The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Classicists, Part Two: Classical Postconservative Evangelicals

This is the third of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology. The first and second can be found here and here.


In the last article, we began to explore the ancestral home of most Evangelical theology: the Classical region. This had been dominated by one tribe, Classical Conservative Evangelicals (CCE), which led the direction within the region in the immediate post-war era. This was the theology of biblical authority, penal substitution, apologetics, and traditional soteriology. It was also a theology that would ‘test’ inherited theological models against the witness of Scripture. Although it tended towards conservatism in that testing, this was not always the case. Wayne Grudem and John Stott found themselves questioning such things as divine impassibility, the harmony of the attributes of God, and even (for Grudem and Bruce Ware) the equality of the Son with the Father (Grudem and Bruce Ware). Other theologians continued this spirit and model of theology and wanted to broaden what could be ‘tested’. Divine simplicity, divine foreknowledge, justification, soteriology, Biblical hermeneutics and Common-Sense Realist philosophy were also put on the table and inspected – and often found wanting. Furthermore, such theologians were noticing Such a sub-tribal unit of theology had been found from the very beginning of Neo-Evangelicalism, whether that were Bernard Ramm and later Donald Bloesch in America, or G.R. Beasley-Murray in the UK. Such theology had been nurtured within the heart of Classical Conservatism. John Stott enabled intellectual flexibility for many young Evangelicals in British Anglicanism through questioning such classical doctrines as eternal punishment and advocating annihilationism,[1] emphasising the unity of evangelism and social action at Lausanne, and giving such a prominent place to the Anthony Thiselton in the 1977 Nottingham National Evangelical Anglican Congress. The charismatic movement also helped break down old barriers and help a new generation question restrictive theology – David Watson’s rapprochement with Roman Catholic charismatics was a sign of a new direction for the Charismatic Evangelical movement. This sub-tribal unit became stronger throughout the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, such issues as Open Theism in doctrine and women’s ministry in practice established Classical Postconservatism as a new tribe in the Evangelical country. This new tribe began to compete for access to the old watering holes (journals, publishers, professorships). Now nearly thirty year on, they are an established part of the region, they have developed their own sub-tribal units, some of which are moving further away from the great ‘ancestral spirits’.

So, let’s look at the Classical Postconservative Evangelical (CPE) tribe.


The Beginnings of Postconservatism

Although the label ‘postconservative’ appeared as far back as 1973/74 with Jack Roger’s book, Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical[2] (subsequently retitled by the publishers to be called Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical), it was with the publishing of Clark Pinnock’s Tracking the Maze[3] in which the category was first made public. Roger Olson popularised the term with his article for Christian Century ‘Postconservative Evangelicals Greet the Postmodern Age’, and his subsequent book Reformed and Always Reforming.[4] Originally, the term ‘postconservative’ was a rather broad category that included some retrospectively odd combinations – Kevin Vanhoozer and F. LeRon Shults found themselves bedfellows, for instance. Nevertheless it helpfully gave a label to this emerging alternative tribe of Neo-Evangelical theology.

Prior to the war, there were Evangelical theologians who wanted to distance themselves from the drift into Fundamentalism in the inter-war years. These included the Anglican Liberal Evangelical movement and their successors in the post-war years such as Max Warren and John V. Taylor. Similarly, there were theologians in the United States who remained in the mainline denominations attempting to create a Neo-Orthodox and Barthian theology which mediated between liberalism and Fundamentalism (Claude Welch is a good example). A similar move was made from the Fundamentalist side in the post-war period with the beginning of Neo-Evangelicalism. Even though the majority of Neo-Evangelical theologians such as Henry and Ockenga maintained Fundamentalist theology without beginning isolationist, other theologians like Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch were far more open to the emerging thinking from mainline theology. Yet the Postconservative tribe truly began to emerge when the Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock made his great journey during 1970s, 80s and 90s from cessationist Calvinism to charismatic Open Theism[5] (stopping at Arminianism along the way). Though most Postconservative theologians would reject Open Theism, what often set them apart from their CCE brothers and sisters was their defence of it as a legitimate Evangelical option. The same goes with women’s ministry (another emerging fault-line in the 90s). This is because, like CCE theologians they believe that inherited theology must be rigorously tested against the witness of the Scriptures – it’s just they are less cautious about it. Furthermore, whereas CCE theologians – being nurtured in Common Sense Realism – were wary of postmodern philosophy (see D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God),[6] Postconservatives critically embraced it. The primary interpretative lens for the Scriptures became narrative rather than propositional theology. Such a move can be seen even in the 70s with Anthony Thiselton bringing the rising philosophy of hermeneutics to bare on Biblical studies.

Fuller Theological Seminary and Wheaton College have acted as bastions of moderate Postconservative theology for decades in America, and have global reach. Sometimes even their moderate Postconservatism can cause tensions with the wider Evangelical world. This was demonstrated when Larycia Hawkins was suspended from Wheaton for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In the previous decade, Elaine Storkey, the renowned feminist theologian, had been dismissed from Wycliffe Hall in Oxford after the then Principle Richard Turnbull had attempted to change the colleges open Evangelical tone towards a more conservative line.


The Character of Postconversatism

Although the term Postconservative has been drastically misunderstood (and often deliberately so by its opponents) to mean liberalism, it nevertheless helped bring definition to a group of theologians who, though passionately Evangelical (and passionate about the biblicism, crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism associated with the movement)[7] were not happy with what they perceived as the (inconsistent) straight-jacket on thinking imposed by conservatism. Wanting to positively engage with Postmodernism without denying the centrality of Jesus? Postconservative. Fully uphold the authority of the Bible yet uncomfortable with the Chicago definition of inerrancy? Postconservative. A champion of Nicene Christianity yet interested by revisionist trinitarianism of Moltmann and Pannenberg? Postconservative. Firmly supportive of women’s ministry but only because you’re convinced of it by the Scriptures? Postconservative. Postconservatives became known by the wide spectrum of theological conversation partners. If you were to pick up Stanley Grenz’s sadly curtailed systematic series The Matrix of Christian Theology,[8] you would find critical through positive engagements with Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Heidegger and Derrida; N.T. Wright is not afraid to slaughter sacred cows such as Reformation understandings of justification through a narrative engagement with Biblical criticism;[9] Clark Pinnock’s held respectful conversations with process theology[10] and richly interweaved mainline, evangelical and charismatic theologies in his pneumatology.[11]

Yet nevertheless, such theology had all the hallmarks of its Classical upbringing: an emphasis on biblical theology informing systematics (though with narrative criticism as the main guide), upholding the centrality of Christ (though with a new emphasis on Jesus’ humanity though not at the expense of his divinity), a firm emphasis on substitutionary atonement (though the penal side was less important than to Classical Conservatives), an evangelistic approach to theology via apologetics (though one that drew in alternative philosophical partners like Derrida and Heidegger). For Postconservatives, Scripture must be the guiding principle for the tools used to study Scripture – something which has the potential to be circular. Hence why for Grenz postmodernism frees theologians to be more biblical: postfoundationalist means theology is no longer reliant on what was for him an alien modernist framework for approaching the authority of Scripture. Scripture can therefore provide its own models for interpretation. These models in turn can be used to explore subjects not usually within the purview of theology, including the social sciences and the arts. One theologian who is exploring how ‘Scriptural Criticism’ – i.e. a model of criticism emerging from the Scriptures – can be used in conjunction with postmodern philosophy is Christopher Watkin, whose excellent Thinking Through Creation (a Postconservative theology arising from a Neocalvinist heritage), demonstrates the ongoing potential of such ways of thinking.[12]


Moderates and radicals

CPE have moderate and more radical adherents. Roger Olson can be seen a mediating figure, who though on the conservative end of Postconservatism, defends the theology of more radical proponents. Although he has spent much of his time defending Arminianism[13] has also written books expounding a narrative-based approach to worldview along Grenzian lines.[14] One moderate who borders on Classical Conservative theology is the brilliant Anglican theologian Alister McGrath. His prolific output has focussed on four areas: Reformation theology,[15] doctrinal development,[16] apologetics,[17] and the theology of science.[18] Though in many ways a conservative, his views on evolution and the biblical rationale for justification by faith have made him suspect in conservative circles. Dallas Willard, another moderate, made the first English translation of Hussurl, and used phenomenology to give insight to the process of Christian discipleship.[19] Robert K. Johnston has developed a conversation between systematics and film criticism.[20] John R. Franke has continued the postfoundationalist path set by Stanley Grenz.[21]

Arguably the most fruitful area of moderate CPE theology is found in Biblical studies. CPE have begun to utilise the riches of Biblical criticism in helping formulate an orthodox Biblical theology in the 21st Century that doesn’t simply opt for the most conservative interpretative approach. Anthony Thiselton’s contributions to biblical hermeneutics[22] and Pauline studies[23] have been game-changing in developing a new, critically engaged Evangelical biblical scholarship. In some ways Telford Work[24] has developed Thiselton’s approach. In Old Testament studies, John H. Walton, Tremper Longman III, and John Goldingay have put the Israelite Scriptures in their original context and in doing so have helped Evangelicals enormously when reconciling Scripture with contemporary science and historical studies.

In the New Testament wing, those who have followed the lead of N.T. Wright have continued to help Evangelicals understand the historical Jesus and Pauline theology against the background of the 1st Century Roman world. This has caused some tension, and even claims of heresy! Wright – and critical[25] followers such as Matthew Bates, Scot McKnight and Michael Bird – have argued that Evangelicalism has overplayed the role of justification by faith, and that the Reformers before them misunderstood it. First, the centre of the Gospel is Jesus the King (not justification by faith).[26] Secondly justification by faith needs to be understood in the political connotations of the period. Bates summarised this by provocatively talking about ‘Saved by Allegiance Alone’[27] – in which Paul was arguing for faithful covenantal allegiance to the King Jesus – thereby undermining the faith/works dichotomy. Michael Bird has written the first systematic theology that has taken onboard the post-New Perspectives on Paul revolution.[28] However, this is not to overlook the fruitful biblical theology being produced by Wesleyan theologians. Joel Green[29] and Ben Witherington III[30] number among a multitude of moderate CPE biblical scholars in the Methodist tradition. However, the outstanding figure here is Richard B. Hays, whose studies into Paul and New Testament ethics[31] rank alongside Anthony Thiselton and N.T. Wright in demonstrating the impact Evangelical biblical studies are having on the wider academic world. Hays has also demonstrated ways in which the seemingly incompatible theologians of Barth and Wright may be reconciled.

The CPE radical wing includes those who have followed after the Open Theism of Clark Pinnock, including John Sanders,[32] Thomas Jay Oord,[33] and Gregory Boyd.[34] Indeed, Boyd has written the first systematic biblical theology from an open theistic perspective.[35] Meanwhile, on a different track from open theism, Wesleyan theologians J. Richard Middleton,[36] Howard Snyder[37] and David Wilkinson,[38] have argued for a thoroughly this-worldly eschatology. They have gone even further than the kinds of eschatological imagined by N.T. Wright, arguing against such notions as the soul in their emphasis on the resurrection of the body in the transfigured new creation. What is striking about this radical wing is that it is now showing the signs of speciation. There is a marked lack of engagement with the old CCE world even if it still engages CPE to a certain extent. Other than John Wesley, there are few offerings given to the old ancestral spirits of Evangelicalism.



Since the deaths of Stanley Grenz and Clark Pinnock, there has been a divergence and sometimes a dissolution of the movement.  Some of the most prominent CPE figures have either moved away from Evangelicalism, embracing a low-church form of liberalism (many of the Emerging Church movement leaders or Steve Chalk) or have moved away from Christianity entirely (the sad case of F. LeRon Shults becoming an atheist philosopher, for instance). Some of the conversation partners have continued the CPE conversation, but without referring to the old CCE paradigm any longer (such as Barthian and Pentecostal Revisionists – see Part III). Others have become increasingly wary of the slide into liberalism of some of the CPE proponents and have instead emphasised Evangelical Catholicism. Such a move can be seen in a single book. James K.A. Smith’s first edition of The Fall of Interpretation was written as a Classical Postconservative, ‘emerging church’ approach to hermeneutics. The second edition[39] makes few changes, other than by bookending it with a new opening and closing chapter, and is profusely littered with new footnotes, critiquing the first edition in favour of a ‘Postliberal’ Confessional Evangelical Catholicism.

This is not to say that CPE is dead – far from it! There is still much fecund theology developing in this tribe which shows little sign of slowing down. However, there are new tribes emerging out of Classical Postconservative Evangelicalism, which I have called ‘Revisionist’, and are discussed in later articles on Barthians and Pentecostals. Furthermore, there are those theologians who (whilst not yet a tribe of their own) would perhaps be best called ‘Postclassical Postconservative’ – still Evangelical, still Postconservative, but no longer referencing the great evangelical ‘ancestral spirits’ of the post-war era. Perhaps figures like Richard Middleton and Miroslav Volf can be placed in this category. When stepping back and looking at both CCE and Classical Postconservative Evangelicalism, one cannot help but notice the degree to which they map onto already existing tribal lines between Calvinists and Arminians. Most CCE subscribe to Calvinism in some form; most Postconservatives subscribe to Arminianism (there are, of course, exceptions). Many Postconservative theologies have eerie similarities to some of the moderate Arminian explorations of the 17th Century.[40] Perhaps in many ways, history repeats itself.


Representative theologians: Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, Roger Olson, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Anthony Thiselton, Richard B. Hays, Robert K. Johnston, Christopher Watkin, John R. Franke, John H. Walton, Tremper Longman III, John Goldingay, Matthew Bates, Scot McKnight, Michael F. Bird, Joel Green, Ben Witherinton III, John Sanders, Thomas Jay Oord, Greg Boyd, J. Richard Middleton, David Wilkinson


In the next two articles we will be looking at an alternative approach to being Conservative Evangelicals: the Evangelical Catholicism of Confessional Evangelical Catholics and Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics.



[1] David L. Edwards and John Stott, Essentiald: A liberal-evangelical dialogue (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), p.312-20

[2] Jack Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974)

[3] Clark Pinnock, Tracking the Maze: Finding Our Way through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990)

[4] Roger E. Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007)

[5] See Clark H. Pinnock and John Sanders (ed), The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 1994)

[6] D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2009)

[7] See D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989) for this famous definition of Evangelicalism. See also the first article in this series.

[8] Stanley Grenz, The Matrix of Christian Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press) 2 Volumes

[9] N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: SPCK, 2013)

[10] John B. Cobb and Clark H. Pinnock (ed), Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000)

[11] Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 1996)

[12] Christopher Watkin, Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (Phillisburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017)

[13] Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006) and Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)

[14] Roger E. Olson, The Essence of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story (CARR, 2017)

[15] See for example his Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985) or Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Fourth Edition (Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, 2012)

[16] Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Second Edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) or The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans, 1997)

[17] Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012)

[18] A Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 3 Volumes

[19] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1998)

[20] Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006)

[21] John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Evangelical Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005)

[22] Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997)

[23] Anthony Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle and His Thought (London: SPCK, 2009) is a good introduction to Thiselton’s approach

[24] Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001)

[25] I.e. these acknowledge the correcting insights of John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015)

[26] Scot McKnight, King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good New Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)

[27] Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017)

[28] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013)

[29] Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997), and Recovering the scandal of the cross: atonement in New Testament and contemporary contexts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000)

[30] Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (London: T&T Clark, 1994), and Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)

[31] Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Sub-Structure of Galatians 3.1-4.11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001), The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (London: T&T Clark International, 1997)

[32] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2009)

[33] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2015)

[34] Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000)

[35] The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Fortress Press, 2017) 2 Volumes.

[36] J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013)

[37] Howard A. Snyder, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Cascade Books, 2011)

[38] David Wilkinson, Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 2010)

[39] James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000/2012)

[40] See Stephen Hampton, Anti Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

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