There has been a rebirth of such works, but which one stands out?

If a pastor or lay person were looking for a compact presentation of Christian theology today, which one would be the best choice? The “giants” in the field of systematic theology—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, for example—died in the 1960s. In the two decades since then, systematic theologies that present the whole compass of Christian belief have been few and far between. The older works are still useful to the specialist, yet fresh presentations of the faith beg to be made.

But rejoice! In the last six years, American readers have been treated to a virtual smorgasbord of theological cuisine. Since 1978, five major works of systematic theology covering the complete list of usual Christian doctrines have been published. Each work is unique in itself in terms of method and approach. Together, though, these five works are signs of a virtual revival of systematic theology writing in our time.

Given the varieties of theological palates (and the limits of book budgets!), what delicacies do each of these volumes contain, and how do they differ from one another? We need an answer to these questions so we can tastefully choose from the enticing menu.

Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Harper & Row, 1978, 1979) is a two-volume work consciously directed toward the evangelical community. The author wishes to “enunciate the salient tenets of evangelical faith,” and does so by avoiding the traditional topics of systematic theology in favor of treating “controversial themes that have proven barriers to Christian unity in the past.” For example, he devotes chapters to total depravity, salvation by grace, the New Birth, scriptural holiness, and the two kingdoms. Bloesch interacts not only with theologians of all persuasions, but also with modern philosophy and the church confessions of the past.

Hendrikus Berkhof’s Christian Faith (Eerdmans, 1979) is a translation from a 1973 Dutch original. The author is a Dutch Reformed theologian who, in the tradition of Karl Barth, adds extended discussions in small print to the body of his writing. He dialogues frequently with classical and modern theologians and with philosophers. Distinctive is his stress on Israel and the covenant theme. Since his work follows an initial discussion of revelation by a broadly Trinitarian outline, critics have understandably based their criticisms on his views of the Trinity and Christology.

Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxology (Oxford, 1980) is the work of a Methodist who teaches at Duke University Divinity School. The uniqueness of its approach is its focus on the interplay of theology and worship. Wainwright adopts a liturgical perspective on theology. His theology’s focus is on the praise of God in worship, doctrine, and life. He draws heavily on the early church theologians and many ancient liturgies and hymns to illuminate his theological vision. He provides detailed discussions of baptism and the Eucharist, as well as a wealth of information on things liturgical. Less detail is given to such traditional subjects as sin and salvation.

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Reasonable Faith, by Anthony and Richard Hanson (Oxford, 1981), is most surely the only theology ever written by twin brothers. Though the Anglican authors do not claim their book is a systematic theology, it is basically that, though it is written without a single footnote. Continuing in the tradition of Alan Richardson, they dialogue with Eastern religions and modern philosophy. Arguing for the validity of a natural knowledge of God, they wish to justify Christian belief in terms of the witness of Scripture, the history of Christian tradition, and the insights of reason. Though they give their own unique interpretations at some points and fully accept the results of biblical criticism, they also seek to be faithful to the church’s central teachings.

Dale Moody’s The Word of Truth(Eerdmans, 1981) is “a summary of Christian doctrine for all who wish to probe more deeply into the truth of Christian theology as it is unfolded in biblical revelation.” The author leans most heavily on biblical exegesis as the means of ascertaining theological truth. Moody, a Southern Baptist, calls for “a posture of critical conservatism,” by which he means listening to both critical and conservative scholars. He wants his theology to be both biblical and systematic. In 10 chapters and 81 sections he covers everything from “the sources of Christian theology” to “the Holy City.”

These five “complete” systematic theologies clearly show new attempts by Christian thinkers to cover the whole range of theology from within the framework of the classical Christian faith and the church. Though they are scholarly, they are written from within the context of church traditions. We can be grateful that they are not works by scholars who are speaking only to other scholars, but rather scholars who are addressing Christian communities.

Which one should you choose? There is theology here for every appetite. To savor the aroma of contemporary evangelical thought, read Bloesch. To digest the ponderous theological systems of the past, read Berkhof. For a new flavor, try Wainwright. To taste theology specifically engaged with the contemporary scene, order the brothers Hanson. And if your palate appreciates exegesis with the main course, turn to Moody.

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The old “giants” are gone. New ones may be arising. Fortunately for us and the church, Christian systematic theologies are being written once again after a brief hiatus.

Reviewed by Donald K. McKim, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, editor of The Authoritative Word (Eerdmans, 1983) and the author of Readings in Calvin’s Theology (Baker, 1983).

A Twentieth-Century Report Card

The state was the great gainer of the twentieth century; and the central failure. The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. Indeed, in the twentieth century it had also proved itself the great killer of all time.”

That is the kind of statement that makes one take notice: sweeping, unqualified, devoid of euphemistic cant, opposed to prevailing dogmas. Its author, Paul Johnson, was educated at Magdalen college, Oxford. Like another British writer associated with that place, he came to Christianity later in life. He is the author of The Recovery of Freedom and The History of Christianity, and he edited The New Statesman from 1964 to 1970. Johnson asks, “What had gone wrong with humanity? Why had the twentieth century turned into an age of horror, or, as some would say, evil?” The answers amount to an important intellectual oeuvre, enormous in scope, a much-needed report card for this century. Also a valuable reference book, it is heavy artillery in a time of unilateral spiritual, intellectual, and moral disarmament. It is a great book on all counts.

Modern times began, Johnson writes, with the confusion between Einstein’s theory of relativity and moral relativism. This, combined with the new gnosticisms of Freud and Marx, helped “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” The collapse of traditional religious belief left a huge vacuum, and recent history is “in great part how that vacuum has been filled.” The main substitute has been the “Will to Power,” which has produced a “new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever.”

They are all here, kind of a living Animal Farm: Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, as well as their clones and reincarnations in the Third World: “They marched across the decades and hemispheres: mountebanks, charismatics, exaltes, secular saints, mass murderers, united by their belief that politics was the cure for human ills … usually bringing poverty and death in their train.”

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The meticulously documented record of modern atrocities—“moral relativism in monstrous incarnation”—does not make for pleasant reading, particularly when one realizes that leading luminaries in the West (including churchmen) denied that they happened at all. At the very time Stalin was liquidating millions, the Rev. Hewlett Johnson of Canterbury spoke of him as bringing in the kingdom of Christ.

Social engineering, “The notion that human beings can be shoveled around like concrete,” is fingered as “the century’s most radical vice.” Economics, sociology, and psychology “and other inexact sciences,” which “constructed the juggernaut of social engineering,” not only could not provide answers as to what had gone wrong, but they were “an important part of the problem.” Johnson shows how determinism and collectivization, necessary components of social engineering, are “impossible without terror.”

He also understands and explains the language of this century, where meanings, like the consequences of actions, are often the opposite of what is intended. Like Orwell, he attacks the “higher humbug” and its oxymorons: liberation theology, Soviet people, democratic socialism.

Indeed, “modern thought,” in Johnson’s view, might be another contradiction in terms. “A prime discovery of modern times is that reason plays little part in our affairs.” Writing like a scholarly Malcolm Muggeridge, Johnson states, “In many ways, an educated man in the 1980s was less equipped with certitudes than an ancient Egyptian in 2500 B.C. At least the Egyptian had a clear cosmology.”

What Johnson shows as the dominating rule of the entire age could indeed be depressing: “The holistic principle of moral corruption operates a satanic Gresham’s Law in which evil drives out good.” But, fortunately, there is hope, because, “the outstanding nonevent of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear. What looked antiquated, even risible in the 1980s was not religious belief, but the confident predictions of its demise by Feuerback, Marx, Sartre and countless others.” The cosmology and hope of Christians may still be ridiculed as “pie in the sky,” but after reading this book, one finds little positive to say about pie on the earth. Johnson could have added a final quote from Solzhenitsyn, whom he frequently cites: “Men have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.”

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, by Paul Johnson (Harper and Row, 1983, $27.95, 817 pp.). Reviewed by Lloyd Billingsley, a writer living in Southern California.

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