A good description of "postconservative evangelical"

A good description of "postconservative evangelical" April 13, 2011

I’ve begun reading a relatively new book (2010) by one Steven B. Sherman entitled Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Approaches to the Knowledge of God (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co.).

The author begins with my category “postconservative evangelical” and defines it thus:

“Basically, they [postconservative evangelicals] compose a loose coalition of thinkers who are seeking to facilitate a number of ‘beyond’ moves, theologically: beyond the agenda of the modernist/fundamentalist dichotomy toward what they see as a more holistic theology; beyond classical foundationalist epistemology toward alternative concepts of knowledge; beyond concentration on rationalism toward incorporating additional ways of knowing; beyond inerrancy debates and concerns toward an instrumental use of scripture; beyond academy-centered theologizing toward ecclesial and community-oriented thinking; beyond gatekeeping on boundary-setting doctrinalism toward a generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis; and finally, beyond what they view as a fixation on the concerns of modernity often motivated by a fear of liberalism, toward a more positive view and selective appropriation of postmodern insights.” (9-10)

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

The only addition I would make is that “postconservative” does NOT mean “anti-conservative.”  “Post” added to a word does not indicate rejection but sublation.  (Please don’t ask me to define sublation; look it up!)


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  • Looked up ‘sublation’ and it led to another question: are you wanting to sublate conservativism into a wider evangelicalism, or post-conservative evangelicalism into conservatism…? (I *think* this is a serious question…!)

    • Postconservative is a sublation of conservativism.

  • Zach

    I’m someone who dislikes the liberal/conservative dichotomy. Even if you want to “sublate” 🙂 conservatism, it’s clear that the Christian faith, at the very least politically, does not support it. We need to move beyond labels and accept that believers of all stripes have something to contribute, which it seems is something a “postconservative” would agree with!

    • I have trouble believing that a true theological liberal has much to contribute to the Christian faith. But then we would have to discuss what “theological liberal” means. I mean “maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity” (Claude Welch’s definition).

      • Zach

        You don’t think someone like Schleiermacher has something to contribute? Seems to me he embodies the kind of pietism distinctive of evangelicalism. What about someone like Borg? While he is certainly wrong in his Christology, he agrees with evangelicals such as Wright on a number of issues, such as the motif of the empire and resistance to Rome. Tillich is a brilliant mind, though ultimately I believe his method is wrong. My point is that “liberal” shouldn’t be a dirty word, but rather a dialogue partner in our imperfect understanding of God.

        • Oh, I believe in dialogue. It’s just that I haven’t found anything particularly helpful to add to my Christian faith or by which to enrich it that is unique to liberal theology. Schleiermacher’s pietism was borrowed from the Pietists and degraded by him in his Pietism of a “higher order.” I’m not saying liberal theologians can’t be brilliant and even beneficial to read. But I don’t see where any of them AS LIBERALS contributed something new and distinctive to Christian thought that I want to take up EXCEPT (here I correct my earlier assertion) the emphasis on social transformation (a la Rauschenbusch).

          • Zach

            Right, and Niebuhr corrected Rauschenbusch’s naivete in that regard. I would just want to be wary of pulling a Hauerwas and saying that folks like Niebuhr or the Jesus Seminar or whatever “liberal” group you prefer is not Christian. That’s not something we can give a definitive answer to, imo, though we should vigorously articulate orthodox belief.

          • And at least some of the emphasis on Rauschenbusch’s social transformation had been taken up by a previous generation of evangelicals, such as Finney and the founders of the Salvation Army.

          • rogereolson

            True. And that is something Timothy Smith and Donald Dayton both strove to remind us of. However, Rauschenbusch added a dimension lacking in the 19th century evangelical social transformationists. The Salvation Army’s motto was “Soup, Soap and Salvation.” Rauschenbusch called for socialism as the only Christian social order. (Not “socialism” as communism but as a “cooperative fraternity.”)

  • I agree. I especially agree with you when you tell people not to ask for a definition, but to go and look it up. I say that to people all of the time.

    When I started working at soup kitchen I started spending time with hookers, crack addicts, hardcore alcoholics, and etc. At first it was easy to see the lines separating us. Everyone who works at the kitchen must connect with the person in front of them; touch them if possible and bless each of them before they move on down the line. The lines which separate blur until you can’t find them anymore. Before long you find yourself desperate to connect with hookers. Because I’m a man the last thing these ladies want is anything from any man. I respect that, but the desperation builds, but eventually, after years, there comes a break through. A connection is made, and I’m able to tell them simply, “You’ve been used and abused by men your whole lives. God doesn’t ever want you to be used or abused. Could I pray for you?”

    Jesus taught that all of the Bible hangs on two things, “Love God, and love your neighbor, as you (already) love yourself.”

    If we follow what Jesus said it still works today.

  • Sounds to me like someone who is putting aside childishness and is trying instead to speak truth in love, growing up in all things to Christ in the iimage of Christ who is the head, from whom the whole body, receiving direcrion and correction,will increase to the glory of God.

    • Keith Noren

      I take it you are the Edward W. Fudge that wrote “Fire that Consumes” – an excellent book with a great deal of biblical support for annihilationism.

      • Indeed, the same . . . thanks for your kind words about the book, of which a third edition, revised and enlarged, is due out this June, God willing!

  • Hello Mr. Olson,
    I watched a portion of a reformed dvd called Amazing Grace. It had all the great calvinist theologians on it. You can see clips on it on youtube. One in particular about arminianism. You’ll be astounded at what some of these prominent men say about arminianism. I think that they should look at a couple of sentences from Charles Spurgeon’s Defense of calvinism where he says ” But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic christians within her walls, or that there are none saved that do not hold our views”. Another sentence says “I believe that there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest calvinist in or out of Heaven”. Something to bring up to the more aggressive calvinists. Anyway, just thought I would share that. Another interesting fact I found was that Martyn LLoyd Jones tried for years to get A.W. Tozer to preach at Westminster Chapel. Just some interesting facts I thought I Would share.

    God Bless
    p.s. I read your article from Christianity Today. I really liked it.

  • Keith Noren

    Merriam-Webster has sublate as:

    1. negate or deny
    2. to negate or eliminate (as an element in a dialectic process) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis

    I take it your usage herein is definition 2 which is really a narrow definition used in dialectical thought. In this definition I’d like to understand what “partial element” means. Is it (a) that some element of what is being negated carries into the synthesis or is it (b) all elements are consumed into a broader synthesis and thus is a partial of the new synthesis. I think you meant (a), correct?

    If (a), what parts of conservatism would you affirm? I would affirm, for instance, the physical resurrection and something akin to the evangelical spirit of helping people.

    If (b), I have a problem – one cannot both believe in inerrancy and not, pre-ordination of all things and human free will, etc. Don’t think that sort of synthesis is possible in this reformulation of theologies.

    BTW, this sounds like a great book and his ‘beyond this to that’ are really insightful teasers (remindful of the Sermon on the Mount!). Have already ordered it ($25.87 on Amazon).

    • My use of “sublate” comes from the German aufheben (noun: Aufhebung). “Sublate” is generally recognized in philosophical circles as the best one word English translation for aufheben. By it I mean taking the best of something up into a new synthesis while leaving some elements behind. In my opinion, conservative evangelicalism has tended to privilege something called “the received evangelical tradition” (usually some version of Charles’ Hodge’s theology) in such a way as to close down reconsideration. Postconservative evangelicalism insists on respect for the Great Tradition of Christian thought while allowing reconsideration of its individual elements in the light of faithful and fresh biblical interpretation.

      • David Rogers

        “the Great Tradition of Christian Thought”

        Any extrapolation on this? What would be some essential resources for discovering this (primary and secondary)?

        Would the first seven church councils be a starting point?

        Is this paleo-orthodoxy? 😉

        • By “paleo-orthodoxy” I mean (others may not mean this) the belief that the ancient Christian consensus (which is assumed to exist) is normative for contemporary theology. I would say the consensus of Christians throughout the centuries, including the Reformers, is a useful guide to healthy Christian thinking and living. But it is not equal with Scripture in authority. My book The Story of Christian Theology (IVP) was an attempt to lay out the contours of the Great Tradition. I did the same in a different, more systematic way, in The Mosaic of Christian Belief (IVP).

  • Aaron

    By the way Dr. Olson – Great podcast interview on the homebrewed christianity site! Any interviews that you do that you could point us to by referencing them on this blog for us to listen to that would be great!

    • Thanks. I try not to be overly self-promoting here. Also, I haven’t listened to it myself, so I don’t know how they edited it. We talked on the phone for a very long time. When I find the time, I’ll listen to it and then perhaps comment on the edited version.

  • Percival

    Wow! What a great definition. I pray we can live up to it.

  • Russ

    Hi. I come from a conservatively trained evangelical background but have decided to start on a new pilgrimmage called emergent Christianity. For me, I think this journey probably started a long, long time ago, but it wasn’t “breathing” right being trapped inside of iconoclastic institutions and institutional thought.

    Anyway, I refuse to allow my conservative evangelical friends call this a liberal journey nor do I wish to let a more radical form of emergent Christianity usurp the postmodernistic conversation. But, it does have to be radical and a radically new type of conversation which can open up past church histories and doctrines and allow them to breathe again in their own theological right.

    So then, can I call your observations (or Sherman’s) of “postconservative Christianity” the newer form of “Emergent Christianity”? Labels can be misleading but I’ll go with it for what its worth and restate it this way: It seems to me in reading your description of postmodernistic Christianity that it is emergent Christianity, not neo-evangelicalism, not postconservative, not progressive evangelicalsim.

    What do you think? Because if that is what it really is than we can start making a positive theological impact on emergent Christianity lost in the wilderness of its ideas and theological rubble which has necessarily destroyed dead doctrinal positions to allow “life” and “breath” back into them again. I like the radicalnism of it, I like the freedom of it, and I wish to go with it b/c it is so liberating. But it must be biblically sound and scripturally based regardless of the many essegesiologies (sp?) being placed upon or into emergent Christianity.

    Lastly… well done. It’ll be a privilege to walk with you on your pilgrimmage.

    Russ

    • I find that most of the emergent Christians I know are among my postconservative evangelical crowd whether they like the label “evangelical” or not. Many of them call themselves “postevangelicals.” I think most of them are evangelicals (in my mind, anyway), so I call them postconservatives. Of course, if an individual doesn’t want me to call him or her that I won’t (except in my own mind).

      • Russ

        Thanks. Another question. Did you hear anything from last week’s post-structural conference at Syracuse hosted by John Caputo? http://pcr.syr.edu/

        • No. Thanks for the link.