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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  • Tom

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks so much for sharing. The first book of yours I read was The Story of Christian Theology, and then The Mosaic of Christian Belief–both extremely helpful and irenic. As a Calvinistic at the time, I also found your Arminian Theology to be full of important insights and clarifications. But hands down, perhaps because I love method so much, my favorite of yours is Reformed and Always Reforming. How I wish Reformed folks of all stripes would breath deeply the approach you present there. And now I’m eagerly anticipating Against Calvinism. I appreciate all the work it takes to write these important books. We need more voices like yours. Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for taking time to share these. I appreciate having a basic handle on your work. You’ve become a helpful resource for me as a United Methodist pastor of the Evangelical variety who needs to converse faithfully and well with some of my congregants regarding Reformed theology. And I enjoy hearing the back story to books anyway.

  • James Petticrew

    Fascinating insight into the process of writing books. I am in awe of anyone who can write a book in two weeks.

    How I wish I had had access to your books when I was studying theology in Scotland in the late 80s, the picture of Arminiainism which was presented was always a Calvinistic “straw man.” I knew even as a relatively young believer that the characterture being presented was the creature of Reformed theology not a true expression of what I knew of Arminian theology but I had no academic resources to quote in rebuttal. Since then I have bought several of your books for people starting their theological studies here so they are never in the same position I was. They have also told me those books have enable them to ask difficult questions of the standard Reformed position which has created a healthy overall theological debate.

    So thanks for your hard work for the church beyond your academic teaching position I hope you know it has been significant and profoundly helpful to many of us.

  • Fascinating information–thank you. This is part of the reason that the internet age is so exciting to live in. We can communicate with and get information from authors that we read or professors that we hear in ways and to an extent not possible before.


  • Thanks for sharing! These are great. I still remember reading your Story of Christian Theology in Bible school. We had to read it twice and then review it. I had never reviewed a book before and had no idea what I was doing–but that was part of the goal of the assignment. I think just about everyone in my class criticized the book for giving so much attention to Zwingli and so little to Calvin. But we all knew you were Arminian so we weren’t surprised! That said, I loved the book and still refer to it often. That book helped awaken a love for historical theology that has stayed with me ever since.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Daane’s book. I might have to go pick it up from the library. As point of interest, I googled him and found a review of his Freedom of God [PDF] by the young D.A. Carson. Here’s just a snippet, “Daane’s basic criticism of the rise of decretal theology cries to be read in churches of Reformed persuasion; but because he has not formulated a basic over-all structure, he is not likely to get much of a hearing where he is most needed” (p. 28).

  • Arminian Theology was the book that put you on the radar for me–it came in handy while studying at TEDS! Since then I’ve enjoyed using your Mosaic for a Sys Theo course I taught, as well as your shorter story of Christian theology book. Thanks for this helpful background! After your book on Pietism, maybe you can write something on Anabaptism to help introduce your evangelical readers to that tradition?

  • Brian

    Hello. Hope you are well. I just had some questions on postconservative theology. Is the difference between postconservative and postliberal theology that postconservatives hold to the historicity of the biblical narrative? Also, what is your take on Clark Pinnock’s views on annhilationism and inclusivism? Are those postconservative positions or is that just Pinnock’s unique theology?

    • rogereolson

      There is no set of beliefs that defines postconservative evangelicalism (beyond the core beliefs around which all evangelicals gather). Postconservatism is defined by an attitude and approach to doing theology that is open to revisiting and revising traditional formulas of doctrine in light of fresh and faithful biblical interpretation. Pinnock’s work was postconservative in that sense, but not all postconservative evangelicals agree with his conclusions, nor would he have agreed with all theirs. Yes, as evangelicals, postconservatives consider the biblical narratives historical while recognizing that some of them may have been intended to be otherwise–e.g., Jesus’ parables. The extent to which postliberals deny or affirm the historicity of the biblical narratives is open to question. I find it difficult to tell as that does not seem to be their over riding concern. Hans Frei, the “father” of postliberalism, certainly considered the resurrection of Jesus an event in history. (See his The Identity of Jesus Christ.)

  • Steve Witzki

    Thanks Roger for sharing all this stuff–I thoroughly enjoyed the story behind your books. I have most of your books and have appreciated and valued your work for a long time. I look forward to reading your new book.


  • Leslie

    Hello Dr. Olson.

    I really enjoyed this post and I just want to say thank you for writing all of these wonderful books and contributing to the “Great Mosaic” of the Christian Faith.

    I have a number of your books, and plan to get the rest someday as well. These are the ones that I have.

    -Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.
    This was the first book of yours that I read, and it was a monumental blessing to me. I grew up as a Pentecostal in the Wesleyan tradition and had just recently come into contact with Calvinism. The calvinists were making so many claims about what I believed or supposedly believed, and your book was a lifesaver for me.

    -The Story of Christian Theology. This was the second book of yours that I read, and I absolutely LOVED it. You are right to say that it is your magnum opus, for I cannot praise it enough. It has really made me love Church History.

    -God in Dispute. This book was fun to read, and I loved it. I loved the history, the theology, and the conversations were just so awesome. I really wish you would write a sequel to this one, featuring more theologians, and some heretics too!

    -The Mosaic of Christian Belief, Questions to All Your Answers, and How to be Evangelical without being Conservative. I have these but haven’t read them yet. I am sure that they will be great.

  • Brett

    To get an overview of Arminian theology for personal edification, which is the better book to start from: Myths & Realities or Against Calvinism?

    I’m assuming the former, as it is recommended by the SEA and the latter seems to be specifically about rebutting Calvinism within academia. But I’ve read a review that says you missed out British developments in Arminianism in Myths & Realities relating to Methodism (although classical Arminianism seems more accurate to me than the Wesleyan distinctives), and wonder if this is dealt with in the latter (i.e. that it’s more up-to-date).

    Also, as an aside, do you think God places souls in bodies according to his foreknowledge of their future decision (aka Acts 17:26-28)?

    • rogereolson

      I think any answer to that would have to depend on a prior answer–whether God creates souls especially (creationism in the technical sense under the doctrine of anthropology) or whether God allows souls to come into existence through parents (traducianism). Theologians have debated that for centuries. I tend to think it’s a speculative matter.

      As for your first question. I would start with Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Against Calvinism doesn’t deal with Arminianism in any detail; it just lays out the Arminian alternatives to the U, L and I of TULIP. I’m surprised that a reviewer would say that about Arminianism: Myths and Realities as I deal extensively with some British Arminians there (viz., Richard Watson and William Burton Pope).

  • Brett

    Thanks very much for your reply, Roger. I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to locate that review, but in vain. It was six web pages long! Thanks again, and best wishes.

  • Dan Reid


    That was fun to read! It brought back a lot of memories.

    And interesting to hear that you discovered Jim Daane’s book! He was my homiletics and “Theology of Calvin” prof at Fuller. Hardly a class on Calvin went by without his bringing in themes from his own book or speaking glowingly of Torrance (that was the first I’d heard of TFT). I’d recently transferred from Westminster Seminary, so Daane would single me out and ask me what Van Til said about this or that!

    • rogereolson

      Great to hear from you, Dan. I remember well the work we did together on 20th Century Theology. I tried to dig up some info on Daane, but I didn’t find much anywhere. He’s now one of my heroes for being so helpful to me with that book. I hope all is well with you and yours.

  • Dan Reid


    Here are some assorted memories of James Daane:

    He was Christian Reformed. Sometime in his early years he got into a dust up with Van Til, who wrote a book about Daane’s theology (let us assume it was not a commendation!)

    I believe Daane did his PhD (or ThD) at Princeton. He was a CRC pastor in the LA area, then came to teach primarily homiletics at Fuller (perhaps in the early 70s; I had him in ’75) I think he retired from Fuller around 1980. But he did teach Calvin, and maybe something else besides homiletics. Since I had just come from Westminster, he was an interesting figure for me since he was critical of what I had just experienced at WTS.

    I have a hazy recollection that he had worked at one time for Christianity Today. But while he was at Fuller he was involved with The Reformed Journal, which was edited by Jon Pott I think (or at least he had a significant editorial role), and published by Eerdmans. Do you recall that journal? It was a voice for progressive Reformed types such as hung around Fuller. I think Daane was book review editor. I recall admiring the stack of new books he had in his office!

    Come to think of it, Jon Pott would no doubt be able to give an interesting account of Daane.

    • rogereolson

      Dan, thanks for that information about Daane. I thought he studied with Berkouwer, but apparently he just read him a lot. He quotes Berkouwer a lot in The Freedom of God. I do remember The Reformed Journal. It was refreshing. But I was more attracted then to The Post-American which became Sojourners. Do you remember it? I was also into reading Agora–an independent journal of Pentecostal opinion edited by a group of progressive AG guys including Russell Spittler. Most of them went on to work outside of the AG. As I recall, AG HQ shut it down. What has become of all those progressive evangelical publications? I even found Eternity refreshingly progressive at times (or at least in some of its columns and articles).

  • Chris Criminger

    Against Calvism, I can’t wait. I’m going to buy a copy of your book for my conservative Presbyterian minister friend and let’s see how we both respond to your book?

    An Arminian like me and a thorough going Calvinist like him :–)

  • gingoro

    To continue a discussion from your old web site.

    “I am quite sure that Sproul means a molecule not governed in its behavior by God.”

    I assume you mean that there is no molecule in the cosmos that God, if he so wills, can’t change it’s trajectory or properties.

    Further I’d assume that arminianism would agree or would you think that because of your understanding of kenosis that you would therefore disagree?
    Dave W

    • rogereolson

      No, that is not what I take Sproul to mean. In context, Sproul means that God designs and controls every movement of every molecule (and everything else) in the universe. His whole doctrine of divine providence displays this meaning.

  • Re: On Against Calvinism: I think you’ll find a good many Reformed folk willing to go down that road with you. I hope you make the distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical versions of double predestination—and then show it just may be a distinction w/o a difference!

    • rogereolson

      I do exactly that.

  • Macedo


    Some of his books were published in Portuguese,
    including “Theology of the twentieth century.” I want to say that
    his books have been very important for us Christians
    Brazilian evangelicals.