You Silly Postconservatives…

From Reformed and Always Reforming:The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology, by Roger Olson:

…indubitable foundations yielding rational certainty are nowhere to be found in the postmodern world; we now know that all knowledge arises within and hangs on beliefs shaped by perspectives shared by communites created by stories and traditions (134, emphasis added).

I circled the word “know” in my book and wrote this note in the margin: “indubitably?”.

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About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
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25 Responses to You Silly Postconservatives…

  1. nathanwells says:

    Yeah, Olson is an interesting guy…we read his “story” of Christian theology book for Historical Theo.

    Hehe.

    Not the best, but it is better than reading a list of facts.

  2. Gavin says:

    Funny… I’m presently reading through Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (because I wanted to experience levels of frustration heretofore unachieved), and this Roger Olson quote sounds EXACTLY like most of the first half of Bell’s book. We can’t know… we can’t have certainty… we can’t come to any solid, universal interpretation of Scripture… UNLESS, that is, it is Bell’s interpretation. We can, of course, be certain of THAT!

    It’s madness. It’s 20th Century liberalism gone even more mad…just packaged in cool hair and cool glasses.

    Perhaps what is most maddening, is that we new Calvinists (young restless reformed) are accused of lacking epistemic/epistemological humility. In other words, so says the criticism, we’re too prideful in our assertions that we can KNOW certain things with certainty (particularly doctrine). And YET, Bell and the like, while at the same time accusing others of these things, exhibit the very thing they accuse = epistemic pride… Because, they say, they KNOW that what we say can be known, cannot be known.

    Makes me want to tear my hair out.

  3. Danny Slavich says:

    I agree Gavin. I think the postconservatives, et al accuse the conservatives of being naive — i.e. that we are simply caving in to the Enlightenment. When I think they are the ones who are naive in thinking that we cannot go beyond (or earlier than) the Enlightenment. They have bought the Kantian epistemology that we can only know the phenomenal realm and not the noumenal.

  4. Ben says:

    So, Danny, would you characterize me as postconservative?

  5. Danny Slavich says:

    No.

  6. Ben says:

    Well, that doesn’t give me much to work with.

  7. Danny Slavich says:

    I know.

  8. Danny Slavich says:

    Basically, my assessment of you Ben is that you are not sure what you believe. You think a lot and you find holes in poor thinking (as you should). But sometimes that might work against you in your search for certainty.

  9. Ben says:

    Wow … is that better or worse than being postconservative?

  10. Danny Slavich says:

    It’s different, and I would like to think it’s better, being that you’re a friend and all.

    It still isn’t where I would like you to be though 🙂

  11. Ben says:

    Hm, you probably won’t be happy until I sign the Second London Confession, will you?

  12. Lee says:

    Yes, but is he a standard, no-nonsense Ben, or a silly Ben?

  13. Ben says:

    I’m not sure I followed that one.

  14. Lee says:

    In other words, if you’re not PC , then are you a silly non-PC, or a non-silly non-PC?

  15. I would say whatever else he may be, Ben is anything but silly.

    Although I don’t understand how Kierkegaard could be edifying for your soul than the kind of stuff they post on OFI.

  16. Ben says:

    Well, we’re all in process, aren’t we? Or is that just me?

  17. Lee says:

    We are most definitely all in process!

    I know that Ben is not silly – I just wanted it to be stated for posterity given the title of this post and the subsequent discussion 🙂

  18. Ken Silva says:

    “rational certainty are nowhere to be found in the postmodern world;…”

    So I guess he now wants us to disregard his statement of certainty here.

    Oddly enough, I’m certain that he is wrong and that something remains true whether a pouty postmodern likes it or not. 🙂

  19. Brandon says:

    I believe Roger Olson is being vastly misunderstood.

    Olson goes to great pains to delineate between “hard” and “soft” postmodernism. The former is represented by deconstructionists’ like Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. Their views inevitably lead to the relativism everyone is (rightly) criticizing. However, this is not what Olson is argues.

    He is moving towards “soft” postmodernism, which does not sink in quicksand of hard postmodernism. He believes in truth. However, he also realizes that because of our sinful natures and finitude we often muck up the truth. Further, he highlights that no one has a “view from nowhere” on truth. All truth is “perspectival”, that is, we all learn from various perspectives based on our family, culture, race, genes, etc. (he especially highlights community)

    I think Olson is right that many Enlightenment and even present day theologians presuppose a sort of purely neutral or objective take on reality. The problem they are no taking the above concerns into consideration (I.e. sin, finitude, perspective). They work in a vacuum of cold rationality. The answer is not to deny truth or claim we have it all figured out. Rather, these factors should lead to critical realism. Like Luther and Calvin, we continually recheck our (inherited) beliefs against Scripture, through the Spirit, for the purpose of becoming more like Christ (transformation). That’s a good word.

    Danny/Gavin:

    You both ask Olson if he “indubitably knows” whether our acquisition of knowledge takes place in community. I think Olson would respond by saying that he does not indubitably know, that’s exactly the point. Even his knowledge is not “indubitable”, only God’s is. So Olson would admit that he may be wrong. However he can have a “proper confidence” in his beliefs (some more than others).

    Don’t we all function this way? How do you know you are not simply a brain in a vat, being fed sensory information by aliens? Or perhaps we are in the Matrix with Keanu Reeves? The fact is we cannot be 100% sure either of these scenarios is false. But we have a proper confidence to think so (or relative probability perhaps). I would add that the degree that our thoughts correspond with God’s thoughts we ascertain truth. Of course, because we don’t have a bird’s eye view of that correspondence and because of the three factors I mentioned above, a dose of humility, faith, and rechecking is needed.

    Last point for Danny. I don’t think Olson is working in a Kantian epistemology. It’s postfoundationalist. Also, I think understanding that out knowledge of God is analogical is helpful here. But perhaps you disagree. Thanks for letting me chime in, sorry for the long post.

  20. Danny Slavich says:

    Brandon, I’m glad you’ve joined the fray 🙂

    I didn’t mean to communicate that Olson operates out of “hard” postmodernist milieu of pure and simple relativism. The point of my original post was more to note that even a so-called “soft” postmodernism cannot stand under its own weight. There will inevitably be an appeal to an absolute, as Olson slips into in the quote I posted. I think the charge of relativism is that of a dangerous tendency, and not the actual reality of postconservative thinking (at least for Olson). I think that the “fallen nature” argument is more of an excuse than an actual argument for such thinking. I don’t think they are saying we are so fallen that we cannot know absolutely. They are instead seeking to undercut an appeal to an absolute (like an inerrant Scripture).

    It boils down to his view of God’s revelation. He forms his theology from below, from the human experience of the grace of Christ.

    When I referred to Kantian epistemology, I didn’t mean that they are operating entirely out of a Kantian framework. I meant that they are trying to work out their epistemology in a post-Kantian era, where it is virtually assumed that there is a bifurcation between “what we can know” and “what actually is.”

  21. Ben says:

    Well, Danny, I might be confused, but you’ve just described a view that I’ve held a good deal longer than you’ve been a Baptist.

  22. Well, if you mean a “Southern Baptist”, then yes.

    If you mean a “convictional baptist”, then I would guess not.

  23. Brandon says:

    Danny.

    Fair enough, thanks for the clarification. I suppose I simply disagree about the value of soft postmodernism. Personally, I think there are many helpful points it brings to the daylight. Also I would be careful not to wed the rejection of inerrancy with soft postmodernism. There are many people who draw from the soft postmodern paradigm who fully embrace inerrancy. For example, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Franke, Scot McKnight, and even D.A. Carson (with qualification) who has a high regard for Lesslie Newbigin (the fountainhead of soft postmodernism for evangelicals). Much could be said of term inerrancy itself, but that’s another discussion, and I don’t think it’s particularly relevant for our discussion.

    I believe Scripture is inerrant and infallible, but my interpretation (or our communities, say Southern Seminary’s) of it is not. Our interpretation is errant and fallible—we do not have “indubitable truth” in our grasp. Therefore, we start with a set of basic inherited beliefs and within that infrastructure evaluate the internal coherence of our system against the Bible, through interaction with divergent views, in prayer and humility (this is what the Reformers did).

    Further, I don’t think it is utterly inconsistent to assent to a brand (of which there are many) of soft postmodernism and be open to change. Like I mentioned before we live this way. I do not have indubitable certainty exactly how by Chevy Cavalier’s engine runs or even if it will safely arrive at church on Sunday morning. But I have proper confidence (for a variety of reasons) that it will. Thus I live “as if” I it will. A similar case is being made for theological enquiry.

    Finally I think it reductionistic and unfair to say that evangelical soft postmodernist in to the Kantian bifurcation between “what we can know” and “what actually is” (especially in the way Kant argued this). They would admit precisely because of special revelation (and perhaps also general revelation) there is no separation of noumenal and phenomena. Scrap the whole system, because of revelation the noumenal is intermixed with phenomenal (but even that is not statement is misleading).

    Christians of both stripes believe God has revealed truth to us (“what actually is). Soft postmoderns are just more aware, in my opinion, of the sociological factors that can (not must) skew our understanding of the Scriptures (I.e. The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages perpetuation of fallacious interpretation or the endorsement of Christian slavery).

    I don’t have time to unpack this point, but in a way I think the Evidentialist (we can “prove” God or Christianity) vs. Presuppostionalist (we cannot “prove” God or Christianity) debate corresponds with this discussion. I and most soft postmoderns tend to gravitate toward the ladder. Van Til in many ways was a precursor to soft postmodernism.

    For the interest of being forthright I think Olson misses the mark in many places in his book. Also I don’t think the conservative vs. postconservative distinction is at all helpful. It’s much more of a spectrum with many mediating figures, like myself, in between.

  24. Brandon says:

    because I havent written enough…

    Danny, sorry if i sounded a bit disagreeable or mean-spirited, that was not my intention. I tend to get carried away (like Luther) and forget to be charitable to others. I do respect your take on this and admit that my thoughts are in the works, and may be wrong.

  25. Danny Slavich says:

    Brandon, no worries about the tenor of your comments. I didn’t take offense at all, and your points are helping me to clarify my own thinking.

    Interestingly,there is an interesting discussion about God language going on here. It relates to the “analogical” language of God, etc.

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