By Daniel Wallace
Christian ethics is close to Roger Olson’s heart, he says, because it was close to Jesus’ heart. In fact, the Baylor University theologian and ethicist adds, Christ was as much about showing how to live a godly life as he was about saving the world from sin.
“Jesus was about ethics,” Olson said. “The Sermon on the Mount was about ethics. I don’t think you can believe in Jesus and not believe in ethics.”
Olson’s passion for ethics made him Baylor’s choice for the newly established Foy Valentine Endowed Professorship in Christian Ethics. He was named to the chair in January. While new to the appointment, Olson has taught theology and ethics at Baylor since 1999. He is also the author of 16 books on theology and Christian ethics, and expects to see another published this year.
University officials and colleagues say Olson was the clear choice because his academic interests and desire to share gospel values mirror the life of the professorship’s namesake, the late Foy Valentine.
Valentine was a 1944 Baylor graduate and Southern Baptist Convention leader for a span stretching the 1960s to the 1980s. He was an advocate for racial equality and reconciliation, and devoted his life to promoting Christian ethics while endorsing justice for the oppressed.
Valentine’s ideas often made him unpopular in the increasingly conservative denomination. One included his insistence that the SBC publicly apologize for its complicity of slavery, said David Garland, dean of Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. The SBC did issue an apology before Valentine’s death in 2006.
Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music, said he sees a similar boldness in Olson.
“Dr. Olson is a courageous proclaimer of the gospel,” York said. “He speaks with confidence into the issues of our day, just like Foy Valentine did.”
Those issues for Olson include capital punishment and its victims. Olson said he aspires to work with the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission. His goal: to see the practice abolished in the Lone Star State. “If we take a human life, we cut off the possibility of God working in them,” Olson said.
Olson said he never met Valentine but considers him a Baptist hero due to his unashamed pursuit of equality for all. Garland, who knew Valentine briefly, said he sees a lot in common between the two.
“They are always for the underdog,” Garland said. “[They] defend the people who don’t usually get defended.”
That plus Olson’s academic accomplishments made him the “obvious choice” for the new professorship, Garland said.
The university would not disclose the exact amount of the gift from Valentine’s family and friends that created the endowed chair, saying only that it met the minimum requirement of seven figures.
“The goal was that there would be more deliberate, specific courses in Christian ethics in the curriculum of the seminary,” Garland said of the gift.
Not that Olson ever thought he would be appointed to the position. Olson said he read of the gift in the local newspaper and wondered which of his colleagues would receive the honor. He was surprised when Garland called to give him the news.
Being named to the professorship represents the “pinnacle of a career,” he said.