A Theology for the ChurchSystematic theologies are invaluable resources for the church. They are as varied as the authors who write them and some are more beneficial than others.  The preponderance of systematic theologies are written by individuals within a denominational/theological tradition. While there are many books on specific topics written by various contributors, this is not the case with systematic theologies. So it is unique and a bit refreshing when a systematic theology does comes along that breaks the individual author mold.

One of these few contributions is A Theology for the Church, Revised Edition edited by Daniel L. Akin. First published in 2007, the revised edition has new chapters on theological method from a missional perspective by Bruce Ashford and Keith Whitfield and a theology of creation, providence, and Sabbath by Chad Owen Brad which engages current research in science and philosophy. Additionally, the chapters on special revelation by David Dockery and human nature by John Hammett have been updated.

Outline

A Theology for the Church follows the standard outline of systematic theology starting with the doctrine of revelation and concluding with the doctrine of the end times. Each chapter approaches these doctrines through a fourfold pattern: (1) What does the Bible say? (2) What has the church believed? (3) How does it all fit together? and (4) How does this doctrine impact the church today?

In addressing What does the Bible Say? the authors approach their work by walking through the unfolding of Scripture (Genesis to Revelation) and so so in a variety of ways. Some chapters (natural revelation and person of Christ) walk through specific passages of Scripture to answer this question. Others (special revelation, human nature, and the church) address the doctrine topically while supporting it with Scripture, much like most systematic theologies are written. Still others employ these methods and more. In the chapter on the doctrine of God Timothy George explores the nature of God by looking at His attributes and names as revealed in Scripture. In R. Stanton Norman’s chapter on human sinfulness he looks at the various terms in Scripture used to describe the nature of man and the chapter on eschatology breaks it down between the testaments.

What marks the first section of the chapters is a clear desire to be faithful to the text of Scripture. The original languages and context are considered exegetically. The relationship between the testaments are mentioned where applicable. The contributors are not seeking to carve out their own names but are focused on declaring “Thus says the Lord” on every doctrine.

Following the first section is the section on What has the church believed? in which the authors provide a brief 30,000 foot view from the sky outline of how the church, in different denominations, eras, and significant theologians, has understood these doctrines. Most of the chapters provide a summary of thought from the Patristic, Medival, Reformation, and Modern periods. Some chapters (like natural and special revelation, angels, and eschatology) have an additional section on the Baptist understanding in history. Further, some chapters are much more expansive in their historical treatment such as the chapter on natural revelation which presents the theology of individuals and eras.

While an historical look at a doctrine can often be the weakest section of a systematic theology, this section is helpful, if for no other reason, then to show that the history of Christian thought on doctrine is not as monolithic as some suggest or wish. In a book like this that is decidedly Baptist in nature, it is welcoming to see the writers show where their understanding fits against the backdrop of 2,000 years of previous thought and reflection on Scripture. My only critique of this section is that for a book that is Baptist in nature it would have been more fitting to have a Baptist section in every chapter and not just some.

The third section How does it all fit together? seeks to systematize what was explored and discussed in the What does the Bible say? section while drawing on the What has the church believed? section. Here the doctrinal conclusions are formulated while humbling acknowledging the tension that we, as theologians and readers of the text, though finite in our understanding, can know and understand when God speaks because we are made in God’s image with the ability to communicate. While there is some overlap in this section and the first section because the Biblical text is discussed in both, this section seeks to systematize the Biblical data and draw reasonable conclusions.

While all of the contributors are Baptist it is in this section that one can begin to see differences in theology that go beyond their polity. For instance, while Al Mohler Jr., Timothy George, Mark Dever are Calvinists in their soteriology, those who wrote the key chapters covering salvation issues (Paige Patterson covering the atonement in The Work of Christ and Kenneth Keathley covering election in The Work of God: Salvation) are not Calvinists. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Further, there is a clear difference between the eschatology of Mark Dever, who wrote the chapter on the church and is an amillennialist, and Russell Moore, who writes the chapter on eschatology and is a pre-tribulationalist. While Dever does not believe the Church is Israel (606) he does seem to pair them in closer connection together than Moore does (706-08).

In the final section How does this doctrine impact the church today? the contributors seek to bring relevance to what has been discussed in the three previous sections. Most of these sections are good and some are much shorter than others. It is here that some of the theological differences between the contributors will come more to light and readers might express more disagreement with. All in all, there is much to learn from these sections.

Conclusion

A Theology for the Church tips its hat to whom it serves in its title – the Church. While they do not shy away from theological language and interaction with the original languages, the contributors have written a systematic theology that serves their Baptist audience. This book is thoroughly Evangelical, exegetically grounded in Scripture, historically sensitive, and its practical application is both timeless and timely.

I recommend this systematic theology alongside others that have become staples for Baptists and all Evangelicals alike.

I received this book for free from B&H for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Of the writing of systematic theologies there is no end. Each person who writes one does so from the conviction that they have something to contribute to the discipline and in the hopes that their work will serve not only their generation but many generations to come. While there are a great many systematic theologies that have and will continue to serve the church, the contentious reader will observe that systematic theologies have their limits. To a greater or lesser degree, systematic theologies, because of their goal, can become systematics for the sale of systematics. That is, in an effort to systematize Scripture(s) in order to show the biblical support for a particular doctrine, systematic theologies can become too much like reference books on theology that pay little to no attention to the unfolding story in which these doctrines have been developed. There needs to be more systematic theologies that work in concert with biblical theology.

To this end Michael Horton has recently written his systematic theology called The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrim’s on the Way by Zondervan. Horton has previously written several works on systematic theology relating the concept of covenant to different areas: Covenant & EschatologyLord & ServantCovenant & Salvation and People & Place. Horton has also written God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenant Theology which deals specifically with the idea of the covenant as the basis for God’s dealing with man especially within the redemptive framework. The Christian Faith seeks to condense these previous works and make them more accessible to the layperson, pastor and student.

Notable Features

First, as mentioned earlier, The Christian Faith is an intentional work of biblical systematic theology. It is a systematic theology that has a respective eye on the unfolding of the major doctrines of Scripture. With Vanhoozer and Sayers in mind Horton writes, “The drama determines the big questions as well as the answers. The doctrines are convictions that arise in light of the drama (p. 15).” Horton’s goal, which he achieves, is to present the reader with the doctrines of Scripture that systematics deal with by allowing the unfolding drama of Scripture to determine their shape and structure. Horton is reluctant to use the oft repeated word ‘metanarrative’ to describe the storyline of Scripture. His fear is that this has been hijacked by postmodern’s and enveloped into making Scripture just another story. “For the Greek philosophers, the myths of the gods were ‘just a story’ – the dispensable husk that hides the kernel of timeless truth (p. 17).” Rather, says Horton:

The prophets and apostles did not believe God’s mighty acts in history (meganarratives) were dispensable myths that represented universal truths (metanarratives). For them, the big story did not point something else beyond it but was itself the point (p. 17).

Some may quibble with Horton on this but he may be onto something here.

Second, as a systematic theology Horton does the reader, both new and seasoned, when he defines exactly what the task of systematic theology is. It is the drawing together of three stages: (1) “teaching the vocabulary and rules of speech of Christianity (grammar),” (2) “investigating its inner consistency and coherence as well as comparing and contrasting it with rival interpretations (logic),” and (3) this is all done “so that we can defend our faith in an informed, compelling, and gentle manner (rhetoric) (p. 22).” The goal of number three influences the subtitle of the book, A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Here again we see Horton trying to steer clear from systematics for the sake of systematics. This is doctrine for life and not just for the sake of the compilation of doctrinal facts.

The third notable feature of this work is the pervasive use of the theme of covenant. This is certainly to be expected from Horton given his theological bent and previous works (see above). Much in the tradition of Meredith Kline, Horton sees Scripture as one big covenant between God and man. “There can be no covenant without a canon or canon without a covenant. In fact, the covenant is the canon and vice versa (p. 155).” Thus, in chapter four Scripture is referred to as a “covenant canon (p. 151).” As a canon Scripture is a rule and as the relationship with God’s people develops, God reveals more ‘rule’ with each new covenant he establishes with man (p. 152-53). Through covenant God creates the life and shape of his people.

Another feature of the book is chapter three where Horton deals with the doctrine of Scripture as revelation. While “God is the object of theology” he is also “its self-revealing subject (p. 113).” There is a symbiotic relationship between God and his covenant word/canon – Scripture. To Horton, revelation is more than just words to man from God about himself. There is not God up there and his word down here. The words of Scripture, especially the OT, were first spoken to man. Revelation is personally given to man. “In revelation God is present in personal address (p. 117).” But more than a means for God to reveal himself to his covenant people, revelation “creates the reality of which it speaks (p. 122).” Contra to the reflective aim of truth in the Greeks mythical nature of metanarrative, revelation is means where “the truth literally incarnates itself in history. God’s speech does not merely interpret history; it creates it (p. 123).” As the Word of God, revelation (Scripture) exists in the form of Christ, proclamation and the canon of Scripture as the final 66 books of the Old and New Testaments (p. 135-36).”

A final noticeable feature of the book is the section and chapter structure. There are six parts and all refer directly to God himself. A careful read of the part titles indicates seemingly intentional following of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation (CFRC) structure of Scripture (with some additions) as commonly held today by many theologians. Part One deals with knowing God and how God reveals himself to us and we can know him. Part Two addresses the nature of God himself and what he reveals to man about himself through nature and Scripture. Part Three begins the CFRC grid and deals with the God Who Creates. Part Four continues with the God Who Rescues. Part Five interjects with the God Who Reigns in Grace and deals with the believer, the Kingdom, the church and its sacraments. Part Six is the final part and concludes the CFRC structure with the God Who Reigns in Glory and discusses the unifying eschatology of Scripture.

Conclusion

The Christian Faith has so much going for it that I only have one critique. While the book is a biblical systematic theology I would have liked to see more biblical development within each chapter and not just from section to section. Begin the chapter on Christ by briefly returning to the chapter on the trinity and walk through the doctrine of Christ from before Genesis to Revelation. I hope that what Horton has done here will be picked up by the next generation of systematicians and improved upon.

NOTE: This was published with permission by Sharperiron.org.