Professor Dennis Olson Retires - Princeton Theological Seminary
Dennis Olson

When Dennis T. Olson teaches the Old Testament, the renowned Bible scholar offers some advice.

“I tell my students that the Old Testament is faith for the long haul,” said Olson, the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology and chair of the Biblical Studies Department at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Students, he says, shouldn’t expect to find instant answers to big questions. The narrative spans eons—from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Moses at Mount Sinai, to the Hebrew prophets in ancient Israel—covering a wide arc that illuminates humankind’s ever-evolving relationship with God.

And through its embrace of the heights and depths of the full human experience before God, the Old Testament rings true to life, said Olson, who retires at the end of June after 37 years at the Seminary,

“Our own proclivity might be that things should get fixed right away, or that we should get an answer from God immediately about what we should be doing in our lives,” he said. “Yet sometimes what we plan and what we think ought to be the way forward may not come to fruition for a long time.”

Indeed, he sees that pattern at work in his own life and family history.

Olson grew up in Luverne, Minnesota, with Norwegian immigrant parents who farmed for a living. He attended elementary school in a one-room country schoolhouse and went to a Lutheran church where he was inspired to pursue ministry.

It was only many years later that he learned he was not the first in his family to be drawn to this path.

His father, Toby, had a teacher while growing up in Norway who felt a call to become a foreign missionary. The teacher wasn’t able to fulfill his dream, but held out hope that Toby might pursue a spiritual vocation.

“My father was a very bright student, and this teacher began exposing him to his personal library and invested in him all this knowledge and the sense of a call to ministry,” Olson said.

The elder Olson came to the United States with the intention of working for a few years and then returning home to pursue ministry. But the year that he arrived in America was 1929.

“The Great Depression derailed the whole thing,” Olson said.

Neither Olson nor his siblings knew that story growing up. His parents shared it only after he completed his graduate work at Yale University and began serving as a minister.

“They sat me down and told me that this had always been their hope, but that they wanted me to choose what I wanted to do,” Olson said. “They just wanted to affirm that the path I chose might have something to do with a call that started three generations ago.

“And that was powerful to me, solidifying a sense of call and vocation.”

Olson grew interested in Old Testament scholarship first as an undergraduate at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Finally, at Yale, he studied under Brevard Childs, one of the most influential Bible scholars of the 20th century.

He was drawn to the Old Testament’s breadth of literary styles and points of view, including in books like Ecclesiastes and Lamentations that allow for questioning and complaining to God.

“There was a realism, an embracing of the full spectrum of human experience,” he said. “This resonated with me in a way that some forms of religious teaching don’t always resonate, those that are too neat and tidy, like, ‘Just have faith and everything will be fine.’”

As driven as he was toward scholarship, Olson was also committed to the church. He saw his academic work as both an expression of faith and a means to strengthen the role of Scripture in faith communities.

Following Yale, he saw firsthand how Scripture can foster a deep connection with faith communities in distress. He worked for several years as a pastor in Frost, Minnesota, where some of his congregants were hit hard by an economic downturn and losing their farms.

Olson would often draw from introspective Old Testament Scripture like Jeremiah, whose somber writings reflected a national crisis in ancient Judah.

“That kind of resource of lament was helpful to people in my own congregation, but also to people in that time period,” he said.

Olson joined Princeton Theological Seminary in 1987, where he became an influential scholar in his own right as well as a teacher who helped to shape both future scholars and those pursuing ministry. 

Olson’s colleagues note that his patient, pastoral style of teaching, had a deep impact on students, who in a typical class could range from conservative Bible literalists to those who found an academic study of Scripture irrelevant to their faith.

In a book-length collection of essays Olson written by colleagues and former students, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, a bible scholar and a retired Princeton Seminary professor wrote: “Dennis’s way of teaching enables students from such diverse backgrounds to realize, in the words of one former student, that ‘someone else is at work when we study and learn. The Holy Spirit is still shaping all of our hearts and minds, helping us hear God’s presence amid the difficult questions and growth into more mature faith.’’

In retirement, Olson is planning to continue his scholarly work, including a book on Exodus. He and his wife also plan to travel and enjoy their four grandchildren.

Looking back, he says he is most proud of helping students grow and flourish in their calling. But in keeping with the long-haul spirit of the Old Testament, Olson said he has been simply “planting seeds.”

“I don’t always see the full results,” he said. “But one of the joys of being a professor is every so often getting a glimpse of former students who write me, tell me what they have discovered, and the amazing things they are doing in the world.”