Friday, August 7, 2015

Counterfeit Christianity, by Roger Olson

In our age of tolerance, some people, including Christians "are simply allergic to anything they perceive as intolerance; tolerance, especially of ideas, is almost a fetish or idol for modern, Western people."  So writes Roger Olson, who, in Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, demonstrates that heresy is not only a part of church history but is alive and well today.

Dr. Olson, professor of theology and ethics at Baylor University's Truett Seminary, bridges historical theology and theological controversies from throughout church history with theologically questionable beliefs and practices in the modern church.  He focusses on what he calls "ecumenical heresies--beliefs contrary to mere, common, orthodox Christianity," as opposed to denominational heresies, "beliefs that contradict distinctive doctrines of particular denominations of Christians."

Olson's definition of "heretic" is rather specific.  A heretic is one who "is a member of a faith community and teaches against its orthodoxy, and knows the doctrine he or she is teaching conflicts with the faith community's orthodoxy."  While we may not meet too many actual heretics in the course of our church life, there are plenty of opportunities for heretical ideas to seep into the thinking of individual Christians and religious groups.

Turning the clock back to the earliest centuries of the church, Olson describes Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Montanism, Nestorianism, and other heresies whose names will mean nothing to someone who has not studied church history.  As strange as the names may be, though, the beliefs that got some of those teachers excommunicated or burned at the stake may be on the fringes of your Christian thinking.  For example, the other-worldly, flesh-rejecting spirit of Gnosticism may manifest in a tendency to a dualistic rejection of the body and a desire to "fly away," "like a bird from prison bars has flown" or for "the things of earth" to "grow strangely dim" as the songs say.  Or, like the Marcionists, who rejected the Old Testament, we might focus on specific passages or books of the Bible while conveniently ignoring those that are outside of our theological preferences.

The most important and relevant chapters are the final two, in which Olson describes tendencies of modern folk religion, which he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the Gospel of Health and Wealth.  In the former, we find those who believe in a present God who does not interfere with human affairs, and in good works as the measure of salvation.  In the latter group, we find televangelists who "name it and claim it" and for whom it's a given that all who have faith with be healthy and wealthy.  (As one card asked, So why aren't their churches full of octogenarian millionaires?)

Each chapter of Counterfeit Christianity ends with a series of questions that make great discussion starters, or would be very challenging essay questions on a seminary exam.  (Hear that, Truett Seminarians?  Get a heads up on the exams in Dr. Olson's course on cults and heresies!)  The question I'm left with is, Where does one draw the line at heresy?  Sometimes the line is clear: yes, the Old Testament is part of the canon, yes, Jesus is the way to salvation.  But Olson drops some names as examples who I'm not sure should be called heretics.  Olson disagrees with John Piper's view of "divine determinism" (a view of the "absolute sovereignty of God" that attributes even a disaster like 9/11 to God's will).  I wasn't clear if Olson was calling Piper a heretic, or simply pointing out a theological disagreement.  Not to be a modern, hyper-tolerant Westerner, but I can see Piper's view fitting in to orthodox Christianity.  (Darn, now Dr. Olson's going to give me a failing grade.)

Similarly, Olson walks a line between affirming prayer for the sick, and a focus on faith healing that crosses into heresy.  It's almost an "I know it when I see it" type of position.  At my church, we pray for healing (and regularly see healing that can only be attributed to miraculous intervention), but we also have members in wheelchairs.  Olson gives examples of churches that claim God will heal anyone and anything if they have enough faith, including a chapel speaker who callously declared, "You can't be a witness for Jesus from a wheelchair!"  One extreme would be never to pray for healing; the other would be to demand healing from God and attribute a failure to be healed to lack of faith or unconfessed sin.  But where on that spectrum "heresy" enters in, I'm not sure.

I'm also not sure that Olson would have a problem with my not being sure.  The goal of Counterfeit Christianity is not to name names and call out heretics, although there is some of that (much clearer examples than Piper or people who pray for healing).  Olson really wants the reader to be aware of creeping heresy around him or her, especially in popular religion, and be prepared to hold tight to orthodox Christianity.  Further, he wants to encourage clarity of thinking about theological ideas.  Some of what might be considered heresy might be corrected by addressing mere confusion over terms and categories.  Olson writes for the layperson and pastor alike, providing a resource that can equip the saints and give a beacon of truth.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

1 comment:

  1. Not to worry. If you're my student I won't fail you for disagreeing with me. And, no, I don't consider Piper a heretic, but that's only due to a "felicitous inconsistency." He strictly avoids making God the author of sin and evil. I would say anyone who makes God the author if sin and evil is at least flirting with heresy. If you're my student...please stop in and introduce yourself to me. I don't see you on any of my class rosters.