The Journey of Modern Theology (Review)

Here’s a book for my intellectual friends…either that, or it’s big enough that it can be used as a weapon.

The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (IVP Academic: 2013), totaling 713 pages, is the third (non-official) volume of Roger Olson’s in his IVP theology series (the previous two being, The Mosaic of Christian Belief and The Story of Christian Theology). The book is essentially a revision of an award winning previous work, co-authored with the late Stanley Grenz, entitled 20th Century Theology (the moral of this story…buy the new version, though an excuse can be made for the relevancy of the old one too!). 

There are two significant changes in this book from the old one. First, Olson spends more time engaging 19th century theology as the backdrop for the past two centuries of theology. Essentially, in order to best understand the theological movements of the 1900s and 2000s, we need to understand how the 19th century paved the way for such movements to exist. This is, of course, an obvious necessity. We speak of the rise of fundamentalism and liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. But, of course, neither one of these movements developed outside of a context. Olson provides a readable and thorough analysis of what happened in theology during the 1800s.

Story of Modern Theology

Secondly, there is a transition from a motif of transcendence to a motif of modernity (and theology’s responses to it). I’ve become convinced of this point in my own studies and, though Grenz and Olson were only starting to see the movement in its early stages, post-modernism serves as the greatest confirmation that modernity really has been the driving force behind theological change and expression throughout the 20th century.

The book is broken into twelve chapters with each one evaluating liberal and conservative reactions to modernism. Most chapters contain a discussion of a particular notable theologian (thus, for example, we have sections on Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Barth, Niebuhr, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Rahner, Balthasar, Hauerwas, etc.) Each of these discussions, naturally, fits around the books motif. How have these theologians contributed towards theology’s interaction with modernity? Notably (and appropriately I think), chapter seven is devoted entirely to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how theologians applied his view of ‘religionless Christianity’ to modern theology.

Equally important are discussions on science, existentialism, progressive orthodoxy, process theology, salvation-history (Pannenberg), and postmodernism. These are all contextualized within their particular theological circles and proponents. Nothing is abstracted, which is nice. One truly gets the sense of theology as a “journey.” Of course, the question of where the journey ends is really to be foreseen.