Books on historical theology tend to be anything but “historical.” Instead, they often appropriate some theologian for the author’s theological agenda, disguising theology as history. In Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP, 2011), Oliver Crisp takes a different approach, stating up front that he’s engaging historical figures for the purpose of doing constructive theology today, an approach that he calls “theological retrieval.” In other words, Retrieving Doctrine isn’t primarily about simply understanding theologians of the past, though Crisp does a very nice job with this task as well. But his real purpose is to create “collegial” discussions with theologians of the past for the sake of doing constructive theology today. And that’s where the book is at its most interesting.
Crisp divides his nine chapters into three main sections: creation and providence, sin and salvation, and the Christian life. And, along the way, he hits on major issues like creation, providence, original sin, the incarnation, the atonement, universalism, prayer, the church, and communion. Crisp engages each of these topics through the writings of a particular reformed theologian (Calvin, Barth, Edwards, Turretin McLeod, and Nevin). So each chapter serves multiple purposes: you learn more about reformed theology, you develop a better understanding of a particular reformed thinker, and you dig into a theological issue of some importance today. That alone makes this an excellent resource.
Retrieving Doctrine has three great strengths. First, Crisp does a fine job explaining the issues clearly and concisely. That is no small feat given the complexity of the issues he picked and the challenges involved in summarizing what any major theologian thinks about these issues. But Crisp manages nicely.
Second, Retrieving Doctrine is an excellent model of how to engage past thinkers critically and constructively. Each chapter unfolds with the same basic methodology: (1) summarize what a person thinks about the topic; (2) identify some potential weaknesses/criticisms of his approach; (3) try to find ways of responding to each of these weaknesses/criticisms; and (4) draw conclusions about the overall adequacy that person’s approach, often identifying ways to strengthen their answer without undermining their basic approach. This is a great way of approaching historical dialog. But, in my experience, it often falls apart in one of two places:
- Some people are “fans” of a particular theologian. As a result, they fail to identify the most important weaknesses/problems (step 2) in that person’s theology. Instead, they’ll gloss over the issues and make their theology sound stronger than it actually is.
- Others are “critics” of a particular theologian. As a result, they fail to offer fair responses to the weaknesses/problems (step 3) they identify. Instead, you feel like they’ve already decided that the theologian’s work is inadequate, and they’re just demonstrating that fact for you.
Overall, Crisp does a fine job of avoiding both problems. Although he has a deep appreciation for the reformed tradition, he isn’t afraid to identify strong areas of concern for most of his dialog partners. And, although he is clearly not a “fan” of several of these theologians (e.g. Barth), he works hard to identify how one might respond to each weakness/problem. In the end, he often finds some of these responses unconvincing, but not through lack of effort.
And third, Crisp’s own theological constructions are always interesting and worth exploring. I won’t go into detail here lest this review grow too long, but suffice it to say that I found Crisp’s discussion of a non-penal substitutionary view of the atonement particularly interesting. And his other discussions are always stimulating.
Any book like this will have some chapters that are stronger than others. For example, I thought the chapter on Calvin’s view of creation and providence needed a much critique. Crisp does a nice job with his summary, but this is the one chapter where I didn’t think he did as well with the third step in the methodology. And, in his chapter on Karl Barth and universalism, Crisp’s preference for logical (i.e. analytical) thinking makes it difficult for him to appreciate Barth’s dialectical approach to theology. It would have been nice to see him try to get inside Barth’s way of thinking a little more before offering his critical analysis. Those more familiar with McLeod, Turretin, and Nevin may have other minor quibbles with Crisp’s historical interpretations in their respective chapters. But overall, these are fairly minor issues.
Overall, though, the book is an excellent example of engaging historical figures in constructive dialog for theology today. If you’re looking for a primer in reformed theology, this book isn’t for you. Crisp assumes some familiarity with theological issues in general and the reformed tradition in particular. But, if you’re looking for a book that will help you move further into the reformed tradition while at the same time offering a good model for historical dialog, this is an excellent resource.
[Many thanks to IVP for giving me a review copy of this book.]