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Pocket History of Theology (The Ivp Pocket Reference) Paperback – November 6, 2005
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"This may be the most important book in the series for Christians to read and study. . . . [The authors] have written in such a practical manner, highlighting the major developments down through church history, that there is no excuse for Christians not taking the time to read and understand what they profess to believe when they confess their faith using creeds and confessions of our history." (Equip for Ministry, March/April 2006)
About the Author
Roger E. Olson (PhD, Rice University) is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversityand The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology. He is also coauthor of 20th-Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age and Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (both with Stanley J. Grenz), and of The Trinity (with Christopher A. Hall).
Adam C. English (Ph.D., Baylor University) is an associate professor in the department of religion and philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He has published articles and book reviews in Christian Ethics Today, Perspectives in Religious Studies and the Journal of Church and State. English is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition and the author of The Possibility of Christian Philosophy (Rutledge, 2007).
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Definitely a good investment of time and money for freshmen theologians!
If there had been no subsequent conflict and contention over what Jesus had done and who he was, we would have had no theology about which Olson and English could tell a story. Some of the initial challenges were from without--from Jewish and Pagan writers (p. 11; compare p. 25). But other challenges came from within the church and hence from competing understandings of the founding stories and their meaning. In telling this compelling story, the authors seem to grant that the earliest Christians believed in theosis (divinization or deification). "Salvation[,] in such a view, is not merely a one-time decision but a lifelong journey toward godliness. As 2 Peter 1:3-4 [NRSV] indicates, the life of godliness means that we 'become participants of the divine nature'" (p. 12 n. 3).
Many similar statements that will resonate with Latter-day Saints will challenge contemporary conservative Christian theology. For example, The Shepherd of Hermas, which "contains a series of visions and their explanations given by an angel to Hermas himself" (p. 14), indicates that
God's mercy is narrowly limited. God will forgive, but not endlessly. Furthermore, forgiveness is conditioned on keeping the commandments. The Shepherd tells Hermas that "there will be forgiveness for your previous sins if you keep my commandments; in fact, there will be forgiveness for everyone, if they keep my commandments and walk in this purity." (p. 14)
"This summary of the gospel," we are told, "not only speaks for Hermas but also summarizes nicely the overall sentiment of the apostolic fathers. While all mention God's mercy in response to true repentance and occasionally express the necessity of God's grace through the cross of Christ, the apostolic fathers seem more concerned with promoting Christian virtue and obedience by instilling fear of judgment for moral failure" (pp. 14-15).
Olson and English grant that the later "apologists defended Christian faith by using Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophy to meet their critics on their own terms" (p. 15; compare p. 17 on the apologists' use of "non-Christian philosophy"). "The relationship between philosophy and Christian theology has been a major point of controversy within Christian thought" (p. 19), according to these authors. This remark introduces the stance on this issue taken by Tertullian (AD 150-212), who strongly "advised Christians to avoid rationalizing Christian beliefs with Greek philosophical categories" (p. 21). Tertullian radically contrasted what he called the wisdom of Athens (the Platonic Academy) with the wisdom of Jerusalem (the words and deeds of Jesus and the teachings of his apostles). Yet even Tertullian was eager to engage in what he warned about when he tried to blunt the modalist (or Sabellian) heresy by inventing the Trinity, defined by Olson and English in these terms: "the God Christians believe in is one substance and three persons (una substantia, tres personae)" (p. 22, emphasis in original).
Like other early Christian apologists, Origen (ca. AD 185-254) loved speculation and tried to fashion a synthesis of Greek wisdom with the biblical message (pp. 22-23). He also introduced the so-called allegorical interpretation of the scriptures in an effort to clear the way for what has come to be called classical theism. In this kind of theological schema, "God is 'simple substance' without body, parts or passions" (pp. 24-25), and hence "is Spirit and Mind, simple (uncompounded), incorporeal, immutable and incomprehensible" (p. 24), and so forth. All this, according to Olson and English, was "strengthened . . . through the use of Platonic philosophy" (p. 25).
In "Act II: The Plot Thickens" (pp. 29-49), Olson and English indicate that "absolute static perfection--including apatheia, or impassibility (passionlessness)--is essential to the nature of God according to Greek thought, and nearly all Christian theologians came to agree with this" (pp. 29-30). This dogmatic assumption provides the context of the great ecumenical creeds (pp. 30-31) and explains the "use of extrabiblical terminology" (p. 31). Latter-day Saints will find a useful brief account of the ideological battles, if not the very nasty political intrigue, behind the great ecumenical councils (pp. 30-49).
"Act III: The Story Divides" (pp. 50-68) is an account of deepening controversies, beginning with Augustine (AD 354-430). There is nothing novel in stressing divine mercy or grace, but "Augustine introduced into the stream of Christian thought something called monergism, the belief that human agency is entirely passive and God's agency [absolute sovereignty] is all-determining in both universal history and individual salvation" (p. 51). Monergism is a technical label referring to Augustine's obsession with predestination and to his radical stress on grace in which human beings are seen as free to do what they desire, albeit all human desire is fixed by God at the moment of creation (out of nothing). Roman Catholics did not adopt monergism, insisting that Christians should not understand divine grace in such a way as to negate the need for "greater self-sacrificing piety (what modern Christians call discipleship)" (p. 56).
Leaving out a host of details about subtle distinctions and differing nuances, Olson and English reach "Act IV: Reforming, Revising and Rewriting the Story" (pp. 69-88). After explaining some of the ecclesiastical abuses that troubled the Reformers (pp. 69-70), they focus on Luther's mantra about justification by grace through faith alone (pp. 71, 75). In addition, they introduce the Reformer's insistence on sola scriptura and the priesthood of believers (p. 71). They clearly link Augustine to the Reformers (p. 71) but make the necessary qualifications. They also stress the belief in the imputation of an alien righteousness to the totally depraved sinner, who is then supposedly justified at the moment of surrender to God (pp. 72-73). The authors then introduce John Calvin's extreme stress on divine sovereignty, which eventually led to TULIP (or five-point Calvinism, p. 82) and its challenge from the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation (p. 81), from Arminianism (pp. 82-85), as well as from the perfectionism found in the Methodist movement (pp. 86-87).
The final section, "Act V: An Unresolved Plot" (pp. 89-108), takes up the "burgeoning challenge of a modern world," or modernity (p. 89). The authors discuss the rise of Protestant liberalism and the European resistance to cultural Protestantism, especially from Karl Barth's neo-orthodoxy (pp. 95-102). At this point Olson and English reach the end of their story. "Post-World War II Christian theology is diverse as never before. . . . The story of Christian theology has taken so many dizzying twists and turns and splintered in so many new directions that even experts find it difficult to draw it all together into one coherent story" (p. 102). Before turning to evangelical theology and its emergence as a reaction to fundamentalism (pp. 102-4) and to their concluding topic of liberation theologies, the authors provide this revealing remark:
A quick glance at some of the adjectives now affixed to the word theology give[s] a hint of the growing diversity: postliberal, liberation, postmodern, death-of-God, process, narrative, postcolonial, feminist, womanist, ecotheological, black, radically orthodox, paleoorthodox, open, evangelical, correlational. (p. 102, emphasis in original)
Latter-day Saints should benefit from, as well as enjoy, a careful reading of this brief, easily understood summary of the twists and turns of Christian theology.
As we move into the 16th century, division only continues. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin are highly influential reformers, and a more extreme version surfaces with the Radical Reformers (often labeled Anabaptists, rejecters of infant baptism). Along comes the English reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation. Deism hopes to reconcile with modern science. And on into the 20th century, with the birth of fundamentalism.
This book is dry, but highly informative. An awful lot is packed into 100 pages.
Today, Christian theology is as diverse as ever, and the story of Christianity continues after this book concludes. I find myself reviewing books by Jewish Christians who interpret the life of Jesus within Hebrew roots, liberal Christians who reject anything miraculous, even Pagan Christians. I guess Jesus has something for everyone!