An Excerpt from Roger Olson's Essentials of Christian Thought
Christians living in a pluralistic society filled with competing worldviews and visions of the nature of reality need guidance about how to sort them out biblically.
In The Essentials of Christian Thought, eminent theologian and church historian Roger Olson outlines the basic perspective on the world that all Christians, regardless of the place and time in which they are born, have historically held. Continue to read to find out why Olson thinks this is necessary.
Why This Book?
This book is primarily intended for Christian believers, although others are more than welcome to read it. The intended audience is people who believe the Bible is a truthful and trustworthy guide not only to spirituality and ethics but also to the nature of ultimate reality. That is, it is especially for people who believe the Bible is more than just a book of human wisdom or even an expression of God’s moral will. This book is for people who believe the human authors of the Bible were instruments of God, albeit active and not passive ones, in revealing what would otherwise be his secrets. What secrets? The true nature of ultimate reality—the realities behind appearances. Philosophers call the study of such secrets metaphysics, but more about that later. Don’t let a word scare you away.
This book presupposes that the Bible is God’s narrative, God’s story, about himself and his relationships with people. It also presupposes that, like every story, the biblical narrative about God and people in history past, present, and future has certain hidden features that need to be explored and drawn out. They are not hidden by design as in esoteric religion. They are hidden because they are taken for granted—by God and by his human instruments, the Bible’s authors.
Hidden may be a misleading word; no intentionality to hide is intended. The hiddenness of certain truths within the Bible is not intentional; it is due to the fact that God and his human authors simply told a story; they did not deliver a book of philosophy or theology. However, certain philosophical and theological truths are implied by the story. This book is an explanation of the hidden background within the biblical narrative. It is written for believers who really would like to know what vision of ultimate reality lurks, as it were, within the Bible. Who would want to know that? Inquiring Christian minds want to know. Especially those inquiring Christian minds who desire to distinguish biblical truth about ultimate reality—the mysteries of God and the universe—from the plethora of competing visions about ultimate reality floating around in pluralistic culture.
Here’s a question to pique your curiosity: What does the Bible imply about time? Is time only a matter of perception? Is time only an illusion of finite existence? Is time negative, something to escape in salvation? A hymn speaks of a time when “time shall be no more.”Will there be time in heaven? Does God experience time? These are issues that have perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries, and they have taken radically diverse positions. Does the biblical narrative provide any guidance to a biblical, and therefore Christian, view of time? There is no chapter or verse that directly addresses the subject, and there is no definite “Christian doctrine of time.” And yet, it is a subject of great perplexity and consternation for inquiring Christian minds.
This book intends to be a guide for the perplexed Christian—for the Christian who believes the Bible is in some sense God’s holy Word but is confused about its message about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, the Bible is not always as clear as we would like it to be—especially about philosophical subjects. And yet Christians living in a pluralistic society filled with competing worldviews and visions of the nature of reality need guidance about how to sort them out biblically.
The Bible’s Implicit Philosophy
A basic presupposition of this book is that the Bible does contain an implicit metaphysical vision of ultimate reality—the reality that is most important, final, highest, and behind everyday appearances. That vision of reality has been called various things such as “biblical theism” and “biblical personalism.” Perhaps “biblical personal theism” or “biblical theistic personalism” would be good terms for it. The point is to emphasize that ultimate reality is a personal God who acts, shows, and speaks. “Biblical relational theism” is another inadequate but useful term for the Bible’s implicit vision of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is relational.
Contemporary Western society is awash in competing visions of ultimate reality. Christians who do not know any better often absorb beliefs about reality from worldviews completely alien to the Bible and in radical conflict with it. This is known as syncretism. There is both conscious and unconscious syncretism. Conscious syncretism is when a person willingly and knowingly attempts to combine radically disparate belief systems in eclectic fashion—often looking for a new worldview made out of preexisting ones. Unconscious syncretism is when a person unknowingly absorbs radically disparate belief systems into his or her basic belief system (for Christians, that of the Bible and Christian tradition). This should create cognitive dissonance, but often it does not because our pluralistic culture tends to promote eclecticism. Biblically committed Christians, however, should want to purify their worldview of beliefs radically alien to and in conflict with the worldview implied in the biblical story.
This book, then, is a guide for Christians who want to know and understand the basic philosophy of the Bible. Here philosophy simply means “vision of ultimate reality”—a view of what is really, ultimately real and what is not. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966) helpfully pointed to this meaning of philosophy, especially that branch of it called metaphysics, in his Philosophy of Religion, where he emphasized the importance of seeing connections that do not appear but are necessary for a holistic understanding of things that do appear.
What does “essentials of Christian thought” mean? Certainly not “what a person must believe to be Christian.” Many good Christians are simply unaware of the Bible’s basic, foundational ideas about reality. Rather, essentials of Christian thought refers to bedrock Christianity in terms of worldview, life and world perspective, the Bible’s implicit understanding of the nature and meaning of life and reality, and basic Christian philosophy—that which lies underneath and undergirds as a foundation the truths explicitly revealed in the Bible and tenaciously held by Christians for two thousand years. It is what every Christian should think about the reality behind everyday appearances, but many don’t. Why don’t they? Again, because they have been confused by the plethora of competing visions of reality in culture.
I have taught Christian theology to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in universities and churches over more than three decades. One thing I have discovered is that many God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians are confused about the nature of ultimate reality—what here will often be called “biblical metaphysics.” They may know their church’s catechism forward and backward and yet have absorbed and embraced a vision of ultimate reality totally alien to the Bible and to Christian tradition. There are three reasons for this common condition…
Continue to engage Roger Olson in The Essentials of Christian Thought to understand foundational ideas about reality.
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