The Story of Christian Theology ~ A Book Review

The disciplines of theology and Christian history are intricately linked in such a way that to understand one, a person must understand the other. Yet it is easy to see why so many people continue to either underestimate the importance of both or disregard the education of teach. Each discipline individually is built upon layers of development and to be oriented or instructed in either requires intentional study and attention to detail. It can become an overwhelming process of education that renders a person incapable of pursuing it further than the bare minimum of requirements.
To understand where the church currently stands, to know why you believe what you believe, a diligent study of both is essential. As I have learned the personal application of both, two truths relevant to each of us were revealed. I may never know all of the details over my lifetime, just like I will never understand all of Scripture. However, study must begin somewhere. In my opinion, that study must begin with an overall picture of major events. In this regards, I was excited when one of my professors assigned a book that seemed to cover those events. That book was Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology.
This is not a recently released book, but in the scheme of Christian writing it is fairly new, having been published in 1999. At 652 pages, the book is a massive volume that is certainly a culmination of a lot of research over the years and Olson received a lot of praise for its release. Most notably it won the 2000 ECPA Gold Medallion Award in theology.
For such a book, Roger Olson is qualified in every right (1). As Fory Valentine Professor Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary (a part of Baylor University) Olson is immersed in the topic. With articles published in a variety of journals and publications, Olson has displayed a working knowledge of the subject.
His working knowledge and continuous research is displayed throughout the book as Olson seeks to put together a detailed book ordered early from the time following Christ and the disciples into the modern era. Although massive in size and weight, one can appreciate the conciseness with which the author deals with such a large topic covering 20 centuries of time. It can never be expected that one can ‘capture’ fully everything that has taken place in such a large span of time. Olson himself recognizes the difficulty in this task and does a good job at balancing the specifics of major eras while addressing the overall context.
In his orderly layout of the book also comes an appreciation for his ability to connect events and display their impact on future events that take place. He consistently points readers back to previous events, whether it be people, councils, or political affairs to show a changing theological landscape that actually began long before its current point. The ability to connect such events is largely missing today, but would be a profitable insight into the ‘theological’ debates that we find ourselves in today.
While his ability to organize the material in a logical flow of information while creating connections that bridge large gaps of time, the book’s readability is heavily hindered by the author’s style. It is not written as a ‘story’ as some expect would be based on the title. Instead, it is more as though one is being shot at with one fact after another. With dates, people, overlapping theological concepts, it can be hard to track and make sense of all that is taking place. This is further complicated by the continual use of ‘ism.’ From montanism to gnosticism to deism it is difficult to keep track of them all, especially when they are introduced one after another.
The only reprieve that readers get in this rapid fire of facts are interjections of the author’s own biases and opinions. While none of us could ever write from a completely unbiased view, the author seems to relish in bringing in his own biases to influence readers. Describing himself as an unashamed Armenian (see note 1) Olson is sure to preach it throughout the book. It is not so much that the author writes from a partisan viewpoint that detracts from the book. We expect all authors to do so. In fact, some books have added value because an author can bring forth insights from their viewpoints that we may have not about. Yet, here Olson not only blatantly interjects his own opinions but seems to do so with little backing (examples of this are seen in his heavy favor towards liberalism chapter 32 while scorning the impact of reformers such as Luther and Calvin in chapters 24 & 25). In a book concerned about the development of Christian theology over the course of Christian history, we would expect less of these opinions to be peppered throughout.
Despite these major issues Olson’s book was certainly worthy of the ECPA award it received in 2000. The book helped me to understand the layout of Christian history and even provided some insights that I had not previously understood. Therefore I learned much from it. Would I recommend it though? No. It’s too heavy of a read for most people (not that it is geared towards the ‘general’ populace anyway) and for those interested in a deeper study, I would recommend turning to other books. The heavy opinions of the author so detract from the book that other available resources would be more beneficial.
If you are interested in purchasing The Story of Christian Theology by Roger Olson, you can do so at Amazon by clicking the following links: Hardcover or Kindle.
(1) To read Roger Olson’s biography, click the following links: George W. Truett Theological Seminary and Patheos.