It’s probably no secret that I’m a fan of systematic theology. Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but luckily, part of my job is to figure out how to pass on the excitement. One of the roadblocks that crowds the path is how inaccessible many systematic theologies are. Especially if they are multi-volume works.
Usually, you are stuck picking two from the following list:
- Covers the material well
- Enjoyable/interesting to read
Fortunately, thanks to the faculty at Dallas Seminary and Bethany House we are currently two thirds of the way toward a small multi-volume exploration of systematic theology that covers all of three of these bases. In addition, it covers all three additional bases:
- Biblically rooted
- Historically sensible
- Practically applicable
Usually you find systematics that major in one, or at best two of these, but rarely all three (while also nailing the above trio as well).
I am speaking of course about Exploring Christian Theology, a three volume work edited by two of my former professors, Nathan D. Holsteen & Michael J. Svigel. I actually never took a Holsteen class, but he read my thesis and didn’t make me re-write a bunch of stuff, so that still counts. With Dr. Svigel, I actually took the Sanctification/Ecclesiology class with him, and that is the first part of this volume in the series.
The series is divided into six parts:
- The Triune God
- Church/Spiritual Growth
- End Times
Each volume is composed of two parts. The last was published first, and that’s what I’m reviewing right now. The first has also been published, and the middle two are coming later this spring. If you happen to go to Dallas Seminary, you will take a 3 credit class on each of these topics. If you want a preview of what that’s like, you should read these books.
As Holsteen and Svigel explain their mission in the introduction:
Exploring Christian Theology will offer introductions, overviews, and reviews of key orthodox, protestant, evangelical tenets without belaboring details or boiling up debates. The three ECT volumes, compact but substantial, provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes; they’re intended as guidebooks for a church that, overall, is starting for the very doctrine it’s too long avoided (9).
They go on to say that “Exploring Christian Theology differs from other mini-theologies in that it strives to present a broad consensus, not a condensed systematic model of one evangelical teacher or protestant tradition. Though I don’t think it is specifically stated, there is a lot of inspiration from Thomas Oden and his idea of “paleo-orthodoxy.” That is to say, you’re getting a lot of old school doctrinal meat without the added carbs
In terms of what this actually looks like book to book, each part of each volume follows the same general format:
- High-Altitude Survey (3-4 page general overview of the topic)
- Passages to Master (key Scriptures with concise exegesis)
- Retrospect (brief historical survey of the doctrine)
- Facts to Never Forget (general doctrinal statements)
- Dangers to Avoid (ways one can get off track doctrinally)
- Principles to Put Into Practice (Practical implications)
- Voices from the Past and Present (money quotes from church history)
- Shelf Space: Recommendations for Your Library
- Glossary of Terms (at the end of the entire volume)
This particular volume contains the part on Church/Spiritual Growth (written by Holsteen) and End Times (written by Svigel). In future volumes, some of the parts are actually team written, but Holsteen and Svigel serve as the general editors for the whole project.
Having said quite a bit about the structure and focus of the project, I’ll keep my comments about the actual content of this volume fairly brief. Actually, I’m just going to focus on the one question I think many readers may have about a systematic theology put together by faculty of Dallas Seminary: “How hardcore dispensational is it?”
The answer in part depends on how you define “dispensational.” But, to answer indirectly, consider the section of the book on the End Times. The Passages to Master would be applicable regardless of your eschatological orientation. That is to say, it isn’t just a list of dispensational prooftexts. And, in the course of the 40 or so pages this section takes up, all the various positions on the rapture, kingdom, and return of Christ are briefly explained in a way that people who hold the positions would recognize.
When it comes to the Facts to Never Forget, they transcend eschatological divides and should be readily affirmed by premillennial and amillennial thinkers alike. The same kind of spirit is true of the Dangers to Avoid and Principles to Put Into Practice section. All of which is to say the focus is on broadly evangelical agreement when it comes to the End Times while also acknowledging there are different positions on the structuring of the timeline.
From what I can tell, this holds true for the series as a whole. I’ve read two of the volumes and imagine the third to be published (but second in sequence) will continue the trend. My only complaints at this point are logistical and aesthetic. To the former, I think it hurt the series as a whole for the third volume to be published first. While that won’t matter once they are all in circulation, I think this particular volume flew under the radar, as did the next to be published. To the latter, I’m never a fan of end notes, and even less end notes that are in two columns and in the middle of the book. Because each volume is two separate stand alone parts, the end notes for the first part are in the middle, so are not even really end notes. And they are split into columns, which to me, makes them less readable and slightly more annoying.
Now, neither of my issues are content related, and in the end, that’s the most important part of the book. This volume, in conjunction with the other two in the series, would work great as Sunday School textbooks, small group studies, high school curriculum, or just readable systematics you could give to someone who wouldn’t tackle a big volume. I’m looking forward to integrating the approach outlined above into my 11th grade Bible class over the course of this year and next. This would also be the books I would recommend to someone just wanting to get their feet wet in theology. I would then use the Shelf Space recommendations at the end of section would allow for further exploration now that the individual has their bearings from reading these volumes. In short, if you want to explore Christian theology in a very accessible and fruitful way, these are the volumes for you!
Nathan D. Holsteen & Michael J. Svigel, eds., Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and The End Times. Grand Rapids: Bethany House, January 2014. 256 pp. Paperback, $16.99.
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Thanks to Bethany House for the review copy!