When I first began to write this post I fully expected it to be no more than two short paragraphs long and even considered simply adding it as an addendum to my last blog, Why I Am Evangelical or Inappropriate Use of “Fundamentalism”. However, as I reflected on what I would say, it soon became obvious how important this worldview – that of being ‘post-conservative’ – is to me. Important enough to set forth a pleaded articulation of what it is that makes one ‘post-conservative’. It became my goal – and my hope – that the reader will get a “sense” of what I am talking about, because being post-conservative is difficult to define and perhaps to many it may sound like little more than an exercise in semantics. I hope to show this not to be the case.
Let me begin with what my wife refers to as a “lovely metaphor”.
Have you ever been constipated? It is a horrible and painful ordeal. It is the sensation and awareness that something’s gotta give, you just have to get something out but for reasons you can’t explain there seems to be something else in the way. You become overwhelmed with frustration, you grab your stomach and buckle over in pain and you pray for relief so that what needs to come out can finally flow freely as nature intended. This, brothers and sisters, is analogous to my experience as a ‘theological conservative’. I was more or less raised up with the worldview that says, ‘don’t question this so far’ or ‘don’t think too much about that’ because if you do you are sure to wind up as a ‘liberal’. When that happens we’ll have no choice but to call you a heretic.
Don’t believe me? Consider this experience. I was a first year bible college student with many questions on my mind, and not many answers. A class discussion on original sin taught that the sin of Adam was a physical genetic disease that was physically passed down from one generation to another. However, since Jesus was perfect and born of a woman we must conclude that the “sin gene” was transmitted through the male chromosomes. Since Jesus had no earthly father we can conclude – so the theory goes – that this is true. Well I was no brilliant mind, but on all accounts this talk sounded pretty silly (as it still does). Not knowing any better I raised my hand and offered an alternative: the bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin. Could this passage not suggest that Jesus, who was perfect from birth to death, had a sin nature yet overcame it perfectly by not sinning? Wouldn’t this add substance to Jesus’ being tempted as we are?
Keep in mind that I was not presenting what I believed, but was trying to understand this situation better then what as being taught. No sooner did I get the words out of my mouth when murmurs of heresy began to circulate throughout the class. Later that evening I called a respected pastor who took the time to guide me and explain to me some things. While my class was quick to judge me a heretic, my friend recognized that I was an inquisitive Christian who needed direction. There is a difference.
It was not outright said: ‘Don’t think’, but it was more or less implied: ‘Don’t think outside of your tradition, don’t question what we’ve always believed’. But here is a problem I developed by way of observation: Catholics: people who are born and raised in this tradition or first get converted to it remain there and believe it to always teach the truth. Baptists: people who are born and raised in this tradition or first get converted to it remain there and believe it to always teach the truth. Pentecostals: people who are born and raised in this tradition or first get converted to it remain there and believe it to always teach the truth. Lutherans: people who … Anglicans: people who… Calvinists: people who… et cetera. In other words, people tend to believe that their tradition is the right one by default of being their tradition. Even many who are in search for “Truth” often fail to consider the possibility that maybe they don’t have it.
Yet I had the fortunate misfortune in my youth of coming across a quote by the ancient Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, who said:
“If our faith is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed, for it would have been proven that we do not possess the truth”.
I thought ‘this is a man who is more committed to finding ‘truth’ then stubbornly establishing his ‘tradition’’. Then – foolish me – I took Clements’ statement a step further and applied it to all areas of the faith, and this is where my “theological constipation” – and my anguish – came in.
- Q: Is “tongues” truly the evidence that someone has had the baptism of the Holy Spirit (as my tradition taught)? Then what about the majority of Christians through the ages – many of who claimed this experience – where tongues were absence (John Wesley)?
- Q: Why is it that no matter how I read the bible, a seven year tribulation theory makes no sense at all and can be found nowhere (as my tradition taught it), at least not by way of a most natural reading of Daniel 9:24-27?
- Q: If salvation is by grace through faith alone, if sacrifices could not take away sin, if God’s plan all along was to redeem creation through the sacrifice of Christ, then why do we (as my tradition taught) say that salvation in the old testament was by the law? How were the Old Testament saints saved?
These are just a few of the questions that I began to have, but the backlash was more then I was prepared to handle. ‘Heretic’; ‘crazy’; ‘get out of our church’; ‘to question “such-and-such” is heresy’, et cetera. In other words, ‘these are our traditions, you don’t like it? Leave!’ So I became constipated. I had these questions brewing within me but I was fearful of the backlash from the Christian conservative community (theological conservative is not necessarily “right wing conservatives”; you may be a “liberal left winger” and still be conservative when it comes to your liberal beliefs).
It is crucial to note that my questions were not polemical; that is, it wasn’t as though I read a book against the seven year tribulation theory and so challenged it, or that I read books by Reformed scholars and then challenged tongues evidence of Pentecostals. I was simply a bible reader with real questions. I read the bible and certain things which I was being taught (I knew nothing else) did not make sense, “here are my questions. Help me”. It was a situation of “I want to believe, help my unbelief”. But instead I was sent to the proverbial guillotine. So I spent several years with my lips tightly sealed for fear of the consequences of honest reflection in search of truth.
So what is the answer to constipation? How about a good large Bran muffin or better yet, a good dose of ex-lax! Roger Olson’s book (quoted in the previous blog) called, How to be Evangelical without being Conservative, was my ex-lax. “Conservative” throughout his book is not to be understood as a political Conservative (which I am); his issue is with theological conservativism. He says,
“When I claim that it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative, I mean by ‘conservative’ that habit of the heart that reacts against anything nontraditional and tends toward an idolatry of some perceived past ‘golden age’” [p.25 emphasis mine].
He says that it is his impression that “conservative theologians tend to place tradition on the same plane of authority as Scripture without admitting it” [p.145]. He clarifies himself by saying:
“My concern is that too many conservative evangelical theologians, pastors, teachers, and laypeople inadvertently elevate some tradition as the authoritative interpretive lens through which Scripture is read and understood. But that is, in effect, to place tradition on the same plane as Scripture” [p.146].
However, in all of this he is also quick to admit (as am I) that tradition itself is not bad and should not be easily dismissed. He says, “We all think along with some tradition as we read and interpret the Bible… [but it is important to recognize] that everything in Christian tradition is open to question in light of Scripture” [p.145 emphasis mine].
And this is where ‘post-conservative’ comes into play. He understands post-conservative evangelicals as Christians who are on a theological pilgrimage (and suggests that N.T. Wright – renown biblical scholar by all accounts – is post-conservative. As I side note, in Wrights recent book, it seems he read another of Olson’s books and embraces that term [Justification, p.26]). “Out of the Reformation came a principle for all Protestants always to follow: reformata et simper reformanda – reformed and always reforming. In other words, Christians are always to remain open to changes in doctrine and practice insofar as they are required by Scripture” [p.150].
I am post-conservative because I believe all of our traditions must be open to question and even change in light of further biblical reflection. I am post-conservative because I firmly believe that Christians need to remain in an attitude of “Reformed and Always Reforming”. I am post-conservative because I am truly Evangelical, placing ‘scripture supremely’ over and above all traditions. I do not reject or discard tradition; I respect tradition, but with such an array of “Christian Traditions” in the world today I believe it would be both naive and arrogant to suppose that my tradition – on merit of being mine and on merit of being the lens by which I interpret the scriptures – is the correct one. And all others – by merit of not being mine – are by default wrong. As a post-conservative I agree with N.T. Wright: “The problem is not that people disagree with me. That is what one expects and wants. Let’s have the discussion! The point of course is to learn with and from one another” [Justification, p.20].
And that is why I am post-conservative today. Will you join me on this theological and biblical pilgrimage?