Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction

July 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Image (3)It’s no secret that I’m a fan of theology. So, when I saw Baker Academic had released a book detailing the landscape of modern theology with contributors like Fred Sanders, Daniel Treier, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Michael Horton, I knew I needed to request a review copy. As you can tell, my wish was granted and a couple of weeks back I dived right in and started reading.

Unfortunately, the book was not quite what I was expecting. This is not a weakness of the book per se, but something I need to highlight for you so you know what you’re getting into if you choose to add this to your library. While this book turned out different than I expected, the narrative that emerges in the essays turns out to be different than I imagine the editors expected.

Overview

I was alerted to the unexpected nature of the book in Bruce McCormack’s introductory essay. Rather than “modern” in the sense of “theologians who have been influential in the modern period,” (i.e. the last 200 years), “modern” in this book is more “theologians who are self-consciously working with modernist presuppositions.” As McCormack points out, “not everything that has happened in the last two hundred years is ‘modern'” (2). So, for the focus of the essays in this collection, “modern theologians” are theologians who are take seriously the developments in modern thought (scientific, philosophical, and otherwise), and work in that light.

The names that keep occurring over and over in this regard are Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and most frequently, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who isn’t called “the father of modern theology” for no reason. As you would expect, Barth makes a strong showing, leading several chapters to almost present Schleiermacher as the game changer and then trace the results to Barth with some concluding thoughts on his wake. Though not stated as such, it seems anyone who appropriates and appreciates the theological work of these theologians qualifies as a modern theologian.

With that in mind, the reader is taken on various theological safaris across the modern landscape. Fred Sanders gives us a tour of the development of Trinitarian thought, while Stephen Holmes discusses the divine attributes. Daniel Treier gives a condensed overview of his writing elsewhere on Scripture and hermeneutics (mostly the latter since that it is the modern preoccupation). Katherine Sonderegger talks about creation in light of modern science and Kelly Kapic discusses anthropology in a similar regard. The person of Christ is examined by Bruce McCormack, while chapters on the atonement specifically, and soteriology generally are tackled by Kevin Vanhoozer and Richard Lints respectively.

Side by side are chapters on providence by John Webster and pneumatology by Telford Work. The first was most boring, while the latter was the most interesting. The former was boring probably because it seemed to me the most dryly academic essay in the collection. The latter was the most interesting because Work used a very ingenious metaphor for organizing his survey of the pneumatological landscape. Organizationally, Work’s essay was the most creative presentation of the material, and I found myself wishing other essays had taken a similar track.

After Work and Webster’s contributions, Brian Brock and Richard Osmer survey the barren landscape that is ethics and practical theology in the modern vein of thought. Brock notes how modern theologians infrequently deal with ethical questions (293), while Osmer, though presents his material well, shows that modern theologians have little to offer in practicalities, at least as historically understood in Christian orthodoxy.

Finally, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and Michael Horton tackle the varied terrain of modern ecclesiology and modern eschatology. Both of these chapters are excellent for introducing the different modern traditions, and I think to some extent, these chapters were closing to what I was expecting the whole book to be like. They are likewise two chapters that really do survey the landscape, covering all the bases, and therefore can open up avenues of further discussion. Not that the other chapters don’t, I just found these two to be particularly helpful in dealing with two topics that have a wide acreage.

In summary, all of the essays are well written and provide short bibliographies for further reading at their conclusion. Additionally, the sources the authors use are those that are most accessible, not necessarily those that are “best” from a specialist’s point of view (2n3). This helps the collection of essays shine as a potential textbook for an upper level bible school or seminary level class on modern theology.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Going back to the introduction, McCormack says (in a cryptic sort of way) “it goes without saying that they [modern theologians] may also find the results of critical engagement with the Bible to be unacceptable, but such judgments are often passed by biblical scholars on the work of other members of the guild as well” (17). This seems kind of like saying that since there is disagreement among biblical scholars themselves about the text of Scripture, modern theologians can be somewhat excused if they choose to ignore biblical studies (to a certain extent) in their work.

What emerges when reading this collection of essays is that the development of modern theology (in McCormack’s sense) is really the rise of theology unhinged from exegesis. This is not to say this book advocates that, since the contributors worked descriptively rather than prescriptively (18). But it nonetheless demonstrates how a type of theology emerged post-Kant/Hegel/Schleiermacher that was more speculative and less constrained to exegetical foundations. The fruit of this is somewhat rotten in my opinion, and the chapters on practical theology and Christian ethics in the modern period bear this out. The practical theology that grows out of modern theology is not nourishing to the life of the church and Richard Osmer’s chapter demonstrates that in a round about way.

While some may consider this a weakness, given the descriptive nature of the book, I would consider it a strength. The contributors to this volume do an excellent job of theological cartography in the modern period. In doing so, several chapters have the unintended effect of demonstrating what happens to theology when it follows in the footsteps of Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and friends. I doubt this was the purpose of the book, and not every chapter demonstrates this to the same extent. Still, it does seem to be a present thread in the narrative and may lead to unintended results.

Conclusion

In terms of mapping out modern theology in thematic and historical ways, this book is an excellent resource and nails its intended target. As neither a polemic for or against modern theology, this book presents modernized theology in context and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether it is something to celebrate or deplore. This has the advantage of allowing the book to be used as a textbook in a celebratory context (say Princeton where McCormack and Osmer teach), as well as an appreciative, but less than enthusiastic one (say in seminaries where Horton, Vanhoozer, and Treier teach). I for one, am not a fan of modern theology. After reading this book, I have a better grasp for why. In that light though, I still would recommend this book to anyone serious about studying and teaching theology. If that’s not you, then this book is probably not for you.

Book Details

  • Editors: Kelly M. Kapic & Bruce L. McCormack
  • Title: Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (April 1, 2012)
  • Paperback: 412pgs
  • Reading Level: Bible School/Seminary
  • Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in the landscape of modern theology 
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Baker Academic)

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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