I have struggled for 20 years to find just the right introductory reading material for beginning theology students and laity in churches. The search may be over. The only problem now is choosing among these equally fine contributions. The three-volume Doctrine and Devotion series by Alan P. F. Sell and Invitation to Theology by Michael Jinkins nicely fill a gap in contemporary evangelical resources for theological education.
Many systematic theologies and handbooks of doctrine are too wordy, academic, and speculative for beginning students and their teachers. Certainly most laity and pastors find them of little use as introductions to or refreshers in Christian belief.
On the other hand, many single-volume introductory texts in doctrine and theology fail to challenge readers' minds, or grow pedantic and leave the impression that the "happy science" is just a bunch of facts to be learned.
Alan P. F. Sell is a well known and influential British Reformed scholar and ecumenist who has served as a pastor and educator in the United Kingdom and Canada. He was theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Geneva and is now professor of Christian doctrine and philosophy of religion at the United Theological College in Aberystwyth, Wales. Sell, an evangelical, strives to bridge the differences between competing theologies. He is not interested in heresy hunts or watering Christian belief down to a lowest common denominator. Like Sell, Michael Jinkins is a moderate Reformed theologian. He teaches pastoral theology at Austin (Texas) Presbyterian Theological Seminary and has served as pastor for several congregations.
Doctrinally Sound and Irenic
These volumes and their authors have much in common. For one thing, they breathe the same irenic spirit of generous orthodoxy found in the more voluminous writings of evangelical Reformed theologian Donald G. Bloesch. (I hope the comparison is acceptable to all three theologians.) Anyone who wishes that Bloesch's multivolume systematic theology existed in an abbreviated form might look into these books by Sell and Jinkins. They are orthodox in that they follow the Apostles' Creed, which serves as a guiding norm (under Scripture) for their theological reflections. Their orthodoxy is generous in that it strictly avoids polemical condemnations of those Christians who hold a different perspective on secondary matters of belief. "We should not too readily neglect the old landmarks [of doctrine]," Sell writes, but "certainly we must never make anyone feel uncomfortable because they are unable to formulate a Christological theory! We are not saved by works—even by technically theological works!"
They are irenic in that they seek to overcome what Jinkins calls the "theological paranoia" that characterizes too much theology on both the left and right. Neither author expresses fear of other theologies and theologians—be they evangelical or liberal, conservative or liberationist. Instead, Sell and Jinkins engage a variety of Christian thinkers and schools of theology with a spirit of critical openness. Like Bloesch, they are rooted in the pietist tradition of warm-hearted, peace-loving Christianity that holds to the motto, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Another common feature of these works is their attempt to communicate theology in a practical, devotional way. Sell's three volumes contain a great deal of Christian poetry and hymnody to illustrate doctrinal affirmations. Jinkins organizes his book as a course in doctrine and theology, but he also introduces illustrations and points out practical application of doctrine for spirituality and daily Christian life. At times Sell's abundant use of hymns (by Isaac Watts, John Newton, Charles Wesley, and Horatio Bonar) can be distracting; a couple per chapter would suffice. Jinkins's illustrations and applications often breathe of contemplative and even mystical spirituality (e.g., of Eastern Orthodoxy) which may put off some traditional Protestant readers. Overall, however, both authors' books go far toward proving that doctrine and theological reflection need not be abstract.
Both of these introductions to theology strictly avoid the speculation and overly systematic style that characterize so much scholastic theology. For Sell, "It is a cardinal principle of good theology that it should build upon what God has seen fit to make known to us, and not upon what he has not." His theology seeks to be firmly grounded in historical sources so that it does not fly off into speculation: "My anchor is God's revelation in Christ, and my compass is the testimony of Scripture and of Christian experience ancient and modern." Reason does not seem to play a significant role in Sell's theology, although he can hardly be accused of irrationality.
A Critique of post-Calvin Theology
Echoing Barth, Jinkins says that the value of theology must be "determined by how faithfully it bears witness to the voice and the character of its subject: God." Like Sell, he identifies Scripture, tradition, and experience as his sources and norms. He strives to avoid any role of reason in theology that is independent of revelation and faith. Both theologians express significant dissatisfaction with post-Calvin Reformed thinking that goes beyond what Scripture and early Christian tradition had to say about God's sovereignty. Sell believes that some Reformed theologians picture God as an oriental despot, and he avers that "there is no New Testament justification for the view that God from eternity predestined some to damnation." Both authors are quite comfortable with mystery and paradox as they trace the implications of God's self-revelation in Jesus.
A notable common feature of the authors' theologies is their Christocentric focus and methodology. For Jinkins, Christian theology must begin with Jesus Christ and our relationship with him. Sell echoes this Christocentric approach in the first volume of Doctrine and Devotion: "The very plan of this book assumes that if we do not begin from the holy love of God made known to us in Christ, we shall find ourselves in difficulties when we come to fill out our understanding of God."
Both of these Reformed theologians apply the Christocentric approach even to the doctrine of God's nature, attributes, and character. God's glory, Sell argues, must be understood in relation to his character as revealed in Christ: "If ever the thought of bare, sovereign, inscrutable will usurps that of grace, we have the most serious distortion of the gospel, whose first word [because of Christ] is always holy love." Jinkins writes, "God's power is most visible in the helpless and broken figure of Jesus of Nazareth hanging and dying on the cross."
These volumes present a Reformed theological perspective that is not objectionable to Arminians and other believers in self-limited divine sovereignty and situated human free will. They are not aggressively Calvinistic; indeed, they are hardly Calvinistic at all. (I use Calvinistic as shorthand for belief in the so-called "five points of Calvinism"—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.) Or, perhaps they are more Calvinist than many conservative Reformed theologians (Calvinist here refers to a broader approach rooted in Calvin's thought but using the Reformation principle reformata et semper reformanda—reformed and always to be reformed).
Sell, a stalwart and experienced Reformed theologian with unassailable Calvinist credentials, affirms freedom of will and repudiates divine determinism. "Christians do not know, worship, and serve a God of sheer arbitrariness," he writes. "God's omnipotence … is not sheer, unconditioned might. Nor is it such as to violate the freedom he has given us . …He will go to a Cross before he will remove that which makes us human." What Arminian could possibly find fault with Sell's definitive statement on divine-human cooperation in salvation? "It almost seems as if salvation is God's doing and ours: he regenerates, we have faith. Is salvation after all a cooperative effort in which God plays his part and we play ours? Yes—except that we can only play our part as God enables us."
Jinkins takes a more dialectical approach and echoes Barth's theology of "the triumph of grace" without flirting too heavily with universalism. "God," Jinkins avers, "forgives us without condition, prior to any response we may or may not make." Who is included in us? The Presbyterian theologian gives us a clue when he applauds Jonathan Edwards's concept of the solidarity of humanity as one organism in God's mind in terms of its sinfulness. He adds, "Unfortunately Edwards did not have a corresponding vision of the solidarity of grace." What Arminians will find acceptable in this is his implicit rejection of limited, particular atonement (belief that Christ died only for the elect) and embrace of the universality of God's love, mercy, and grace.
God's Triumph Through Suffering
Both theologians and their theologies are thoroughly evangelical and ecumenical without being sectarian or reducing doctrine to a lowest common denominator. They affirm the historic faith of the Christian churches as well as the supreme authority of Scripture without requiring commitments on biblical inerrancy and premillennialism. They elevate sound doctrine and critical reflection on the meaning of divine revelation to a status of importance for the life of the church without implying that all Christians must think alike. They are neither theological minimalists nor maximalists; they are confessional Christians of broad, irenic, and ecumenical spirits. May their tribe increase.
Finally, Sell and Jinkins share a common love for the great British evangelical theologian, Peter Taylor Forsyth (1848-1921). This is another way in which they are like Bloesch, who frequently quotes Forsyth with appreciation. They have obviously drunk deeply at the well of the British Congregationalist thinker's "moralizing of dogma" (focusing doctrine on ethics), mediating approach to theology (bridging between alternatives), and moderate kenoticism (belief in God's self-limitation, especially in Christ). Sell extends Forsyth's kenotic Christology into his doctrine of God, writing: "Christianity's Sovereign wins his way by humble service, by lowly love, by suffering." Jinkins similarly writes of "the irresistible force of God's self-surrender, the strength, the almightiness, of God's self-emptying and other-centered love." Although neither author embraces open theism (the idea that the future is partly unsettled even for God), both affirm in their own ways the openness of God to genuine interaction with people, in that God is truly affected by them.
These two recent contributions to theology are both excellent brief introductions to moderate evangelical thought. They deserve serious consideration by anyone seeking a text that helps the Word become fresh and remains faithful to the best of the Protestant Christian tradition. Their weaknesses are few and largely attributable to the necessary selectivity of subjects they treat.
A few minor problems in both books do not deter me from recommending them. Even as afrom Alan P. F. Sell, Doctrine and Devotion post-Pentecostal, I was a bit put off by Sell's negative treatment of Pentecostal and charismatic beliefs and practices. Like many critics, he neglects to include the phrase "in the church" when quoting 1 Corinthians 14:19 against tongue-speakers ("But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words, for the benefit of others … than thousands of words in the language of ecstasy").
Jinkins sometimes displays a penchant for vagueness; his expositions of some doctrines could be more clear, crisp, and precise. This is especially true in his doctrine of salvation, which could use expansion and greater attention to classical Protestant perspectives.
Overall, however, both authors' handbooks of doctrine mark great improvements over most other available brief, introductory texts.
Roger E. Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Michael Jinkins' Invitation to Theology is available at Christianbook.com.
Other Christianity Today articles by Roger E. Olson include:
Has God Been Held Hostage by Philosophy?A forum on free-will theism, a new paradigm for understanding God. (January 9, 1995)
The Future of Evangelical TheologyRoger Olson argues that a division between traditionalists and reformists threatens to end our theological consensus. (Feb. 9, 1998)
In 1999, Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culturereviewed Roger E. Olsen's introduction to historical theology, The Story of Christian Theology.
Other articles in our 2002 Annual Books Issue include:
CT Book Awards 2002Here are the books our judges—200 pastors, scholars, and church leaders—considered the worthiest this year.
No Longer Left BehindAn insider's look at how Christian books are agented, acquired, packaged, branded, and sold in today's marketplace.
Two Cultural GiantsBoth Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis were emotionally wounded as boys and struggled with depression as men. But a worldview can make a tremendous difference. An interview with Armand Nicholi Jr.
The Dour Analyst and the Joyous ChristianIn the realm of mental balance and personal peace, Sigmund Freud had nothing on C.S. Lewis.
The Heavyweights of Religion ResearchReference works that provide pound-for-pound excellence.
Reflections: Writers & WordsQuotations to stir the heart and mind about writing.
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