Book Review

The Long and Short of Systematic Theology

Rick Ritchie
Wayne Grudem
Thursday, June 30th 2011
Jul/Aug 2011

Two books have been published within the past couple of years that purport to tell us what all Christians should believe or know: Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know by Wayne A. Grudem and edited by Elliot Grudem; and Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Bre-shears. These two titles seem to agree that it is possible to produce a list of doctrines to which all Christians ought to adhere, but how would their authors make their selections?

Wayne Grudem said that his book was a condensation of a previous condensation of his dogmatics book. He made an initial selection and then pared it down for a new audience. I find that such condensations often lack the compelling qualities found in the original. There was a similar history of two condensations with Francis Pieper's Christian Dogmatics. This was condensed into a single volume by Mueller and condensed further by E. G. Koehler. As the books got shorter, I thought they became drier; yet I admit that Koehler made a more suitable textbook for undergraduates. When someone claims that condensation will be useful for a new audience, I believe it. I just know I'm the target audience for the original work rather than the condensation.

As to Grudem's selections, the first six chapters answer questions on: the Bible; the nature of God; the Trinity; creation; prayer; and angels, Satan, and demons. Grudem's placement of the Bible at the beginning makes some sense, since he argues that as God's very Word it is our authority on these subjects. The logic of how other topics follow one another, however, is less clear. Most dogmatics would discuss prayer later in the book, as the church is usually dealt with after many other matters that must first be understood if we are to grasp its essence. The table of contents of a dogmatics book is a great place to make the statement that all these teachings are organically connected; Grudem missed an opportunity to make this point. It was, to be sure, made at various points within the text, but not as strongly as it would have been had he given it more attention from the start.

Driscoll's chapters in Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe all focus on God. The first six are entitled: "Trinity: God Is"; "Revelation: God Speaks"; "Creation: God Makes"; "Image: God Loves"; "Fall: God Judges"; and "Covenant: God Pursues." The God-centeredness of the titles makes a strong theological statement before we reach the opening page of the book. A reader cannot get through the table of contents without understanding that all Christian doctrine has a common focus.

Grudem's book has a somewhat encyclopedic tone to it. As with an encyclopedia, the topics don't really follow one another in any visible, organic arrangement. The style is often rather impersonal. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has noted that an encyclopedia embodies a set of beliefs about knowledge stemming from the Enlightenment. When we choose such a framework, we may unwittingly be propagating that approach. If we aren't careful, it might be easy for a reader to develop a conception that these twenty basics are discrete teachings that can be separately adopted or rejected, rather than an organically related body of doctrine.

Driscoll has a more narrative style’a happy surprise in a book on doctrine. While his book is the longer of the two, I think it may actually be read through by more readers. One choice some might question is that he begins with an appeal to human desires, although he does note that human desires are corrupted by sin. He presents God as the legitimate fulfillment of our desires, which is the Augustinian theme of "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." If a red flag goes up quickly, Driscoll manages to remove it quickly as well. And he has perhaps succeeded in making his readers hungry to know more about his subject.

Systematics doesn't have to be dry. There is a long history to writing such works. In the Western church, theologians began writing systems to answer some basic questions a reader might have about the Bible and knowledge of God as a whole. The opening questions asked how we could attain to knowledge of God. One such question might be, "Is the teaching of theology a science?" If in our contemporary minds this brings up the idea of test tubes and laboratories, this is not what it meant to these earlier writers. This question was asked before the science versus theology rivalry of the last few centuries. These earlier writers meant something more along the lines of whether theology is an ordered field of study rather than something that might be directly known through the heart. They would wrestle with questions like this, often drawing passages from Scripture and the writings of the church fathers who might argue one way or the other, and then harmonizing them. The idea was that if we saw only one set of these Scriptures and missed the other set, we might start off in the wrong direction and go wildly astray. These opening questions are now known as Prolegomena. They're the first matters that need to be wrestled with in order to make progress in a subject. Later Catholic and Protestant dogmaticians often follow this format, even if some of the answers vary from those given in the Middle Ages. The earliest such writings do show a high regard for Scripture; and while some of their questions arise from the issues of their day, the writers clearly seek to submit their minds to what God has revealed. Even while they were inventing a new approach to arranging their questions, it is clear the conversation had been going on for some time. And we get to know key voices in the conversation by name.

The odd thing to me is that knowing this history, it seems as if Grudem has taken on some of the chief liabilities of such writing’abstraction, encyclopedic tone, lack of Bible narrative and poetry’but without making use of its chief strength: an overarching conviction that the subject is a unity that can and must be approached as such. If the answers can be borrowed from past masters, why not also borrow their arrangements? Or if the logic of that was somewhat lost in condensation, why not work until a new one is visible?

If I open to any page of his book, it is clear that Grudem has read earlier writers, and good ones. He himself knows what the questions are, and he tries to answer them for the reader in clear and simple prose. On that score, the book is quite successful, though even here there is a minor problem. Given that he has read so many of these writers in order to discover the important questions on the subject, when he doesn't cite these writers, the questions he brings up might strike the unwary reader as being odd or idiosyncratic. Someone might wonder, "Why would he think that was important to ask?" Ironically, by leaving out references to the ancient writers who first raised his questions, Grudem has made himself seem out of touch with the times, rather than as a mediator introducing the thought of past writers to present readers.

Then there is the matter of Grudem's "Books for Further Reading in Systematic Theology." The earliest listed system is by Jonathan Edwards. The listing itself is broad, including even The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Yet without the systems of earlier times, the questions in the more recent books are often difficult to understand. And sometimes the much older books are actually more inviting. The book from a hundred years ago might be narrowly focused on the questions of the day; but sometimes the book from four or six hundred years ago manages to be more selective, quoting only what has already stood the test of centuries. Older systems also tend to cite church fathers writing on a single topic, rather than other systematic theologians. The reader can use the systematic as a guide to a deeper reading by a writer passionate on a given subject. When the system only references other systems, the whole enterprise becomes self-referencing and sterile. The reader should see other challenging writers cited and wish to read them. Reading the thirteenth-century writer Alexander of Hales made me want to read St. Augustine's On the Trinity.

Driscoll's book cites many writers. Most of them are current, but they are not mostly systematics writers. I think that is a strength. The systematician works to map out the subject of theology so that the reader knows how to approach it and who is worth reading. A guide to further reading should offer systematics from the entire history of the discipline. Grudem's list is useful, and his annotations helpful, but again he missed an opportunity. To introduce modern readers to the study of systematic theology is a noble thing. But if you forget to show theology as part of what Mortimer Adler called the "Great Conversation," something has been lost. You must make sure that many of the names you introduce to your readers are themselves great talkers. Most systematicians are not.

I don't wish to make this sound worse than it is. In 160 pages, Grudem's book offers much more solid content than most books on sale in a Christian bookstore. I'm just surprised that somehow this key aspect of the dogmatic tradition was expressed better through Mark Driscoll's communicative intuition than through Wayne Grudem's academic discipline. Much of this probably has more to do with the nature of publishing than with a writer's innate ability. I can't blame Grudem for agreeing to condense his book, and I think he is right that many will find it helpful. Yet good things were left undone. What this really points out is that there is a great need for someone to write such a book for a general audience’with Mark Driscoll's command of narrative, combined with a strong sense of how such matters have best been arranged systematically in the past. I also might have more trust in the selection of doctrines I needed to know if I could see how each was an integral part of a whole body of doctrine.

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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Thursday, June 30th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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