(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

Roger Olson and the definition of postconservative evangelicalism

Roger Olson quotes what seems to me to be a not fully comprehensive definition of the category “postconservative evangelical” from a book by Steven B. Sherman called Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Approaches to the Knowledge of God:

Basically, they [postconservative evangelicals] compose a loose coalition of thinkers who are seeking to facilitate a number of ‘beyond’ moves, theologically: beyond the agenda of the modernist/fundamentalist dichotomy toward what they see as a more holistic theology; beyond classical foundationalist epistemology toward alternative concepts of knowledge; beyond concentration on rationalism toward incorporating additional ways of knowing; beyond inerrancy debates and concerns toward an instrumental use of scripture; beyond academy-centered theologizing toward ecclesial and community-oriented thinking; beyond gatekeeping on boundary-setting doctrinalism toward a generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis; and finally, beyond what they view as a fixation on the concerns of modernity often motivated by a fear of liberalism, toward a more positive view and selective appropriation of postmodern insights. (9-10)

I was about to quibble with Roger’s insistence that postconservative evangelicalism sublates—that is, somehow assimilates into itself—conservative evangelicalism. It seems to me that in a process of sublation or assimilation too much of the tension between the old and the new is lost. Postconservative evangelicalism is surely, to some extent, a repudiation of conservative evangelicalism—of its premises, its methods, its objectives. But I assume Roger’s point is that postconservative evangelicalism necessarily, by definition, preserves something integral to the identity of its predecessor. The question then, it seems to me, is: How close does it get to being something else? How clear is the “genetic” boundary between postconservative evangelicalism and postliberal evangelicalism, say—if such a thing exists either in principle or in practice? Or to postliberal Christianity in a more general sense?

But to get to the point, what I don’t find in Sherman’s definition is any acknowledgement of the place that an evangelical historical-critical methodology has in the development of a postevangelical theology. Admittedly the book is about “theological epistemology”, but this looks like it’s meant to be a rather general definition, and besides, historical-critical or narrative-historical modes of interpretation not only reflect distinctive epistemological commitments but also have massive implications for how a Christian self-understanding is constructed.

The definition opposes to the obsession with inerrancy not the sort of frank historical-critical reading of scripture that Kenton Sparks, for example, advocates but an “instrumental use of scripture”, which doesn’t solve anything. It opposes to doctrinalism not the context-sensitive reading of New Testament theology that the New Perspective argues for, but the sort of “generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis” that has got the emerging church a bad name.

Postconservative evangelicalism is also, I would suggest, a step beyond a way of doing theology that subordinates the interpretation of scripture to one theological system or another or to one mode of praxis or another. Daniel Kirk has often made this point, and it needs repeating:

Whether we think of that guiding theology as some small framework such as the Apostles Creed, or an extensive elaboration of doctrine such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, reading our Bibles to discover the theology of the church will inevitably take us far afield from the historical meaning of the text.

The emerging movement is as much at fault here as the various forms of conservative evangelicalism against which it has reacted. Both appear to be trapped in a mindset that prioritizes abstractions over narrative, myth over history, beliefs over arguments, instrumentality over understanding, piety over intellectual integrity. I think that evangelicalism has to find a way to move beyond this and reinstate scripture, critically and historically interpreted, as the ground for self-understanding.


Thanks for this reflection Andrew. I asked the question ‘Which is sublating which?’ in relation to postconservative and conservative evangelicalism. I would rather see a reclamation of the term ‘evangelical’ as focussing on Scripture, rather than this strange modernist obsession with semi-abstract doctrines which so often emerges…

Sublates? Sublation? Shouldn’t it be ‘subsumes’/’is subsumed’? ‘Subsumption’? Subliminates? Subliminal? Liminal?

Thanks for this post.  I think the lack of pursuing a more historical-critical approach is rooted in a fear of where that has taken many scholars - too far afield of the usual orthodox positions on many issues.  I think that is a poor reason, however, just as you do.  Perhaps a healthier move would be to embrace the honest pursuit of a historically-rooted hermeneutic, and learn to stand wherever that takes us, instead of insisting on certain dogmatic positions ‘because we always have’.  Sometimes our presuppositions on how-things-have-to-be blind us, even when we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise.  Sometimes we think we’re post-something, but in fact are not.

One way of dealing with this in principle would be to have “orthodoxy” and the historical-critical approach run alongside each in constructive dialogue, while preserving their independence and integrity, for as long as it takes to reach some sort of new consensus—or at least a better mutual understanding. Of course, orthodoxy has nothing to gain from this, and we’re not good at constructive dialogue at the best of times.