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The Death and Recovery of Systematic Theology

It’s not unusual these days to find people questioning whether we should be doing systematic theology at all. Isn’t that an outmoded way of thinking, one that was effectively killed off by postmodern concerns about “metanarratives” and “totalizing discourses”?

god sexuality selfThat’s the issue Sarah Coakley tackles in the first chapter of her new book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, 2013). Since this is the first volume in her projected new systematic theology, which promises to be one of the more interesting and creative systematic endeavors in quite some time, it makes sense for her to take some time to explain why she thinks that systematic theology is still worth doing. Along the way, she offers a fascinating overview of several objections to systematic theology, the state of systematic theology today, and why she thinks that a renewed emphasis on ascetic practice can and should lead systematic theology forward from here. 

Let’s see what she means.

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We’ve Fallen and We Can’t Get Up: Reviewing “Fallen: A Theology of Sin”

From one perspective it might not seem like we need that much help understanding sin. After all, we’re already pretty good at it. And we certainly see enough of it around us. So maybe we can dispense with reading entire books about sin, unless, of course, they’re bestsellers and include lots of sex, death, and/or destruction.

Ostrich

You probably won’t be too surprised to find out, though, that practicing sin isn’t the best way to understand sin. And that’s where Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Crossway, 2013) comes in. Part of Crossway’s Theology in Community Series, editors Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson have put together a nice collection of essays on a range of issues relative to the doctrine of sin, trying to help people develop a strong biblical-theological framework for understanding sin. And despite some unevenness, they largely succeed.

Summary

fallen

Fallen includes eleven essays from a range of biblical scholars and theologians. After an introductory chapter from D. A. Carson on “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” the following five chapters offer a biblical theology of sin. Four of them tackle different parts of the canon: the pentateuch (chapter 2), the rest of the OT (chapter 3), the Gospel, Acts, and Heb-Rev (chapter 4), and Paul (chapter 5). Then Christopher Morgan offers a more synthetic look at skin sin in the biblical story as a whole (chapter 6). The next chapter tackles the historical perspective, tracing the development of the theology of sin throughout church history. And then John Mahony offers a chapter-length summary of “A Theology of Sin for Today.” The final three chapters look at sin in relation to specific topics: Satan, sin, and evil (chapter 9), sin and temptation (chapter 10), and repentance (chapter 11).

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A Theology Big Enough for the Gospel: Reviewing Mike Bird’s Evangelical Theology

Writing a one-volume survey of Christian theology is a daunting, some might say insane, challenge. How exactly do you go about saying all that is important about the triune God, humanity, salvation, the church, eschatology, and everything else, in a single book? Good luck with that.

And along the way you have to make decisions about what topics to cover, how much time to spend on them, and what positions to take, with each decision likely to anger, or at least annoy, someone.

Evangelical-TheologyDoesn’t that sound like fun?

Yet every generation needs people willing to rise up and respond to the challenge. Theology is not a task to be done once, something already accomplished by theological giants like Augustine and Calvin. Theology is always an ongoing process of thinking through what we must believe and say today, a calling that no prior generation can fulfill for us. It is ours alone.

And although some will engage that task by engaging smaller portions of doctrine, digging deeply into issues like Christology, anthropology, or ecclesiology, we will always need those willing to present the whole scope of Christian doctrine for the church today. And that is precisely what Michael Bird sets out to do in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013)I have already commented on some aspects of Bird’s project, and I’ll include links to those posts below. But now I’d like to comment on the book as a whole. You’ll have to bear with me, though. Systematic theology books are long and complex. So this review is a tad wordier than usual.

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On the “Proper” Order of Theological Topics

If you were going to teach a class on Christian doctrine, all of it, how would you do it? What topics would you include? In what order would you address them? Which ones would receive the most attention, which would you address more cursorily, and which would you skip entirely, saving them for those chance theology discussions that often break out on Facebook?

Evangelical-Theology

For me, those are very real questions. Next semester, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a one-semester survey of Christian theology. The theology classes I taught at Western Seminary were always part of multi-semester sequences. So you had to teach the doctrines assigned to each class or you’d mess up the whole sequence. For the first time, then, I have the opportunity to think through how I would like to do it. And I’m discovering that this isn’t easy to figure out.

So I was quite interested when I read through Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013) and saw that he had chosen to order the doctrines in a rather novel way. That provided an interesting impetus for thinking through how I would like to do it.

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What Should a Theologian Talk about First?

Evangelical-TheologyWhat do you have to say before you say anything? That’s the question that Mike Bird uses to frame the introductory chapter to his new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013). And the way Bird answers that question says a lot about what he thinks theology is and how it should be approached.

We started working our way through Bird’s theology a few weeks back. And, after a slight hiatus due to conferences and Thanksgiving, I’m picking it up again, focusing this time on what he has to say about the prolegomena of theology–i.e. the things that you need to say before you can dive into the doctrines themselves.

(And, by the way, it would take way too long to blog on every section in the book. So I’ll just highlight a couple of interesting sections and then post a review of the whole book, hopefully by the end of the month.) 

There are several things to appreciate about Bird’s approach in this section. First, I loved his definition of prolegomena as “pre-theology theology” (p. 32). Theologians often make the mistake of presenting prolegomena as though these are the issues that you deal with before you do theology, masking the fact that there really isn’t anything you can say about theology that isn’t already theological. Bird captures that nuance by recognizing that prolegomena comes before theology in one sense–the things that need to be said first–but that they are all thoroughly theological in their own right. As he says a bit later, “There is a theological prolegomenon, but it is not what one does before theology; rather, it is what one does first in theology” (p. 38). Well done.

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8 Principles for a Gospel-Centered Systematic Theology

on target (275x273)Anyone who writes a book has to wrestle with one painful question: Does the world really need another book on this? And browsing the categories on Amazon, it’s hard to answer that question with a “yes.”

That’s particularly true with introductions to systematic theology, where we already have solid contributions from people like Millard Erickson, Michael Horton, Shirley Guthrie, Stan Grenz, Daniel Migliore, and Alister McGrath, among others. And that’s not even counting Wayne Grudem’s perennial best-seller. So why would we need another introduction to systematic theology?

According to Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), there’s one simple reason: we still need a systematic theology that is truly centered on the gospel.

I’m working my way through Bird’s book and will eventually post a full review. But it’s a long book, so it’s going to take a little while. And there are some great snippets that I thought we could chew on along the way. This is the first.

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Developing a Doctrine or Transforming a Tradition: A Review of the Quest for the Trinity

One of the most remarkable features of twentieth century theology was its emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the most central and important aspects of Christian theology. The Trinity isn’t some abstract and speculative idea that we can discard in favor of the more important and practical aspects of the Christian faith. According to many modern theologians, what we believe about the Trinity shapes Christian faith and ministry.

quest for the trinityThat all sounds great. But in his new book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP, 2012), Steve Holmes argues that there’s a lot more to the story. These modern theologians haven’t just reemphasized the importance of the Trinity. Along the way, they have reconstructed it, subtly changing the doctrine in ways that run contrary to what the church has always believed.

This outstanding resource should be in the “must read” category for anyone wanting to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and/or the contemporary theological scene.

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What Has Libya to Do with Jerusalem? A Review of Early Libyan Christianity

Libya ruins (550x367)

If you say “Libya” to most Americans, certain ideas will come to mind: maybe Islam, the recent Benghazi attack, or Muammar Gaddafi. I think it’s relatively safe to say that most people would not think “one of the most important centers of Christianity in the early church.” According to Thomas Oden’s Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition (IVP, 2011), that’s a problem.

The first issue, of course, is that many Christians remain unaware of the vital role that African Christians played in the history of early Christianity. For them, Christianity didn’t show up in Africa until the colonial powers imposed it on the continent during the modern era.

early libyan christianity

And that’s tragic. Some of the oldest and most influential centers of Christianity were in North Africa, places like Alexandria and Carthage. And many of Christianity’s most influential leaders and theologians likewise came from and ministered in North Africa, people like Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine. African Christians were shaping Christianity 1,500 years before the rise of the European colonial powers.

If you’d like to explore the significance of African Christianity further, I strongly recommend Thomas Oden’s excellent little book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity.

But there’s a second problem. Even after studying church history and gaining an appreciation for how important Africa is, many of us still leave out an important part of the story: the huge section of North Africa between Alexandria (Egypt) and Carthage (Tunisia): the region known in the ancient world as Libya.

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The Mystery of Being In Christ: A Review of Paul and Union with Christ

Jesus Christ savior messiah union with christ

You can’t read more than a few paragraphs of Paul’s letters without bumping into something about Christians being “in Christ.”  It’s so prevalent that many would say that it’s the most important theme in Paul’s theology, a concept you must grasp if you’re going to understand anything Paul says about salvation, the Christian life, or God’s plans for creation itself.

But there’s just one problem. No one seems to know what it means.

Thanks Paul.

paul and union with christIn steps Con Campbell with his book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012). Campbell’s goal is to take another look at the biblical texts and see if we can work out what Paul means with this pivotal idea. And in the process he offers a thorough and insightful study of what it means to be “in Christ,” why that matters for how we read Paul, and, more importantly, how that shapes our view of salvation itself. Campbell’s book is a must-read for anyone looking to wrestle with these central issues.

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That Crazy Little Thing Called Church: A Review of Sojourners and Strangers

sojourners and strangersThere is no shortage of books on the market about the church. The shelves are lined with books about preaching, worship, social justice, leadership, and, of course, being missional. Every one of them focused on one or more tasks of the church.

But Gregg Allison argues that the conversation is missing something very important. Before we spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, maybe we should reflect more on what the church is. And that’s precisely what he sets out to do in Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), an outstanding contribution to Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. If you’re looking for a good resource for understanding the nature of the church and its role in the world, this is one to check out.

Overview

Allison begins by identifying himself and his church background, well aware that these necessarily shape how he understands ecclesiology. And since Allison teaches theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that his approach to ecclesiology is largely conservative (though his take on spiritual gifts and multisite churches might surprise some), Baptist, and what many would call “low church” (congregational and less sacramental). This necessarily shapes the way that Allison presents his view of the church and makes it exceptionally useful for understanding a Baptist ecclesiology. At the same time, though, Allison’s largely charitable summaries of other perspectives allows the book to be useful for a broader audience as well.

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