Contemporary Theology: An Introduction; Classical, Evangelical, Philosophical & Global Perspectives
By Kirk R. MacGregor
416 pages (hardcover), $34.99
MacGregor’s volume attempts to serve as an overview of various currents and tributaries feeding the body of current theological waters; as far as I can tell, it is pitched to serve as a textbook for something like a freshman theology class at an American, evangelical college. Clearly written, it is divided up into bite-sized chapters (thirty-eight of them) that I expect would serve for a semester course at two a week (there are apparently online lectures available, but I have not heard them).
MacGregor has certainly bitten off quite a lot here. Admittedly, I was pleased to see that he interspersed broader movements with individual, significant theological figures. He also evidences awareness that theology is not an isolated thing: MacGregor takes care also to advance some philosophical figures (e.g., Hegel, Wittgenstein) whose views have had a significant impact on theology. He also offers at least a paucity of developments in other communions. This is particularly helpful for Protestants, who can suffer from a lack of awareness of what is occurring among their brethren in, for example, Roman Catholic circles (both Vatican I and II are covered briefly, as well as the barest of mentions of the Thomistic ressourcement).
Beyond these, however, there is not much I can say that is good about this volume. I have always felt such a work like this is nearly impossible to write—and that it is nearly worthless to read, even for first-year students (who I assume are the audience for this book). The main hurdle is communicating in a low-bar way a broad overview of a multiplicity of things, each of which is hardly reducible to a lay level, let alone to a few paragraphs. All that results is grotesque simulacra and caricatured tropes—or at least that’s precisely what is taken away by the uneducated reader, who is the audience of the volume. Looked at from this angle, MacGregor has just been dealt a losing hand.
Apart from this more general lament, I must complain about the choices MacGregor has made here. To be fair, I recognize that hard choices must be made for a survey of this sort—and no one is going to be perfectly in agreement with another’s choices. Nonetheless, the volume is awkward. For instance, the presence of some figures is strange: on what grounds do Spurgeon and Moody belong in the list? Why does Barth merit his own chapter, while Father Rahner has earned only a passing nod and Balthasar only a glance? The far more significant developments in France and Germany in the twentieth century are deflated to foreground movements in Latin America and Africa, who are far less significant in their contribution and significance, as I see it. Where is Blondel? Przywara? And why take the time to mention dispensationalism, when Heidegger appears in a single line en passant in a survey about Bultmann? The volume clearly serves as an introduction targeting American Protestant evangelicals, which privileges the forebearers of especially the Baptist or broad evangelical movement to the neglect of some more significant theological forces in these past centuries. Proof of this is supplied merely by looking at chapter 26, “Evangelical Complementarianism and Egalitarianism.” Thus the volume reads like a carefully crafted privileging of elements relevant to addressing the audience’s own background, rather than a true survey of the field of theology.
Likewise, for a volume that claims “global perspectives,” no mention is made of Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g., sophiology). No Bulgakov appears. No Lossky. In a volume of “philosophical perspectives,” Whiteheadian metaphysics is remarked on without mention of the development—also in America (e.g., Clarke, Wilhelmsen)—of existential Thomism rising to meet it. I have already alluded to Heidegger. Can a history that covers twentieth-century developments in theology be complete without a word on Heidegger and ontotheology? Other groups ought to have been placed together (e.g., Reformed epistemology and analytic theology); while not the same, they certainly pull on one another. Radical orthodoxy is not noted.
I could go on in this vein, but such is repetitive. The volume has the strength of clarity and is admirable as an attempt; but in my opinion, it is always better to forego surveys, if they are to be like this, in favor of more careful presentation of a select few movements and figures.
Ryan M. Hurd teaches systematic theology, specifically the doctrine of God, as a teaching fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is also a Latin translator.