The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story
Reviewed by Michael J. Kallenberg, Denver, Colorado
“But we can also see the illustration now as one thing, now as another. – So we interpret it, and see it as we interpret it.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein1
“The proposal is that the world, too, which we contemplate can be seen as one thing or as some altogether different thing.” – James Richmond2
Roger Olson has two interrelated aims in The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story. The first is to help Christians understand the biblical worldview or vision of ultimate reality; that is, the basic Christian philosophy implied by the biblical narrative (revealed metaphysics). The second is to explain what is meant by “faith” in faith-learning integration in an attempt to facilitate renewed regard for the project.
The first three chapters are devoted to laying the groundwork and clearing away misconceptions so that the primary purpose of the book may proceed: the retrieval of a genuine Christian philosophy or biblical metaphysics. Chapter 1, “Knowing Christianly: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story,” presents the reader with a preliminary account of a “Christian-based epistemology” (26). It turns out to be an excellent explanation of what Olson calls a “Wittgensteinian postfoundationalist epistemology” or a “soft perspectivism,” which follows Alasdair MacIntyre in recognizing that all knowledge is dependent on a tradition-community and a narrative account of reality (30, 37, 41). Despite the fact that Olson readily acknowledges that “there is no view from nowhere,” he insists that world-view perspectives are not incorrigible. Drawing on Ian Ramsey’s theory of “empirical fit,” Olson contends that they may be “critically examined and supported or undermined by lived experience” (34). Of course, it follows that a change in worldview is tantamount to a conversion from one perspective to another (36). Or as Wittgenstein hints, “Further experiments cannot give the lie to our earlier ones, at most they may change our whole way of looking at things.”3 Again, Wittgenstein insinuates,
Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language-game any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game. Indeed, doesn’t it seem obvious that the possibility of a language-game is conditioned by certain facts?4
Returning to the main point of the book, which is to delineate the “revealed-to-faith perspective” rooted in the biblical story, Olson moves on in the second chapter to clarify what he means (and does not mean) by “supernatural” and “personal,” since these words have been “widely misused and misunderstood,” and yet remain central concepts in the biblical representation of ultimate reality or the “really real” (53). Chapter 3 presents the case for the existence of a unique Christian metaphysics and contends that this vision of ultimate reality, which is implicit in the biblical narrative, is incommensurate with other metaphysical worldviews, including Greek metaphysical philosophies. In retrieving a Christian metaphysics, Olson follows the procedure set by Emil Brunner, Abraham Heschel, Claude Tresmontant, and Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier. Similar to Wittgenstein’s senescent philosophical practice, these guides encourage a search for the philosophical implications of the Bible that have been misplaced: “I do philosophy now like an old woman who is always mislaying something and having to look for it again: now her spectacles, now her keys.”5
In chapter 4, Olson appraises several of the most prominent perspectives, overarching stories, or metaphysical visions of ultimate reality that conflict with personal theism in the Western world (for example, Manichean dualism, monism, panentheism, and naturalism). According to Olson, it is important to delineate these alternatives clearly because many Christians have eclectically, inconsistently, and often unwittingly mixed elements of these worldviews into syncretistic, idiosyncratic belief systems.
Having laid the groundwork, cleared away misconceptions, and appraised prominent alternatives, Olson is finally able to go on in chapters 5, 6, and 7 to explicate the contours of the biblical-Christian view of God, the world, and humanity. Chapter 5 presents the “supernatural, personal (but not human) God of Israel and of Jesus Christ” as the clear biblical vision of ultimate reality (141-42). In addition to expounding what it means to say this, Olson goes on to explain what it means to say that God is vulnerable, eternal, and good. I will allow readers to discover the stable theology of these sections for themselves, except to note that God’s self-limitation is the key to understanding the relation between his freedom and love – how God is self-sufficient in himself and yet freely chose in love to be vulnerable or open to the world. Chapter 6 communicates the Christian view of the world as “God’s good but corrupted and yet redeemable creation” (178). Here again, Olson is careful to distinguish the Christian view of the world from alternative metaphysical visions; namely, Platonism and Aristotelianism, Manichean and Gnostic dualism, monism (pantheism), naturalism, deism, and panentheism. Chapter 7 lays out the biblical anthropology or understanding of human nature and experience as “dependent but good,” as well as willfully “damaged” but “not destroyed” (208, 212, 213). A noteworthy highlight of this final chapter is Olson’s recovery of Christian humanism from its lamentable entanglement with secularism.
In addition to the seven chapters sketched above, the book contains seven interludes and an appendix. The wide-ranging interludes, or short “explanatory essays,” following each chapter shed light on potentially confusing or contentious topics such as postmodernism, relativism, natural theology, mystery, the relation between philosophy and theology, divine self-limitation, the problem of evil, the relation between science and religion, and human freedom. Finally, Olson includes an illuminating appendix on the integration of faith and learning. He defines the “faith” part of the faith-learning integration as the basic Christian philosophy implied by the biblical narrative, which he demarcates throughout the book. In other words, what is meant by “faith” in faith-learning integration should not be confused with distinctive denominational beliefs or additional confessional doctrines. The upshot of faith-learning integration is that it provides Christians with a superior educational model to the following three alternatives: “anti-intellectual obscurantism, secularism, and two-truths thinking” (244). Suffice it to say, either the interludes or the appendix taken alone make this book an indispensable resource.
There is one caveat that readers must keep in mind: this is not a work of Christian apologetics. If readers overlook this, they may experience a measure of frustration, because Olson does not fully support and back all of his claims within the body of the text. He is more interested in explication than justification. Having said this, however, I hasten to add that he does provide ample footnotes to sources which do adequately support his positions. More importantly, he explains the overall Christian worldview perspective in a “consistent, simple, comprehensive, and coherent” fashion such that, on balance, it meets Ramsey’s “metaphysical justificatory criterion.”6 Indeed, in my estimation, Olson astutely and accessibly implements Alvin Plantinga’s counsel from his well-known article “Advice to Christian Philosophers”; specifically, he displays autonomy, “integrality,” and a healthy dose of Christian self-confidence.7 Moreover, he shows that theologians are, perhaps, better qualified than philosophers to set the agenda for Christian thought. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in his endorsement, “At least philosophy in the hands of a theologian like Roger Olson is too important to be left to philosophers.” All in all, this is a marvelous contribution to worldview thinking and the faith-learning project.
Cite this article
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, eds. P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), Part 2, §116.
- James Richmond, Theology and Metaphysics (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 51.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972), 38e, §292.
Ibid., 82e, §617.
- Ibid., 70e, §532.
- Terrence W. Tilley, “Ian Ramsey and Empirical Fit,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45.3, Supplement (September 1977): G: 963-988. “Briefly put, the more consistent, simple, comprehensive, and coherent a family of religious discourse (or metaphysical map) is, the better it is” (G: 965).
- Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1.3 (permanently copyrighted October 1984): 253-271.