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John R. Franke

How Theology Happened

In this volume, Roger Olson offers an introduction to historical theology that takes seriously the demands of reader accessibility and interest and keeps them at the forefront of his concern throughout his presentation without sacrificing the integrity of his subject. Olson has excellent credentials as both a teacher and a scholar. He taught at Bethel College and Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for more than 15 years, including a long-running course on which this book is based. He is also an accomplished author of both popular and academic works as well as an experienced editor, completing in 1998 a period of service in that capacity for the Christian Scholar's Review. He has recently moved to Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University to take up a senior teaching position in theology.

The Story of Christian Theology is marked by two significant features that distinguish it from most other works of its type. The first is its intended audience. At the outset, Olson offers his rationale for writing the book with the observation that while many works on historical theology are available, few have been written for those with little or no background in either theology or its history. He has sought to address this gap in the literature by writing primarily for "the untutored Christian layperson or student as well as for the interested Christian pastor." The book makes no claim of originality; instead, it seeks to make a contribution to the field by providing a "modest survey of the main highlights of Christian historical theology for readers without even a modicum of previous knowledge or understanding of that fascinating story." To this end Olson has crafted a "user-friendly" text, with minimal use of technical language and clear explanations of such terminology where its use is required. Moreover, Olson clearly sets out the context in which the ideas he discusses were developed and explains their importance for Christian life and faith.

A second significant feature of the work is its employment of story or narrative. Olson explains that while "history" is often perceived as little more than a boring recitation of dates and facts, the telling of a "story" elicits a far more positive response and evokes the attention of modern readers. Yet, as Olson points out, history consists largely of the retelling of stories about the people, events, and ideas that have shaped the past and that continue, for better or worse, to influence the present. The history of theology is no exception. Therefore, Olson concludes that it "can and should be told as a story" and attempts in this book "to tell that story well, doing justice to each of its subplots."

In order to hold the many stories contained in the history of theology together and give it coherence "as a single great narrative of the development of Christian thought," Olson looks to the "common concern all theologians (whether professional or lay) have had with salvation." While ac knowledging that other issues and doctrines take center stage at particular points in the story of theology, Olson suggests that the concern of the church to understand properly and explain salvation is never far from any discussion and seems to underlie most other questions. Therefore, he has structured his narrative around the theological quest of the church to comprehend God's redemptive activity of forgiving and transforming sinful human beings.

Working with these features in mind, Olson capably sets out a broad outline of the history of theology. His treatment of the main developments is generally thorough, balanced, and proportional. He is judicious and even-handed in his assessment of the numerous characters and developments in the plot, showing an awareness of the conflicting opinions of historians without allowing such disputes to impose themselves on his narrative. He resists the temptation to be come preoccupied with the various subplots that might lead away from the primary story he wants to tell and thus keeps his narrative moving along at a steady pace. The proportionality of the book is appropriate, with approximately half of its pages devoted to the first thousand years of the church's history, and about a third to developments from the Re formation to the present.

Olson's treatment of the first thousand years up to the Great Schism is particularly strong. He provides substantial coverage of the main figures, controversies, and councils of this period and helpfully illuminates the distinctive cultural temperaments of Eastern and Western thinkers, connecting them to the ongoing theological tensions between East and West that eventually culminated in the Great Schism.

Olson's survey of the medieval period is the most disappointing section of the book due to its truncated coverage of this fascinating time of theological renewal. This section includes only three chapters (all of the other parts have four each) and devotes almost all of his attention to Scholasticism while virtually ignoring the mystical tradition. Also, the developments in Scholasticism during the late medieval period, so critical for a proper understanding of the Reformation, are largely passed over with the exception of William of Ockham. And Renaissance Humanism, the most important intellectual current for the Reformation, certainly merits a full chapter rather than the seven pages it receives, all devoted to Erasmus. Of course, in an already lengthy and introductory work such as this an author can't do everything. However, the inclusion of material on Bonaventure (a Franciscan mystical theologian), Gabriel Biel (a German theologian of the late medieval via moderna), and perhaps John Hus, along with a full chapter on the theology of the Humanists, would have considerably strengthened this section of the book.

As might be expected, Olson discusses the Reformation through a consideration of the key figures from its major traditions: Lutheran (Luther), Reformed (Zwingli and Calvin), Anabaptist (Hubmaier and Menno Simons), and Anglican (Cranmer and Hooker) as well as Tridentine Catholicism. Generally, Olson does an excellent job of briefly summarizing the central teachings and concerns of these figures in their particular contexts and thus illuminating some of the distinctive elements of the traditions they represent. The exception is his treatment of John Calvin. From Olson's perspective, Calvin appears to be a rather unoriginal thinker who "borrowed heavily from both Luther and Zwingli as well as the Strasbourg Reformer Bucer" and did little more theologically than "mediate Zwingli's Reformed theology to the rest of the world." Such statements, coupled with the oft-repeated but historically inaccurate notion that Calvin "reigned as the virtual dictator" of Geneva, leave the reader with a largely negative picture of Calvin and inappropriately diminish his contribution to the development of the Reformed tradition and the story of theology.

In contrast, Olson does an excellent job of summarizing the highly influential, but little known, theology of Arminius and setting it in the Re formed context from which it emerged. In addition, he also discusses Pietism, Puritanism, Methodism, and Deism. He is at his best in the final part of the book, as he sorts through the diversity that characterizes contemporary Protestant theology. Here Olson describes the three options that have dominated the modern theological context (liberalism, orthodoxy/ fundamentalism, and neo-orthodoxy), surveys recent developments in several theological movements, and assesses the future prospects for theology.

In any act of storytelling or history-writing, the perspective of the author gives the tale a distinctive shape, and this one bears the mark of Olson's evangelical Protestant convictions. He provides no account of developments in Orthodox theology after the Great Schism, and only a scant few details of the story of Catholic theology after the Reformation. Nevertheless, Olson has performed a valuable service for the evangelical theological community by providing such an engaging account of the history of theology—indeed, what this reviewer believes to be the best introductory work on historical theology currently available. It is likely to become a standard text, certainly for evangelicals, and to see many years of useful service in both the classroom and the church.

John R. Franke is assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

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