The recent death of T. F. Torrance, the auspicious announcement of the upcoming release of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in a fine electronic edition, and a friend’s inquiry have got me thinking: which texts would I use if it fell upon me to teach an introductory course in systematic theology (from which fate may the Lord save me, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages)? After some consideration, I decided on these five:
1. Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.
2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.
3. Bishop [now Metropolitan] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way.
4. John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method.
5. H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology.
Thielicke’s brief book (some fifty pages in all) would serve as the introduction to the course. I believe in the healing power of an early slap to unruly egos, the kind that are sure to arise quite early in connection with the academic study of theology. Thielicke does a wonderful job of accomplishing this task with great benevolence, but does not hold back in saying what he must even when he knows that his words may sting. I am convinced that no one should undertake theological study without being thoroughly acquainted with, and having dutifully taken to heart, the Little Exercise.
The books by Barth and Metropolitan Kallistos are complementary in many ways—indeed, they even cover many of the same subjects. It seems both natural and useful, then, to read and discuss their distinct perspectives together. We are all aware, of course, of this and that problem with Barth; as an Orthodox Christian of a more traditionalist bent, I am particularly conscious of the deficiencies of Metropolitan Kallistos’ book. Yet I think that the honest and early discussion of these problems can go a long way to teach students how to weigh what they read, and not simply accept just anything on the authority of a theological author, which temptation is very common indeed. Moreover, the noble task of disabusing theological initiates from such silly ideas can also serve the salutary purpose of demolishing any notions of the student’s own infallibility. But to this end, the critique and corrective of chosen authors like Barth and Metropolitan Kallistos must be handled with a great deal of grace, charity, and humility by the instructor, who must avoid at all costs smug jokes and cheap shots at their expense: these would only communicate that instructor herself is infallible, which would surely be the undoing of what is being attempted here.
Finally, we have the volumes by Yoder and Dunning. Preface to Theology contains Yoder’s syllabus and lectures for the introductory theology course he taught at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN from 1965 to 1981. It was long available in mimeographed format (first from the AMBS Co-Op Bookstore and then from the Cokesbury Bookstore at Duke); it was in that form that many of us were first introduced to it. After Yoder’s untimely death in 1997, Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider undertook the work of editing the text, and it was finally published in book form by Brazos Press in 2002. The case for the use of this older and in many ways rather outdated text is ably made by Hauerwas and Sider in their introduction: not only is it vintage JHY (i.e., brilliant), but having been prepared for classroom use, it is also an eminently teachable textbook. In fact, this book contains multiple preparation guides and exercises, and it is designed to be used along with any systematics text. Yoder himself presents a (now painfully dated) list of systematic theologies in his introduction; but as I noted above, I myself would choose Dunning’s fine work, confident that Yoder would have listed among his “systematics texts found most appropriate for parallel use.” Two salient characteristics of Dunning’s text that make it a particularly appropriate companion to Yoder’s are, firstly, that he integrates eschatology to his full-orbed theological system (rather than relegate it to a final locus dealing only with the “end times”), and secondly, that his exposition of the work of Christ is in terms of the triplex munus Christi (i.e., the triple office of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King). Both of these are things that Yoder also seeks to do in his Preface.
(Of course, those unwilling to use a Wesleyan systematic theology such as Dunning’s may profitably use others instead: for a Reformed text, one couldn’t possibly do better than Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which also approaches the work of Christ from the perspective of the triplex munus. For a Lutheran systematics, one would be hard pressed to find a richer text than that venerable standard of confessional Lutheranism, Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, which enshrines in its pages the exceptionally precise and unapologetically Chalcedonian Christology of Lutheran orthodoxy.)
Thus far my musings. I offer them here not only to answer my friend’s question, but also to gather some input on this matter from others, for which I would be most appreciative!