Danny Akin’s (ed) A Theology of the Church

A Theology of the Church (B&H Academic, 2007) is a major new systematic theology that is edited by Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin and penned by him and a host of other Southern Baptist theologians.  There are 934 pages of text in the volume written by fifteen different authors.

I was very excited to hear about this project and was thrilled to see it unveiled at the LifeWay store at the 2007 SBC meeting in Houston.  I was able to get a copy some weeks ago and have been able to begin working through it.

I have decided, given the immensity of the work, the number of authors, and the wide-range of subjects to blog through the book a chapter at a time as I’m able to read it.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 is entitled, “Prolegomena:  Introduction to the Task of Theology” and was written by Gregory Alan Thornbury, the Dean and Associate Professor of Christian Studies at Union University as well as the Director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership.

Thornbury seems well-qualified to handle the issue of theological prolegomena (i.e., “what needs to be said before one begins”, p.52) and he does so admirably.  The chapter is an extensive 69 page work that left this reader feeling challenged, edified, and encouraged.

Thornbury tackles basic issues of epistemology and knowledge.  He gives a bird’s-eye overview of mankind’s quest to know by beginning with early Greek philosophy and working through the Pythagoreans, Plato, Aristotle on up to modern philosophers like Nietzsche and Focault.  Thornbury’s primary contention in this overview is that truth is unknowable insofar as the resources for truth are restricted to that which we find in our own heads.  The very possibility of truth is therefore dependent on transcendence.

Thornbury moves on to consider early Christian interactions with secular philosophy, which he depicts as a “love-hate” relationship.  In the final analysis, he believes that we must avoid the extremes of an undue skepticism concerning the usefulness of philosophy on the one hand and an uncritical acceptance of the assumptions of secular philosophy on the other.

He provides a very helpful and illuminating overview of the theological developments of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Occam.  He handles well the scholasticism of Aquinas and the competing nominalism of William of Occam and shows how critics of Reformation thought have pointed their fingers at a kind of nominalism-run-amuck as the chief culprit in what they see as the various maladies arising from the Reformation.  Thornbury offers reasons why he thinks this is a bit of an overstatement and shows that the Reformers themselves were not uncritically enamored with Occam.

Thornbury nexts points his finger at Immanuel Kant and the rise of the Enlightenment worldview.  “Once upon a time,” he writes, “people at least understood the great verities of Christian teaching, and either believed them or denied them.  Theology mattered.  Today secularism dominates the culture of the West.  Why?  A two-word reply suffices for an answer:  the Enlightenment” (35-36).

He shows how Kant argued for the impossibility of human beings knowing theological propositions.  He traces this line of skepticism through the theological liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, through the historical Jesus research of David Strauss, and then into the liberal programme of Adolf Von Harnack.  He then presents a fascinating overview of Barth’s neo-orthodox revolt against old-line liberalism, and shows the strengths and weaknesses therein.  Footnote 105 on page 43 is almost worth the price of the book, as it reveals some fascinating insights into some exchanges that occured between Carl Henry and Karl Barth.  I was intrigued to hear that Henry felt that, with all of Barth’s problems, he, Henry, was still “in the presence of a believer in the gospel” when he was with Barth (43).

Thornbury then gives a helpful overview of Southern Baptist theological works.  He likes Henry, naturally enough.  This is encouraging and one hopes that those who read Thornbury’s chapter might be encouraged to spend some time with the late-great theologian and churchman.  He’s understandably impressed with Millard Erickson’s extensive handling of prolegomena and seems frustrated at the scant treatment that other theologians devote to this important work.  Interestingly, Thornbury does not mention Wayne Grudem’s work at all, which is unusual given the popularity of Grudem’s systematic.

He concludes with a helpful overview of the ideas of “culture” and “worldview” and calls for self-awareness in terms of our own place in the cultural milieu we inhabit.  Yet, he argues, theology can be done, even in the midst of our own inherited presuppositions.  This theology must be biblical and aimed not at knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but rather at a genuine relationship with the Lord God.

Thornbury’s chapter is helpful and challenging.  Those unfamiliar with certain philosophical and theological concepts might find it a bit much, but Thornbury makes numerous efforts to explain the train of thought that he is developing.  He is obviously convinced that prolegomena is crucial to the task of doing theology.  In this conviction, he is correct.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2, “Natural Revelation,” is written by Dr. Russell D. Moore, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration and Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Moore has written a concise and helpful overview of the fascinating topic of natural revelation.  He approaches the topic through the following progression:  Old Testament – New Testament – Church history (Patristic – Medieval & Reformation – Modern) – “How Does It All Fit Together?” – “How Does It Impact the Church Today?”.

He successfully shows that the idea of natural revelation (i.e., that revelation of God that has been instilled in the created order by God Himself) is clearly steeped in Scripture.  In the Old Testament this is most clearly seen in Psalms and, in the New, in Romans 1.

Moore wants it understood that natural revelation is not some nebulous phenomenon that exists outside of God’s will, as if it is some kind of lingering residue left over from the act of creation.  On the contrary, natural revelation is a positive assertion by God.  His very handiworks proclaim His name because He wills it.  Furthermore, this revelation, though it speaks clearly, does not speak exhaustively.  Moore argues that natural revelation is not salvific.  It is not that natural revelation does not proclaim truths about God.  It is rather that lost humanity outside of Jesus Christ inevitably rejects these truths anyway.  So the question of whether or not the secluded pagan who responds with faith to general revelation is saved is really, Moore contends, a fiction.  The problem is not that there are no secluded pagans who only have natural revelation.  The problem is that none of us turn to the things of God, no matter how much or little we know of Him.  All of us, like sheep, have gone astray.  So the gospel of Jesus Christ is needed and necessary.  Natural revelation might prepare our hearts, but only the gospel can heal them.

Moore feels that the reality of natural revelation allows us to appreciate the artistic expressions and endeavours of those who have rejected Christ but who still might communicate truths that inspire and shape us.  I am glad to hear him say this.  The “Christian ghetto” can be a suffocating (and tacky?) place to dwell, especially when so-called Christian art and writing has become so blandly provential and so smarmily kitschy.  (I am SO very glad that I can read Faulkner instead of the latest prairie romance from LifeWay!)  That being said, the truth of the gospel provides that light in and through which all human endeavours, no matter how inspiring, must ultimately be judged.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is entitled “Special Revelation” and is written by David S. Dockery, President of Union University, and David P. Nelson, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration and Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The chapter is a 56-page examination of the occasionally thorny issues surrounding special revelation.  It is handled well and constitutes a helpful and relatively thorough handling of the topic.

Dockery and Nelson argue that the ultimate “special revelation” is to be found in Jesus Christ.  Indeed, the life and salvific work of Jesus Christ comprise “the fixed center of special revelation” (120).  Outside of Christ, the scriptures constitute the authoritative expression of revelation in the life of the Church.  “It is not entirely appropriate to make a direct correspondence between Scripture and Jesus Christ,” the authors write,” but nevertheless there is an observable analogy” (129).

Dockery and Nelson are concerned that our view of inspiration honor both the humanity of the biblical writers and the hand of God Himself in the process.  “Scripture is the word of God written in the words of man” (134).  To read scripture, they argue, is to read the very word of God given to men.  They aptly handle the issue of the self-attestation of scripture and rightly point out that any view of inspiration that seeks to avoid using scripture’s own claims to such (i.e., in an attempt to avoid the charge of circular reasoning) is doomed to fail.

Their handling of the history of the Church’s view of scripture was helpful if not, at this point, somewhat predictable.  There was a high view of scripture in the patristic and, later, medieval periods.  Enlightenment skepticism discarded a high view of scripture through its liberal spokesmen (again, Schleiermacher and Strauss).  Barth and the neo-orthodox school rightly turns the tables on this liberal skepticism but does not replace it with a suitably high view of scripture.  “Therefore when we have to do with the Bible,” the writers quote Barth, “we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation, but only – and this is the limitation – the witness to it” (138-139).  (This does bring to mind the argument from the 2000 SBC gathering in Orlando about whether or not the Bible is revelation or a record of revelation, thus giving some credence to Paige Patterson’s charges of neo-orthodoxy among moderates.)  The authors then move on to an interesting overview of Baptist views of the Bible.

I thought the “Improper Deductions” section on 147-149 was well done.  Here the authors address five concerns or mistakes that are often made when people think about the Bible.  These five sections were concise, succint, and very helpful.

Concerning the theories of inspiration, the authors argue for the verbal/plenary view, noting that this “theory…is that which is put forward in this book as the most acceptable model of inspiration based on the Scripture’s own testimony and consensus within the history of the church” (153-154).  I note with interest the appeal to the consensus of the church throughout history.  Dockery is a fan of Tom Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy programme and one cannot help but see this in such a statement.  It is, to be sure, an encouraging sign.

Dockery and Nelson next give an interesting statement of support for the term “inerrancy.”  They believe that we can hold to the term if we mean by it the idea that “when all the facts are known, the Bible (in its original writings) properly interpreted in light of the culture and communication means that had developed by the time of its composition will be shown to be completely true (and therefore not false) in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters relating to God and his creation” (157).

Now, that’s an interesting definition.  I am sympathetic to it and to the explanations of the many facets of it given by Dockery and Nelson from 157 to 159.  There are those who might charge that such a definition allows the term to “die a death of a thousand qualifications,” but, unfortunately, such qualifications are necessary when trying to accurately define such a loaded term as “inerrancy.”  I am chewing on this definition a bit, but I believe I can say that I’m by-and-large comfortable with what I believe the authors are saying by putting it this way.

The chapter goes on to give a helpful overview of the process of canonization.  The authors believe we can “see God’s providential hand at work” in “the transmission, translation, preservation, and canonicity of the Bible” (170).  Indeed we can, though readers might question whether or not Dockery and Nelson have sufficiently handled the question of the Church’s role in the process of canonization.

There is a fascinating caveat on page 73 about interpretation and authority:  “Many people confuse a desire to obey Scripture’s authority with a personal insecurity that calls for a leader to tell them constantly what to do or think.  More troubling is that some leaders encourage this confusion by commingling a commitment to biblical authority with a type of authority associated with certain positions of church leadership.”

Count this among the things that make you go “hmmmm…..”  Is this a statement concerning the state of today’s Convention perhaps?  One wonders…

This is a great chapter written by some first-rate scholars that will encourage, challenge, and help you in understanding what the Bible is and what role it plays in the Church.

Chapter 4

I have been looking forward to this chapter ever since I began reading A Theology for the Church.  Chapter 4 is a 67 page chapter entitled “The Nature of God: Being, Attributes, and Acts” and is written by Dr. Timothy George, Founding Dean of The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.  Dr. George is the most significant Southern Baptist theologian writing today and is well-equipped to handle the daunting task of writing a chapter on the nature of God.

One of George’s strengths is his accessibility.  He writes with an interesting mixture of high theology and anecdotal illustration.  He begins the chapter with a story about a sermon that James Petigru Boyce preached at Southern Seminary and he ends the chapter with a long and moving section from a sermon by Charles Spurgeon.  He also makes interesting and helpful use of hymnody throughout the chapter.

George is also adept at turning a phrase.  “‘Blessed Assurance,'” he writes, “is not cheap insurance, and genuine knowledge of God is not without struggle and doubt.” (178)  And this:  “Theology has lost its joy and become a dour enterprise of idea-shuffling and puzzle-scrabbling.” (178)

George’s approach is thoroughly Trinitarian.  He begins, in fact, with a discussion of “God the Holy Trinity.”  He believes this to be the starting point for our discussions of God and believes that Trinitarian thought provides the basic structure in which all theology should operate.

He provides a helpful overview of many of the biblical names for God and moves on to a discussion of God’s majesty and God’s trustworthiness.  His overview of the New Testament concept of God is intriguing and he offers the interesting observation that New Testament theologians often actually neglect the doctrine of God in their discussions of Christ.  This presented me with a personal challenge and made me consider long and hard whether I have not done this as well in my reading of the New Testament.

He moves on to a discussion of God’s holiness, love, eternity, and knowledge.  His section on God’s love was particularly well done.  He argues that God’s love ought not be thought of only as it applies to His love for us, but rather should be thought of as an essential aspect of His very nature whether He had ever created us or not.

He handles the “open theism” question briefly but admirably.  He argues that, “Open theism grants God too much power to get him off the theodicy hook but not enough power to support a plausible doctrine of providence.” (232-233)  I thought this was an astute observation and one that I had not considered.

Finally, George lists a number of ways that a recover of a biblical understanding of God will impact the life of the church today.  This was very well done.  George believes that this recovery is absolutely essential if we are to return to a heightened sense of worship, prayer, praise, and preaching.  In this, he is absolutely correct.

This chapter alone was worth the price of the book.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is entitled, “The Work of God: Creation and Providence,” and was written by Dr. David Nelson, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration and Dean of the Faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.  This 50-page chapter (242-292) takes a detailed look at creation, providence, and a whole host of related issues that arise from these topics.

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s that Dr. Nelson had the misfortune of following Timothy George, or maybe I was just in a mood, but this chapter was laborious.  90% of this chapter consists of summary statements with relevant bible passages in parentheses.  This, of course, is nothing to sneeze at.  All statements about creation and providence must be couched in scripture.  But Nelson’s chapter seemed at times like a John Macarthur sermon:  point-passage-point-passage-point-passage, etc.

Dr. Nelson did offer some more detailed explanations of certain points.  For instance, he obviously wanted to deal with the problem of evil in a helpful way.  To an extent, he did so.  His biblical observations about evil were most helpful.

Anyway, a solid chapter in an overall very good book.  This chapter would be very helpful for Sunday School classes wanting to understand creation and providence.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is entitled “The Agents of God: Angels” and was written by Dr. Peter R. Schemm, Jr., of Southeastern Seminary.  I’ve had the honor of meeting and visiting a bit with Dr. Schemm and think a lot of him.  He strikes me as a bright, up-and-coming theologian.  If I recall, he has something like 23 kids (note: sarcasm), so I’m impressed that he had time to get a chapter written at all!  He did a commendable job on this chapter and I would recommend it as a great overview of the subject of angels.  It is thoroughly biblical, practical, and illuminating.

I appreciated the two excursi that Dr. Schemm put in the chapter.  The second was very helpful to me as I was recently trying to get my head around Genesis 6 with some friends.  I intend to bring this excursus to the attention of those with whom I was discussing this chapter.  It really helped me get a grasp on what is likely happening in Genesis 6 (though I still feel that the argument connecting Jude to Genesis 6 might have more credence than he allows).

The chapter provides some very helpful overviews of the nature and characteristics of angels, both good and bad.  I also appreciated the chart outlining various theologians’ views of the topic.  Furthermore, I thought that Dr. Schemm’s handling of such popular but controversial questions as “territorial spirits” and prayer-walking was fair, judicious, even-handed, and convincing.

In all, a great chapter and a helpful read.  If you’re wanting to get a grasp on the biblical concept of angels, this would be a great place to start.

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