Roger Olson will be familiar to many readers through his blog on Patheos. This is where I came to know him. You can read more of his biographical data there. It will suffice to say here that Olson grew up in a staunchly Christian home, and kept what is best from that background. He describes himself as "a Christian theologian of the evangelical Baptist persuasion. I am also a proud Arminian! And I’m influenced by Pietism." While I often disagree with Olson, I find his passion for ordering life and scholarship on a right understanding of the Bible refreshing. When I read that his book on Christian thought was soon to be published (here), I was intrigued. I'm glad I purchased a copy, and I recommend it.
As a small town pastor, I didn't use the word "metaphysics" often, yet, in the way that Olson uses the word in Essentials, I was constantly dealing with the concept. "This book proposes to help especially Christians devoted to the Bible as God’s Word understand its implicit philosophy of reality— what is really real behind and beyond appearances. And it proposes to help them distinguish between the Bible’s implicit vision of reality and competing ones— some of which are sometimes even labeled “Christian” or “compatible with Christianity” (p, 9). Those of you who know my recent history will understand why Olson's secondary purpose intrigued me. "A secondary purpose of this book is to provide administrators and faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education with a relatively simple elucidation of the “faith” part of “faith-learning integration”— a central reason for such institutions’ existence" (p. 9).
Olson frequently mentions a line from Alfred North Whitehead, "Christianity is a religion seeking a metaphysic. . . ." Olson is not alone in observing that over the past two millennia Christian thinkers have borrowed metaphysical systems from various schools of philosophy. Olson's contention is that while the Bible does not present a metaphysical system in a direct systematic way, the text of scripture is infused with a clear view of what ultimate reality is.
The thesis of this book is that, while philosophy can be helpful for answering questions the Bible does not answer, two considerations must be made. First, the Bible is not devoid of any metaphysical vision of ultimate reality; it implies one and that is easily discernable if one does not approach the Bible with a wrong assumption (e.g., that narrative cannot imply a metaphysic). Second, discerning that biblical metaphysic is a matter of looking behind the narrative at what it assumes about ultimate reality. There a clear vision of ultimate reality is apparent to any discerning reader looking for it. That clear biblical vision of ultimate reality is, as already expressed, the supernatural, personal (but not human) God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. . . . (p. 140-41)In Essentials Olson points out where this borrowing has led to what he regards as pollution of the stream of Christian thought. Quoting from one of his "guides," Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier, "aspects of extrabiblical philosophy have crept into and corrupted Christian theology over the centuries and still does so today" (pp. 88-89). Olson also briefly articulates his view of what the Bible presents as the ultimate view of reality. He compares this Biblical view with other popular views. And, though he denies that his is a book of apologetics, he upholds the Biblical view as superior over all the alternatives. In the later endeavor, Olson makes use of a word coined by Emil Brunner, "eristics." He gives a brief, practical definition on page 106, "[W]hen set alongside alternative worldviews, Christian philosophy is superior."
As pointed out at the beginning of this article, Olson is Arminian in his theology. Another of his books is Against Calvinism. As is to be expected, his Theological orientation comes through in Essentials. While those of a Calvinist persuasion will find some of Olson's thoughts along these lines troubling, perhaps even provoking, in the end, they are worth considering. Olson does not merely bluster about his Theological orientation, he raises thoughtful observations and questions. Even those of us who end up disagreeing with Olson concerning parts of his presentation will find ourselves sharper for the experience. I found Olson's book to be less a lecture, and more a long conversation over coffee. Not only did I find it intellectually stimulating, I enjoyed the read.
Toward the later part of the book a key theme began to be clear to me. Rather than try to put it in my words, I'll let Olson state it himself.
The biblical narrative . . . implies that God’s sovereignty . . . permits room for human free will as the power of alternative choice— the ability to do otherwise than God wishes. Everywhere God blames people for their sins, not himself. Their hardness of heart is their own doing, not God’s. Reason not only strains to accept the paradox offered up by divine determinists; it breaks apart when attempting to embrace both absolute, all-controlling divine sovereignty and human responsibility for sin. Also, extreme versions of God’s sovereignty such as divine determinism cannot avoid verging close to pantheism or what some philosophers call theopanism— the idea that God is all there really is; all is merely an extension of God. Without some degree of creaturely autonomy and freedom the ontological interval between God and creation so crucial to Christian metaphysics threatens to close. (p. 229)
. . . God’s freely chosen creation of free cocreators. This is a paradox but not a contradiction. It implies risk on God’s part. . . . this is all based on God’s voluntary self-limitation or self-restriction of power as explained earlier. . . . [T]he Bible and the best of Christian thought view history as an “unpredictable invention of two separate liberties bound together in a common enterprise.” (p. 231)To interject a bit of my own musings for a moment, that concept of God taking a risk, exists at the far edge of my thinking about things Divine. Yet it is unmistakeable that such concepts--perhaps anthropomorphic, something Olson denies--do exist in Scripture. "Because of sin, then, human freedom must be understood as power of contrary choice granted by God in an act of awful love and risk— for the sake of fellowship" (p. 232). At this point Olson is close to Open Theism, a view that he in another place rejects. This is one of the "I need to think about this some more." points that abound in this book. It is one of the reasons that I plan to read it again.
I read the Kindle version of Essentials of Christian Thinking. I found it easy to read. The search feature in the Kindle version is useful. I don't know whether the print version has an index. The Kindle version does not. If my review is not sufficient to persuade you to purchase the book--something I find hard to believe--and you find yourself at a Christian bookstore, or you have opportunity to look at a friend's copy, I would encourage you to read the appendix (p. 235). It will enable you to see whether you want to read the book or not.
ZONDERVAN The Essentials of Christian Thought Copyright © 2017 by Roger E. Olson
Olson, Roger E.; Olson, Roger E.. The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Introduction: Why This Book
- Knowing Christianly: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story Interlude 1 [Modernity/Postmodernity]
- Ultimate Reality Is Supernatural and Personal (But Not Human)
Interlude 2 [Clearing up some misconceptions]
- The Biblical Vision of Ultimate Reality Retrieved
Interlude 3 [Philosophy, Apologetics, Paradox]
- Non-Biblical, Non-Christian Views of Reality
Interlude 4 [". . . the generic Greek philosophy of the educated elite of the Roman Empire . . . is the metaphysical philosophy that has most often and most profoundly influenced Christian thought"]
- The Biblical-Christian View of Ultimate Reality: God
Interlude 5 ["If Yahweh God, the Lord, is ultimate, absolute reality upon which everything else, outside of God, is dependent, how can God be conditioned or limited in any way? How can the metaphysical ultimate reality be vulnerable?"]
- The Biblical-Christian Perspective on the World
Interlude 6 ["Has science replaced metaphysics in the modern world?"]
- Biblical-Christian Humanism
Interlude 7 [Questions of Freedom and Sin]
- Appendix: A Model for the Integration of Faith and Learning