Douglas F. Kelly. Systematic Theology (Volume 2): The Beauty of Christ: A Trinitarian Vision. Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014. $31.99.
The eagerly awaited second volume of Douglas Kelly’s Systematic Theology does not disappoint. Carrying on from his earlier volume on the Trinity, the professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte approaches the person of Christ from an explicitly trinitarian foundation, focusing on the beauty of God and of Christ. This is a rich and wonderful perspective that is rooted in Scripture yet often overlooked.
Kelly’s overall approach in his project is hugely welcome. He follows the Reformers and Puritans in recognizing the Bible to be the supreme authority but also the past work of the church—in its creeds and confessions, and in its leading and recognized representatives—to be the grid through which Scripture is to be interpreted. This is greatly needed. While Rome has held tradition in equal reverence with the Bible, evangelicalism has largely ignored or rejected tradition. Indeed, in supporting Kelly’s approach in a recent ministerial seminar, I scarcely avoided lynching. By assuming that all truth is limited to a narrow strand of evangelicalism beginning in 1517 or restricted to a small cadre of biblical scholars, evangelical theology has been at best greatly impoverished. Kelly focuses on this point in an important appendix (491–99).
Having said that, Kelly’s treatment of his great theme is largely biblical and expository. He begins with the witness of both Old and New Testament to Christ, considering the names and titles of Christ in each, and then delves into the mystery of the hypostatic union and a range of questions arising from it. This leads into a discussion of Christ’s obedience and sufferings, with a profound treatment of the seven last words on the cross. The volume ends with chapters on Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and heavenly rule.
Reading this book is stimulating theologically and enriching spiritually. Preachers, teachers, and students alike—besides the proverbial intelligent layperson—cannot fail to benefit from it. Kelly is not only committed to biblical exegesis and an appreciative attitude to the theology of the church in all ages and across denominational barriers—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—but he also brings to his task a vast range of reading across disciplinary boundaries. Above all, he writes as a disciple of Christ. The book is clearly not intended to display Kelly’s learning but to guide the reader toward a growing appreciation of the beauty and glory of our Savior.
Several striking features distinguish this volume. For a Presbyterian minister in the PCA I was surprised to see no discussion on the extent—or better, intent—of the atonement. On the surface Kelly might appear to support universal atonement in his treatment of 1 Timothy 2 (398–99, cf. 186–87), although his strong defense of penal substitution points in the other direction.
Throughout the two volumes, Kelly cites T. F. Torrance quite a bit. In line with Torrance’s own work on the incarnation and atonement, much of this is helpful and at times scintillating. Kelly’s own criticism of Kant and the aftermath, as well as the deep-seated weaknesses of the Jesus Seminar and Bart Ehrman, bring to the task a powerful Torrancian argument—a blend of theology, philosophy, and physics.
I’m inclined to think Kelly’s work might better be titled Aspects of Systematic Theology, for many topics one would expect to confront at this stage are noticeable by their absence. In neither volume is there a dedicated discussion of the nature of the human being, of sin and depravity, of creation and providence, or of predestination and election (despite the intense debate on election and the Trinity between Paul Molnar and Bruce McCormack). It may well be that Kelly has these things in mind for his third volume, but if so there’s going to be a lot to pack in. Some of these matters do get a passing reference; he discusses sin, for example, in chapter 7, footnote 28.
In effect, what Kelly has given us so far are detailed and extensive discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. These are the towering pillars of doctrinal truth that direct us to the heart of the Christian faith. All else exists to lead us to the knowledge and love of Christ and to the communion of the life of the Trinity. If one is to be selective, this is the way to go. But there are many other important things—“ships and shoes and sealing wax, cabbages and kings”—that, when neglected, can cause problems. However, I’m involved in a similar project and only too aware that not everything can be said short of a 14-volume Church Dogmatics.
Another matter that could be further strengthened in the final volume concerns interaction with those who disagree with Kelly. There are copious lengthy citations from other writers in support of Kelly’s arguments, but at times one gets the feeling that other perspectives may not have been given sufficient weight, whatever conclusions may arise. For example, when discussing the kenosis theory Kelly summarizes its main points in three sentences without supplying the reasons that gave rise to it; he then proceeds to cite William Temple, Donald Baillie, James Muller, Staniloae, Barth, Jeremias, and R. P. Martin in refutation (163–66). All the guns are pointing in the same direction. Too often for my liking Kelly states x shows that this or that is the case without a significant degree of scrutiny; again, though, the limitations of the genre have to be considered.
These caveats aside, this multi-volume project continues to be a fine achievement. A good number of systematic theologies have been released in recent years, and each brings distinct contributions. I will not hesitate to refer to Kelly’s set for its overall methodology and profoundly trinitarian and Christological focus. It is theology flowing from the gospel and redolent of Christ. Nothing can beat that.