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Reformed and Always Reforming (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology): The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology

Reformed and Always Reforming (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology): The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology [Kindle Edition]

Roger E. Olson

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Product Description

Reformed and Always Reforming is part of the Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series. Series editors are Craig A. Evans and Lee Martin McDonald.

Can we be more evangelical by being less conservative?

"In his new book, Olson sets forth a genuinely evangelical theology that rejects modernity and fundamentalism. His focus on a personal relationship with Christ over propositions and the need to continually revise theology in light of the Word of God are important corrections to conservative evangelical tendencies. Anyone interested in a truly gospel-oriented theology will benefit from engaging with his arguments."
--Alan G. Padgett, Luther Seminary, editor of the Journal for Christian Theological Research (

"'Evangelicalism' has been described as a set of corrective theological emphases. Roger Olson describes how among postconservative evangelicals such an impulse for reform has continued right up to the present. Privileging a style that is open and generous, these theologians have valued transformation over information and have put narrative before proposition. One can only applaud."
--Robert K. Johnston, Fuller Seminary, coeditor of The Variety of American Evangelicalism

"Roger Olson's newest book provides an excellent overview of the recent (and ongoing) methodological and material debates among 'evangelical' theologians. Olson not only explains the historical and political issues that contributed to the current situation in evangelical theology, he also offers resources for a 'postconservative' approach to theology that always maintains its commitment to the ongoing reformation of the church and its proclamation of the gospel."
--F. LeRon Shults, Agder University (Norway), coauthor of Transforming Spirituality

"In this book Olson provides a description and critical assessment of the developments related to the postconservative style of thinking along with a robust defense of its principles and intuitions in response to its more conservative critics. Anyone looking for a clear and authoritative overview of the current trajectories and future possibilities of this approach to evangelical theology would be well advised to start here."
--John R. Franke, Biblical Seminary

"'Postconservative theology' sees itself as holding onto evangelicalism's theological heart but shedding its modern baggage and reactionary tendencies. Roger Olson's 'apologia' sketches the lines of influence and distinction between conservative and postconservative evangelical theology and pleads for his side's ways of reflecting on the Christian faith. Whether or not you agree with the movement or even the label, the thinkers he cites in these pages are a serious force worthy of respectful engagement."
--Telford Work, Westmont College

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  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 389 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (1 Oct. 2007)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00B85833M
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
31 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Review: Reformed and Always Reforming 19 Jan. 2008
By Jeremy Zach - Published on
I just read Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology by Roger Olson. Throughout the whole book I was nodding my head and shouting amen. Roger is a theology professor at Treutt Seminary-- Baylor University. Essentially Roger articulated an evangelicalism that may be suited for the 21st century. I believe that Roger has been involved in conservative Evangelicalism in the past and now in the present he wants a new approach.

Conservative Evangelicalism vs. Postconservative Evangelicalism

Conservative evangelicals love their Doctrine. It is all about Doctrine! Roger alludes to the fact that when conservative Christians attempt to identify whether a person or a group is Christian, they often turn to examination of doctrinal beliefs. (67) Millard Erickson and DA Carson, two big hitters within the conservative Christian scholarly circles, argue "cognitive knowledge and affirmation of correct doctrines are the defining hallmarks of authentic evangelical faith". I whole heartedly agree, but I think correct doctrine is too subjective and interpretative based. Roger questions this correct doctrine notion by asking: What if a system of doctrine could be constructed this perfectly which reflects biblical revelation in all its its factual assertions, would the Bible no longer be necessary? And yet the Bible does remain necessary. (163)

Postconservative Evangelicalism wants something more than only having "correct" doctrine. Theology is a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest. (55) Postconservatives want transformation, not information. Postconservative evangelicalism views all doctrines and theological systems as "man made" rather than "God made." (88) Posteconservatives put doctrines as secondary, while they put the Great Tradition of Christian belief primary. Think about it: Not until the mid 300s do we start to see concrete doctrine/creeds.

Task of Postconservative Theology

Postconservative evangelical theology seeks to develop a progressive orthodoxy that is dynamic; the vision of truth changes as new light is discovered in God's word by faithful, Spirit led interpreters. (200) The postconservative theology is always reworking itself while putting the Holy Spirit in the driver seat. The Words of the Bible are not simply carriers of information, but means of transformation. We need to realize that the Bible is the instrument of the Holy Spirit within the community of God's people to lead and guide them in their discernment of the meaning of their common spiritual experience. (83)

A Bad Habit of Conservative Evangelicalism

At times it seems like conservative Christians are too closed minded and too closed on their doctrinal systems. Why do conservatives assume that the received doctrinal paradigms created by human beings like ourselves are incapable of improvement? What if we as human beings are weak, get our interpretations wrong from time to time, and need correction in how we construct our doctrine? Alister McGrath reminds conservatives, the Bible is God's word written, but our interpretations of it are not. Also Roger agrees by saying, all interpretations are at best "approximations of God's truth that do not call for "automatic conformity" but critical investigation to see if they are true. (161)

To say that one has a correct doctrine is a bit authoritative and judgmental. Essentially since one has the correct doctrine, then this implies a done deal with no room for improvement or correction. In order to be correct, one needs to be always corrected. Postconservative theology is a reconsidering and reconstructing of our doctrine and theologies in light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ and in Scripture is required by our own finite and fallenness and not by culture or any defect in any given revelation. We tend to forget that there was authentic Christianity before there was orthodoxy and tradition. (94).

Dialoguing in the midst of Diversity

We as Christians regardless of our doctrines or theology need to stand together in unity while acknowledging our diversity. We are all trying to become Christ like, so therefore we need be able to get along. Roger argues that people who are locked into the old paradigm like to map theologies on a rightward-leftward spectrum based on responses to the Enlightenment and modernity. (235) Unfortunately, there is way too many gray aspects of this black and white spectrum. Even how we define a "conservative or a moderate evangelical" is very difficult.

Therefore we must be okay functioning in a church body where everyone may not agree with our doctrine/theology, but agree that we all love Jesus. We are all different: in who we are, our life experiences, and our interpretations of the text. However God created us with differences and we all have a commonality: We love Jesus. I am suggesting, with the massive help of Roger's book, is that (1) we as Christian need to continue to keep dialoguing, in a healthy and non-hostile way, with each other and (2) we need to be okay living in some ambiguity when trying to figure God out.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb ideas and beautifully written. 23 Nov. 2012
By M 1985 - Published on
This book is full of interesting concepts and ideas, it's thoroughly evangelical without being fundamentalist, it's progressive without being liberal, it seeks to be faithful to Scripture as the highest source of revelation while recognizing the need of a personal walk with Christ in order to interpret Scripture. It tries to put tradition in its right place without becoming enslaved to dead traditionalism. Roger Olson also writes in a very elegant and concise way which makes reading his books a real pleasure. Excellent for anyone trying to understand evangelical theology.
24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Faulty premise equals faulty conclusions. 21 April 2010
By Christopher Matthews - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Let me begin by saying that I am a conservative evangelical with whom Dr. Olson obviously disagrees and from the evidence in this book, he obviously does not understand. The primary problem with this book is that Dr. Olson constructs a view of conservative evangelicals as "traditionalists" that does not truly represent them. He claims that the "essence of conservatism in theology is a determined - if often implicit and unacknowledged - adherence to tradition." This is true in some respect, but definitely not in the respect he proposes in this book. Conservative evangelicals do have a determined adherence to tradition of sola scriptura, the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible and inerrant authority for the Christian faith. This is the very tradition to which Olson claims conservative evangelicals are not adhering because they instead are exalting traditional theological formulations from the early church and the magisterial reformers as infallible sources of authority instead.

This simply is not true and completely mischaracterizes conservative evangelicals. If this were true, you would expect to go to the books of conservative evangelicals (such as D.A. Carson, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and others he mentions by name) and see their theological arguments against postconservative ideas like Open Theism, inclusivism, etc. coming from traditional statements of historic theology such as creeds, confessions, or reformation writings. That is not what they do at all. Instead, they address these errors almost solely from clear exegesis of the Scriptures. Conservative evangelicals still hold to many of the doctrines of the early church councils and the reformers because they continue to be faithful expressions of what revealed about God in the Bible. I have never met a conservative evangelical who views theological traditions in the way Olson portrays them. In fact, I do not recall any conservative evangelical who embraces historic theology without careful examination under the authority of Scripture. Not one of the conservative evangelical theologians Olson mentions operate out of a "frozen" historic statement of Orthodoxy. On the contrary, they test and support every one of there theological convictions from Scripture and clearly view Scripture as having the authority to reform anyone of their current positions.

The real reason conservative evangelicals reject the theological "innovations" of postconservatives is that they are simply not biblical. Postconservatives reject inerrancy and embrace other sources of theological authority that lead to them forming theological conclusions that clearly conflict with the Bible. Olson clearly recognizes that the conservative evangelicals he is criticizing welcome clear, faithful reformulations and restatements of theology to contemporary audiences (contextualization) whether those audiences are Western and postmodern or third world and prehistoric. The difference is that conservative evangelicals, unlike postconservatives, require that those restatements remain faithful to the infallible, inerrant Scriptures.

Olson completely misrepresents the disagreement between conservatives and postconservatives in an attempt to put his camp on the side of biblical faithfulness. His arguments will only be convincing to those unfamiliar with the theological methods of those he criticizes and postconservatives. Olson and postconservatives love to claim Scripture is their highest authority, but their theological methods do not reflect that conviction. Some among them openly embrace other sources of theology as equally inspired and authoritative, and all of them reject an inerrant view of Scripture. In the end, postconservatives compromise the Scriptures and that is what leads to their "new innovations" in theology instead of a willingness to be creative while remaining under the Scriptures authority as Olson claims.

So how can Olson get away with this misrepresentation of conservative evangelicals and remain winsome and convincing to evangelicals? I think there are at least two reasons. First, few in his audience probably understand the danger of the compromises made by postconservatives in terms of biblical authority. There are hints throughout the book, but until you have seen how there theological methods play out (see Brian McClaren's A New Kind of Christianity) it remains unclear what theological "innovations" will result from their position. Second, there are some legitimate criticisms that can be raised against many conservative evangelicals that resonate with the readers that are experienced with that tradition. Some conservative evangelicals (though not the ones that Olson mentions) seem to reduce theology to a cold intellectualism and are in need of more emphasis on the transformative role that doctrine should have in the life of a Christian. But postconservatives fail to recognize that right doctrine (orthodoxy) is foundational to right practice (orthopraxy), and the foundation cannot be neglected with any hope of saving the building. Olson seems to believe you can maintain a God-honoring, faithful community of faith which experiments liberally based on their own spiritual experience with doctrine, a point where conservatives strongly disagree. Undermining doctrine, especially with a primary motivation of cultural relevance, leads to a church that may express the culture but can no longer change it with the truth of Jesus Christ.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A much needed corrective to conservative evangelicalism 12 May 2009
By David C. Cramer - Published on
If his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities were not enough to stake his position in the evangelical theological world (and make me a big fan!), Roger Olson's Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology should do the trick. Personally, I have had a growing nebulous feeling of discontent with much of conservative evangelicalism (politically, theologically, etc.) over the last couple years, but I have had few options of where to go with these feelings. I knew straight out liberalism wasn't the answer, but what else is there? Thus, for me Reformed and Always Reforming was like a breath of fresh air, exploring new options for evangelical theology that transcend the old conservative/liberal dichotomy.

On the first page of his introduction, Roger Olson makes the aims of his work clear: `This is a book about theology and not sociology, politics, or even ethics' (7). Though Olson's project is about theology and not ethics or politics, he views the aim of his project in the same stream as that of Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, namely, to demonstrate how `it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative' (7).

Olson argues that conservative evangelical theology, characterized by the writings of Carl F. H. Henry, Wayne Grudem, Tom Oden, and D. A. Carson, among others, has become too tied to tradition - either in the form of the `ancient ecumenical consensus' or the `received evangelical tradition' - to allow the Spirit to speak in a fresh way to the community of faith through new interpretations of scripture. However, instead of rejecting conservativism for liberalism, Olson explores the movement known as `postconservativism', which embraces what is best about conservativism, such as reliance on and fidelity to scripture, without adopting conservativism's less palatable features, such as its perceived defensiveness, exclusivity, traditionalism, and dogmatism.

As paradigm examples of postconservative evangelicals, Olson discusses Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, and Kevin Vanhoozer, among others. He begins by describing the common traits of the postconservative style represented by these theologians: a focus on transformation over information, a vision of theology as `a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest' (55), an uneasiness with the Enlightenment and its influence on evangelicalism, a view of evangelicalism as a `centrifugal center of powerful gravity' rather than a set of `outlying boundaries that serve as walls or fences' (60), an experiential rather than doctrinal emphasis, and finally, a respect for tradition without traditionalism. These common traits and others closely related become the topic of discussion for the bulk of the book.

Though Olson tries to keep the tone as amiable as possible, he is not known to pull punches when he feels that a position or theologian has been mischaracterized or treated unfairly. This is precisely what he feels has been the case with postconservativism and its proponents at the hands of their conservative critics. Reformed and Always Reforming is thus one part explication and one part polemic. For the most part this makes for a lively and provocative read, but there are points where Olson's allegiances may cause him to gloss over or even defend some of the weaknesses of the postconservative move in theology. For example, in his discussion of Nancey Murphy's postfoundationalism, Olson appears to endorse a coherentist view of truth over a correspondence view (though later he commends a correspondence view as well). But while coherence is certainly a helpful epistemological category, it will never be a more fundamental metaphysical criterion for truth than correspondence with reality, even granting the postfoundationalist critique of our epistemic limitations. Here, as elsewhere in the book, one wonders if adopting a theology influenced by postmodern philosophy is truly an advance over one influenced by modern or ancient philosophy.

His virtually continuous references to Open Theism (the view that God doesn't know exhaustively all future contingent events), which he doesn't endorse per se but nevertheless seems open to (and seemingly enamored with), might cause some readers to be unduly fearful of the postconservative move in evangelical theology. If Open Theism is viewed as the only or even the primary fruit of postconservative theology, it is unlikely that postconservativism will be warmly received by the larger evangelical community. However, focusing on that one issue would be a mistake. For one thing, I am quite confident that many postconservatives, such as Vanhoozer, are not proponents of Open Theism. For another thing, it appears as though Olson's understanding of Open Theism is broader than how it is typically understood. He seems to include as Open Theism views where God willingly self-limits his knowledge, rather than the more narrow view in which God literally cannot know future contingents even if he wanted to (because it is logically impossible to know them). But more importantly, Olson simply uses Open Theism as an example of postconservatives' openness to exploring new avenues in biblical theology, even if the result lands them outside the mainstream of tradition. In this way, they are open to continual reform in light of scripture, rather than being tied to tradition at the expense of new scriptural insights. Since postconservatives tend to have a narrative emphasis to scriptural interpretation rather than a propositional one, it is not difficult to imagine how Open Theism might arise from such a hermeneutic (e.g., focusing on God changing his mind in the story of Jonah rather than on passages emphasizing his immutability found, say, in the epistles). Whether or not this is a good hermeneutical principle to follow is, of course, a whole other discussion.

Those who read Reformed and Always Reforming straight through may also find it to be a bit repetitive at times. It almost reads as though each chapter is intended to stand on its own, despite the topical threads running throughout. On the other hand, Olson may feel it necessary to repeatedly drive home his point, given the way postconservatives have been misrepresented often to the point of slander. And for giving this new voice in evangelicalism a proper hearing, I believe that Olson has done Christian theology an important service worthy of a careful read.

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revisiting Evangelical Theology 4 Oct. 2008
By James Korsmo - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
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