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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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