Good reference books are like any other good tool, they are as useful as they are well designed and executed. One occasionally sees an advertisement for a new tool which either did not previously exist or is an improvement on an existing one. Some new tools, however, cause the consumer to ask, Why this product? By analogy, when this dictionary came to my desk, I wondered whether this volume would do something that is peculiar to historical theology as distinct from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, for example.
In answer to these questions, the unique contributions of this volume are not immediately evident. Certainly systematic and historical theologians need excellent reference works, but there are well established biographical and theological dictionaries which cover similar territory in about the same way.
Virtually all dictionaries are criticized for inclusions and exclusions, and this work cannot be spared. This dictionary is intentionally limited to 314 entries to allow for longer essays, but it would appear that the editors might have added as many as seventy-five essays without making the volume unwieldy, thereby improving its utility. Since it is a dictionary of Historical Theology, as opposed to Systematic Theology or Church History, one might expect an entry describing the history and methods of this particular discipline, but this is missing.
As a North American in the Reformed confessional tradition, I was surprised to find J. Gresham Machen omitted. His historical-theological importance must certainly rival that of Margaret Mary Alacocque or Erich Przywara. There is no entry for Federal Theology, but there is one for Asian Theologies. One wonders also how to explain the inclusion of separate entries for several seemingly obscure figures and the omission of entries for major Reformed theologians such as Kuyper, Bavinck, Hodge, Warfield, and Vos, as well as Lutheran theologians such as Calixtus, Calov, and Quenstedt. The dictionary covers contemporary writers such as Pannenberg and Moltmann and larger issues such as Postmodernism, but omits an entry on Radical Orthodoxy.
Naturally, the quality of the entries varies. For example, the dominant soteriology of Anabaptists is described correctly, but the docetic Christology held by some major Anabaptist figures is not mentioned. Those familiar with the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, may find that entry reads more like a promotional blurb than a brief narrative of a revolutionary who turned theology from the accounting of God's objective, historical saving acts and Word to the accounting of the subjective experience of divine dependence. Fortunately, the entry on Romanticism helps balance this picture of the period.
Despite this dictionary's idiosyncrasies, it is useful to have a single reference, with a comprehensive index, which will tell readers something reliable about a pioneer of Black Theology, James Cone, the German evangelical theologian, Adolph Schlatter and the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeuer. There are a number of outstanding entries which also make this work worth owning. The essays on the Filioque Controversy, Scholasticism, Heppe, the Reformation, and Ratzinger are quite well done. Further, the scholarship represented by these essays as well as those on Cocceius, the Reformed and Lutheran confessions, Nominalism, Duns Scotus, Bullinger, Arminius, and Calvinism is state of the art. In this regard, this volume might be more useful than the larger and much more expensive Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation.
School libraries will want to add this to their collection. Church libraries and ministers with generous budgets should also find this useful. As with any reference work, students should use this volume as a place to begin, not to end their research.