Sunday, April 16, 2017

Which systematic theology textbook?

There are many textbooks on systematic theology. So if you are new to this subject, you may wonder which one should you get? 

I cannot survey all the available books on systematic theology out there, but here is a brief guide that I hope you will find helpful. I have also limited the list to text written by modern theologians, so no mention of classical works like John Calvin's Institute of the Christian Religion.

Over the years, I have noticed that there are two types of systematic theological text that serve very different purpose.

Introductory Systematic Theology
The first type is introductory text. These books come in handy to provide basic information about Christianity in an orderly way. By orderly, I mean their content is organised according to doctrine like 'God', 'sin', 'salvation', 'Jesus Christ', etc (some of them like to use the technical term like 'theology proper', 'harmatiology', 'soteriology', 'Christology', etc).

Usually books in this category are published in one-volume. Due to its introductory function, the scholarship in them is not very broad. They are more substantial than catechism but less scholarly than journal articles.

Inevitably, the discussion on each doctrine touches only the surface, which is alright as long as the author leaves the discussion open and direct readers to other substantial works.

What I don't like in some of this systematic theology is that they give cocksure answer by way of prooftexting to very debatable theological questions. So I do not recommend Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), which is very popular among evangelical seminaries, unfortunately.

Alister McGrath's Christian Theology: An Introduction (currently in its 6th edition published by Blackwell in 2016), is a good example of this type of systematic theology. Its coverage is very wide, from history to doctrinal controversies to key theologians to contemporary theological trend. It reads like a theological travel guide. Very handy to new theological students.

Other good ones are Anthony Towey's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Richard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson, Matthew Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). But these two texts have not received wide recognition among local Christians.

Other introductory one-volume systematic theology which do not cover as wide but provide good discussion over doctrinal themes are Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013), Millard Erickson's Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 3rd edition 2013) and John Frame's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R, 2013). These four systematic theologies are more suitable for sermon preparation and relevant to the general church people.

For those who has a liking for a more philosophical-theological approach, Anthony Thiselton's Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2015) is the text to go to. Thiselton is renowned for his work on philosophical hermeneutic, so his discussion has a continental philosophy flavor.

While those who want an introduction to the historical development of doctrines can benefit from Roger Olson's The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (IVP, 1999). If you find Olson's work too laborious, you can always turn to Jonathan Hill's highly readable The History of Christian Thought (Lion, 2003). 

And those who are Pentecostal, you may be interested in Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life  (IVP Academic, 1998).

Constructive Systematic Theology
The second type is constructive in nature. This type aims to generate discussion by asking new theological questions, proposing new ways of asking those questions, setting unexplored trajectory, and/or re-vitalise forgotten theological approach.

These texts casually presume readers to have background over the subject matter. The scholarship is more substantial than the introductory type. There is one-volume constructive theology text such as Rowan Williams' collection of essays On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), but usually they come in multi-volume. For examples, Robert Jenson's 2-volume Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press, 1997-1999); and Jurgen Moltmann's 7-volume Systematic Contributions to Theology (Fortress, 1981-2012).

However, not all multi-volume texts are constructive. For instance, Norman Geisler's 4-volume Systematic Theology (Bethany House, 2002-2005) is an introductory type. On each doctrine, Geisler lists out the Bible verses (often in prooftexting manner), quotations from church fathers, and syllogism that support his position on the doctrine. Who and who say what, and that is that. Hardly any constructive discussion, new questions being raised, or trajectory set.

On the other hand, shorter text doesn't mean more elementary. Jenson's 2-volume is less than 600 pages, but it is for readers with deep familiarity with the theological discourse in both western Roman tradition and eastern Greek religiosity. The language is loaded and technical. How many of us understand Jenson's discussion on Holy Spirit in the following extract:

"Is invocation of the Spirit anything distinctive over against invocation simply of God? Is Pentecost a peer of Easter or does it merely display a meaning that Easter would in any case have? The first position has been endlessly pressed on the West by Orthodoxy; in the judgement of the present work, rightly." (p.146)

20th century saw the publication of noted works such as Karl Barth's 14-volume Church Dogmatic (recently reissued as 31-volume by T&T Clark, 2009), Wolfhart Pannenberg's 3-volume Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1991-1998), Paul Tillich's trilogy (University of Chicago Press, 1973-1976), and Herman Bavinck's 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (translated and published by Baker Academic, 2003-2008). 

There are 3 on-going projects in the present century that deserve the attention of theological students: Veli-Matti Karkkainen's 5-volume A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World (Eerdmans), Sarah Coakley's 4-volume with the 1st setting out a contemplative-ascestic approach on Trinity, gender and sexuality (Cambridge University Press), and Katherine Sonderegger's 3-volume with  the focus on the oneness of God (Fortress). Each deals with very different motif, pointing new ways to discover and express divine truth.

Is there something in between Introductory Systematic Theology and Constructive Systematic Theology?
Some of you, who are well-acquainted with the first type of text, are looking for bridging text to go into constructive systematic. There are two edited books that fit this category: Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

What I have listed here is not exhaustive. As I have mentioned above, there are a lot of books on systematic theology. Each reader has his/her unique theological inclination. Some prefer Reformed approach, some historical, some Pentecostal, some Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. 

Nevertheless, I hope the two types of systematic theology text as categorised here would help you to decide which text to get and plan your own trajectory of theological development.

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