Discovering Unity in Diversity
Book Review - The Mosaic of Christian Belief

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  • The Mosaic of Christian Belief by Roger E. Olson


Many Christians dislike theology because they think it’s divisive. “Let’s just stick to the Bible,” some would say, “and not get caught up in any unnecessary theology.”

And yet, if you disagree with a teaching that they deem “simply what the Bible says,” then you had better believe that the theological fur will fly – even if they deny to the end that they’re arguing theology.

The problem is that too many well-meaning Christians have convinced themselves that they don’t actually have to interpret the text or engage in the work of theology. In their eyes, they’re simply reading the Bible and doing what it says. Unfortunately, Christianity is not so simple. Two people can read the same text, come to two different conclusions, and both still be faithful Christians.

Does this mean that they’re both correct? Is all truth relative? No and no.

But it does mean that, as Christians, we should be willing to acknowledge that we are imperfect beings who “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We’re doing our best to understand the Gospel and the scriptures but we will make mistakes. We will all, from time to time, believe things that are untrue or, at least, imperfectly true.

So what does this mean? It means that we should always be on the lookout for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. It means that we should be willing to fully listen to those who disagree with us and carefully consider what they have to say (they may be right or, even if they’re wrong, they may expose a weakness in our thinking). It means that we should be cautious when declaring anyone a ‘heretic’ or ‘apostate’ based on a different interpretation of Genesis 1 or the end-times or the gifts of the Spirit (you get the picture).

I would encourage Christians to hold on to the doctrinal distinctives that make them unique among God’s people. I would not, nor would I want to, give up my Wesleyan-Arminian perspective and heritage. But, I would also encourage believers to find the core of Christianity that we share with all believers, in all places, and in all eras. Though there is much diversity within Christian thought, there is also much unity. That unity is what Roger Olson tries to communicate in The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity.

Olson sees a common Christian tradition (of doctrine) that has been passed down and held by all Christians at all times. Though certain theologians, pastors, or groups may have allowed the pendulum to swing far in a certain direction, there is still a core that has remained unchanged since the Church’s earliest years. Olson describes his book’s purpose in the introduction as a work that “seeks to explain to uninitiated readers what that common tradition includes in terms of unity, what it allows in terms of diversity and what it excludes in terms of heresies” (page 12). And this is how each chapter is organized. Each chapter introduces a doctrine, describes the false beliefs that have arisen around it, looks at the different legitimate ways that Christians have understood it throughout time, and then offers a vision for how Christians can unite around the common core while acknowledging genuine differences.

And he covers all of the basics: tradition, scripture, the trinity, creation, predestination, the nature of humanity, the work of the Holy Spirit, the divinity of Jesus, the atonement, faith and works, the church, the Kingdom of God, etc. This book would serve as an excellent introduction to Christian theology for any layperson. Olson defines all of the technical terms in simple language and does his best to simplify complex theological positions without turning them into straw-men. And though Olson readily acknowledges his biases (he’s an Arminian Baptist), he is more than fair to those who disagree with him.

As he touches on each doctrine, he looks at what scripture says, what the Early Church Fathers said, what medieval Christian leaders said, what the Reformers said, and what modern theologians have said. He quotes from a variety of sources: Clement, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, Moltmann, Barth, Brunner, et al. He notes heresies as ancient as the Marcionites and as modern as the Unification Church – but he doesn’t just note them, he explains why they cross the line from a piece of the mosaic into heresy both from scripture and Church tradition. Yet he doesn’t use the term ‘heresy’ lightly. He’s incredibly fair.

In fact, some would probably say that he’s too fair. Olson doesn’t just include Protestants in his mosaic. He is willing to extend fellowship, and the title ‘Christian’, to both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers – something many conservative, evangelical Christians would be unwilling to do. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his willingness to recognize Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers, all Christians would be better off if they would at least do a better job of understanding what others believe. And this is where Olson’s book excels. He lays out the contours of a genuine core of Christian doctrine while acknowledging the disagreements that do exist. If the Church is going to achieve anything close to real unity, it will begin here.

It would take pages and pages to say everything I thought about as I worked my way through this book. There will probably be forthcoming posts that dive deeper into some of the issues that Olson brings up. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to get this book and read it. It will help you understand what the scriptures teach, what you believe, and why you disagree with certain segments of the Christian population. It will also help you to see that none of us are merely “reading the Bible.” We’re all interpreting it and doing our best to understand what God has to say to his people and the world.

Olson describes my feelings well in his chapter on the Church: “We hope and pray for the day when all true believers in Jesus Christ will realize this in such a way that sectarianism will fade away. As that happens, Christians of many different denominations will retain their specific, historical identities while joyfully worshiping with each other and eagerly cooperating with each other in mission and service” (page 335).

May we be such a people.

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