A few years ago I was introduced to the writings of Roger Olson through his book The Mosaic of Christian Belief (InterVarsity Press Academic, 2002). It is a book which has prominently sat at the top of my Kindle que until recently when I lost it (don’t ask…it’s complicated). After losing my Kindle edition of the book, IVP graciously sent me a review copy and, with that, I wanted to write a review of it…Needless to say, it’s long overdue.
Olson’s book takes on the task of defining one simple but necessary question “What is Mere Christianity?” More specifically, Olson wants to survey the variety of theologies present within Christianity in hopes to determine what falls into the realm of orthodoxy and what, indeed, falls outside of it. A serious, evangelical, and theologically robust pursuit of the question is more than obviously appropriate given the number of arenas where difference in belief is stigmatized, discouraged, and, at the worst, relegated to the class of heresy. As Olson remarks, “Often doctrines are developed defensively” (22). The truth of this can be seen historically, even in recent times where the Catholic Church’s stance on papal infallibility served as an unfortunate reaction to modernism or, in Protestant Circles, the Battle for the Bible and the question of inerrancy relegated too many evangelicals to the accusation of liberalism (including this reviewer). What is desperately needed in response to this is exactly what Olson has to offer: a historical-theological survey of Christian theology for the past 20 centuries. In the end, what we have from Olson is the promotion of a both-and theology instead of an either-or version which unfortunately has characterized much evangelical thought in the past two centuries. And, indeed, as the Church begins to realize a greater World Christianity that is not characterized by American civilization, the more we will realize that as much as Christianity is unified, it is equally diversified. This diversity is not something to be stamped out but, instead, respected and revered as it tells us that the Church is a living organism, greater in number and age than any single member. It bleeds past nationalities, races, sexes, generations, and denominations. It’s a humbling fact (a worshipful one, even) to realize that our place in the whole history of the body of Christ is as small as it is great. And this is ultimately what Olson wants to point out!
Olson’s book is divided into fifteen chapters, each dedicated towards exploring a single unitive belief characterized by the both-and theology. If that sounds complicated, see the chapter list below:
- Christian Belief – Unity and Diversity
- Sources and Norms of Christian Belief: One and Many
- Divine Revelation: Universal and Particular
- Christian Scripture: Divine Word and Human Words
- God: Great and Good
- God: Three and One
- Creation: Good and Fallen
- Providence: Limited and Detailed
- Humanity: Essentially Good and Existentially Estranged
- Jesus Christ: God and Man
- Salvation: Objective and Subjective
- Salvation: Gift and Task
- The Church: Visible and Invisible
- Life Beyond Death: Continuity and Discontinuity
- The Kingdom of God: Already and Not Yet
It seems obvious from the chapter list that Olson’s book will turn to be more controversial not so much in its unified portrait but in some of its chapter elements. He explores the Christian consensus, alternatives to the consensus (heresies), diverse thinking within the consensus, and then, finally Olson’s own promotion of a unitive view in light of these. Not everyone will be satisfied with what Olson compiles as legitimate alternatives of belief (indeed, I have my own disagreements here and there). One that is dead set on a plenary verbal model of Scriptural inspiration will indeed find it somewhat difficult to entertain the idea that a dynamic model (one that doesn’t demand word for word inerrancy) can equally be a faithful interaction with scripture and a serious engagement of how God authored it. But Olson’s attempt is not to hand out a once-and-for-all interpretation of what is true and what isn’t, but rather a way forward in the discussion with an emphasis on utilizing the norms of Tradition, Reason, Scripture, and Experience (what is called The Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Such norms, in Olson’s mind, provide the answer of what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate theology. Whatever those norms allow for, whether correct or incorrect, should be respected under the banner of “Christian theology” and, more specifically, “orthodoxy.” For example, Olson is himself an Arminian thinker and, in other works, expresses what he finds insufficient about the Calvinist model (see his, Against Calvinism or Arminian Theology). But here he notes, “all of these Christian traditions have much in common in contrast to the various phillosophies and theologies of self-salvation embraced and promoted by numerous sectus, cults and New Age Spirituality..What defines Christian belief in this area is not every minute detail of an ordo salutis or monergism or synergism. What defines it is belief that salvation is wholly a gift of grace…” (286).
Several questions then emerge for the evangelical Christian to consider. What does it mean to question one’s own beliefs on a topic? At what point do we allow others to have an equal and orthodox view on something, despite the fact that it may not be our own? How do we respect and acknowledge the serious pursuit of these questions by 20 centuries of Christians that have gone before us? How can we learn from our forefathers as well as our contemporary brothers? How do our own convictions on a topic determine the way we see someone who disagrees? What impact do these differences have for seeing the body of Christ as a single unit? The questions can go on and on and will certainly be answered in vastly different ways…And this is, as Olson suggests, a good thing.