Christian TheologyWritten by Millard Erickson Reviewed By Matt Crutchmer
“Wisdom is with the aged,” asserts Job, “and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). Holy Scripture is repeatedly clear that God’s people are blessed with his own wisdom and understanding through those of the community he grants many years of experience and insight. In the person of Baptist theologian Millard Erickson, the American evangelical movement has one of those blessings. The fact that we have a theologian working into his eighties and doing work of the caliber of this latest edition of Christian Theology is an occasion for gratitude.
Christian Theology is not a work of “constructive” theology; it is, in the best sense of the term, an introduction to theology. This does not imply that the material is dumbed-down, just that its main function is to give readers the lay of the land and a general description of the right paths to take on their theological journeys. First published in 1983, the book has been refined a second time to better achieve its original aims: to familiarize students with all the major points of Christian doctrine from Scripture so as to “enhance the reader’s awareness of the greatness and grandeur of God” (p. 1145). Erickson shaped the work in order to be used well in a classroom setting, complete with helpful chapter outlines, summaries, objectives, and study questions. For the most part, Erickson ably accomplishes another of his explicit aims for the book: to “depict the differing parties as fairly as possible” (p. xiii). Helpfully, the author does this while still taking definite positions on each issue, arguing cogently from Scripture for each conclusion. While Erickson is evenhanded with his presentation of the many views on each doctrinal point, readers should not expect to find detailed refutation of those views with which he disagrees; that level of engagement is simply beyond the scope of the book’s aims.
Erickson rightly notes that the “starting point” of systematic theology is a two-sided reality: that God is and that he has revealed himself so that we can truly know him (p. 18). Following some prolegomenal ground-clearing, Erickson begins his exposition with the doctrine of revelation. While this follows the traditional “order of knowing,” the author is careful to keep the doctrine of God operative throughout his depiction of God’s self-revelation. From this point, Erickson moves through the traditional loci of theology proper, creation, humanity, sin, the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, and the last things. His conclusions are solidly evangelical, “moderately” Calvinist, baptistic, and premillennial.
A number of updates strengthen this third edition, many in response to professors and students who offered the author feedback from their use of the second edition. First, materially, Erickson has added new content in the form of chapters, sections, paragraphs, and footnotes to important areas of theology, reflecting the continued work he has done in the past fifteen years since the second edition. (His work includes authoring or contributing to ten volumes on issues like divine foreknowledge, the divine attributes, the Trinity, postmodern epistemology, evangelicalism’s accommodation to postmodern thought, and eschatology.)
In those added sections, Erickson brings analyses of topics like Islam’s doctrine of God, Intelligent Design, categories of providence, relative authority in the inner life of the Trinity, theosis, and a very good section on justification in conversation with Sanders and Wright.
Chapter 41 on “Recent Issues regarding the Holy Spirit” is a particularly welcome addition, presenting a handful of current topics and briefly evaluating the more controversial proposals. These include the validity of “continuing prophecy” today, Pannenberg’s account of the Holy Spirit as analogous to a dynamic field, the missiological application of a broad pneumatology to world religions, and new interpretations of “spiritual warfare” and the Christian’s relation to other spirits. His presentation is fair and charitable, his evaluation clear and accurate. Despite those analyses’ brevity, the author gives the reader both good direction to do further research on the controversial topic as well as good initial judgment to guide biblical reflection.
The third edition also condenses and omits material from the second edition. It shortens and combines two large initial chapters on biblical criticism and theological language, while it reworks the chapter on theology and philosophy to address the “Possibility of Theology.”
One of the most valuable characteristics of the book is the author’s desire to give students real tools and processes to use in life and ministry. While other systematic theologies include a section on process, Erickson’s is not brief or simplistic but detailed and rigorous enough that the theological student is guided more thoroughly in her pursuit. In this, Erickson rightly includes the use of historical theology to inform, correct, and humble the contemporary student. The reader will also learn by example to think through opposing viewpoints and argue for one’s own position cogently from the Scriptures.
Seemingly small choices make the work stronger: Erickson’s reflection on the biblical concept of the gospel in the midst of the “Role of the Church” chapter, having addressed evangelism, edification, worship, and social justice, is a fitting and wise place to do this. From a design perspective, the third edition is a dramatic improvement in its readability. The new text font is far gentler on the reader, and though the type is smaller (which increases the number of characters per line), the leading is essentially equal, making for less dense but fewer total pages.
Christian Theology has clearly stood the test of time and remains, after thirty years, one of the most used introductory texts in evangelical seminaries. Nevertheless, there are some shortcomings when the book is viewed in light of its purpose and genre. The chapter on the Trinity is itself solid, yet the doctrine of the Trinity is not often operative in a systematic sense in some of the later topics. Erickson calls the doctrine of divine simplicity “strange” and “at best problematic”; yet he wants to retain its values, and he offers no reason that the tradition has esteemed simplicity so highly (p. 269). These are examples of places where Erickson allows topics to feel isolated from the whole rather than leading the student to think systematically about the topic at hand and how light might be shed by viewing, say, simplicity in its important systematic connections. The reader is left wanting other additional sections to improve the book’s usefulness in the face of some current theological issues such as reflecting on the theological interpretation of Scripture, social trinitarianism, and a properly theological response to philosophical challenges to the possibility of theology.
In spite of these few weaknesses, Christian Theology remains an excellent choice for professors to introduce their students to Christian theology and to love and serve the Triune God more deeply. This updated edition is only an improvement upon the second edition.
Bethlehem College and Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
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