New Dictionary of Theology

Written by Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (eds.) Reviewed By Alister McGrath

This is the best one-volume dictionary of Christian theology I have read. The student wishing to possess a comprehensive and authoritative reference work on the broad themes of Christian thought, both past and present, could do no better than to add this work to his or her shelves, or persuade some generous acquaintance to make a gift of it. It compares favourably with its main rivals, such as The New Dictionary of Theology (SCM Press) and the somewhat larger Marshall-Pickering Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. It cannot be compared directly with the magisterial Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, as this latter work includes substantial blocks of material relating to the history, liturgy, spirituality and ordering of the main churches. Nevertheless, as a dictionary of theology, the present volume can even hope to rival this most eminent publication from OUP.

What, then, are the strengths of this work? It may help the student reader if the present reviewer identifies some features which he suspects will prove invaluable as a study or research resource. First, the work is up-to-date. There are excellent articles on very recent theological writers such as Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, and the rising star of Tübingen, Eberhard Jüngel. A number of entries reflect developments of importance in more recent years, such as an excellent critical article on ‘Liberation Theology’, with a valuable bibliography. Similarly, many of the bibliographical references given date from the period 1980–87, allowing the reader to ascertain what recent material is available for further study. This naturally leads to the second strength of the work: it is user-friendly. In other words, it genuinely aims to assist the reader develop his or her knowledge, by explaining technical terms, contextualizing historical developments or personalities, and by indicating helpful further reading material. Thirdly, it is generally reliable. In other words, you can treat the views expressed in this volume as, on the whole, being trustworthy, reflecting the best contemporary scholarship. The present reviewer was delighted with the overall standard of this volume, which marks a considerable achievement for both the publisher and editors.

It is easy to fault this work on points of detail. For example, it would have been helpful if an entry ‘Tradition’ had referred the reader to the entry ‘Scripture and Tradition’ (pp. 631–633): the casual reader might gain the impression that the question of the nature and status of tradition was not dealt with within this volume. The bibliographies are also open to serious criticism at points. For example, consider the article on the important 19th-century writer, Ludwig Feuerbach. What is the point in drawing the reader’s attention to the German-language article ‘Ludwig Feuerbachs Lehre von der Religion’ (1966), and failing to note Marx Wartofsky’s brilliant, readily-available English-language study Feuerbach, issued in paperback in 1982, which deals with precisely this question at far greater depth? In a work orientated towards English-language readers, it is perfectly reasonable to refer the reader to German-language studies, where no better English-language material exists—but this is certainly not the case here! Inevitably, there are more general weaknesses in a volume of this kind, which is obliged to draw upon a wide range of contributors. 210 international contributors are responsible for more than 600 articles, and the present reviewer is inclined to suspect that some contributors are perhaps less able than others. Nevertheless, the overall standard is remarkably high, with flashes of brilliance evident on page after page.

In summary: an invaluable work of reference for the student, which is likely to see active service on his or her bookshelves for many years.

Alister McGrath

Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford