Book Write-Up: The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger E. Olson

Roger E. Olson.  The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform.  IVP Academic, 1999.  See here to purchase the book.

Roger E. Olson teaches theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which is at Baylor University.  In this book, Olson tells the story of Christian theology from the second through the twentieth century.

The book is organized chronologically rather than topically, but among the topics that it engages are: the tension between an emphasis on grace in salvation and an emphasis on good works; Christological debates about the relationship of the Son to the Father and the divine and human nature within Christ; ecclesiastical evolution and disputes over the primacy of the Bishop in Rome; monergism vs. synergism; the presence of Christ in the sacraments; the tension between emphasizing orthodoxy and emphasizing personal piety; the relationship between Christian theology and philosophy and, later, modernism; and liberation theology.

The book is very lucid.  There were some thinkers whom I failed to understand, such as those who posited that God’s existence was somehow contingent on the world.  Olson explained them as best as he could!  Overall, the book effectively broke down the thoughts of major Christian theologians throughout history.  Olson admits that this book is not a comprehensive treatment, but it does provide the gist of what prominent theologians have argued, and this can provide a crucial foundation and context for further study.

Olson managed to phrase issues in a manner that I found clear.  For instance, I have wondered how exactly to define Nestorianism and to differentiate it from what became orthodoxy.  It says Jesus had a divine and human nature.  What’s wrong with that?  But Olson explained that Nestorianism presented two personages as present within Jesus: a divine being and a human being.  Another question that I have had concerns who experiences prevenient grace, according to Arminianism.  Is it only those whom God chooses to woo, or is it everyone?  Olson states that, according to Arminianism, everyone does, on some level.

The book also conveys that there are nuances, without getting lost in a mess of details.  While it seems to acknowledge that a belief in Jesus’ divinity goes back to the first century CE, it states that the conception of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different in the Shepherd of Hermas and Athanasius’ writings than in what came out in orthodox Trinitarianism.

Olson also corrects common misconceptions, as when he states that deists believed in a God who could interfere in the cosmos.  He also addresses questions that some may be afraid to ask, thinking they are dumb questions.  For example, does Black Liberation Theology hold that only black people will go to heaven after they die?  Olson’s willingness to engage this brings the book down to an accessible level.

Olson is not afraid to share his views, here and there.  He characterizes the Shepherd of Hermas as legalistic, seeing it as a departure from Paul’s message of grace.  He tends to root for the orthodox Trinitarian side.  He sees the Council of Orange as a mess when it comes to the issue of predestination.  He is skeptical about Process Theology.  While Olson is known as an Arminian theologian, he is not particularly negative towards monergism in this book.  Even when discussing positions that he may not hold, he tries to get inside of the heads of their adherents and convey their point of view, as when he explains the development of liberal theology.  At times, Olson discusses the effects of past disputes on the present, as when he maintains that the U.S. religious culture is privately pietist and publicly deist.

There were things that I learned in reading this book.  For one, Olson states that Celsus, against whom Origen argued, may have been raised in a Christian household.  Second, there was the issue of nominalism.  Nominalism believes in particulars, not categories.  As Olson explains, this has profound ramifications on Christian theology.  If there is no category of divinity, for example, what does that do to the Trinitarian model in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one what and three whos?  There is no longer a what called divinity!  There are only three distinct whos, and saying they are one because they share a divine nature is precluded, under nominalism.  Is there such a thing as goodness?  Olson shows that nominalism led to a divine-command model of ethics: something is right simply because God commands it, not because it is right in itself, according to some category called “right.”  According to Olson, such an idea influenced Martin Luther.  Olson explained nominalism well, but I have a hard time believing that Luther rejected the idea that God is good.

This book covers a lot of territory, but in an accessible manner.  It is a go-to book, yet it is more than a reference book, as Olson provides a compelling narrative and displays his love for the subject matter.  There are thinkers who are not treated in this book, such as Tillich, but Olson has written another book about modern theology, which I will read in the future.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Posted in Uncategorized

Ask Bethany House: What’s Your Favorite Bethany House Book?

Bethany House Fiction

I see you there, cunning reader who thought I’d completely ignore this question because I was afraid of showing favoritism. Or maybe you thought I’d be vague and say, “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child.” Haha! Guess I showed you.

The question, from our Ask BHP survey was, “If you had to pick a favorite Bethany House book, which would it be?”

And for me, the answer is easy: my favorite Bethany House book is Saint Ben by John Fischer. Since this novel is out of print and was first published in 1993 (check out that 90s cover!), I’d say this is a pretty safe choice, since none of my current authors can feel left out.

That, of course, isn’t the reason I chose it. Saint Ben will always have a special place in my heart for several reasons.

First, while it turns out that many of…

View original post 392 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Did God Command Genocide?

Reblogging for future reference:

Pursuing Veritas

In Joshua 8:2, Yahweh seems to command the indiscriminate killing of the inhabitants of the city of Ai: “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” If this were said today, it would widely be regarded as a command to commit genocide.[1] The severity of the command seems validated by what Joshua records about the battle (vv. 24-25):

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women…

View original post 3,403 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law – Matthew 5:17-20

Reading Acts

Jesus begins by making it clear he is not abolishing the Law, but rather demonstrating how to keep the Law properly. It is possible, Scot McKnight suggest, that Jesus has been accused of breaking the Law or teaching things which nullified the Law. There are several examples of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about certain practices such as eating with sinners (Matt 9:1-11), fasting (Matt 9:14), and Sabbath (Matt 12:1-13).

The word fulfill in in contrast to annulling the Law, “far from undercutting the role of the Law and the Prophets, is to enable God’s people to live out the Law more effectively” (Nolland, Matthew, 218). For Jesus the Law is God’s eternal word. The heaven and earth itself will pass away before the Law does.

Jesus is not abolishing the commands of the Law at all. The righteousness of the true disciple of Jesus must exceed even the Pharisees…

View original post 517 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Church Write-Up: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Mark 9:30-37; James 3-4

The LCMS Wednesday Bible study started up again.  Here are some of the points that I got out of it.

A.  One of the texts was Jeremiah 11:18-20, in which Jeremiah complains of people from his hometown (Anathoth) trying to kill him and desires God’s vengeance upon them.  Jeremiah was unpopular because he was prophesying doom and gloom in a time of national prosperity.  He may have participated in righteous King Josiah’s reforms against paganism and in favor of the consecration of the Temple and the Judahites to God.  Now that Josiah was dead, Jeremiah was yesterday’s news.  Jeremiah entrusts himself to the LORD of hosts, who is sovereign.  The pastor told a story about how he counseled pastors whose congregations did not want them, and how that was a painful experience for these pastors.

B.  Josiah tore down the high places, and the pastor gave background about those.  High places were sacred sites on the hills towards Baal, the weather god, and his wife Ashtoreth,  In an agricultural society, people prayed to Baal because they wanted rain and to Ashtoreth because they desired fertility.  Passages such as II Kings 21:3, 5 and Jeremiah 19:5 and 32:35 say or imply that there were Israelite high places where worship of Baal occurred.  At the same time, there were also high places to Yahweh (I Kings 3:2-3), which ran counter to Deuteronomic centralization.  The pastor got me thinking some about the high places, since there were kings of Judah who were righteous, yet they did not tear down the high places (II Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35).  Righteous kings pursued reform, on a limited level, but they did not challenge the popular practice of paganism.

C.  The pastor asked if it is acceptable to desire vengeance because Jeremiah did.  The pastor contrasted Jeremiah with Jesus in our New Testament reading, Mark 9:30-37.  Like Jeremiah, Jesus was rejected by his hometown, in this case, Nazareth.  Jesus did not desire vengeance against his enemies, however, but served them with his life.  The pastor said that the reason the doxology occurs after Scripture readings is that it highlights that Scripture is to be read within the context of Christ.  Psalm 137:8-9 ends by wishing that the heads of Babylonian babies would be dashed against rocks, but Christians read that remembering that Christ paid the penalty for sins.  Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24 warns against living with a contentious wife, and Christians read that realizing that such contention can be healed through Christ.

D.  Jesus in Mark 9:30-37 teaches humility and service.  He exhorts his disciples to be like deacons, who waited tables and were the lowliest servants.  The pastor said that the apostles apparently were slow to learn this lesson, since they did not want to wait tables in Acts 6:2!  Jesus also exhorted his disciples to be like little children, in a world where children had hardly any status at all and were considered the property of their parents.  Jesus held the child and gave him status, and that demonstrates that we gain status through our relationship with Christ.

E.  The pastor moved on to the Epistle of James.  The Epistle is directed to the twelve tribes scattered abroad (James 1:1).  The pastor said that these were Jewish Christians scattered throughout the known world.  Some were scattered due to persecution from Saul (Acts 8:1) and Herod Agrippa’s murder of James the brother of John (Acts 12:2).  Some scattering occurred later, close to the time when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed (70 CE).  Some Jewish Christians fled to Pella, some to Antioch.

F.  According to the pastor, the Epistle of James is not about how to be saved, nor is it merely a rule book.  It is wisdom literature for people who are already Christians.  The pastor said that Lutherans distinguish between wider justification and narrow justification.  Wider justification includes conversion but also sanctification, becoming practically righteous.  When James states that faith without works does not justify, he is referring to wider justification.  Narrow justification refers to conversion, and that is what Paul talks about when he affirms that people are justified by faith alone, apart from works.  Related to this, I asked the pastor to define grace, since the pastor talked about James 2:6, where James says that God gives more grace, and that God gives grace to the humble.  Is grace unmerited favor?  Is it mercy?  Is it the spiritual power to live righteously?  The pastor said that it is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense, and that includes everything that God provides to people due to the sacrifice of Christ.  That would include God’s word, forgiveness, spiritual power to live righteously, and the list goes on.

G.  James 3:17 states: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (KJV).  The pastor said that this describes Jesus: Jesus is the wisdom from above, and Jesus had those characteristics.

H.  James 4:5 states: “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (KJV).  The NASB translates it the way the pastor was interpreting it: “Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’?”  The question, apparently, is whether pneuma (spirit) is the subject or the direct object.  If it is the subject, the verse is probably criticizing the envious lusts condemned in vv. 1-4.  If it is the object, it is talking about God’s jealous desire to have us with him—-for us to draw closer to him rather than to have friendship with the world.  The pastor said that the spirit could be the Holy Spirit or the spirit that enlivens every human being: either way, God does not want that Spirit to go to waste but desires to be with that spirit.  The pastor noted that v. 5 says it is quoting Scripture, but this verse does not exist in the Hebrew Bible.

I.  The pastor and one of the people in the class were talking about devotions.  The person in the class was saying that her I-phone was reading the Bible text aloud to her, and she did not like that.  The pastor thought she meant that she preferred that, and he talked about how the biblical texts were originally intended to be read and heard aloud, not read silently, since few people could read back then.  When he understood that she was making the opposite point, he said that she may have seen her devotions as her personal time with God and did not want another voice interfering with that.


Posted in Church, Uncategorized

Can We Reconcile The Messiah Ben David and The Messiah Ben Joseph Tradition in Judaism?

Reblogging for future reference:


Should Christians try to share the message of the Jesus the Messiah with their Jewish neighbors? This has always been a thorny topic. Anyone who has studied Church history knows that our relationship with the Jewish people hasn’t always worked out for the best. One comment is helpful here:

But despite the past and present issues of anti-Semitism and bad theology, I am saddened to see many Christians being duped into what is called Dual Covenant Theology. I do think it is abundantly clear that if Christians decided that Jewish people don’t need Jesus, they would have to ignore many passages in the Bible itself.

Christians need to remember that the purpose of Israel was not to be a blessing to herself. Therefore, through her witness, the world will either be attracted or repelled towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The entire promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3…

View original post 1,253 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Meet This Book: Jesus the Spirit Baptizer — EerdWord

The inspiration for my book, Jesus the Spirit Baptizer: Christology in Light of Pentecost, began with a sentence. Stained glass art of St. Irenaeus. Église Saint-Irénée, FranceA few years ago, I picked up Irenaeus’ classic, Against Heresies, and began to read. My eyes fell upon a striking passage in which Irenaeus depicts the Holy Spirit…

via Meet This Book: Jesus the Spirit Baptizer — EerdWord

Quote | Posted on by