Is the church inherently conservative? Well, it depends.

Let me start off by saying what I am not trying to answer in this article. I am not trying to decide once and for all if the church falls on the conservative side of the American political spectrum or on the liberal side. The modern left-right paradigm is an Enlightenment project. It would be completely ahistorical to force a 2,000-year-old institution to ascribe to such a label.[1] However, what the church and the Right share is a commitment to tradition, a resistance to change. For that is, after all, the meaning of “conservatism”: a conservation of the past. And thus, my question becomes: is the church conservative insofar as it resists change and upholds tradition? To this I would answer in the affirmative, but not how one might think.

So for those of you looking for a political diatribe, this is the time to jump ship, but I would ask you to bear with me as I think that by the end of this essay you will agree that this is the fruitful question to be asking.

Yet having side-stepped the divisive political questions, I find myself in another minefield. For after all, the church is divided among Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox on the question of the role tradition should play in the development of doctrine and the Christian life. Before I unnecessarily ruffle some reader’s feathers I should note that I am Protestant and find myself in the tradition that comes from the Reformers of the 16th Century. But that does not make my position necessarily anti-tradition. The role of tradition and the concern for the past is something that is not a strict Protestant/Roman Catholic divide. (Some Protestants, too, hold tradition in high regard, as will be discussed below.) Furthermore, I also wish to clarify what I am arguing against is not necessarily the Catholic or Orthodox or high church position. Rather, the question that I seek to address regards the latent prioritization of tradition and the achievements of the past above and beyond the concerns of the present and agency of contemporary Christians. Is this prioritization necessary for the people of God?

There are at least two ways in which the conservative spirit is found within Christian practice: the conserving of doctrines and the conservation of practices. I will address each of them in turn.[2]

In our present context, one of the primary ways that people conceive of Christianity is as a certain set of beliefs, a system of dogma. Construed in this way, it is only rational, then, that there would exist people who fail to hold to any such religious systems, or, even more so, that such a lack would be normal and natural. But this way of thinking is only an extension of the Enlightenment project of detached rational thinking. In this model of the human subject, the self is nothing more than a brain on a stick, for knowledge and truth are seen as something that one’s mind can hold apart from one’s body. True knowledge, in the Cartesian tradition of modern philosophizing, is arrived at only by thinking through things from first principles. There were, of course, detractors to such a model of knowledge, but the foundationalist legacy of truth still stood as the bedrock of the Enlightenment project. Truth was seen as a statement that a person could make about the world, something that can either be right or wrong. As philosopher Charles Taylor points out, it is an inside-out theory of knowledge: one has to have the right representation of what is outside in the world within one’s mind.[3] That is the truth.

Conservative Christian theologians are noted for their refusal to prioritize the rational faculties of humankind over and above the revelation of God and the anthropocentric turn in philosophical discourse. However, what conservative Christian critics of modernity failed to realize is just how much Enlightenment conceptions of truth have seeped into the way the church theologizes. In talking about the gospel in terms of “absolute truth,” or in placing a high value on the content of doctrines, conservative Christians have unknowingly imbibed the rationalizing elixir of modernity. Placing such an emphasis on orthodoxy over other aspects of the Christian tradition has left Christianity open to being criticized in the same breath as the very modernist worldviews it seeks to oppose.[4] In emphasizing the core truths of Christianity, theologians implicitly took up philosophical commitments that are not inherent to the shape of Christianity.

On the other hand, liberal theologians, following in the tradition established by 19th-century German theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl, posit Christianity as channeling subjective and personal truths of a person’s emotion and experience of God, sidelining Christianity from metaphysical questions and focusing instead only on the ethical dimensions of Christian doctrines. Liberal theologians were those who more readily acclimated to the modern zeitgeist. Following the thought of Immanuel Kant, they held that Christianity does not teach you anything about the world or how it works — that is the work of philosophers and scientists. Rather, it only teaches one how one should behave in the world.

Christian theology was for a large part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries caught up in this bind. On one side there were the conservative theologians who placed a high importance on orthodoxy — believing the right doctrines. On the other, the liberals placed a higher priority on orthopraxis — practicing the right form of ethics.[5] These two groups were not only intellectual movements but affected the world beyond the academy. This is especially true for Protestants who, when they disagree on things, tend to split up and form different churches and denominations.

But the conservative-liberal split is not the end of the story. In the later parts of the twentieth century there came about a new wave of theology championed by the Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck.[6] Drawing on the theological influence of Karl Barth and the philosophical influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, these “postliberals” complicated both conservative and liberal theologies.[7]

One of the key moves made by the postliberals was a deflationary account of doctrine, which they made by drawing upon Wittgenstein’s holistic view of truth. By their account, doctrine makes explicit what was already implicit within the Christian community of worship. This kind of account is very much indebted to a Wittgensteinian account of language and meaning that I can by no means do justice in this article,[8] but suffice it to say that instead of accepting the Cartesian-inspired inside-outside theory of language (see above), the postliberals held to a pragmatic and communal view of language. In such a view, one recognizes that one knows things always from a certain place in time, history, and community. To use philosophical terminology, one is always already “thrown”[9] and caught up in a language-game.[10]

In simpler language, truth is found within a community. We see truth always through the lens of our culture and society. This is not to deny the existence of truth, but rather to index truth to one’s condition as a contingent, embodied, and ultimately created knower. God has given us bodies that are bound up in space and time and made our brains to work through language that (to some extent) has already been given to us. It is only through our embodied selves that we can arrive at truth. But the importance of truth is not as something that is arrived at but as something that is already immanent. The propositional statement “God is one” takes only secondary importance to the reality of that truth in one’s life.  What is important is the fact that we are already living in a way that this a truth is a reality. As James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (Jas 2:19, ESV). It does not matter if I pay lip service to a certain doctrine or that I can define it with exceeding nuance if that is not a lived reality in my life. But if I do live in such a manner, the propositional claim that “God is one” is only making explicit a reality that is already at work.

Therefore, the importance of doctrine is secondary to the confessional claim and practice of the church. But practice here is not something that is defined in only ethical terms. On the contrary, it determines the whole lifeworld of the Christian community. Postliberals do not necessarily adhere to the liberal isolation of church teaching into the realm of ethics. The church is allowed to define itself on its own terms; it does not have to accept ethics as a technical term indebted to certain philosophical commitments, but can define its engagement with the world from its own tradition. Arriving at this point, one notices the restructuring of the conservative influence on the church. It is not “conservative” in the secular sense but rather committed to the historical working of the Spirit through the Body of Christ.

Even though they are not what one would normally think of as conservative when one thinks of doctrine, I still find that the postliberals are conservative in their overall aim: the practice of the Christian faith.[11] So it is now that I turn to the second leg of my original distinction: practice.

Here is where I depart from the postliberals. Essential to their conception of the church is a prizing of the historical Christian liturgies, practices, and traditions. However, this emphasis on the established institutions of the high church has a blind eye to how the very church tradition itself was at one point contingent. Church tradition did not have to be this way, nor is it part of the essence of Christianity. Christian practice did not originate as some kind of undefiled, Platonic truth that is totally distinct from its environs. Christianity has always been found in the world, and its doctrines and liturgies have been shaped by people who lived within particular worlds of practice. It comes as no surprise that these historically contingent way of doing things found their way into Christian practice.[12] In emphasizing the church’s traditions, postliberals are blind to the fact that these traditions themselves came out of the church engaging with the world around it and not just standing apart from it. Postliberal views see the church’s tradition as a prophetic voice at the world rather than a loving dialogue with it.

However, it would be erroneous to take this criticism into account and strive for the undefiled essence of Christianity. Such is an illusory goal. We can never divorce the manifestations of the church from the world insofar as the church is the collection of all believers and every one of us is shaped by the socio-historical milieu in which one finds oneself. So if we are not to prize tradition and practice as Platonized truths nor discard them altogether, what then are we to do?

I find that a return to Scripture will be helpful here. The model for the church should be the imagery of exiles presented in Jeremiah 29. We are among but not of. Called out for the sake of but not tainted by the world. As the prophet Jeremiah so aptly and inspiredly puts it, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:5-7).

The church is always in a dialogue with the world and a dialogue with its own past. I refuse to accept the neo-Platonic claim that there is an essence to the Church or to Christianity which we can arrive at if we strip it of its cultural and historical baggage. Rather, individual believers are the inheritors of our forerunners in the faith. We channel their paths in tradition and faith expressions. But also we recognize that tradition itself was once contingent and that the past does not exhaust the possibilities for the present. We live as actors living out the latter chapters of the biblical drama, taking our cues from those who have gone before us, learning under them, imitating them but knowing that it is now time for us to play our part and improvise our own dialogue with the ever-changing world around us.


[1] This hermeneutical aporia aside, allow me for a brief moment to consider this question a bit further. The Right, against its better wishes, is not unchanging: the policies and postures that it takes vary throughout history and throughout space.

[2] One could also add a third distinction to these categories: conserving of institutions. However in the present essay I will refrain from doing so for two reasons. First, I find that my argument in the context of doctrine and practice should go far enough so as to encompass this critique. Second, this goes back to the Protestant-Roman Catholic distinction that I am hesitant in discussing given the space provided.

[3] One could also add a third distinction to these categories: conserving of institutions. However in the present essay I will refrain from doing so for two reasons. First, I find that my argument in the context of doctrine and practice should go far enough so as to encompass this critique. Second, this goes back to the Protestant-Roman Catholic distinction that I am hesitant in discussing given the space provided.

[4] Though this critique is found in several places throughout Christian writings, I wish to note one of its particular occurrences. In his chapter on conservative theologian Charles F. Henry, contemporary theologian Roger Olson points out that in challenging modernist claims Henry took up the same epistemological foundations and method as did his opponents. Although Olson’s critique might be considered a bit too harsh and not sufficiently nuanced, his critique is still notable especially due to Henry’s continued influence in North American Christianity, especially in its evangelical expression. See Olson, Roger E. The Journey of Modern Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

[5] As is the nature of these general comments, they are by no means exhaustive. They only serve to show the general outlook of these very different and distinct movements in theology. It is of course possible that liberals cared about doctrines and that conservatives about living ethically, but the emphasis here is on central importance, on what is held to be most important.

[6] A noted theologian influenced by this school is famed Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas.

[7] In a sense, they are both post-conservative and postliberal.

[8] James K.A. Smith has a wonderful book that takes the reader step-by-step from Wittgenstein through to Richard Rorty then Robert Brandom to then arrive at postliberal theology. I would highly recommend his book to the reader more interested in the deep philosophical work. Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2014.

[9] Heidegger, Martin, and John Macquarrie. Being and Time. New York, NY: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008.

[10] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and Gertrude E. M. Anscombe. Philosophical Investigations. Rev. 4th ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[11] There is often the claim of pre-modern motifs in postliberal thought.

[12] A more contemporary example would be how evangelical worship music uses concepts first arrived at through rock music. But this has been going on for much longer, too, another example being the Roman Catholic Church’s separation of Latin as the official church language.

David Paiva ’16 is a joint Social Studies and Religion concentrator in Pforzheimer House.