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Roger Olson’s Postconservatism

Last week I checked out Roger Olson’s new book, Reformed and Always Reforming. Ironically, I found it in the library at our local fundamentalist college. I may not have picked it up otherwise, but I was so surprised to see it on their shelves that I had to read it.

The book is essentially a manifesto for postconservatism, a term with Olson coined. Olson defines postconservatism mostly in reference to conservative evangelicalism, which he believes is dominated by theologians that are obsessed with setting boundaries and tightly defining what it means to be an evangelical. Conservatives, he argues, are almost always opposed to fresh theological proposals and operate from a reactionary standpoint towards any revision of classical doctrines.

Postconservatives on the other hand are open to new ideas. They tend to be frustrated with theological systems that confine theology to head knowledge (which consensus has unfortunately labeled ‘propositional truth’). Without rejecting the intellectual component of theology, postconservatives want to refocus theology on heart knowledge and our response to God. Postconservatives are more concerned about orthopathy (right experience, referring, I assume, to the need to be ‘born again’) and orthopraxy (right action) than with orthodoxy (right belief).

One can sense that Olson is frustrated with the reactions he has received from the theologians he has grouped under the conservative banner, including Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, and J.I. Packer. Olson’s tone sometimes conveys the message that he just wants these guys to stop picking on him. Though I agree with him that conservatives often go too far in their reactions against postconservatives, Olson’s focus on their differences makes it more polemic than necessary. He lacks the nuance of a postconservative like Kevin Vanhoozer, and draws more fire upon himself as a result. “Some [conservatives] have expressed harsh criticism, if not condemnation… of [another postconservative’s] theological project while embracing and applauding Vanhoozer’s. The fact is they are very similar.” (121) Hey playground bullies, he shouts, shouldn’t you be picking on him too! That’s not fair!

That is not to say that he is necessarily wrong in his appraisal of the reaction from conservatives. In reference to Open Theism, his observations are right on: “It seems to me that conservative evangelical reaction to open theism has been nothing short of hysterical… All in all, it seems that the open view of God needs much more careful study and dialogue among evangelicals, whereas many conservatives seem to wish to halt study and dialogue and focus energies on drawing boundaries that exclude open theists from evangelical communities.” (125-6) Amen.

Olson does a good job of commending postconservative theology, especially to those that are disenchanted with the similarities between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The book functions as a sort of ‘on ramp’ to progressive evangelical theology. Or, to alter the metaphor slightly, he effectively draws the map of what he considers postconservative theology. It is no surprise that Yvette recently came away from the book with a massive reading list. Olson marshalls an impressive array of theologians in at least partial support of his program: the late Stan Grenz, Alister McGrath, Kevin Vanhoozer, Henry Knight III, Clark Pinnock, Miroslav Volf, and F. LeRon Shults.

Unfortunately, Olson draws and redraws and redraws the map several times. Readers are re-introduced to Stan Grenz and Kevin Vanhoozer four or five different times. He examines several aspects of postconservative theology in turn, often repeating himself each time. For instance, he mentions Grudem’s (inaccurate) list of thirty-four conservative theologians four separate times (pp.9, 21, 173, 188). The book has about 125 pages of valuable information stretched into 237 pages. If he were fun to read (like N.T. Wright for instance) I wouldn’t mind so much, but the last hundred pages or so were a chore rather than a delight to read.

The biggest flaw I can see with Olson’s view of postconservative theology is that in attempting to straddle between liberal and conservative soteriologies, he ends up falling into a chasm of inconsistency between them. He states, “where right experience (orthopathy) and right spirituality (orthopraxy) are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity and even evangelical faith may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present — provided that movement in the right direction is clearly discernible.” (84) In other words, you don’t have to be orthodox to be a Christian, just moving towards orthodoxy. But he provides no reasons for this to be so. If salvation is dependent on an experience with God alone, why assume that such an experience will necessarily lead one closer to orthodoxy? If orthodoxy is an important component of salvation, then why simultaneously deny its importance. Either orthodoxy is necessary or unnecessary for salvation. In this matter, postconservativism has either moved too far from conservatism or not far enough. One senses that this is a vestige of conservatism that Olson is (inconsistently) not prepared to part with. Thus to liberals, postconservatives are still conservative in every sense that matters.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Theology
  1. Pascalian Awakenings
    December 15, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    Ryan,

    I too noticed Olson was quite repetitive. There were times I found that bothersome. Overall I was so pleased with the book because it spoke directly to where I am on my journey right now. As you say, “Olson does a good job of commending postconservative theology, especially to those that are disenchanted with the similarities between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.” As I read the book, I was sort of feeling that I may have found a home…if that makes any sense.

    I thought Olson did a great job of setting out his task in the introduction. I didn’t find the last hundred pages a chore, but I concur that N.T. Wright is “fun to read.”

    I am looking forward to his book, “How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative” coming out in March.

    Yvette

  2. Bryan L
    December 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks for the review!

    One particular thing you said caught my attention:

    “In other words, you don’t have to be orthodox to be a Christian, just moving towards orthodoxy. But he provides no reasons for this to be so. If salvation is dependent on an experience with God alone, why assume that such an experience will necessarily lead one closer to orthodoxy? If orthodoxy is an important component of salvation, then why simultaneously deny its importance. Either orthodoxy is necessary or unnecessary for salvation.”

    That’s an interesting question because based on Church history and how orthodoxy seems to have been a constant movement (or moving target) and almost fluid, I have to wonder if the movement towards orthodoxy is all that really does matters (instead of being orthodox). It seems like we could look back and exclude so many people throughout church history because they didn’t get it right. Think of all those people pre-reformation who were just going along with the official teaching of the church and trying to earn their salvation. What happens to them? Were they just out of luck based on the time period they lived in or their lack of education and resources? Or does God care more about the heart and the direction it was headed? Does God care more that people had a desire to know him and believe the right thing and live what they believed even if they ended up getting it wrong sometimes. Does he care more that our beliefs translate into right living and love for others?

    Are our beliefs part of the sanctification process? Often we only consider our flesh to be but our mind is fleshly too and in need of constant renewing.

    When we look in the church there are often those who live particularly sinful lives when they get saved but slowly (like molasses sometimes) they begin to grow in the Lord and begin to live more in the spirit than in the flesh. Looking at them at one spot in their journey we would probably not be able to tell whether they are saved based on their lives but God who sees the whole of their life from start to finish does know their heart and the progress they are making in sanctification.

    Could we not say that the same takes place with the Christian’s mind and their beliefs? Is God more uptight (for lack of a better term) about orthodoxy than he is about orthopraxy? Orthoproaxy he is willing to be gracious and merciful for a long period of time but with othopraxy it’s all or nothing. I don’t know. I wonder though.

    I tend to have mercy on those who aren’t completely orthodox (or who are sometimes a bit far from it, especially since I would want that same mercy from those who don’t consider me orthodox) as it’s not always easy to assess in our modern setting–where there is so much division in the church and it speaks with so many differing and contrary voices–what exactly is important and crucial to believe and what are secondary issues. It varies based on what tradition you are in. Maybe God is just concerned that there is a desire to know the truth or whether someone lives according to that truth that they believe (sorry I know that sounds incredibly postmodern but please don’t hear me saying it with the idea that anything goes) rather than whether somebody gets it right all the time. Maybe he’s just concerned that what they believe leads them to right living and loving others.

    Just thinking out loud. Thanks for the thought provoking questions.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

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