On How Best to Invite the Uninitiated to the Academic Study of Theology

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 waysindeed, 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!


8 responses to “On How Best to Invite the Uninitiated to the Academic Study of Theology

  1. Dude! I’m very surprised (and disappointed) not to see the systematic theology of one Dr. Norman Geisler, the greatest systematician of the 20th century, perhaps of all time!




  2. Dude,

    I’m appalled you did not include The Federalist Papers. How are you going to show your students this IS a X-tian nation. You should pick the edition Pat Robertson uses, for some reason the one I have doesn’t mention that.


  3. #’s 1-3 aren’t bad (#2 is spot on), but I’m not excited about #’s 4-5. Moving into something more organized, I’d go for Donald Bloesch or back into the tradition a bit (Calvin for me, but just as easily Augustine, Athanasius, etc).


  4. Juhem> Dude, you might be surprised to learn that Christian theological discourse throughout history (even among American Evangelical theologians!) has, by and large, taken place without reference to Pat Robertson. ;-)

    WTM> Thanks for stopping by, and for your input! It’s good to hear from real experts every once in a while. :-)

    I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of an introductory course to the field of systematic theology as a whole, rather than a regular systematic theology sequence, in the tradition of Westminster Seminary: thus there would be a semester of introduction, followed by a sequence of, say, three semesters of organized study of the loci. These would be the books I choose for the introduction. But of course, you’re undoubtedly right that something more organized than Yoder (whose strength is, precisely, his introduction to theological method) is needed. My own choice for the loci semesters would be Thomas C. Oden’s 3-volume Systematic Theology supplemented with Patristic readings and, perhaps, with assigned sections of Pelikan’s Christian Tradition. But the Reformed, as I noted above, couldn’t possibly do better than undertaking the systematic study of Calvin’s Institutes; I don’t at all understand the apparent allergy to them that some people seem to have.


  5. You are right about Calvin’s Institutes. I don’t know why more people don’t use him. Of course, he generally gets assigned in intro to systematic theology classes for the MDiv’s out here at PTS, so that is something.

    I’m not familiar with Oden. What tradition is he in?

    You should check out Pannenberg’s little introduction to systematic theology. While I have some questions about Pannenberg, it is a stimulating little book. (I did a short series on it, if you are interested.)

    Also, check out Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross, which I think is not a bad starting place – especially if you are Lutheran. (I have some comments on it as well.)


  6. I can’t tell you how excited I am to learn that the Institutes are regularly assigned at Princeton Seminary! I have often worried that no Reformed seminary in the US would assign Calvin’s Institutes as systematic theology reading. I’m certainly glad to hear that’s not the case!

    Oden himself is a Methodist; he recently retired as the Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University. He is the “ring-leader,” if you will, of the movement that has come to be called “paleo-orthodoxy,” and his systematic theology seeks to retrieve the patristic tradition for our postmodern context. I was introduced to Oden’s paleo-orthodox project through his book on soteriology, The Transforming Power of Grace. I then read his 3-vol. systematic theology, and I’ve never looked back. In fact, I even became Eastern Orthodox in the end! ;-)

    Yes, I have certainly read both Pannenberg’s (slim) volume, and Forde’s. Thanks for reminding me of them! (Currently, most of my library is locked away in storage in Grand Rapids, MI, and the particulars of my collection are sadly starting to escape me.) I will certainly check out your series on these books, and hopefully refresh my own recollections of them in the process.

    As I recall, Pannenberg’s book has four essays (The Need for SysTheo, God, Creation, Christology). Do you think it would be useful to split them up–say, the first one with Thielicke, the ones on God and Creation with Barth/Ware, and the one on Christology with Yoder/systematics text? Or would it be better, perhaps, to read them all together as a summation at the end of the course?

    I’m so very glad you’ve stopped by, and so thankful for your input! I’m adding you to my blogroll, and hope to keep up with your writing.


  7. Thanks for your kindness. It is nice to have a respectful, generous and fruitful conversation in the blogosphere! :-)

    As to your questions about organizing readings, it is a good one. It would depend on whether the course is envisaged as an introduction to systematics or a course in systematics. If the latter, then I would pull from all the different sources according to the loci under consideration. If the former, I would set up different ‘types’ of systematic theology, taking them each in turn in some sort of arc whereby I end up with the type that I most favor.


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