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Hardcover: 720 pages
Publisher: IVP Academic (November 1, 2013)
Modernity has been an age of revolutions—political, scientific, industrial and philosophical. Consequently, it has also been an age of revolutions in theology, as Christians attempt to make sense of their faith in light of the cultural upheavals around them, what Walter Lippman once called the "acids of modernity."Modern theology is the result of this struggle to think responsibly about God within the modern cultural ethos.
In this major revision and expansion of the classic 20th Century Theology (1992), co-authored with Stanley J. Grenz, Roger Olson widens the scope of the story to include a fuller account of modernity, more material on the nineteenth century and an engagement with postmodernity. More importantly, the entire narrative is now recast in terms of how theologians have accommodated or rejected the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions.
With that question in mind, Olson guides us on the epic journey of modern theology, from the liberal "reconstruction" of theology that originated with Friedrich Schleiermacher to the postliberal and postmodern "deconstruction" of modern theology that continues today.
The Journey of Modern Theology is vintage Olson: eminently readable, panoramic in scope, at once original and balanced, and marked throughout by a passionate concern for the church's faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This will no doubt become another standard text in historical theology.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
November 27, 2013
Roger Olson is a prolific writer and a passionate theologian. I have followed his work from his [first] days at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and have followed it with even more interest since he moved to Waco to teach at Truett Seminary at Baylor University.
I also long ago read 20th Century Theology. I had read it not in a seminary classroom, but as a pastor trying to make sense of where I was theologically, especially in relationship to some of the issues raised through postmodern philosophy and the emergent church movement (before it was called that). I loved the book, and its thesis of the development of modern theologies as a dialogue and dialectic between emphases on theology's understanding of the transcendence of God and the immanence of God made sense to me. It helped me become more grounded and able to articulate where I was in the context of modern theology and postmodern philosophy. 20th Century Theology was a game changer for me.
Now, in an update on the book's 20th anniversary, Olson has, in attempting to revise the old text, written a new text with the old text as the foundation. Instead of using a theological construct to tell what has happened in 19th, 20th and 21st century theologies, he has used a historical one in The Journey of Modern Theology.
Since what is happening in both books is a historical theology of sorts, both organizational systems are appropriate. Olson's new construct makes the development of theology come across as a more relational and personal story of people and ideas in a historical context. Which is all well and good. But I think it misses the sense of wrestling with God that the text it has meant to revise had.
December 16, 2013
I think that the greatest value of Olson's magnum opus--for most people--will be to confirm the best reading of many of these theologians. Given the complexity of these thinkers, it helps to have confirmation that you are reading them correctly
If you have the opportunity to sample only some of their work, which is the case with most of us not teaching this material on a daily basis, you really need a compass to help with the larger corpus you don't have time to read. This book is a great compass. I waited patiently for this book for over a year after hearing from the author that he was working on it. [Now,] after reading it, I can say that my patience has been well rewarded.
The book performs that rare function that most books don't: It bridges the gap between general summaries and detailed treatments. That's really what most need, but few scholars achieve that goal. Writers either like to keep it general and simple for the lay reader, or they write a 700-page tome on one or [only] a few theologians. Dr. Olson covers the middle of the academic spectrum, and that--I think--is the appeal of this fine work.
The book is also a great complement to the author's previous book, The Story of Christian Theology, adding additional depth to that part of the history of most interest to many of us today. So the book is most definitely a big cut above a survey--in fact, it's much more than that. If clarity, accuracy, and fairness are your highest academic values, as they are for me, Olson is the scholar for you. For me, the chapter on Horace Bushnell was worth the price of the book. This chapter and others have led me to read more of Bushnell and a few others whose contributions are either forgotten, unknown, or under appreciated.
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Review of Roger Olson's "The Journey of Modern Theology"
by Bev Mitchell
by Roger Olson
May 17, 2014
This book is written to grab you (gently) and introduce you to some of the most interesting people of the last four hundred years. Yes, most of them were philosophers and theologians, but they were people first and always people. Roger Olson knows these people, some personally, but mainly through careful, sympathetic reading of much of their work over a long career. The characters march across the pages almost as if the author is presenting his friends to us. He knows them well, and wants us to know them – not to always agree with them for that would be impossible, but to know them as people who had great ideas, to know what the heart of those ideas was and to know why these particular people had these particular ideas. And to know the human and intellectual context into which these ideas spoke.
In his two page note of required reading at the beginning, Dr. Olson says “This book’s primary intended audience is not scholars of modern theology but students, pastors and interested laypeople……. The goal…. is to inform readers about the lives, careers, major ideas, legacies and possible problems of these thinkers.” This lay person and lifelong student thinks that this mission has been admirably accomplished. All students of theology who love people and their ideas will get much from this volume.
[Those philosophers and theologians who were about] were all chosen for inclusion in this book because they made very significant contributions to Christian theology. Like today, they all worked in a time when how we ask and attempt to answer questions, and even the questions we think we should be asking, was in great ferment. In the century before the first and second world wars, many wanted, and thought they could find, sure answers to all questions. Others were concerned that we should not be so bold as to ask certain questions. Others thought the questions and answers already available should do well enough. Still others were not so sure about certainty and struck out like bold explorers who saw a need to know what lay over that hill or beyond that ocean. Some paid dearly for their audacity, all are heroes to someone. All were very human. Their journeys, taken as a whole, as a package, have much to say about where were are now as Christians trying to understand who we are, who God is and how we should relate to him and to each other.
By the thirties and certainly by the forties (1930s to 1940s), it was clear that some of the theological certainties were nothing more than illusions. Many of the hopes for human improvement were dashed. There had already been warnings from some that humans are not really the masters of their fate but now those voices, mostly long ignored, were being heard again. A strength of Olson’s treatment is how clearly he ties together voices across the great divide created by the two world wars. Thinkers like Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Bushnell, Barth, Niebuhr and Moltmann are linked together across the centuries. All this without leaving out or minimizing other threads from thinkers like Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Bultmann, Tillich, and Whitehead. The contrasts across these lines of thought are made clear, but Olson does not miss many opportunities to show how important cross currents flowed for those with the good will to see.
The giants - and many of the lesser knowns - walk these pages. Importantly, the lesser knowns come off as significant contributors to a fascinating journey. They are simply lesser known, not necessarily lesser in any other way. Several of these ‘lesser’ lights were mediators. We are also given glimpses of how this sidelining of certain voices can happen. It’s not always a political or academic power process either. There are often fascinating personal and cultural dynamics at work in determining who gets remembered well. One of the mediators that I would highlight is I.A. Dorner because Olson’s presentation of him is a particularly good example of how lesser knowns are honoured in this book. Olson’s presentation of such people is a great strength. [Works by scholars such as Dorner] not only [help to] clarify the extremes (often represented by the big names) but also shows [to us] how much of the very good there is in the extremes, especially when moderated and modulated by rather different views.
In case you think that such a volume must of necessity deal with cut and dried dogmatic statements, systematized thinking that will leave you feeling completely satisfied that the intellect stands supreme, there is romanticism here too. Søren KIerkgaard makes several appearances because he influenced many, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge appears alone and in company with Horace Bushnell. Imagination shines forth not as the devil’s playground but, to borrow from Bushnell, as a “transcendently perceptive, creative, unifying power.” This aspect of theology is well represented throughout these pages.
On the science/faith front, we are shown how some theologians were prepared to let science drive the show, others wanted to build an impermeable barrier between the two while yet others at least envisioned the possibility of building something together that gets closer to the truth than either can alone. Philosophy is not ignored, rather philosophers are revealed as essential to the work of theologians, even for those theologians who wanted to avoid philosophy. The high drama between those, philosophers and theologians, who want to have answers to everything, even speculation anointed as fact, and those more comfortable with mystery, or just not knowing for now, is palpable.
There are liberals, conservatives, progressives and the unclassifiable here. If you read carefully, you may well come away with a much more nuanced appreciation of these often flammable designations. You may even be able to make a case for not paying too much attention to such labelling. There are really very few dividing lines, lines in the sand, when the views of these men (remember the time, they are unfortunately all men) are fully and fairly considered. Leanings, biases, blind spots, egos yes, but clear boundaries are not always so clear, or certainly permeable enough to allow valuable cross fertilization.
Often we are treated to biographical detail, not for its own sake, but integrated into the subject’s concerns, angst, faith and conflicts in such a way that we come to understand the theology or philosophy much better. These are all presented as real people. Great thinkers, yes, but people whose thoughts are not divorced from their life, culture or context. This is a history of real people who had great ideas. Sometimes they worked in an environment congenial to their thoughts, perhaps more often something of the hero was required in them to challenge what they believed to be error or mis-direction. Some were excommunicated, some were ostracized. It’s all here and it all belongs together to tell a great story.
The book is well organized so that it can be easily used as a reference. The sections on major theologians are easily found, and they tend to be grouped in a functional manner. The material on each major figure is also systematically organized making it easy to locate, for example, biography, summary, relation to science and relation to modernity. Sub-headings are provided for each one as well highlighting larger themes in their theology. These will become even more useful as the reader becomes familiar with Olson’s organizational style. All of these features will greatly facilitate comparative study.
A thematic thread runs through the work regarding science and faith. Olson frames it in the hypothesis that “much of modern theology is consciously or unconsciously constructed to avoid conflicts between science and Christianity”. The investigation of this hypothesis does not take up large parts of the text, but each major theologian is asked (via their written work) if this hypothesis makes sense, It’s beyond the scope of this review to summarize the results that Olson assembles, but it would be a good exercise to do so.
Because of the nature of this book, a survey with a bird’s eye view of a significant period of history, we will all miss a favourite or two in its pages. For me, though both are appropriately mentioned, not finding more on T.F. Torrance or C.S. Lewis was a disappointment. Olson covers this kind of unavoidable complaint early on with a quip regarding birds’ eye views “Not every bird’s, of course, but this bird’s.” This reminds me to briefly mention humour and its subtle possibilities. Overt humour is difficult to find in this volume, but there is a lightness, not at all quip-like or tongue-in-cheek, but a kind of joy present throughout. I think Dr. Olson had a lot of fun writing these pages. They represent the distillation of many years work and thinking, they include the sad loss of a friend and colleague who co-authored a previous volume of which this is more than a complete revision, but they show forth an author at the top of his game revelling in his subject.