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"Confessions of a postconservative evangelical" | Roger E. Olson

"Confessions of a postconservative evangelical"

"Confessions of a postconservative evangelical" August 16, 2010

Previously I confessed that I can no longer call myself an “evangelical” without qualification.  The term has been so sullied by the media and by fundamentalists within the evangelical movement (insofar as that even exists anymore!) that I find it necessary to say that I am some particular kind of evangelical to distance myself from the popular perceptions promoted by the media and also from many self-appointed spokesmen for evangelicalism.

Some years ago (around 1998) I adopted the adjective “postconservative” to qualify my “evangelical” identity.  Of course, as with any relatively new and unfamiliar term, people have misunderstood it and some have (I believe sometimes) intentionally misrepresented it.  (A few critics have claimed it means unfettered theological experimentation.)

Here and in some future posts I will explain what being “postconservative evangelical” means to me. 

First, the main label is “evangelical” (in this phrase): “postconservative” modifies it.  By no means does “postconservative evangelical” mean “postevangelical” (a la Dave Tomlinson and others).  I am an evangelical first (after Christian, of course) and postconservative after that.

Sidebar: A word about the origin of the term “postconservative.”  When I first used it in Christian Century magazine in about 1998 I was not aware of anyone having used it before me.  Later I found that Clark Pinnock had used the term earlier, but in a different way.  Then I began to wonder about something.  One of the books that influenced me most during my seminary years was a little theological autobiography by Fuller Seminary professor Jack Rogers entitled “Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical.”  The title never made sense to me since the book is his story of emergence from fundamentalism.  So I called Jack at his home in California and asked him what the original title was–suspecting it may have been “Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical.”  (Publishers choose titles and authors are often not very happy with what ends up on the front cover of their books.  Theologian Bernard Ramm once told me he hated the title “After Fundamentalism.”  The title he gave his manuscript was what the publisher made its subtitle: “The Future of Evangelical Theology.”)  Rogers confirmed my suspicion.  His original title for the book was “Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical.”  The publisher, he said, dropped the “post” and left the book with the confusing title.

Second, “postconservative” DOES NOT MEAN “anti-conservative.”  When someone puts “post” in front of a label they do not mean “anti-” or else they would have used “anti-.”  The prefix “post” means what philosopher Hegel called “sublation” (in German “Aufhebung” which has no good English translation).  It means something like “taking the good and leaving the bad.” 

I am most decidedly NOT “anti-conservative.”  But I can’t call myself simply conservative, either.  In today’s evangelical movement “conservative evangelical” usually equates with a new form of fundamentalism that insists on biblical inerrancy (for authentic evangelical faith) and tends to privilege one of two magisterial traditions in theological work: either the ancient ecumenical consensus (a la Oden and Dan Williams) or the “received evangelical tradition” (a la Millard Erickson and others).

I respect those traditions, but I do not regard them as incorrigible; like all human traditions they are open to revision in the light of faithful and fresh biblical scholarship.  To me, this is simply what sola scriptura means and I fear many conservative evangelicals have given up on sola scriptura out of fear of unfettered theological experimentation and have adopted a theological method that is implicitly more Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic–with tradition (however identified) serving alongside Scripture as its necessary means of interpretation.

Third, the main point, the heart of, postconservative evangelicalism is the idea that “God always has new light to break forth from his Word” (Puritan John Robinson’s statement to his congregation as they left for New England).  In other words, the constructive task of theology is never finished.  Whereas, I believe, most conservative evangelicals see the constructive task of theology as finished and the only continuing task being critical.

An example is the (primarily) post-WW2 emphasis in much Christian theology on the suffering of God.  The idea that God could suffer was almost unheard of before WW2; God’s “suffering” was only in and through the incarnation.  Only the Son of God in his incarnate state could suffer.  God himself could not suffer.  This was orthodox doctrine.  After WW2, however, many otherwise orthodox Christians began to question the biblical status of the doctrine of God’s impassibility.  According to theologian Ron Goetz, the suffering of God became the “new orthodoxy.”  I wouldn’t go that far. 

Even evangelicals began to question whether perhaps the traditional doctrine of God’s impassibility is unbiblical in light of the scriptural narrative that identifies God as suffering the rejection of his people and Jesus crying over Lazarus’ death, etc.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison “Only the suffering God can help.” 

This is a prime example of the constructive task of theology in action as the reconstruction of a traditional dogma.  German theologian Juergen Moltmann has probably done more than anyone else to build on this idea; he has let it deconstruct and reconstruct the whole framework of traditional Christian theism in books like The Crucified God.

I do not believe in rushing to deconstruct and reconstruct traditional Christian doctrines.  Not at all.  The newness of open theism is perhaps the main reason I hesitate to embrace it.  BUT I will embrace it if I become convinced it is more biblical than the traditional view of God’s foreknowledge.  That’s what makes me postconservative–openness to new ways of theological thinking on the basis of fresh and faithful biblical research.

Many evangelicals have been more than hesitant to apply my label “postconservative” to themselves even when they are models of that approach to evangelical theology.  My friend Stan Grenz was a model of it, but he refused to apply it to himself.  An evangelical reviewer of my book Reformed and Always Reforming in Christianity Today slammed the label which I thought was ironic as, in my opinion, anyway, he fit the profile of a postconservative evangelical very well.

So, may only I will apply the label to myself.  That’s fine.  But I find it necessary to say something about what kind of evangelical I am and “postconservative” fits very well.  Most importantly, I cannot call myself a “conservative evangelical” because that would put me in the same camp as those who are unwilling to reconsider traditional doctrinal formulations.  I can say that I am in some sense conservative because I have respect for the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine, but I cannot simply apply “conservative” without qualification because my respect does not extend to slavish adherence or uncritical defense of everything contained in the Great Tradition.

More to come….

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  • That theology is always being constructed need not be contentious, the idea of progressive revelation fits with this.

    For me the question is not can we build our theology, rather do we change our theology. And I think there are significant differences here. In building we modify belief based on greater understanding. Perhaps what we had categorised as a single issue is in fact multiple issues, and realising such alters our thinking so that we treat the 2 issues slightly different to how we treated them we we thought they were a single issue.

    This is distinct from changing a perspective which I think is more tempting for some but I think less warranted biblically. To go from Calvinism to Arminianism, or vice versa; or complementarianism to egalitarianism; or errancy to inerrancy; etc means a change in previous belief.

    Now both these option may be acceptable in certain situations, but what the theologian is doing is different. The latter is refuting consensus on a doctrine, the former is viewing a doctrine as incomplete.

  • I am post-conservative… Happily! But like Pinnock I feel like an island: too much of a free-thinker to be accepted by my evangelical bretheren, too conservative to be accepted by liberal christians.