A PRIMER FOR CHRISTIAN DOCTRINEWritten by Jonathan R. Wilson Reviewed By Daniel Blanche
I suspect that one’s opinion of this book will depend very heavily on one’s expectations of it and its purpose. It includes chapters dealing with standard divisions of systematic theology—the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, creation, sin, salvation and the like—but does not set out primarily to convey the author’s understanding of Christian doctrine relating to those areas. Rather, it provides an overview of theological thought from a variety of perspectives as it relates to the subject matter, very briefly sketching the answers that theologians have given to the big questions of Christian doctrine.
With this in mind, it should be stated that this book is not a stand-alone introduction to theology. If it were use in that capacity, particularly with students who have no prior experience of theology as an academic discipline, there is a risk of leaving the student baffled and discouraged. The Primer outlines a very wide range of theological positions, and although it does identify the presuppositions behind them and show how they inter-relate, it does not necessarily offer and comment as to their accuracy or usefulness; a novice could very easily find themselves adrift on a sea of opinions that they are unequipped to navigate.
For example, in a discussion of sources and authority in the first chapter of the Primer, the student is shown helpfully that theologians draw upon experience, tradition and Scripture in formulating their doctrines, and is led to ask, ‘What if we arrive at a point in our study of doctrine where there seems to be a conflict between our understanding of our experience and our interpretation of Bible?’ The answer is that some theologians will adjust their interpretation of experience, others will adjust their interpretation of the Bible, and still others will conclude that the Bible is simply wrong. This is helpful in terms of explaining what theologians do, but it does not help the student to ascertain what they ought to do. Students will need to develop and exercise their own discernment.
The book is intended to be read alongside a larger textbook of systematic theology, and the author recommends that we view it as a ‘guidebook’ to help the beginner to find their way around the text. Used in this way, it will helpfully enable the reader to see the presuppositions behind what is being said and to evaluate where the author of the textbook stands in relation to other theologians. It would help an undergraduate to understand how two theologians they are studying could arrive at vastly different conclusions on a variety of issues, something which seems to trouble many new students.
I would have no hesitation in recommending the Primer to a first year undergraduate theology student as a companion to their formal study. The introductory discussion of theological method will give an excellent ‘jump-start’ to their theological study, and if the rest of the book were used as intended, I have no doubt it would make very profitable reading.