(Say the Jesus Creed morning and evening during Lent.)
Sometimes it is necessary to describe and classify and map in order to understand both who we are and what we think and who others are and what they believe. This is what Roger Olson does in his new and very important book, Reformed and Always Reforming. Here is Olson’s thesis, and his thesis applies to emerging but extends well beyond that: “it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative” (7).
Olson’s book compares and contrasts conservative evangelicals with postconservative evangelicals. [I consider many of the former neo-fundamentalists.] Olson names names and gives us some lists. Here are his basic conversational partners.
First, Olson lines up conservatives as Carl FH Henry, Ken Kantzer, JI Packer, David Wells, Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler and DA Carson. Postconservatives include Clark Pinnock, Stan Grenz, John Franke, Kevin Vanhoozer, Nancey Murphy, James McClendon, Miroslav Volf, Henry Knight and Brian McLaren. There are two mediating theologians: Alistair McGrath and Donald Bloesch.
A good example of the former is Evangelical Affirmations, a big conference held at Trinity when I was a professor there. Olson sees the tone around this volume to be one of incapable of ongoing reformation, the true spirit of the Protestant world.
An example of the latter (postconservatism) is John Franke’s The Character of Theology.
Second, Olson thinks postconservatism is a style not a set of beliefs. We will look at this in a later post. The style of conservative theology: “relies heavily on authoritative tradition and rejects or consciously neglects the critical and constructive tasks of theology except insofar as ‘critical’ means rejecting new formulations and revisionings of beliefs” (19). In other words, while it claims to be biblical (and it often is), it is also thoroughly shaped by tradition and the influence of the latter is not sufficiently admitted.
Third, Olson sees two kinds of conservative evangelicals: the biblicist sort that flow out of the Old Princeton school and appeal to one degree or another to Charles Hodge. A second kind is palaeo-orthodoxy — that is, they want to be attached to the ancient creeds (he mentions here D.H. Williams and Tom Oden).
Finally, what are the common tendencies of conservative evangelicalism? He finds ten tendencies:
1. Tendency to treat correct doctrine as the essence of authentic Christianity.
2. Tendency to treat revelation as primarily propositional.
3. Tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium. This closes off fresh study and theology.
4. Tendency to be suspicious of constructive theology and to be defensive and to patrol evangelical borders.
5. Tendency to see evangelicalism as a bounded set instead of a centered set.
6. Tendency to see the “evangelical tent” as a “small” tent. (Here he brings up inerrancy as one defining line.)
7. Tendency to be suspicious of modernity and postmodernity, even if many postconservatives think they are caught up in modernity too much. Doctrinal pluralism is a threat and here he uses Carson as an example in his The Gagging of God.
8. Tendency to think their theology is uninfluenced by history and culture. They look for the transcultural and see it as permanent.
9. Tendency to remain close to the fundamentalist roots. Many, Olson argues, are moving toward fundamentalism. He says, “I admit this is a matter of opinion.” I agree with that opinion.
10. Tendency to do theology in the grip of the fear of liberal theology.
He knows there are varieties and nuances; these are ten tendencies.
Next post: the five features in common between conservatives and postconservatives.