Roger E. Olson. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Second Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Roger Olson teaches theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which is at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The book that I am reviewing here is the second edition of a book that was released in 2002.
In the “Acknowledgements” section of this second edition, Olson states that he wrote this book to be a “very basic, relatively comprehensive, nontechnical, nonspeculative one-volume introduction to Christian belief.” Olson felt a need to write such a book after “teaching introductory courses in Christian doctrine and theology in university, college, and seminary.”
The book is topical rather than chronological. It surveys the theological lay of the land on such issues as how the Bible is divinely-inspired; the Trinity and the incarnation; whether humans consist of body and soul or body, soul, and spirit, or neither; the church and the sacraments; salvation, faith, and works; the afterlife; and the Kingdom of God. Olson interacts with the arguments of prominent historical theologians and thinkers, but also with denominations and sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Pelagianism, universalism, Arianism, the filioque, psychological and communitarian conceptions of the Trinity, and open-theism all receive treatment in this book.
Olson’s survey is judicious and informative. He displays a grasp of nuance, while keeping his narrative clear and down-to-earth.
Here are some further thoughts about this book:
A. The book is introductory, so those who have done a lot of reading in theology may not learn much that is new from this book. They may still find the book to be helpful as a reference work, however, that lays out different beliefs and who held them. Yet, there were areas in which the book did give me a new or a fresh understanding of certain issues. For example, Olson talks about the relationship between general revelation (i.e., God’s revelation of Godself through nature and conscience) and special revelation (i.e., the Bible). Olson states that general revelation is unclear, but it sets the stage for special revelation by nudging people towards asking certain questions. Olson’s discussion of the filioque was also informative. The Western church believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (which is in the filioque clause), whereas the Eastern church lacks the “and the Son” part. Olson discusses the possible origins of the filioque, and the problems that the Eastern church has with it. According to Olson, the Eastern church believes that it lessens the dignity of the Holy Spirit. Olson also talks about changing Catholic views on purgatory. Looking at the book broadly, it covers a lot of familiar territory; yet, there are times when Olson peppers this territory with some nuance or pieces of information that may not be readily familiar to a lot of readers.
B. While the book may be helpful as a reference work, it could have been more helpful at that had it provided a bibliography, or more references to works in footnotes or endnotes. Olson occasionally referred to theologians’ books in the text, but he often would discuss a person’s thought, without telling the readers the exact books or articles where they can read those thoughts.
C. The book is topical, and several of the topics intersect with each other. Therefore, there are times when Olson rehashes previous discussions in the book. These rehashings are far from boring, however, for Olson manages to highlight a new dimension that he did not discuss in his previous discussions. At times, Olson compensates for inadequacies in previous discussions. For example, in initially discussing why many church fathers believed that Jesus’ divinity was necessary for the salvation of humans, Olson was unclear about what exactly was at stake in that debate. Later, in discussing Jesus’ incarnation, Olson was clearer and more specific. Some may think that Olson should have been clearer in the first discussion, and that would be a legitimate criticism. Still, the book did tie up loose ends as it proceeded.
D. Olson speaks in support of Christian consensus throughout history, since that determines what views Christians should accept, and which views deserve to be on the margins. Olson wrestles with apparent problems in this position. For example, Olson believes in justification by grace through faith alone, even though many church fathers may have had a different position. Olson’s initial discussion of this problem was not very good, but his chapter on salvation being a gift and a task compensated for that, as Olson showed that seeing salvation as a gift from God is part of the historical Christian consensus.
E. One can ask if Olson believes that the consensus can ever change, and if the change can become authoritative, or at least allow certain beliefs to become acceptable within Christian orthodoxy. Olson states on page 199, for instance, that “so far there is no good reason to condemn [open theism] as heterodox; open theism deserves to be treated as one legitimate option for interpreting and envisioning divine sovereignty and providence.” Open theism maintains that God does not know the future, and it is a new view. Since it is new, can one argue that it goes against historical Christian consensus, and thus should be marginalized? Olson states that it “may be only an adjustment to limited providence,” the idea that God imposes limitations on Godself, and limited providence has received more support in the history of Christian thought. That could be why Olson is reluctant to dismiss open theism as heterodox, that, and his possible view that it needs development before judgment can be passed on it. That said, my impression is that Olson did not consistently follow a firm criterion as to what is acceptable within Christian thought.
F. Overall, the book is accurate in its presentation of different thinkers and points-of-view, at least in terms of my understanding. In his discussion of eschatology on page 381, however, he seems to confuse historicism with preterism. He states that historicism “sees the symbols and images [in Revelation] as codes for persons, entities and events contemporary with the apocalypticists.” That sounds more like preterism. Historicism, by contrast, holds that the Book of Revelation has been fulfilled throughout history, even after the first century. I base my understanding of historicism on Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).
G. The book is introductory, but would it be a useful text for undergraduates? It depends. Undergraduates with some knowledge of theology, who have wrestled with some of the issues that the book discusses, may find the text useful. Those without much exposure to Christian theology may find that the book goes over their heads. When I was an undergraduate, we used William Placher’s History of Christian Theology: it was lucid, and it provided a chronological history of Christian thought. I would recommend Placher’s book, but chapters from Olson’s book may be helpful as a supplementary tool for teaching undergraduates.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.