, he is at pains to demonstrate that both are evangelical – against conservative attempts to characterise some postconservative efforts as heretical or unevangelical. Conservatives are apt to label postconservatives so because they have a bounded set view of evangelical Christianity, a set which consists of theological propositions. Indeed, for them, the principal revelatory purpose of scripture is informational. Postconservatives tend to have a centred set view of evangelical Christianity, and therefore are more comfortable with fuzziness and ambiguity. Postconservatives see narrative as an irreducible element of scripture, and view the goal of theology and revelation as transformative rather than merely informative.

Another key contrast for Olson is more philosophical. Conservatives operate out of a modernistic framework of thought inherited from the Enlightenment, that relies on a rational, neutral observer. Postconservatives, on the other hand, have imbibed the lesson of postmodernism that no viewer is neutral, and that all theories and descriptions are loaded. Truth is out there (contra the deconstructionists), but our view of it is always contingent. Therefore, the theological task can never be finished. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a theological system which they regard as complete in its essentials (and most of its detail), but which may at times be equated with an authority due only to scripture. Another, historical, tension is between the Reformed and confessional heritage of the conservatives, and the Pietistic, experiential heritage of the postconservatives.

Olson is not afraid to name names, and hence the polemical nature of this book. On the conservative side, his favourite whipping boys are Carl Henry (of a previous generation) D.A. Cason, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and—representing the paleo-orthodox—Thomas Oden. The Old Princeton School, exemplified by Charles Hodge, gave much basic shape to conservative evangelical theology. On the postconservative side, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, Kevin Vanhoozer and Henry Knight are Olson’s leading lights. Some, like Alister McGrath and Donald Bloesch, have postconservative and conservative characteristics. To this final “mediating” group he might have added non-theologians Billy Graham (for his views on the unevangelised) and John Stott (who I have heard excoriated for his views on the destiny of the damned).

As far as Olson describes these two parties, he is enlightening. as long as you understand this book to be an introduction to theological method rather than an introduction to a certain theology. For an evangelical, Olson makes very little reference to anything specific in the Bible (a criticism that N.T. Wright—who would himself be labelled postconservative—has made of much recent theology). That is a shame, because my dissatisfaction with evangelical orthodoxy springs from its concentration of some parts of scripture over others, especially its neglect of the Old Testament.

Another thing that Olson glosses over is any anthropological or cultural perspective. The whole tradition he argues in is Western and post-Enlightenment. Can Africans, or Asians, or Latin Americans, or indigenous peoples, do postconservative theology? What would that look like? In fact, except for regular mention of Alister McGrath, the entire book is focussed in on the US scene. Towards the end of the book he mentions some Canadians who quizzed him about the US tendency to bi-polar debates. Unfortunately he dismisses this concern. I am somewhat repelled by the polemical nature of the entire enterprise: in Australia it can be savoured in the attacks made by some Sydney Anglicans, and the equally antagonistic responses by certain bishops and moderators.

A more minor, but annoying, point is Olson’s habit of repetition and redundant recapitulation. The same points are repeated throughout the book. “In other words” occurs incessantly. An editor could have improved style. ( )
  Iacobus | Feb 18, 2010 |
In an accessible and clear manner, Olson provides a map of the postconservative mood within Evangelical theology: what is it; how and why has it developed; who are its major proponents and critics; and what is its theological trajectory. Postconservative theology, Olson argues, seeks to move beyond many of the pitfalls of conservative theology, while retaining the core insights of its perspective. Rather than a uniform theological platform, postconservativism is a reform movement (or mood, or approach) within Evangelical theology that critiques the cultural subjugation of much of conservative theology: subjugation to modernist/Enlightenment thought, propositionalism, and philosophical foundationalism. The postconservative mood assumes that the theological task is always incomplete and in need of revision (against the bible), since all theologies are necessarily affected by culture and philosophy. While the term and Olson’s articulation itself have problems, the book proved a helpful and useful overview of an influential mood within Evangelical theology. B+ ( )
  bsanner | May 4, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801031699, Paperback)

The community of evangelicals sometimes seems so broad as to defy definition, but theological conservatism has been one consistent marker. Now, says theologian Roger Olson, postconservatism is moving beyond conventional battles against liberalism and heresy to posit a dynamic and realistic approach. While conservatives strive to preserve tradition and protect orthodoxy, postconservatives urge openness to doctrinal reform without abandoning orthodoxy. Where differences exist between doctrine and Scripture, doctrine must be brought into conformity with the Word. Postconservatives want to free evangelical theology from its paradoxical captivity to rationalism and its obsession with "facts" so that it may recognize truth in experience and personal knowledge. Theologians, pastors, seminarians, and serious thinkers will find many depths to plumb in this exhaustive survey of critics, advocates, and fellow travelers on the evangelical journey.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:42 -0400)

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