Roger Olson’s latest volume, Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, is intended to introduce non-theologically educated laypeople to the world of ancient and modern heresy. Furthermore, besides this more descriptive aim, in each chapter, the book also hopes to provide so-called “antidotes” against modern heresy and to either prevent or thwart the resurgence of old heretical thought. Olson has not tried to write an academic study; hence, the volume should not be treated nor evaluated as such. Writing a more popular work like this always—and understandably—requires the writer to simplify and systematize quite intricate theological discussions. Although this in itself is not problematic, one could ask the question of whether Olson has done this well, or whether his simplifications have served to misrepresent or unhelpfully lump together distinct streams of thought.
Olson’s work includes ten chapters, a conclusion, and endnotes. The first two chapters provide the framework for the latter eight. Chapter one deals with both the nature and characteristics of heresy as well as those proposing it, and chapter two addresses the development and boundaries of orthodoxy. Olson argues that “heresy” can either be “ecumenical” or “denominational.” In other words, some heresy divorces from the ecumenical Christian tradition, as defined by the first ecumenical councils (pp. 28–32) whilst other streams of thought might be considered “heresy,” not based on the fact that they move away from the ecumenical tradition, but because such ideas stand in opposition to theology held by a certain denomination. Chapters 3–7 deal with ecumenical heresies and their modern presence and chapters 8–10 discuss “denominational heresy.” Understandably, in the last three chapters of the book Olson’s own personal theology and his denominational affiliation shine through quite clearly.
Chapter three, entitled “The Mother of All Heresy: Gnosticism,” deals with one of the heresies most famous in the earliest years of Christian history. Olson briefly touches on keystone Gnostic thought and Irenaeus’s rebutting response. According to Olson, Gnosticism was dealt with in the second and third centuries, but throughout Christian history its legacy can be seen in the Cathars of the high Middle Ages, Rosicrucianism, and Theosophical streams of thought. Chapters four and five deal respectively with the heresies revolving around divine revelation (Montanism and Marcionism) and the divinity of the Son (Adoptionism, Arianism, and Nestorianism). In chapter 4 Olson shows how these streams of thought (Marcionism and Montanism) further enabled orthodox reflection upon both the New Testament canon and the relation between Scripture and extra-biblical revelation. The fifth chapter discusses heresies regarding Christ: Adoptionism, Arianism, and Nestorianism. Olson shows how these streams of thought relate, and why the divinity of Jesus was defended with such fervor.
Chapter six touches on heretical conceptions of the Trinity: Subordinationism, Modalism, and Tritheism. Olson wants the reader to distinguish between the “Trinity” per se and the Doctrine of the Trinity. The first of these is mysterious and cannot be fully grasped, the second, however, can be wrongly portrayed and is a human description of how the Trinity “works.” Olson primarily describes what the boundaries should be in one’s Trinitarian reflections. Sadly, there is not a lot of positive reflection on the doctrine. The last chapter dealing with the ecumenical heresies touches on Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.
The final chapters address what Olson classifies as denominational heresies. Chapter eight is provokingly called “Making God a Monster: Divine Determinism.” In this chapter, Olson hopes to convince the reader that the views regarding God’s sovereignty and predestination proposed by Augustine, Wycliffe, Calvin, Zwingli et al. are internally inconsistent since they necessarily result in a system in which God is responsible for evil. The last sections of the book deal with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the “Gospel” of Health and Wealth. In them, Olson quite convincingly shows how one should not think of these streams of thought as orthodox or even Christian.
I can appreciate Olson’s project: trying to make the lessons from the past accessible to the modern church and pointing out where the influence of old heretical thought can be seen in today’s church. In trying to make this awareness available to the church today, however, Olson has unfortunately made some odd decisions that misrepresent some of the thinkers, or are unhelpful for understanding the historical context of these ancient discussions. Let me briefly focus on one chapter in the ecumenical heresy section and one in the denominational heresy section to illustrate this shortcoming. Although Nestorius did sometimes speak of two prosopa and other times of one prosopon, he did not himself argue that Christ was two persons, like Olson contends (pp. 79–80). It is also doubtful and needs much more explanation whether Nestorius doubted the divinity of Jesus (Nestorius fully agreed with the anti-Arian confessions of the fourth century). Finally, the eighth chapter of the book makes very big claims about the relationship between Augustine, Calvin, and Zwingli and their thought on God’s predestination. Olson jumps very quickly—without presenting enough evidence—to the conclusion that their views are contradictory to the confession that God does not cause evil. Such thorough critiques—even in a non-academic work—are in need of much more grounding and explanation.