SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY LITERATURE SURVEY (1997-2001)
Foundations, 47, (Autumn 2001), pp.45-52
“True concentration is the fruit of calculated dispersion.” So runs the quotation from Basil Liddell Hart in what is undoubtedly one of the most helpful theological books published over the last forty years, never mind the last four, The Greenhill Dictionary of Military Quotations (Greenhill Books, 2000) edited by Peter G. Tsouras. What follows is an attempt to discuss a number of books published over the last four years in the field of systematic theology in order to facilitate ‘calculated dispersion’ in the reading habits of Foundations subscribers.
Apologies and Qualifications
If you were allowed only one single author or single volume systematic theology on your shelves which would you choose ? How about two ? Three ? And should anything published in the last four years affect your choice ? Even amongst readers of a journal like Foundations one suspects that there would be a great variety in the selections made and the reasons given but, for the pleasure of having them at the front of your mind again, let me remind you of some of the leading candidates: John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Robert Dabney, Charles Hodge, William Shedd, Heinrich Heppe, Karl Barth, Louis Berkhof, G.C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, Herman Hoeksema, Carl Henry, Wayne Grudem, Thomas Oden. (And some runners-up, some of whom lag badly: John Gill, A.A. Hodge, Augustus Strong, Otto Weber, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Helmut Thielicke, Jürgen Moltmann, Geoffrey Wainwright, Charles Ryrie, Donald Bloesch, Millard Erickson, R.J. Rushdoony, James Garrett, James Montgomery Boice).
The last four years have seen some notable contenders enter the lists. Worthy of first mention is the Francis Turretin’s three volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997). This work first published in Latin in 1679-85 was translated into English in the nineteenth century by George Musgrave Giger at the request of his friend Charles Hodge and Giger’s 8000 handwritten pages sat in the library at Princeton available to be consulted by students whose Latin was weak. James T. Denison Jr has produced a magnificent edition of Giger’s translation and lovers of profound, precise and reverent Reformed theology are greatly indebted to him.
In 1999 a further section of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics was released by the Dutch Reformed Translation Society. Bavinck lived from 1854 to 1921 and his eleven chapter, four-volume dogmatics had great influence upon the likes of Louis Berkhof and G.C. Berkouwer. Two of the eleven ‘chapters’ have now been issued as sample volumes, The Last Things (Baker 1996) followed by In the Beginning (Baker 1999). Prescient of theological developments over the next three generations and always readable, Bavinck’s work deserves a wide readership. The translation of the whole work is now complete and the DRTS anticipates the appearance of the first cloth-bound volume in 2002.
Little needs to be said about Robert Reymond’s New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998). Major reviews have been published by Mark Karlberg here in Foundations (Spring, 2001) and by Robert Letham in Westminster Theological Journal (Fall, 2000) which in different ways undermine the book’s claim to be a ‘new standard of Reformed theology’. Amongst the criticisms which Letham regards as exposing the book’s ‘serious and crippling inadequacies’ are that the book does not engage with serious theological thought in the academy, discussing neither recent attention to trinitarian theology nor feminist theology, liberation theology, Islam or the charismatic movement; that it is rationalistic and individualistic; that it is flawed by Reymond’s position that the Reformation view of the trinity is radically different from the Niceno-Constantinopolitan teaching; that it opposes the eternal generation of the Son, argues that Calvin rejected Nicene trinitarianism and has a weak sacramental theology.
Two major and recent systematic theologies which have drawn a great deal of attention are Robert Jenson’s two-volume Systematic Theology (OUP, 1997-9) and Wolfhart Pannenberg’s three-volume Systematic Theology now in English translation (Eerdmans/ T&T Clark, 1991-8). There are many features which these two share: both are dense, demanding, often provocative, rarely comfortable and built upon a non-evangelical doctrine of revelation. Both are ‘confessional’ in the sense that they are the work of committed insiders writing prescriptively rather than that of pretended objective dispassionate commentators writing descriptively. Jenson has described Pannenberg’s work as ‘complexly rewarding and sometimes utterly exasperating’. Pannenberg has written that Jenson’s work has ‘learning that is both vast and profound … and frequently exciting flashes of insight.’ What each has said about the other is not only correct but also true of himself.
Pannenberg is less terse in his expression and more recognisably a post-Enlightenment liberal in his methodology than Jenson. He is also more prone to exploring the historical development of various positions which he invariably does with sureness of touch and immense erudition. Certainly this is not a consistently reliable guide to the dogma of Christian orthodoxy. Equally certainly it is challenging, imaginative and suggestive for those foundations are firm.
In these ways, too, Jenson can be a delight. For example, he reminds us, “As faith is precisely finding oneself beyond oneself, the criterion of its authenticity is necessarily its object and not any form of self-analysis by the believer. The question “Do I really believe?” is already an unbelieving question.” (I.28) A score of qualifications and objections, exegetical, evangelistic, pastoral and dogmatic present themselves no sooner than one has read this statement. But then at least half a dozen fruitful developments and applications also present themselves. This is the joy of reading Jenson. Another example: “The difference of past and future, and their meeting in a specious present, is the one unavoidable metaphysical fact, the fact of our temporality. As religion is the cultivation of eternity, or some or other bracket around our temporality, triple patterns are endemic in religion” (I.89). Or this: “God will let the redeemed see him: the Father by the Spirit will make Christ’s eyes their eyes … The point of identity, infinitely approachable and infinitely to be approached, the enlivening telos of the Kingdom’s own life, is perfect harmony between the conversation of the redeemed and the conversation that God is” (II.369).
Well-marketed and superficially attractive from the evangelical left are Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Eerdmans, 1994, 1999) and Alister McGrath’s widely used text-book Christian Theology: An Introduction (Blackwells, 2001, 3rd edition). These books approach neither the depth and precision of Turretin on the one hand nor the creativity and suggestiveness of Jenson on the other. Over-respectful of apostasy in the academy they strive for mature moderation and achieve a slightly tired fashionableness.
And, of course, it remains a sadness to many of us that there is no complete systematic theology from the pens of either John M. Frame, author of The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987) and Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his Thought (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995) or J.I. Packer. By way of consolation, we do now have four volumes of the Collected Shorter Writings of Packer (Paternoster, 1998-9) and these are predictably reliable, nutritious and inspiring.
Dictionaries / Encyclopaedia
The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (IVP 2000) has many helpful features and very many excellent articles but the unforgivable lack of indices, the unevenness of approach in its articles and the glaring gaps in its entry list make it something of a disappointment. The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Baker, 1995) is more helpful.
The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (OUP 2000) edited by Adrian Hastings et al. is also a disappointment. Promising much and of prodigious size for a one volume work, it tries to cover too much ground – theological concepts, significant people and movements, biblical cyclopaedia and history of doctrine – and turns out patchy in its coverage and uncertain in its aim.
In contrast, the signs are that the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 2001) – which I have not yet seen – will not disappoint. The previous edition (Baker, 1984) remains the best one volume theological dictionary of its type and there is every hope that its successor will fill an important gap on the shelf.
Series produced by particular publishing houses
Paternoster’s series of Biblical and Theological Monographs,
largely consisting of PhD dissertations published as written or only slightly
revised, currently has around 25 titles and although items such as ‘An
Evaluation and Critique of the Theology of Dumitrue Staniloae’ and ‘A Kierkegaardian Reading of Charles
Williams’ may not gain a wide readership there are some in the series which
deserve notice. Jonathan Bayes’ The Weakness of the Law (Paternoster,
2000) is an exegetical work focussing upon four passages in
Zondervan’s series Three [Four] views on … has received a number of recent additions. Of particular relevance to current debates are Darrell Bock (ed.), Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Zondervan 1999), J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (eds.), Three Views on Creation and Evolution (Zondervan 1999), and Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips (eds.) Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Zondervan 1996) although when, as in this last item, John Hick and Clark Pinnock are two of the protagonists, one wonders how precisely the centre of gravity in these debates is determined. With collections of this type the reader must always remember that the centre ground is on castors.
Speaks Today series edited by Alec Motyer and John Stott and published by
IVP has made a splendid contribution to the thinking and especially the
preaching of evangelicals for over twenty years now. A related series, Bible Themes is edited by Derek Tidball
and so far just three titles have appeared: Peter Lewis’s The Message of the Living God (IVP 2000),
IVP’s other series, Contours of Christian Theology was established well before the
period covered by this survey with Gerald Bray on The Doctrine of God, Robert Letham on The Work of Christ and
A very different series is currently
being issued by Cambridge University Press.
Twentieth Century Surveys
For those seeking an introduction to the development of non-evangelical systematics over the twentieth century two recent publications may be of help. Contemporary Theologies (Fortress Press, 1998) by Ed Miller and Stanley Grenz is a very readable survey with chapters on Barth, the Niebuhrs, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, the Death of God, Process Theology, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Global Theology (Hick) and Postliberalism (Lindbeck). It suffers from the common fault of soft evangelical treatments of apostates, namely that of trying too hard to appreciate the positive and to avoid denouncing the heretical.
The Modern Theologians (Blackwells, 1997, 2nd edition) edited by David Ford is a mine of information and insights. Thirty five chapters, each by a different author, cover very many of the significant academic theologians and theological movements of the twentieth century. The book has a strongly ecumenical and international perspective and its value is in highlighting the distinctions, questions and flaws of others rather than in making a positive theological contribution of its own.
On A Few Particular Doctrines
On God and creation
In The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (IVP, 2001) C. John Collins discusses supernaturalism, providentialism and occasionalism and argues that the first of these which, he believes, is somewhat out of fashion and yet both exegetically warranted and logically coherent. Collins provides an interesting and helpful introduction to the debates as well as useful background to the growing literature on ‘intelligent design’.
Of late there has been a strong renewed interest in trinitarian theology and particularly in the concept popularized by John Zizioulas in his Being as Communion (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985) of the being of God as ‘persons in relation’. As Colin Gunton puts it in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (T&T Clark, 1997, 2nd edition) “God is no more than what Father, Son and Spirit give to and receive from each other in the inseparable communion that is the outcome of their love. Communion is the meaning of the word: there is no ‘being’ of God other than this dynamic of persons in relation.” (p.10). Gunton’s work is technically demanding but does clarify many of the issues at stake in current trinitarian debate. More accessible and somewhat predictable is Millard Erickson’s Making Sense of the Trinity (Baker 2000). Don Carson provides a thoughtful and enormously helpful clarification of the Biblical data and their implications in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000)
The Openness of God
The debate around the ‘openness of God’ gives a dispiriting view of the state of evangelical theology. A time-bound, dependent, changeable God who does not know the future and whose love is measured not by what he gives but by his vulnerability to ‘feeling our pain’ is a parody of the God of the Scriptures. No surprise, then, that he (she?) should be so adored by liberals whose method and agenda have been determined by Enlightenment humanism and relativism, whose refusal to believe in a sovereign God means that post-Holocaust theology is regarded as qualitatively different from anything that had gone before and whose invention of strategies for avoiding uncomfortable truths has been fuelled by the abuse of hermeneutics and the philosophy-theology divide. But the ready capitulation of so many evangelicals before the charges that, for example, the doctrine of impassibility is a Greek philosophical imposition upon the Christian faith or that the suffering of the divine Christ in his humanity is not enough – God the Father, if he loves, must take our suffering into his divine nature, is dismal. The debate is extremely important and well documented elsewhere. Important additions from the last four years include Gregory Boyd’s God of the Possible (Baker, 2000); Gerald Bray’s The Personal God: Is the Classical Understanding of God Tenable ? (Paternoster, 2000) which is characteristically lucid and forthright; Bruce Ware’s excellent God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Crossway, 2001); Reconstructing Theology: A Critical Assessment of the Theology of Clark Pinnock (Paternoster, 2000), edited by Tony Gray and Christopher Sinkinson; Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (Eerdmans, 2000) edited by John Cobb and Clark Pinnock.
Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspective on Election, Foreknowledge and Grace (Baker, 2000) edited by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware is a reissue of 14 of the essays which appeared in their earlier two-volume, The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will itself a response to Clark Pinnock’s The Grace of God, the Will of Man (Zondervan, 1989). With contributions from John Piper, Jim Packer, Wayne Grudem, Ed Clowney, and Don Carson, amongst others, Still Sovereign is an excellent and readable defence of a strong Calvinist position on these issues.
Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Eerdmans, 1999) will strike
some as quirky and others as compromising but will certainly stimulate
thoughtful readers. Iain Campbell’s The Doctrine of Sin (
On atonement and justification
The growing literature on the ‘new
Unsurprisingly a large number of books on eschatological themes were published around the turn of the millennium. N.T. Wright’s Grove Booklet, New Heavens, New Earth (1999) provides a clear statement of his combination of a preterist reading of the synoptic apocalypse with a strong affirmation that Christian hope focuses upon the Christ-centred transformation and renewal and glorification of this universe. R.C. Sproul’s advocacy of a generally preterist position in The Last Days of Jesus (Baker, 1998) is, as with most of what he writes, accessible and cogent. Robert Doyle’s Eschatology and the Shape of Christian Belief (Paternoster, 1999) has been well received by many although his combination of chronological and thematic treatments at times feels rather schematized. For some, the publication of Jürgen Moltmann’s The Coming of God (SCM, 1996) was an important event. If nothing else it gave us one of the clearest statements yet of his distance from orthodoxy: “In the divine Judgment all sinners, the wicked and the violent, the murderers and the children of Satan, the Devil and the fallen angels will be liberated and saved from their deadly perdition though transformation into their true, created being, because God remains true to himself, and does not give up what he has once created and affirmed, or allow it to be lost” (p.255).
The debate over conditional immortality continues vigorously. In addition to David Powys’ book mentioned above there are relevant contributions in ‘The Reader Must Understand’: Eschatology in the Bible and Theology, (Apollos, 1997) edited by K.E. Brower and M.W. Elliott. Two of the main protagonists in the debate, Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson, produced Two Views of Hell (IVP, 2000) which gives thorough coverage of the arguments. And the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE) produced another helpful survey The Nature of Hell (Acute/Paternoster, 2000) which carefully states what is agreed and what not as well as discussing issues of conditionalism and evangelical unity. It also has a superb bibliography for those wishing to do further research into the subject.
Do not live another day without ordering and resolving seriously to read Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?, and Donald Macleod’s The Person of Christ. And as you do so, remember the words of Thomas a Kempis, (Imitation, I.iii.4): “When the day of judgment comes, inquiry will not be made of us what we have read, but what we have done, not how well we have spoken, but how piously we have lived.”