Being Evangelical without being conservative

Several years ago my local curate recommended to me a book called Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology, by Roger E. Olson, the professor of theology at George W. Truest Theological Seminary, Baylor University. Olson is a Southern Baptist, but not the kind you usually hear of. Passionately Evangelical and deeply rooted in his Evangelical Baptist tradition (even though he grew up in a Pentecostal household), Olson is also concerned to not allow Evangelical theology to drift back into fundamentalism. This book was a turning point in my own life, and allowed me to embrace Evangelicalism once again. 

Roger E Olson

For those of you who may think otherwise, there is actually a big distinction between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. In fact, Evangelicalism arose in reaction to Fundamentalism. A bit of history can clear this up. In the first decades of the 20th Century, in reaction to the rise of liberal theology and hard-line Biblical criticism, several conservative Protestant ministers in the United States put together a series of 90 essays called ‘The Fundamentals’, which were all about returning to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. They included standard defences of such things like the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the truth of Scripture, and the nature of sin, but also had some essays which were more conservatively inclined: criticisms of all higher criticism, defences of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, criticism of Darwinism, and criticism of socialism. The generation which followed these first figures became even more hard-line. The number of what were considered as ‘Fundamentals’ to the Christian faith increased. For instance, some Fundamentalists might deny you were a Christian because you did not believe in a pre-millennial, pre-tribulationist rapture, as opposed to a pre-millennial, mid-tribulationist rapture. If you don’t understand what either of those are, it proves my point: obscure theological areas became seen as essential to Christian belief. Naturally, splits soon developed. As the old joke has it, put ten Presbyterians in a room and you’ll get twelve different Presbyterian denominations. Fundamentalists increasingly became cut off from and acronistic towards wider American society, religious life, and even each other. Separation from the world was the aim: Fundamentalists could be known by the way they were against alcohol, dancing, gambling, and even make-up!

Evangelicalism was a reaction against this. Figures such as Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, and Francis Schaeffer arose, and opened up the Fundamentalist movement to fresh winds of change. Graham was happy to share his evangelistic rallies with Roman Catholics, and emphasised the essentials of the Christian faith. Henry encouraged theological engagement with the latest thinking in philosophy and theology. Schaeffer did the same but also with the arts. The New Fundamentalists became known as ‘Evangelicals’ or ‘Neo-Evangelicals’. They were characterised by a greater openness and freedom in their surrounding culture, and a ‘big tent’ mentality for who’s ‘in’ the Evangelical club. For Olson, who was raised in this exciting period of Evangelical openness, a tragedy happened when old style Fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, started to call themselves ‘Evangelicals’. Soon, the media began to lump Evangelicals and Fundamentalists into the same group. Today, to be an Evangelical is synonymous with being ‘conversative’ (both theologically and politically). 

Olson is keen to shed that image. For him, being Evangelical and being conservative are not one and the same. He even wrote a popular version of Reformed and Always Reforming called How to be Evangelical without being conservative (the title of which I’ve happily stolen for this blog). In Reformed he is keen to bring Evangelical theology up-to-date with developments in philosophy, science, sociology, and Biblical studies, mainly by shedding the extra-biblical Enlightenment thinking that has subtly crept into Evangelical seminaries over the centuries. For Olson, the problem with much modern Evangelical theology – or what he calls ‘conservative Evangelical theology’ – can be summarised in a few sentences: 

  1. It tends to conflate doctrinal orthodoxy with authentic Christianity (I.e. The person who says to you, ‘How can you be a Christian if you don’t believe that the Bible is totally historical?’)
  2. It treats the Bible as primarily propositional (I.e. The person who says to you, ‘You might say that, but Mark chapter six verse two says this…’
  3. It curtains off fresh theological thinking (I.e. ‘We’ve got the 39 Articles/Westminster Confession/Augsburg Confession, why do we need any new theological thinking?’)
  4. There is a tendency to think ‘who’s in and who’s out’ in terms of who counts as an Evangelical theologian (I.e. She’s a Calvinist/Arminian/Charismatic/non-charismatic etc… She’s not really Evangelical…)
  5. They tend to think that theology is not influenced by historical contexts (I.e. ‘Why don’t we just get back to what the Bible says?’
  6. It remains close to its Fundamentalist roots (I.e. ‘Is he really a Christian? I’ve heard that he drinks and smokes…’)

    You might have heard a few of these things said before – I know I have! I remember someone saying that C.S. Lewis wasn’t a Christian because he drank, and had unusual views on salvation and atonement! But much of this isn’t really Evangelicalism: it’s Fundamentalism in disguise. 

    For Olson, being an Evangelical isn’t about being theologically or politically conservative, instead it’s about five things: 1) being Biblically centred, 2) the need for a personal response to the Gospel, 3) putting the Cross at the heart of our understanding of salvation, 4) being active in regards to evangelism and social transformation, and 5) a respect for the ‘Great Tradition’ of Christian theology (one that Olson adds to distinguish Evangelicalism from groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses). For him, there are conservative and not-so-conservative ways of living out these five marks. 

    He gives the brilliant name, ‘Postconservative’ to the latter style. 

    It may be a long word, but there’s a reason why he does it. Olson is not simply going ‘liberal’. He affirms the conservative past of Evangelicalism. He’s not rejecting doctrinal orthodoxy or being Biblically centred. Instead, he’s moving beyond that conservative style of being an Evangelical. In fact, for Olson being a ‘Postconservative Evangelical’ is about getting back to the heart of what that original ‘Neo-Evangelical’ movement in the 40s and 50s was about. 

    So what does a Postconservative theology consist of? 

    1. Whereas conservatives tend to think of the purpose of God’s Revelation as giving us ‘information’ about God (so that we can respond correctly), Postconservatives view it as about transformation. They don’t reject the propositional, factual and informational aspects of Revelation, but instead view them as a means to an end: enabling a transforming experience of God. It’s about getting caught up in God’s story, rather than learning facts about God.
    2. Whereas conservatives tend to view the Bible as giving us all the facts and the job of the theologian to arrange it in a systematic way, Postconservatives emphasise that theology is on an open-ended Pilgrimage. There is a place for ‘faithful improvisation’, with new light always coming out of God’s word.
    3. Whereas conservatives tend to use Enlightenment-based ywas of thinking to articulate theology (which prizes rational certainty and coherent systems), Postconservatives tend to value the contributions made by postmodern ways of thinking. They recognise that theology is always ‘situated’, or that we don’t have God’s perspective on things.
    4. Whereas conservatives tend to think ‘Who’s in’ and ‘Who’s out’ of the Evangelical camp (the classic example being how Rob Bell was rejected from the Evangelical camp after his book ‘Love Wins’), Postconservatives tends to view Evangelicalism as being ‘centred’ on a few core values. In other words, who is nearer the centre, and who is moving away from it?
    5. Whereas conservatives tend to view the essence of Christianity as correct doctrinal beliefs, Postconservatives view it as spiritual experience. This is not a lapse into 19th Century German liberalism, but rather a ‘conversional piety’, in which people are transformed by an encounter with Jesus which is expressed in communal forms through testimonies, hymns, witness and worship.
    6. Whereas conservatives tend to believe that Scripture was best expressed through 16th Century (or some other equivalent) categories, Postconservatives believe that tradition is always open to being corrected by new readings of Scripture. This doesn’t mean that the Great Tradition of theology is irrelevant – far from it. Rather, it means that we don’t have the final word just yet, and sometimes that means having to correct previous misunderstandings of the Bible. 

    Postconservatives tend to be open to the way God illuminates his Revelation through changes in philosophy, science, the social sciences, and culture, with a flexibility not often encountered in conservative circles. They tend to emphasise the narrative aspects of Scripture above the propositional, with an eye towards the developments happening in the field of hermeneutics. This means that they can be some of the most creative thinkers out there. Indeed, many of the Evangelical theologians who have made genuine contributions to theological scholarship at large can be described as ‘Postconservative’. One thinks of Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, Stanley Grenz, and James K.A. Smith as figures who, though remaining doctrinally Orthodox and recognisably within the Evangelical world, are advancing theological thought in new and exciting ways.

    Although the term Postconservative is a theological term, I think it can expand to embrace your average Christian as well. It is especially the case in the modern Church of England that many Evangelicals don’t fit into the old ‘conservative’ label. They are much more flexible in dealing with modern culture, open to new ways of reading the Bible, more interested in how their lives can be changed by Jesus rather than learning information about him, and a lot less certain about ‘who’s in and who’s out’. At the same time, they remain recognisably Evangelical! Although the term ‘open Evangelical’ is often used, this can often mean multiple things (from being essentially a conservative Evangelical theologically speaking but accepting women priests, all the way to outright liberalism but with guitars in church!). As such, Postconservative could be a good word to use in that regard. 

    I recommend you to read one of Roger Olson’s books, whether it’s the more academic Reformed and Always Reforming or the one for a more general audio, How to be Evangelical without being conservative. They might help give you the language you need to describe how you still feel ‘Evangelical’ but would want to distance yourself from more conservative styles of being one.


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