Book Review

"Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theory" by Roger E. Olson

R. Scott Clark
Roger E. Olson
Thursday, May 1st 2008
May/Jun 2008

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)-the godfather of much of modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice-attacked the establishment by ecclesiastical authority of a confessional standard as no better than the papacy (see Charles Finney's Systematic Theology, new expanded edition, edited by Dennis Carroll [Bethany House, 1994], p. 3). In the tradition of Finney's jeremiad against ecclesiastical or theological boundaries comes Roger Olson's latest work, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology. His goal is to move evangelical theology "beyond the limitation of conservative theology without rejecting everything about it" (16), although it is quite unclear exactly what there is in conservative evangelical theology that Olson actually wishes to retain.

Olson introduces and summarizes his case with unmistakable clarity, though not always with the same degree of charity, in the first chapter (on which chapter this review shall concentrate), and proceeds to flesh out his thesis in subsequent chapters explaining the postconservative "style" of evangelical theology. His argument is that "it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative" (7). He frames his argument within the conservative/liberal paradigm. As Olson sees things, the adjectives "conservative" and "evangelical" have been synonyms long enough. He wants to divorce the two. By "postconservative" he means postfoundational-which, according to Olson, means anti-rationalist and anti-propositionalist views of revelation and "post inerrancy" (13, 125-152, 153-181).

Even though he works within the established two-party interpretation of modern Christianity, he is clear that he does not want postconservatives (e.g., Clark Pinnock and Brian McLaren) to be regarded as "liberal" (29). What is "evangelical" theology? According to Olson, "evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian" and "an evangelical theologian is someone who claims to be evangelical, is generally regarded as working within the evangelical network, and adheres to David Bebbington's four cardinal virtues of evangelical faith plus one" (38; the four virtues are conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism).

That fifth point is an intensified allegiance to the Bible as the sole norm of theology (43).

He decries the attempt by evangelicals in the late 1980s to reach a consensus on the doctrine of inerrancy, that by functionally setting "human statements on the same plane as Scripture they become a written magisterium placed on a pedestal above reconsideration even on the basis of fresh and faithful biblical scholarship" (19). "What this amounts to," he continues, "is a traditionalism that enshrines Protestant orthodoxy as it was developed in the post-Reformation period by Protestant Scholastics and especially by the Old Princeton School theologians in the nineteenth century as an incorrigible intellectual content of authentic evangelical faith" (44).

He argues that the essence of Christianity is "transformation" not information. The conservative evangelicals, with whom he is conducting his argument, have made Christianity too cognitive and intellectual (69). The postconservatives want a transcendent source of authority for "believing and living," but rather the "permanent and identifying essence" of evangelical Christianity is said to be "transforming experience" (73, 79). So central is religious experience to his definition of evangelicalism that "apart from transforming experience (conversional piety) authentic Evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present" (84). By this Olson means that Christianity is chiefly an experiential religion. He concedes that there is a formal similarity between the postconservative program and that of the father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), but the difference seems to be that the postconservatives are still supernaturalists.

The task of evangelical theology is to always be completing an incomplete theology (95-123). In other words, the "semper reformanda" determines the meaning of "ecclesia reformata." The heroes of the story are the advocates of limited inerrancy, open theism, a "relational" (rather than propositional) doctrine of God, social Trinitarianism, anyone revising the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and Tom Wright's reconstruction of the doctrine of justification to name but a few (see pp. 121-123, 209-234).

His bêtes noires are "paleo-orthodox" writers such as Tom Oden and D. H. Williams, and "conservative" evangelicals such as Charles Hodge, C. F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, Millard Erickson, R. C. Sproul, Don Carson, and David Wells. Even Modern Reformation is mentioned as a source of repression (49). He lists ten vices of conservative evangelicals: It is rigid, overly propositional, traditionalist, defensive, exclusivist, narrow, overly suspicious of modernity and postmodernity, ahistorical (which is quite tricky given their traditionalism), quasi-fundamentalist, and gripped by the fear of theological liberalism (23-26, 98-105).

Olson is correct when he says that modern evangelicalism (since the 1750s) has been an unstable compound of pietism and colonial Puritanism (48). This volume is symbolic of the victory of (radical) pietism over Puritanism. Because modern evangelical theology lacks an ecclesiology and therefore any confessional boundaries, and because Donald Dayton is probably right about the inherently subjectivist nature of modern evangelicalism, it appears that today the only actual universal among self-identified evangelicals is that they have all had an immediate encounter with the risen Christ. For Olson, this seems to be the only nonnegotiable doctrine.

One issue that is unclear is whether Olson will have evangelicals continue to regard "conservative" (e.g., Don Carson) and "paleo-orthodox" (e.g., Tom Oden) theologians as fellow evangelicals or whether he is reading them out of the movement. At one point Olson says he wants evangelicalism to be a "big tent" and, as noted, at another defines the adjective "evangelical" so as to make it virtually impossible for many to remain associated with it. It seems that he wants the evangelical "big tent" to continue, but he wants the postconservatives to control the tent flaps and to serve as ringmasters. That this is so is demonstrated by the fact that, in this volume, Olson studiously ignores Michael Horton's thoughtful critique of the "big tent" metaphor. Since Olson replied to Horton's argument in 2001, it is not as though Olson was unaware of this engagement; yet there is no mention of the dialogue in this account. Horton suggests a more politically neutral "village-green" metaphor for evangelicalism. In this metaphor, "evangelicalism" would serve as a place where folks from different ecclesiastical traditions with a common interest in the Bible might gather and talk. After all, no one (except perhaps the homeless) actually lives on the village green.

In Olson's version of evangelical theology, there is no "ecclesia reformata." In this respect, he remains a child of the conservative evangelicalism from which he is running away. Like the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s and 1950s, his is also a church-less (and therefore confession-less) theology. The original intent of "reformata" in the slogan to which Olson appeals was to capture the idea of a fixed body of doctrines that constituted the "evangelical" faith. Olson, however, rejects this very idea. For Olson, any attempt to fix a doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, or salvation, is mere traditionalism. In Olson's version of the slogan, "Reformed" means "radically revised along radically subjectivist lines." The original intent of the second clause of the slogan, "semper reformanda" was to call evangelicals to continually recover those core doctrines. In Olson's hands, however, "always reforming" becomes a call to jettison tired orthodoxies.

As Bob Dylan says, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." Those evangelicals who remain unconvinced by Olson's appeal to religious subjectivism, but who have not committed themselves to the Protestant confessions, will ultimately have to choose whom they will serve. They cannot have two masters. Either they will serve Roger Olson's religious subjectivism or they will serve God's Word as confessed by the magisterial Reformation. If it helps one to decide: it was the sixteenth-century Protestants, and not the Anabaptist subjectivists, who mediated to us the "evangel" that would seem to be of the essence of being an "evangelical." Thomas Muntzer rejected the Protestant doctrine of Scripture as a dead letter and the Protestant doctrine of justification as dead orthodoxy. Though Olson agrees with Muntzer on Scripture, he inconsistently continues to affirm some elements of historic evangelicalism such as justification by grace alone, through faith alone. In this case, however, it is an act of sheer voluntarism. There is nothing inherent to Olson's version of evangelical theology that necessitates that anyone agree with him as to what the gospel is or what must be said about it. One can reject justification, sola gratia, sola fide, and the substitutionary atonement and the catholic dogma of the Trinity and remain comfortably within Olson's "big tent." The question for evangelicals is this: why would one want to spend time in such a tent?

Thursday, May 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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