Good News about a Wonderful Theological Book with a New Lease on Life

Good News! A Wonderful Theological Book Gets a New Lease on Life

Recently I’ve been listening (on my ipod) to a trilogy of novels by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven). One especially interesting feature of all three is the (Zafon-created) mythical “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” that lies mostly unknown in Barcelona, Spain. Only a few initiates know of its existence. The “cemetery” is a gothic labyrinth-library that holds one copy of every book ever published. Many of them are wonderful books that simply didn’t catch on with the reading public or were suppressed for some reason. An initiate is required to take one book from the “library” and treasure it, taking care of it and making sure it is passed down to his or her descendents. It’s all very mysterious and gothic.

I often wonder why certain excellent books get forgotten and, of course, I’m especially concerned about wonderful theological books that fly in and out of print and are all-too-quickly forgotten without getting the attention they deserve. One such book (that made a huge impression on me) was the badly titled Here Am I! A Believer’s Reflection on God by South African theologian Adrio König. It was first published in South Africa and then by Eerdmans in the U.S. I don’t remember how I came to read it, but I knew right away it was a good book, a very good book, about God that covered most of the controversies about the doctrine of God in Christian theology and was both critical and constructive.

I used it in one of my first theology seminars—way back in the 1980s. I planned to use it again, but it went out of print quickly. I gained permission from the publisher to copy it for students in later seminars, but I eventually moved on to other books because getting copyright permission to copy it became less simple as even the publisher forgot about it.

Sometime in the 1990s I had the privilege of spending an evening with König when he came to America to give lectures. I found him as delightful and profound as his book. We formed a sort of friendship and kept in touch off and on. I read a few of his other books, but didn’t find them as exciting or stimulating as Here Am I! I believe König is now retired from UNISA (University of South Africa), but, last I corresponded with him, he was working on a new book.

Sometime last year Wipf & Stock re-published Here Am I! with a new subtitle: “A Christian Reflection on God.” I believe it is also published by Mosaic Press (a Canadian publisher). Wipf & Stock is one of the few publishers who dares to enter the cemetery of forgotten books, take one out, and give it new life. (I think I mentioned this one to them some years ago, so I’d like to think I had something to do with it being republished.)

So what’s so great about Here Am I! Certainly not the title. I suspect the title put off many a potential buyer. And the original cover left much to be desired. And it is not exactly bed time reading; it was not written as an introduction to the doctrine of God. Still, I think college and university educated lay Christians interested in theology can read and understand it with benefit. In the book König interacts creatively with biblical theology. He is not afraid to take the biblical narrative in which God is the primary character seriously. He avoids interpreting it through a preconceived philosophical lens. In fact, one of the attributes of the book that first attracted me to it is the author’s determination to follow the biblical narrative about God wherever it leads and not be controlled by a philosophical theistic hermeneutic.

About the first half of the book is very insightful and unusual reflections on the biblical doctrine of God. König works out of the broad Reformed tradition, clearly influenced by Barth, Berkouwer and Henrdikus Berkhof, but he does not allow his reflections on God to be controlled by any theologian or school of theology. In the doctrinally constructive portion of the book (approximately the second half) he interacts with process theology, liberation theology, Moltmann and Pannenberg, and, of course, Barth. He discusses the “proofs” for the existence of God and the traditional attributes of God (especially immutability and impassibility). He ends up expounding and defending a view of God as faithful but not immutable, self-sufficient but not impassible, and eternal but not “timeless.”

König wrote this before open theism was well-known or widely discussed, so he doesn’t mention it specifically. However, he clearly is sympathetic with belief in God who relates. His is a thoroughly relational theism that avoids process theology (of which he is quite critical).

I have quoted from Here Am I! several times in my books. One reason is that König cannot simply be dismissed as “one of those open theists” or even “Arminian.” He’s embedded deeply in the Reformed tradition even though conservative Calvinists would no doubt consider him a revisionist. (But who isn’t a revisionist? Every Calvinist theologian I read has his or her own “spin” on that tradition.) He rejects meticulous sovereignty and affirms God as absolutely sovereign nevertheless. If that sounds contradictory, well, I suggest you read the book.

But Here Am I! is not just an exercise in revision of classical theism and traditional Calvinism. It’s a whole course in biblical theology (including much interaction with the Old Testament) and modern/contemporary theology.

One of my favorite quotes from Here Am I! is from pages 198-199 and expresses this Reformed theologian’s strong rejection of divine determinism:

“Anyone who levels things out in vague generalizations by attempting to explain everything and all possible circumstances as the will of God always ends up in the impossible situation that there are more exceptions than rules, more things that are inexplicable and that clash with the picture of God that is given to us in his word, than there are comforting confirmations that he is directing everything. … Anyone who tries to use the omnipotence and providence of God to propose a meticulously prepared divine plan which is unfolding in world history (L. Boettner) will always be left with the problem that other believers might not be able to discern the God of love in the actual course of world events. … [i]t must be emphatically stated that…the Scriptures do not present the future as something which materializes [sic] according to a ‘plan’ but that are not the will of God (Luke 7:30 and every other sin mentioned in the Bible), that are against his will, and that stem from the incomprehensible and senseless sin in which we are born, in which the greater part of mankind lives, and in which Israel persisted, and against which even the ‘holiest men’…struggled all their days. … To try to interpret all these things by means of the concept of a plan of God, creates intolerable difficulties and gives rise to more exceptions than regularities. But the most important objection is that the idea of a plan is against the message of the Bible since God himself becomes incredible if that against which he has fought with power, and for which he sacrificed his only Son, was nevertheless somehow part and parcel of his eternal counsel.”

To that I have always been able to say only “Amen and amen!”

My invitation to you is to report about one theological book that you think went too quickly to the cemetery of forgotten books and should be brought out and given a new lease on life and why.

  • Mike Anderson

    I just bought a copy of “Here Am I!” Thanks for the recommendation. I seem to prefer titles that can’t be found at the local Christian bookstore, but my collection is too new to contain anything out of print.

  • David Rogers

    I found working through Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Theology and the Justification of Faith: Constructing Theories in Systematic Theology (William B. Eerdmans, 1989) a good discipline for my thinking. I had to start and re-start it five times because I would find that I had to stop reading it for various circumstances in my life but the argumentation was so thickly argued I couldn’t just pick it up months later where I had left off. I had to start from the beginning each and every time. But about ten years ago I was determined to get through it in one span of time. I finally did it and was glad I did. It was very helpful in helping me understand the issues involved in understanding a philosophy of science and the implications for constructing theology.

    • rogereolson

      I have met him and I see him at AAR meetings annually. I believe he teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary but is from South Africa. He is one of those theologians I have meant to read but never got around to it. Thanks for weighing in with this recommendation.

  • D.P.

    Dr. Olson: Thanks for this review. I had written you mid-November about the ubiquitous use of God’s Master Plan (It is all part of God’s grand plan..God decided to cause me to have a car wreck so I could meet the love of my life, etc) by just about everyone. I can’t seem to find a Bible based church that does not adhere to this type thought. Is this a denominational thing? I would really like to get away from what seems insanity. Any suggestions appreciated. Looking forward to reading Konig’s work. DPSmith

    • rogereolson

      I have complained here often that the idea of God’s “master plan” (under whatever terminology) has simply become part of the unreflective folk religion of America. It pops up even in churches that don’t hold to it doctrinally. Over thirty plus years of teaching about God’s sovereignty in many kinds of churches (and three Christian universities) I have had the all too frequent experience of lay Christians (and sometimes pastors) acting shocked and dismayed when I stated that I do not believe God has a blueprint by which he governs every detail of history such that everything that happens is “God’s will.” Then, when I mention the holocaust (and similar horrors) they get very confused and just kind of throw their hands up in the air and want to change the subject. They are programmed to believe in meticulous providence (sometimes by songs sung in church) and think it would be heresy to give it up but don’t want to believe God planned and rendered certain the holocaust.

  • David Booth

    How serendipitous! I was only yesterday doing some research on biblical/theological arguments for an open relational view of God and came across a footnote mentioning Konig’s book and noted down the details to try and get hold of it. I learnt much from his book on The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology. Having you mention it now on your blog gives me even more reason to acquire and read it. While not an open theist, I must confess to finding the rational view of God presented by the likes of Pinoock, Sanders and Boyd very attractive . Thank you for drawing attention to this book.

    Blessings,
    David

    • rogereolson

      I think you meant to write “relational view of God” although I’m sure Pinnock, et al., would consider their views also rational.

  • John

    A couple of books I read for a class some years ago (both re-published by Wipf and Stock): _Praising and Knowing God_ by Daniel Hardy and David Ford; _The Trivialization of God_ by Donald McCullough. Both are from a moderate Reformed perspective (no mention of Arminus or Wesley), but, especially Hardy and Ford, talk about God’s “respecting” creation and interacting with it. I like their thesis: “At the heart of ordinary Christian life is recognition of the love of God. All creation is a work of God’s love. Jesus Christ is God’s giving of himself in love to restore and fulfil all creation. The Holy Spirit is the pouring out of this love in endless transformation and fresh creativity. Praise of God recognizes all this and first of all enjoys and celebrates it. Praise is therefore an attempt to cope with the abundance of God’s love” (Hardy and Ford, p. 1).

  • Derek

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    Thanks so much for this recommendation. In regards to your request, even though this is not what you have in mind, would you kindly provide your thoughts on John Piper’s “Spectacular Sins”. Of course this is not a hard-hitting scholarly book, nor is it forgotten, but it seems to lay out a very clear pciture of God’s sovereignty.

    One thing about Piper’s books is that they are heavy on Bible and light on philosophy, so it would be really great to hear your thoughts on that book. If you have not read it, please do, as it is very short and you’d probably be finished with it in a few days…even hours.

    Thank-you!

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t read it and don’t intend to. I’ve read several of Piper’s books (and I have talked with him personally for hours) and I believe I have a good grasp of his theology. I disagree that it is “light on philosophy.” Piper is heavily dependent on Edwards who was, of course, very much influenced by philosophy. I think it is naive to believe that just because a theologian doesn’t specifically appeal to philosophers he is not influenced by philosophy.

      • Derek

        Hm, yeah good point. I just generally see the Reformed tradition and Piper’s books as always making their points manifestly from rigorous exegesis of Scripture. It’s much more than proof texting as their books are saturated in Scripture as they weave together various themes, etc. This is simply why no one can really ever accuse the Reformed tradition as being unbiblical…it just won’t work…which is why I firmly stand in that tradition myself.

        On another note, just out of curiosity – are you personally friends with John Piper (as I would love to see a thoughtful Arminian and thoughtful Calvinist be good friends)?

        • rogereolson

          You obviously haven’t been reading here a long time. I’ve addressed my rocky relationship with Piper several times here. But I don’t want to get distracted to discussion of personalities. I think high federal Calvinism (as opposed to, for example, “evangelical Calvinism”) has the appearance of being biblical but is not. There is a lot of fancy hermeneutical footwork going on in those volumes packed with proof texts.

          • Derek

            You got it – I’ve just started reading your blog recently.

            Really you and Piper don’t get along? That’s a shame. Hopefully it is a personality issue and not a theological divide, my guess is it’s the latter though. If you don’t mind my asking, do you have any good, genuine friends who are staunch Calvinists (just curious)?

            Wow, I can understand not agreeing with Calvinism but to assert that it is unbiblical is going too far, IMO. Would you ever have a debate on this issue with someone like James White?

          • rogereolson

            If I thought it was biblical, I’d be a Calvinists. :)

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  • John Gorveatte

    Dr. Olson, I recently was linked to your blog by a friend and have been reading ever since. Thank you for your contribution to Arminian theology and I have taken two classes in university that have used your books as textbooks (Mosaic of Christian Belief, The Story of Christian Theology) and found them to be helpful.

    Regarding some of the previous comments on this post, are there any denominations/churches that hold to an open, relational view of God (both in theology/practice)? I’m a member of the Wesleyan Church and even within our denomination there is not much mention of it.

    Thanks!
    John

    • rogereolson

      I suppose much depends on what “open, relational” means. I regard Arminianism as relational theism. The Wesleyan Church is traditionally Arminian. So I would think relational theism would be welcome in it insofar as relational means that God can be affected by what we do (as well as affecting us). However, as I’ve argued much here, American folk religion in general has absorbed and used as default theology meticulous providence that is not truly Arminian or relational. I’m not surprised if many people in Arminian churches, for example, haven fallen into the unreflective habit of thinking and saying that whatever happens is God’s plan. Unfortunately, evangelical leaders, often including denominational ones, have largely closed ranks against open theism and are therefore also very nervous about any hint of relational theism (which they see as leading to open theism). I once belonged to a denomination that had plenty of room for relational theism until the open theism controversy broke out and suddenly denominational leaders started sounding like Calvinists (which not all are).


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