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Why I wrote my books

Why I wrote my books May 15, 2011

I’m flattered that some commenters listed one or more of my books as among their favorites.  I should not assume that anyone really cares why I wrote any of my books, but just in case someone wonders or finds it interesting…

20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age: Stan Grenz called me and asked me to write a chapter in a book he planned to edit on modern/contemporary theology.  IVP asked him to head up this project.  Stan and I met through our mutual connection with Pannenberg.  He left Munich just as I was going there and mutual friends suggested I get in touch with him to learn about life in Munich.  After I returned we met and struck up a friendship.  I said to Stan “Why don’t you and I write the book together–edited books aren’t usually very good.”  He immediately agreed and the book came together with very little difficulty because Stan and I thought very much alike.  We agreed very easily on which theologians to include and who should write which chapters.  For any of you interested in such, I wrote chapters on: Schleiermacher, Ritschl (including Harnack and Rauschenbusch), Barth, Brunner, Tillich, Radical Theology, Rahner, Kung, Moltmann, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology and maybe one or two others.  I am now in the process of revising 20th Century Theology.  The revised, updated work will include more chapters on 19th century theology (thus probably requiring a new title) and postmodern theology.  One glaring omission of 20th century theology was Kierkegaard who got only passing mention in the introduction to the section on neo-orthodoxy.  We struggled over where to put Bultmann–in the section on neo-orthodoxy or in the section on neo-liberal theologians (with Tillich and process theology).  Stan finally made the decision to put him with neo-orthodoxy because of his existentialist leanings and his emphasis on kerygmatic theology in spite of his very liberal demythologizing project.

Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God: Stan and I came up with the idea for that book while driving around Washington, D.C. with our friends from IVP during an AAR meeting in about 1993 (I think).  We were talking about the difficulty of getting evangelicals to take theology seriously.  I had quoted over dinner Vance Havner (radio preacher from the 1950s): “Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.”  That led into a discussion of the need for a book explaining why theology is not bad.  By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner the outline of the book was already decided.  Who Needs Theology has been my best selling book after Finding God in the Shack.

The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform: I guess this is my magnum opus.  I wrote it in four months–during my second sabbatical in (I think it was) 1998.  (I wrote my portions of 20th Century Theology during my first sabbatical in 1991.)  The book came about because Rodney Clapp, then my editor at IVP, asked me about writing a book alone.  I was anxious to do that to establish my own reputation as an author apart from Stan.  If felt the need for a textbook to replace the one I usually used when teaching historical theology–William Placher’s History of Christian Thought.  Placher mashed the Christological and trinitarian controversies together into one chapter!  I had to spread that one chapter out over three weeks in class.  Also, I wanted to tell the mostly untold stories of Arminian theology, Pietism and Anabaptist theology–three movements mostly ignored and neglected in volumes of historical theology.  The book kept growing as I wrote and IVP graciously allowed me to let it get longer and longer although I had to really cut back in the modern theology section.  In effect, the book became a prequel to 20th Century Theology.

The Trinity: I was asked to write this by my friend Alan Padgett. We taught together for two years and he knew of my passion for the doctrine of the Trinity.  This was to be the first volume of a series he was editing for Eerdmans (Guides to Theology).  I was working on another project and so asked my friend Christopher Hall to write it with me and he agreed.  Chris wrote most of the first half of the book and I wrote most of the second half of the book.  As I recall, I picked up with the Reformers.

The book I was busy working on was The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (IVP).  This book came about because my friends at IVP asked me about writing another book and out of our discussions we agreed on a brief summa of Christian doctrine.  I had been using Stan’s Theology for the Community of God as a textbook in a basic Christian doctrine class.  But the students complained it was too long and contained too much speculation and was too singularly focused on one theme–community.  I loved the book, but I had to agree about the speculation part.  Personally, I think most systematic theologies contain too much speculation.  The Mosaic book was to omit speculation. Each chapter would follow the same pattern (to make it easier to use as a textbook).  The approach would be to promote The Great Tradition of Christian doctrine while acknowledging legitimate diversity within it.  I suggested the title.  Then I realized Stan was using the term “Mosaic” in some of his writings.  So I asked him for permission to use it in my title.  He refused at first, then said okay.  Later I realized he was planning to use the Mosaic word in what became is Matrix series–left unfinished when he died.  He substituted Matrix for Mosaic, giving me Mosaic.  I appreciated that.  However, I had given him permission to write a little book on modern/contemporary theology for Fortress that really cut into sales of 20th Century Theology.  So we did each other favors.

I believe my next book was The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology.  This came about because WJK editor and old friend Don McKim asked me to write it and I jumped on the opportunity.  It was a major and very time consuming project that hasn’t sold well.  But that’s because it is really a reference book. 

I’m skipping over a couple of smaller books here.

Then came Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities and Questions to All Your Answers–written at the same time during a sabbatical several years ago.  I had been wanting to write a book about Arminian theology for a long time, but several publishers expressed doubt about whether there would be an audience for such a book.  My friends at IVP gave me the green light to write it and it has sold very well.  The impetus for Arminian Theology was very specific and precise–the 1992 special issue of Modern Reformation magazine entitled simply Arminianism. It contained articles caricaturing Arminian theology.  When I read it I knew I had to write a book refuting that and other caricatures and misrepresentations of Arminianism.  My research was extensive.  I read virtually everything I could get my hands on for and against Arminian theology.  I would have to say that so far Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities has been the book most satisfying and fulfilling for me as an author.  I believe it satisfied a felt need and corrected misconceptions about my own theology and that of many evangelicals.

Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan).  This was my first foray into popular writing and publishing.  The book came about as a result of something I can only describe as a revelation.  I won’t go into that here.  But that is to say something remarkable happened.  The whole book–title and outline and chapter titles, etc., came to me in a flash while walking for exercise.  I wrote it in two weeks and submitted the manuscript to Zondervan who immediately accepted it.

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (BakerAcademic) and How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative (Zondervan) were written almost simultaneously.  They came about because of lectures I gave at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia and at Carey Theological College in Vancouver.  Reformed and Always Reforming was, in many ways, my defense of Stan Grenz’s theological method, but I was also becoming convinced that Kevin Vanhoozer’s method was compatible with Stan’s and the two together point a way forward beyond evangelical theology’s fundamentalist roots into something new that is not liberal.  I admit to being inspired somewhat by postliberal theology (more Hans Frei than George Lindbeck!).

God in Dispute: Conversations between Great Christian Thinkers came about because my friend Bob Hosack at BakerAcademic kept asking me to write another book for them.  I had a few imaginary conversations between theologians that I had used in my theology classes. I revised those and wrote some more and that’s how that book came about.  Writing it was simply fun.

Somewhere in there I wrote my best selling book to date: Finding God in the Shack.  It has sold about 55,000 copies in the U.S. and many thousands in Brazil and other countries.  I had no intention of writing it.  In fact, I had not read The Shack until my friends at IVP called me and asked about my interest in writing such a book.  I didn’t think much of the idea until I read The Shack and absolutely loved it.  I wrote the book in about two weeks (with some revisions that took a week later).  It’s not the book I’m proudest of, but it was fun to write.

Against Calvinism: This book is finished but not yet published.  It will be published by Zondervan in October (if not before).  The impetus for this book goes back a long way.  It began when a “Piper cub” (Bethel students who were passionate fans of John Piper) came to my office and said “Professor Olson, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re not a Christian.”  I said “Oh,why is that?”  “Because you’re not a Calvinist,” he replied.  I still remember that student’s name many years later.  I asked him “Where did you get the idea that only Calvinists are Christians?”  He said “from my pastor, John Piper.”  Years later I recounted that story to Piper who laughed and claimed he never said that.  But I encountered other people who gained that impression from listening to him speak.  I didn’t feel the time was right to write the book until about two years ago and I approached my editor at Zondervan about it.  She was enthusiastic about the idea, but the publisher wanted to publish a book entitled Against Arminianism simultaneously with mine.  They asked me for recommendations for an author.  I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified than my friend Michael Horton who agreed to write it with the revised title For Calvinism. It was my idea to have him write the Foreword to my book and for me to write the Foreword to his–to make clear that Calvinists and Arminians can profoundly disagree with each other without hating each other.  What brought me to the realization that the time was right to write Against Calvinism was the tidal wave of passionate but often unreflective Calvinism among especially young evangelical men.  I met and talked with so many of them and often discovered they had never thought about some of the problems with Calvinism.  Often, when I pointed those out to them, they gradually gave up their Calvinism.  I became convinced that “high federal Calvinism” (5 point Calvinism) including especially “double predestination” was so full of flaws that anyone who saw them and took them seriously would have to amend his or her Calvinism.  (I make clear in the book’s Introduction that I am not against every and all Calvinism but only against that particular kind of Calvinism.)  I had one very providential moment while doing my research.  I needed to find an American Reformed evangelical theologian who had come to reject high federal Calvinism while remaining Reformed.  I had read Berkouwer, but he was Dutch and didn’t quite fit the bill.  I was browsing in a used theology bookstore and saw The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit by the late Fuller theology professor James Daane.  I knew of him from some essays and knew that he, like Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantinga, has revised Reformed theology.  I bought the book for about $5 and it became an invaluable asset for writing my book.  I quote Daane extensively in Against Calvinism.  Daane blasted what he called “decretal theology” (represented by, for example, Lorraine Boettner–the R. C. Sproul of an earlier generation) for de-historicizing and therefore de-personalizing God and God’s relationship with the world.  Many of his criticisms parallel and echo Berkouwer’s (who was his teacher) and T. F. Torrance’s and, of course, Barth’s.  If I had not found that book in that obscure used bookstore, my book would have been much poorer.  I really do believe God led me to it.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, but it is out of print.  Read Against Calvinism to get its essence.

So what am I working on now?  I get asked that a lot.  Two projects.  One on Pietism and the revision of 20th Century Theology which will probably turn out to be a whole new book on modern theology incorporating some of the material in 20th Century Theology.

I hope I didn’t bore you to death with these little anecdotes about my writings.  I don’t imagine that I have fans or that anybody cares a lot about these things.  But going back over them and writing about them was fun for me!

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