Thursday, 17 May 2007

In search of a good theology textbook

Yesterday we were discussing Wayne Grudem’s widely used theology textbook. In a comment, I suggested that “a good theological textbook should model actual theological thinking, instead of merely providing students with the illusion of ready-made answers. After all, many theological students will go on to become pastors: and in pastoral ministry, what’s needed is not ready-made answers, but the ability to think theologically in new and unpredictable situations.” That’s why, in my view, some of the most popular books (e.g. Wayne Grudem, Louis Berkhof, Millard Erickson) are fundamentally unsuitable as classroom texts – even though they might be interesting and informative in many ways.

Anyway, several people yesterday raised the question of which books would be best-suited as theological texts. What do you think? I’d welcome any comments regarding the texts that you prefer or that you’ve found most useful – or whether you think classroom texts are useful at all.

42 Comments:

Bruce Hamill said...

Couldn't agree more Ben.Ready made answers lack the traces of the questions asked. I think there is a limited place for commentary on theology - 'history of theology' - it should be alongside something that seduces people into doing theology for themselves. This something needs to be talk about God rather than talk about theology.

Chris said...

Though probably not exactly what you are looking for, I find How To Think Theologically by Howard Stone and James Duke useful in introductory classes.

WTM said...

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion - Some of his 'answers' may have fallen out of favor, but he models theological thinking that hopes to be responsible to the biblical text.

Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith - Theological thinking in deep conversation with the tradition and employing a credal structure.

Jordan said...

It seems like bad advice to just tell someone to learn to think theologically (maybe you're not making this an either/or issue) and thus forcing them to reinvent the wheel. I think it's good to use a book that provides the "answers" or even a variety of answers. Yet, I also think (and thus agree) that it should be supplemented with a text that teaches you to continue thinking theologically. One thought: rather than limiting our choices to systematic theologies, what about books on the theological interpretation of scripture? It seems this could be especially helpful for pastors.

nate w said...

A textbook that's conducive to teaching from a historical perspective would be the most helpful, at least from my experiences as a student. Teaching the historical development of the major doctrines almost always means teaching a story of conflict (or dialogue, in the more ideal instances), so that instead of learning, say, that Christ if fully God and fully human, students learn what that affirmation means by learning what was at stake when the Fathers were articulating it. "What's at stake in this discussion?" was always the central question in my classes: what were the different assumptions about the nature of salvation, about Christian practice, about philosophy, etc.? Thus we were taught how to evaluate theological statemtents by searching for their presuppositions and working out their implications, rather than just learning to memorize a list of stock answers to doctrinal questions.

Any textbook that lends itself to that kind of teaching would be a winner, in my opinion.

Dharmashaiva said...

Would-be-theologians need to know about the 'other' Book of God -- Nature. I suggest On the Origin of Species, by the inimitable Charles Robert Darwin, for starters. It can serve as a handy guide to how theologicals [sic] should think.

peter said...

In my first systematic theology course, the professor had us read, Manana: Christian Theology From a Hispanic Perspective by Justo Gonzalez, Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch by John Webster, and The Mediation of Christ by T.F. Torrance. Each book was manageable, provided a unique perspective and modeled theological thinking. The class was fantastic.

Anonymous said...

i found dan migliore's book, faith seeking understanding an excellent introduction for students who were beginning their theological studies. clear, concise and thoughtful. he makes a case not only for what you should know but why.

::aaron g:: said...

Hendrikus Berkhof's Christian Faith is a really enjoyable introduction.

I'm not sure, however, that the selection of a single text achieves the pedagogical goal of teaching "the ability to think theologically in new and unpredictable situations." Journal articles, chapters from monographs, sermons, etc. might model this much better than one big book.

derek said...

Chris,

i agree with you about Stone and Duke's work. It is a great little primer on theological reflection. It is more of a book about how to do theology rather than what to think, and it does a good job of pointing one to some of the central issues of faith.

However, i agree with jordan that this needs to be done with a systematic work as well, so that a holistic perspective can be gained.

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

I would suggest Donald Bloesch either his 7 vol Christian Foundation or his 2 vol Essentials to Evangelical Theology.

A deacon, by the grace of God, said...

Good question! Don't know if it's still in print, but John Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology has been a mainstay for me for years. Heavily influenced by Heidegger, Macquarrie (who's still a working theologian) really does invite participation rather than absorption from his readers. In a similar vein, Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations, the multi-volumed series of essays which, because they're works in process, model and invite theological thinking. Although he's never quite worked for me (my fault, I'm sure, not his) wise friends tell me that Kierkegaard is a both a wonderful antidote to rigid systematics and a wonderful catalyst for doing rather than just reading theology.

Rory Shiner said...

Peter Jensen's At The Heart of the Universe and Oliver O'Donovan's On the 39 Articles. The first for an excellent entry-level introduction to trying to think theologically and the second because you get to see O'Donovan apply him mind to classic reformed statements of the faith.

Rory Shiner said...

Also, a friend of mine in Perth used Barth's Introduction to Evangelical Theology in a theology course for lay (ie no theological training) people and he said it worked a treat.

Terry said...

When I did my undergrad, the first year 'textbook' I was told to read was Barth's Dogmatics in Outline.

I use 'textbook' very loosely, as we (those of us on the course) were told to read it but none of the lectures were ever based upon it, at least not explicitly!

Stephen G said...

I've found that for students and others beginning to want to think critically about their faith then books that contain various personal stories about doing theology work well, rather than books the proscribe a 'theological method' to follow. Some of those might come in later, along with other books that provide overviews of history and doctrines.

I've had various students talk to me about how they found something like Elouise Renich Fraser's 'Confessions of a Beginning Theologian' or Grenz and Olson's 'Who needs Theology?' helping them begin to think theologically, and thus move on to the 'harder' books and real life issues.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think a work on how to think theologically, like the Stone and Duke book, is essential. Other than that I favor using a range of one volume theologies and having students select one as a major "dialogue partner" throughout the course. (Assigned readings would list the options.) I would then have 2 book reviews of monographs from a range of selections--and students would have to pick one "liberal" and one more "conservative" text for their book reviews. If the course was 2 semesters, I would repeat this, but book review selections would change to reflect the different topics covered during the semester. (At least one of those book reviews should be on Barth's Evangelical Theology, imo.)

For the 1 volume "dialogue partners," here are my choices for students:

1) John MacQuarrie, Principles of Christian Theology rev. ed. (SCM Press, 2003).

2) Dale Moody, The Word of Truth (Eerdmans, 1981).

3) James H. Evans, Jr., We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology (Augsburg-Fortress, 1992).

4) Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (Herder & Herder, 1989).

5) Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 1991).

6) James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, vol. II (Abingdon Press, 1994). (McClendon's 3 volume work is 1. Ethics, 2. Doctrine, 3. Witness--a theology of culture and of missiology.)

7) Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive.. (IVP,2004).

With this kind of selection, students who choose one dialogue partner as an introductory systematic and find themselves with major disagreements (not a bad way to learn in itself) already have a working bibliography to try elsewhere.

Jason said...

I am growing weary and wary of the genre of one author systematic theologies. They tend too much towards the model of the lone individual scaling the mountain to formulate a final and exhaustive account, in order to return and tell us the truth. More than the authors intending this, too many readers uncritically grant them this status: Grudem is a fine example of this. Even if it is not his intention in writing, the effect is nevertheless to close down questions rather than open us up: to wonder, perplexity, prayer, repentence, compassion, love, worship - to the Lord . And it seems to me that if our theology fails to do that, then it falsifies itself. St. Thomas, Calvin and Barth have also been put to this use (apart, I think, from their intentions).

In teaching theology, I would want to make the Bible a primary text. That sounds simplistic or sanctimonious, perhaps, but I don't mean it to. I certainly don't mean it as anything like the 'scrapyard of theological propositions' which Grudem seems to treat it as ('find verses, summarise them, fashion them into one or more points.'). I mean instead for students to read it for the real depth, richness, and wonder there, and as a result of that engagement - more than a surface reading for propositions or facts (although, sure, they'll be there, too), something more like a ruminating or meditating on it - to begin to do theology. In this, I mean to set prayer and worship (in some sense) as the context in which theology is done, even in the strictures of the academy.

I should hasten to add some context to my point, though: I am quite an admirer of Barth and von Balthasar, so I am not foursquare against prolific single authors! They can certainly be quite valuable and have their place. But if they become a 'final summary' for us, if they occlude actual engagement with Scripture, if they distract us from engagement with classics of the faith - and if they cause us to think we can do good theology apart from these - then they are idols.

I would also like to amplify the comment about the value of the Oxbridge system. In my tutorials I have first year undergraduates reading Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer: why spend time with a survey or textbook?

That said, such works have some value, and I would like to add to the growing list:
Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship and Life;
James Cone: God of the Oppressed;
and Rowan Williams: On Christian Theology.

Finally, two forthcoming multivolume, single-author systematic theologies worth watching are from Sarah Coakley and John Webster.

Bryan L said...

Has anyone read Robert Jenson's systematic theology? I was wondering if it was any good. I was expecting to hear about it but I haven't so far so I was wondering what those who've read it thought of it.

Blessings,
Bryan L

Pontificator said...

Regarding Jenson, our host includes Jenson's Systematic Theology in his Top Ten List.

Brian Hamilton said...

If the aim is learning to think theologically, starting from the primary text of Scripture, exemplary early sermons would seem a magnificent place to start: Augustine on the Psalms, Origen on the sacrifice of Isaac, Chrysostom on Lazarus and the Rich Man, Gregory's Life of Moses, etc. For the early church, systematic theology is so closely tied to exegesis and preaching--selections from Irenaeus would illustrate that point beautifully--that students could be challenged in their faith, become better readers of scriptures, and learn to think theologically all at once. Not that it should be too concentrated in the early church, of course, though in the middle ages and the reformation era one might do better to start from commentaries. A broader historical overview would still be necessary to situate everything being read, but it seems to me that such a source should be secondary to the actual demonstrations of good theology.

arvid said...

I'd let my students read Augustine's Confessions, two dogmatic works (from different traditions) and two works on ethics/preaching or pastoral theology (from different traditions). That, along with perhaps Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition. That hould give them a hunch, hopefully.

Imogen said...

I agree with Jason's comment on the Oxbridge system. I'm a first year Theology student at Durham, and we only use summary textbooks for Biblical studies modules; when it comes to theological matters, we get told to go and read the relevant discussions in Calvin/Augustine/Barth/von Balthasar/etc and then assess their work. I can't see how a book can teach you to 'think theologically' better than observation of how theologians think can.

justthischris said...

Assuming by "textbook" you mean an introductory sort of systematic theology. I think Alster McGrath and Thomas Oden do well with that sort of thing. I had Millard Erickson's Systematic thrust on me and can't say I recommend it at all. I got into Karl Barth through a hermanuetics profs mention of Bernard Ramm by way of warning. Whenever my profs warned me of someone I'd write down their name for my own study.
While it's quite dated now Ramm's "After Fundamentalism" poses questions at the Evangelical world that Bible colleges still need to hear. In Ramm's day Lewis Sperry Chafer was all the rage. On pg. 206 he compares Chafer to Barth and finds (surprise) a lot lacking in Chafer's works as a "paradigm for evangelical and fundamentalist theology."

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

When teaching theology at an undergraduate school I did use McGrath's Chrsitian Theology, but in Seminary, with Colin Brown as my teacher, we read a variety of materials. Colin would always say that no one sytematics text would do. So we were encouraged to read broadly.

michael jensen said...

I gotta go with Jason on this one: could the Bible itself not teach us to think theologically? It is a wonderful ecumenical document!

And basically, anyone who is a 36 year old anglican communion priest studying for a doctorate at Oxbridge can't be all bad... ;-)

Tripp said...

I just finished div school at Wake Forest University and thought our year long theology class was wonderful. We picked two one volume systematics from Stan Grenz, James McClendon, Peter Hodgson, or Ted Peters that we read through the year. Papers on these volumes were written in dialog with class lectures and our own thinking. Then each semester we had to read and write extensive responses to three monographs on specific doctrines. Over the two semesters we read marjorie suchocki, mirslav volf, jurgen moltmann, elizabeth johnson, howard thurman, jungel, james evans, and pannenberg.

Halden said...

This is truly a good question, Ben. If I were doing a class involving introducing students to theology, with the aim of teaching them to think theologically, I think the focus should be on 1) the gospel (i.e. the narrative of Jesus Christ), and 2) the church's appropriation of that gospel in its rule of faith and liturgy. So, I'd probably have people read Jenson's Story and Promise and Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed.

Now, if I had all kinds of time for this class, I'd have people read the entire canon as well, and also include Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God and Paul Hanson's, The People Called. I think learning to think theologically means we have to reckon with Israel's place in the narrative of Jesus and the full scope of the biblical story.

Patrick said...

Jason (and others),
Do you know when Sarah Coakley's theology is coming out? It's been "forthcoming" for quite a while...
I liked Migliore also, but note that it was revised and expanded in 2004.

erin said...

A more pressing question for me is “How can I best teach anyone to think theologically?” The ugly truth is that for most of the people I come in contact with, my theology is too irrelevant to their perceptions. People around me express the following: “Pastor, I don’t have a lot of time. ---Long work weeks. -Trying to give time to my kids. Trying to stay involved with the ministry to the at-risk kids and have a prayer life. I haven’t read a book in several months. What was the name of that guy, Barth, you wanted me to read again?” They just don’t feel the need for trying to understand all of the theological thinking that my professors engaged in. So I suggest a gentler books like Jinkins, “Invitation to Theology” (IVP) to get them started -with marginal results. My dreamed pastoral trifecta: teaching people to think theologically using the material of their own lives and scripture in such a way that is true to the systematics we hold.

The correspondence between Barth and Harnack was excellent to see 2 sides of a discussion.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Halden concerning Luke Timothy Johnson's "The Creed". It is excellent for inquiring minds at the Freshman or Sunday School level. It uses the Nicene creed and lots o' Scripture. It is highly readable and routinely gets "the best [god] book I ever read" marks by those who have never and would never crack a theological book.

It takes on conservatives and liberals nicely at different points though it is pointed more at challenging a liberal audience to believe "something" passionately.

Stanley

Jason said...

Erin:
You ask what I think is a crucial question (viz., how do we as teachers and pastors form others to think theologically - a prayerful thinking that isn't just 'parroting the pastor/professor' but seeks to be faithful to the Lord in innumerable different circumstances.) This is a slightly different question than the one about which sources to use in training pastors/leaders/theologians, but no less important. The answers are related, I suspect; the better we form our leaders, the better they will help the church to be formed. So maybe having a layperson read Barth (say) isn't as important as having a theologically competant preacher and teacher and theologically well-formed peers and friends. I think it is quite significant that many, maybe most, of the greatest theologians were involved with preaching and teaching in the church: most of the Patristic theologians were also deacons, priests, bishops, or monks. St. Thomas was a preacher and Biblical commentator as much as a theologian and philosopher. Calvin, Luther, Hooker, the Caroline Divines, Schleiermacher, Barth (early in his career, especially), they all preached and taught on a regular basis, and not just to fellow theologians. I have some thoughts about possible reading suggestions beyond preaching and teaching, but I've written enough for now (and real life commitments are calling!).

Patrick:
According to her CV, Sarah Coakley's first volume is due out in 2007 or 2008 from Cambridge UP. That's the best information I can find.

And Michael:
What can I say? When you're right, you're right! :-)

JohnLDrury said...

One trick I've used in one-semester settings is to read through at least two books of reflections on the Apostles Creed (e.g., Barth's Dogmatics in Outline and Balthasar's Credo) and have students take regular terms quizzes based on a terms dictionary (e.g., Grenz, or Harvey, or another). The combination of basic terminology and reading a master on the basic doctrines works nice.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

It occurs to me that I didn't really learn to think theologically (sad to say) until my Ph.D. seminar on theological method taken with David Mueller. (I had already had Mueller's Barth seminar which was wonderful.) He had us read Hans Frei's Types of Christian Theology and then we read numerous essays on method and prolegoumenae from many, many theologians. We began with the opening section of Calvin's Institutes, then moved to Schleiermacher's Glaubenslehre (i.e., The Christian Faith), then we read the opening section of Tillich's Systematic Theology. We read David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination, Torrance's Theological Science, Sallie McFague's Metaphorical Theology, Gordon Kaufman's essay on method (which thankfully I've forgotten), Jose Miguez Bonino's Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, Pannenberg's Theology and the Philosophy of Science (Pannenberg's 3-volume systematic wasn't yet out)--and many others.
Although Mueller is an evangelical Barthian, he rightly told us that we would be naturally more exposed to evangelical theologians than to more liberal ones. So, he deliberately gave us more liberal theologians. The seminar didn't have enough Catholic or Orthodox thinkers (I picked this up later on my own), but it certainly exposed me to the many different ways that theology is currently "done." That was when I began to work out my own approach to theological reason.

Andre Muller said...

(I'm sorry that the following is so long...)
I wonder if the desire for ready-made answers to easily identifiable theological problems which Bruce and others have identified is symptomatic of an inability to practice patience (which itself may be a manifestation of a deeper resistance to acknowledging our finitude, that is our status as creatures made answerable (or responsible) to the Triune God)? And if this is so, we are faced with a greater problem than simply that of trying to sort out the class reading list (important as this task undoubtedly is). Here I think we might learn something from Augustine’s insistence that the pedagogy of theology (i.e., learning to speak about God, learning to read Scripture, etc.) is first and foremost a matter of conversion and discipleship, the re-ordering of desire (or as Prof. John Webster puts it, moritification and revivification). A number of things follow from this. One is that theology is difficult, not for the reasons that are usually offered, but because learning to pay attention to the Triune God is equivalent to allowing the Spirit to re-order our desires, our language, our reason so that they can, in their creaturely way, be a fitting witness to the Triune God. Another thing that follows is that for those of us called to be servants of the gospel by being teachers of theology (there may, as Barth might say, be less dubious ways of being servants of the Gospel!), we must feel and demonstrate this difficulty on our pulses, as it were. Not that we should become mired in existential angst (although a little may not be an entirely bad thing). But that the dual-process of mortification and revivification is transparent in our theologising; and part of what this means is that our theology must both advertises its limits – the places of difficulty and darkness, the places where we can only stammer or be silent (Paul wrestling with the problem of Israel), and at the same time, speaks hopefully and confidentially of the merciful acts of the Triune God. It seems to me that we ought to commend works of theology that do both – Augustine’s Confessions; Barth’s Romerbrief; John Webster’s On Holy Scripture, etc. But the important thing is not so much that we get students to read such books, but that they do so in a context of their moritification and revivification. It might be worth taking up Origen’s suggestion (in his commentary on the Song of Songs) that we order our reading of Scripture (particularly) but also of theological works not around their technical difficulty, but in relation to this re-ordering of desire.

Aric Clark said...

A good teacher is probably more crucial than the perfect text, but Daniel Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding is a pretty damn good introductory text.

Christopher said...

Wow, there is a ton of good stuff here, although, some of these hypothetical classes are approaching the "Lifetime Reading Plan." If I may add one more book that was intrumental for me in thinking theologically: The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology by David Kelsey.
Kelsey's book helped alert me to, and think through the ways in which theologians appeal to the Bible as authoritative; which is to say, it exposed for me the mechanics of a theological argument.

Rachel said...

When I took theology last year we used "Faith Seeking Understanding" by Daniel Migliore. I don't know how much it taught us to "think theologically," but it was a good read and I still refer to it often.

Apolonio said...

Introduction to Christianity by Ratzinger uses a lot of philosophy, a bit of biblical criticism, history, poets, writers, saints, etc. That's how a theologian should think. Principles of Catholic Theology is, well, for Catholic theology. And his dogmatic theology series is Catholic too.

Martin Kemp said...

At the risk of defending the indefensible, shouldn't we note that Grudem actually thinks that he is modelling theological thinking? It’s just that his model is not good enough. He would argue against the charge that he is providing ready made answers.

dave bish said...

I might run with this
http://www.theologynetwork.org/historical-theology/

Hi said...

As a student who had to study this book, if you actually like your class PLEASE don't assign this book. It's badly worded and honestly does not make sense. It's also repetitive and unhelpful. Worst book ever. I don't know what the Catholic School Board is doing with their jobs but they need to lose it if this is their idea of a textbook for grade twelves.

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