Evangelical Liberalism and Post Conservative Theology

Christopher Neiswonger and Lindsay Brooks, with callers.

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(Subjects: the thought of Roger E. Olson, Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, B.B Warfield, Carl FH Henry, and Gordon H. Clark.)

In his new book subtitled “The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology”, Roger E. Olson (professor of theology at George W.Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor) writes, “It has been a struggle. Now, at age fifty-four and secure in a tenured position at a major Baptist university, I am ready to declare quite publicly which side I am on. I have not significantly changed my theological beliefs since my seminary days and I remain a committed evangelical. But the adjective “conservative” no longer adequately describes the kind of evangelical I am.”

 

As Olson says in a recent interview in regard to another work on being a liberal evangelical, “The title says it all–that one can be consistently evangelical and not be conservative politically, socially or even theologically.”

 

There have been many conversations of late about how to describe the proponents of the new theology. Some of those that hold to the ideas that Professor Olson promotes in his new work have chosen to be called “Liberal Evangelicals”, “Postmodernist Christians”, “Emergents”, “Post Liberals” and of course “Post Conservatives”. In the recent past they have called themselves by descriptives such as “Neo-Orthodox” and “Liberal Protestants”. The themes of all are quite similar without achieving identity. There are differences while being differences within a kind.

The common traits that Olson claims distinguish the camp would include those drawn from that anti-enlightenment tradition of epistemological skepticism, doubt, and the centrality “spirituality” over doctrine or truth that upon further analysis seems to be very much at home within Enlightenment Modernism itself. These ideas were cultivated in that famous lineage from Hume, to Kant, to Hegel, to Marx and Kierkegarrd, through Neitschze, and Bradley, to Husserl, to Heidegger, to Sartre, to Foucault, Derrida and most recently Rorty in our own strange age. Of course none of these except for perhaps Kierkegarrd and Husserl claim much of an affinity for Christianity and its Christ, but many of them were religious men of one sort or another. Bradley’s thought could be described as Eastern in its approach with the application of Hegel’s doctrine of internal relations at front and the idealism so influential upon the thought of Cornelius Van Til at the back.

The central theme of postconservatism being the denial of those traditional Christian ideas of truth and identity that have been held by the Church since the time of Augustine, at least. In traditional Christian thought, and so in traditional Evangelical Christian thought, thinking true thoughts has been held to be primary and the experience and expression of those things truly known and the interpretation of all things through the knowledge of God in Christ, as taught in scripture, has been the method.  This is sometimes described, though in a minimalistic fashion, as that a true faith always includes knowledge, faith itself never being absent an apprehension of the very truths of God.

Olson, for example, qoutes with approval Bernard Ramm’s use of Karl Barth, one of the father of neo-orthodoxy in writing, “Barth believed that the Word of God is in Scripture as the Sache [subject matter] of Scripture.” Scripture is “witness” to the Word of God and not identical with the Word of God. Rather, the relation between them is dialectical and involves a “diastasis.” “The Word of God exists ‘in, with, and under’ the culturally conditioned text.”, Ramm and Stanley Grenz both being described by Olson as the foundational thinkers of Post Conservative Evangelical Theology.

The new method, as taught by Olson and the PCs is that the Bible, while it might or might not be true as far as it goes, is not to be held out as either primary, nor as inerrant, nor as “timeless truths”, nor as “facts”. For them, it is not just the method that is wrong but the entire idea of what truth is or what truths are. They do not say plainly what they think truth is, as to do that would be in their thought to fall into the same traditional conservative evangelical error, but they do explain that it is an aspect of experience in some sense. The Bible was never intended, they claim, to be a source of “propositional” truth statements or claims about God, man, or the world. It was meant to be a means of a religious experience, and this does not itself entail the need that it be “true” in the sense of propositionally accurate descriptions, or as some might describe it, a correspondence between its statements and reality. The statements are after all “historically conditioned” and not meant to apply to all times or all cultures.  But if even the Bible itself is not shaped by its grammatico-historical setting, but actually “conditioned” by the time and place in history in such a way that as time and culture changes, “Truth” itself is changing, then the theology of the Post Conservatives and the Evangelical Liberals would also be changing with the flux of history, and would be no more of an approximation of truth than that of the traditional Conservative Christian theologies.

This priority of “experience” over knowledge or human understanding, of emotion and feeling over “doctrine” is of course itself a new doctrine albeit one heretofore unknown by the church. The stated antipathy for “tradition”, “creeds”, and “confessions of faith” and “statements of faith” is itself a positive creedal formulation, although one that has never been instantiated in any of the creeds or confessions of the church in history.  The affirmation of doctrines and doctrinal formulations has always been at the center of the Chritian community’s faith and practice because it seems to have been at the center of both the life and work of Jesus and the Bible itself as the message from God, to us. These are just some of the reasons why this new anti-creedal Creed of the Post Conservatives might be hard totake as a reasonable re-working of Christian Theology.

The use of Rorty’s philosophical idea of “tentitiveness” and the inability to secure final knowledge in any way, much less through religion, would apply to their ideas as much as anyone else’s and so seem as self defeating as when they are promoted by any secular philosopher carrying the same lumber.

As Rorty himself said on this when interviewed by a Christian publication…

Question–“You’ve made some intriguing comments about Christian theologians and churches selling out robust versions of Christianity in exchange for cultural clout. Do you find, as an outsider looking in, that this contributes ironically to its irrelevance?”

“No, I’m delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn’t be done — try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I’d be appalled by the wishy-washiness of their version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g., their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian any more. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.” Richard Rorty–one of the foremost philosophers of Postmodernism in this century, from Modern Reformation Magazine.

1. http://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Always-Reforming-Postconservative-Evangelical/dp/0801031699
2. faithfulprogressive.blogspot.com/2008/06/fp-interview-roger-e-olson-how-to-be.html

Christopher Neiswonger

Correction: In this show I make reference to Peter Lillback as being one of the formative thinkers in regard to “Post Liberalism”. I meant to say George Lindbeck. Peter Liliback is of course the professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, while George Lindbeck was professor of Historical Theology at Yale University and is largely credited with defining current Post Liberal theology. CN

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1 Comment

  1. 11c2urg13bx@gmail.com
    Rizquinna 6 years ago

    I can identify with all 5 chenealgls. The church has a muddled view of culture (the process of teaching what we believe) we have lost the value of art and music and and language ,dating , marrying, career and work ethics and family concepts of raising children. What we have accepted in the church is a neutrality to what side of the tracks you were brought up on and rarely challenge other cultural views. Here is a good example we have to admit with medical marijuana comes a whole culture of thinking. In the church the questions of such thinking either needs to be taken on or we risk the results of members who so participate in such activities. Likewise it is with hot button issues of abortion and divorce and bankruptcy physician assisted suicide. Ironically it is our para church organizations the schools, institutions, companies, clubs, personal ministries that drive our christian culture. As for the coC the theology is mainly the church has a limited say in the lives of its membership. Autonomy it not just in the leadership organization it also granted to it memberships. The renewal of apologetics I think is very much in need of change. I’m not to a opposed to scientific models of logic and reasoning as long as we merge with a broader Christian perspective. But as far a the Spirit goes (the driving factors of our walk with God) we need a in-depth view. Salvation has taken backseat to personal needs. It seems to me more people are seeing the Bible as a workbook of how to get what you want and keep it. This is instead of a short earthly journey to eternity. This of course fits in with the theology of suffering .

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