Review: The Story of Christian Theology: By Roger E. Olson

Intervarsity Press, 1999. 652 pp. $34.99

Historical theology is an important part of the process of deciding who we are, what we believe and consequently how we will behave. For confessional Protestants, the past is not absolutely definitive, since all theologies besides God’s revealed word err, but its influence on our lives is inescapable. Much of what we teach and do in our churches and schools is determined by what our forefathers said and did centuries ago and what we believe about that past. Therefore, we must tell the truth about the past. This is historical theology’s primary vocation.

Unfortunately, far too many historical theologians tell us far more about themselves than about the past because they refuse to separate their own convictions from those about whom they write. This is unnecessary. Heiko Oberman, Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, Jill Raitt, Peter Stephens, David Bagchi and Carl Trueman, to name but a few, have shown that it is possible to write fairly and even sympathetically about those with whom they disagree.

Historical theology is descriptive, not prescriptive. The historical theologian’s task is not to judge whether a theologian is correct; that is the work of dogmatics or church courts. His task is to discover and explain what a theologian taught and why.

Summary of Olson’s Thesis

In his new history of Christian theology, Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, sets out to tell us what “God has been doing for two thousand years to lead his people into an understanding of the truth” (11). One of historical theology’s great questions is “How do the various epochs of Christian history relate?” Does some theme unite the theology of the third century with those of the 14th and 20th centuries? Olson sees soteriology as the dominant theme, although he recognizes that even this theme has waxed and waned in Christian history.

Aimed at the interested layman and the pastor who wants a refresher course in the history of theology, Olson’s book is grounded in the conviction that no doctrine ever arose out “of thin air” but always within a context and in response to some challenge. His reminder that doctrines develop for reasons and were not meant to confuse simple Christians corrects the televised anti-intellectualism of our age. His conviction that doctrine matters even for piety is commendable.

He contends that there is a canon of great books and thinkers in the Christian tradition, the study of which is essential for good history even if it is politically incorrect. Yet, as he notes, many of the great theologians were not dead white European males, but rather Africans or Semites.

His working assumptions include his making a distinction between dogma, doctrine and opinion. Opinion involves matters indifferent (e.g., the nature of angels or the details of the parousia). Doctrine is a non-essential deduction from Scripture that is essential to some particular theological tradition. Dogma is what confessional Protestants would call catholic truth, e.g., the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Olson argues that doctrines can matter too much, such as when Reformed and Lutheran Christians separated over the nature of the Lord’s Supper (see 16-20).

He maintains that God works in mysterious ways to establish his people in truth and to reform theology when needed (21), thus rejecting both the kind of historicism that assumes that everything has a natural cause and divine sovereignty as distinguished from providence. He acknowledges that he is not writing a neutral scientific-historical description of the history of theology (22).

Methodological Criticisms

Having enjoyed Olson’s 20th Century Theology (co-authored with Stanley Grenz), I came to this work with high expectations. As a teacher of historical theology, I have been looking for a text to assign to new students to orient them to the methods and topics of historical theology. Unfortunately, this is not that book.

Olson’s honesty about his assumptions is helpful, but it reveals the book’s basic flaw, which is Olson’s refusal to distinguish consistently between historical and dogmatic theology. His distinctions about dogma, doctrine and opinion are virtually meaningless for historical theology. What he thinks constitutes a dogma, a doctrine or an opinion is interesting, but in the history of theology it is what, e.g., Anselm or Aquinas considered to be dogma, doctrine or opinion that matters.

Although apparently pious, his attempt to discern the hand of providence in the history of theology is highly problematic, since determining when God was or was not working is necessarily a dogmatic and not a historical judgment. Judgments about what God has been doing providentially for the last two millennia require bringing the interpretation of Scripture to bear on historical theology.

This is a hotbed for special pleading. Reformed and Lutheran Christians could find it satisfying to explain and defend the Reformation by appealing to providence, but why should a Roman Catholic find such a claim compelling? Appeals to providence cut both ways. We appeal to Luther and Calvin but the Jesuit appeals to Peter Canisius as evidence of divine blessing. In their own ways, both Calvin and Canisius had great success. So what do we learn about history from such claims? Nothing. We just learn Olson’s interpretations of providence. As interesting as this is, it is not history.

The book’s sub-title illustrates the problem. “Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform” is a bad way to frame the history of theology because in our culture “tradition” is suspect and “reform” stands for “progress.” Those laying claim to being reformers thus have a rhetorical advantage, while those described as “traditionalists” are marginalized. Olson’s approach to history is like the Mafia’s approach to sports. They watch the game, but the outcome is not in doubt.

Elsewhere, Olson positions himself as a champion of progressive neo-evangelicalism. He aligns himself with—if he has not actually adopted—the new doctrine of God promulgated by theologians such as Clark Pinnock and Gregory Boyd. Known as “open theism,” this doctrine casts itself rhetorically as a new Reformation reacting against allegedly stodgy, confessionalist, traditionalist theology. Hence, Olson has a stake in who is accounted traditional and who is accounted a reformer. This surfaces throughout his book, as when his sympathies for open theism lead him to dismiss cavalierly Tertullian’s doctrine of God as being unduly influenced by Greek philosophical categories (see 97-98). Similarly, his negative assessment of Cyprian’s ecclesiology (no salvation outside the church) as hierarchical and hurtful to personal piety seems to owe more to his own ecclesiology than to the actual historical life and consequences of Cyprian’s theology (see 122–23).

Historical Criticisms

The book’s greatest weakness may be its lack of a strong historical foundation. Good historical theology must be written with historical sensitivity, i.e. it must take careful account of the circumstances in which a particular theology developed. It must evaluate a theologian against the time in which he formed his theology and it must avoid anachronism.

Olson consistently misses these marks. For example, he treats Luther as a “born again” Christian, which is anachronistic and distorts Luther’s actual experience (see 377). Paul Tillich is a twentieth-century Clement and Karl Barth a modern Tertullian (see 85). This is highly tendentious, because it ignores the great gulf that exists between Christian antiquity and post-Christian modernity. Post-Christian modernity deliberately rejects historic Christianity yet uses historic Christian language to express distinctively modern convictions. As radically opposed as Tillich and Barth were in many ways, they were both very modern thinkers who only superficially resemble Clement and Tertullian. Clement and Tertullian both believed in the history of redemption and in the actual truth of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, while Tillich did not and it is debatable whether Barth believed historic Christianity beyond the resurrection of Christ.

Olson publicly positions himself as a spokesman for beleaguered Arminians. So how does he treat his theological opponents? Unfortunately, not well. He has Servetus issuing a “prophetic challenge” to Calvin’s “overbearing dominance” in Geneva (see 21). This is historical nonsense. Even Calvin’s harshest critics should acknowledge that he only had limited political influence in Geneva, as his inability to gain permission from the civil authorities to celebrate the Supper weekly shows.

Olson’s description of the Arminian controversy would have been more helpful if he had simply followed the historical order of things (see 549–60). His Arminius was reacting to the five points of Calvinism! This would have surprised the international delegation to the Synod, who thought that they were responding to the five points of the Remonstrants. Olson’s bias is particularly evident when he categorizes Augustinian-Calvinism as an “extreme” pole opposite process theology. He has a right to consider Calvinism to be in error and even dangerous. Yet, as an historical judgment, his characterization of the Augustinian view of the fall and divine sovereignty as extreme is historically untenable, since it was shared by many of the Fathers, by most major medieval theologians including Thomas, and by Luther and Calvin.

Covenant theology is discussed only in the context of New England controversies (see 501–02), while its roots lie much deeper in the history of Western theology than that. His account of federal theology could have been written fifty years ago. Modern Reformation readers will be interested to learn than the Protestant scholastics were guilty of “metaphysical speculation” (456). Olson cites Richard Muller’s work but shows no real grasp of his argument or research, ignoring completely Muller’s published research on Theodore Beza. In the past twenty-five years, a significant body of secondary literature has radically revised several of the accounts upon which Olson apparently relied.

His account of the nature of contemporary theology also is flawed. He describes the German theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg as “critically orthodox,” contrasting them to classical theism’s “all-controlling and static God” (607). The only conservative alternative to the futurist eschatology he seems to imagine is of the Tim LaHaye/Hal Lindsey variety. Classical Protestant (Lutheran or Reformed) amillennialism or even historic chiliasm does not seem to cross his radar screen. Thus, this book is curiously parochial. On one hand, Olson is dismissive of key aspects of classical theology and, on the other, he shows little genuine familiarity with its primary texts or its force.


I have been involved in discussions with Roger Olson on the doctrine of God. In conversation and in print, he makes it plain that he believes he is being persecuted for his views. I do not want to persecute him for his theology but to prosecute his book as a prime example of what is wrong with much contemporary historical theology.

This book is well designed, containing reasonably useful indices of names and topics, although some page references seem to be incorrect. It is a little surprising, however, that it does not include a bibliography of primary and secondary resources for further study.

It is well written and accessible. Olson seems to have tried harder in some sections to be fair (e.g., regarding contemporary evangelicalism; see 592–96) than in others (e.g., on Anabaptism; see 415–28). Readers will want to consult Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought or better, Jarolav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (5 vols) for more successful attempts to tell the story of Christian theology that don’t involve their writers working to vindicate themselves in the process.

This review appeared originally in Modern Reformation, July/August 2001.  Rev. 2020.


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