June 28, 2008

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger Olson

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology is a descriptive and prescriptive account of the move of some evangelical theologians to what has come to be termed a "postconservative" style of doing theology. Olson finds himself among this growing group, and seeks to set out the methodology that underlays this shift. Thought that may in fact sound a bit dry, Olson in fact turns in a compelling story of the development of a new brand of evangelical theology.

He begins by identifying just what this "postconservative" theology is by first describing "conservative" theology. He lists ten characteristics:

1. Correct doctrine as the essence of Christianity.
2. Revelation is primarily seen as propositional.
3. There is the tendency to elevate some tradition to the level of magisterium.
4. Suspicion of the constructive task of theology.
5. Evangelicalism is a bounded set: people are either in or out.
6. Many who call themselves evangelicals wouldn't be considered evengelical by conservatives.
7. High levels of suspicion toward modernity and postmodernity in favor of the ancient or traditional.
8. Tend to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by culture or history.
9. Tendency toward harsh, polemical rhetoric, staying close to fundamentalist roots.
10. Tends to be done "in the grip of fear of liberal theology" (25).

After setting the stage with a sketch of "conservative" evangelical theology, he moves briefly through a discussion of shared ground, before then beginning to explicate the "style" of theology that he terms postconservative. It is in fact the task of the rest of the book to lay this out, but some major trends and themes can be listed as distinctive (in essence, they are the flip sides of the ten things he has pointed out about conservative evangelical theology listed above). Some of the important aspects might be layed out as follows (the choice and numbering are my own:

1. Consider relveation's purpose to be transformational more than informational.
2. The constructive task of theology is cointinuing; there are no "closed, once for all systems" of theology that have perfectly enshrined the truth about God (55).
3. Concern about the deep roots of conservative evangelical theology in modernity and the desire to move beyond foundationalism.
4. See evangelical theology as a "centered set" rather than a "bounded set"; that is, less focus on who is in and who is out and instead focusing on who is closer to the center and who is moving away from that center. This includes some comfort with ambiguity that is often lacking in conservative evangelical theology.
5. Recognize that the core of evangelical faith is spiritual experience rather than doctrinal belief. This doesn't mean it doesn't have informaitonal content (it's not merely generic belief itself or belief in some anomalous "ground of being") but that this language is "second order," the communal expression of the experience of God in revelation.
6. While tradition is greatly respected, it is not enshrined as definitive; this means systems and theologians of the past can be helpful and essential conversation partners but the assumption should never be made that they have provided final formulations equal to the status of scripture or fully authoritative as interpreters of the Scriptures.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Olson fleshes out these elements of the postconservative style of theology, looking often at important postconservative thinkers who embody these trends. This includes frequent discussion of Stanley Grenz, John Franke, F. LeRon Shults, and Kevin Vanhoozer as especially lucid expositors of this style of theology. He also undertakes detailed discussions of some proponents of the conservative style, such as D. A. Carson, and Carl Henry, with frequent references to Charles Hodge.

For myself, I have found Olson's vision to be a compelling one, in that he illumines many of the weaknesses that I myself have found with traditional "conservative" evangelical theology, such as it's seeming obsession with who is in and out, and it's often harsh polemic tone in discussions within and outside the evangelical family, and with its sole focus on proposition in revelation. As Olson points out, even taking these points, one is still "conservative" in the larger scheme of theology; they don't make one a "liberal," in any meaningful way (contrary to what many "conservative evangelical" theologians might claim). I think this great book shows the promise of evangelical theology as a vibrant and faithful exponent of the faith into a new century. It makes a great intro to these important themes and to the theologians who are on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking about God.

No comments: