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!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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