Tony Lane is professor of historical theology at the London School of Theology. He is a world-class Calvin scholar and author of several books, most recently Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christian Should Believe. The book is part of the Exploring Topics in Christianity series (includes one other volume at the present) which complements the Exploring The Bible series also published by IVP Academic.
Like the other volumes, this one is very accessible. It is essentially a brief systematic theology in terms of topics covered, but far from typical in the way the material is presented. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. In any case, I was surprised at how some of the contents had shifted from what I consider a standard ordering.
Lane first section (A), Method, is comprised of three chapters. The first is about knowing God, the second is about the Bible, and the third is about language about God. So far, pretty typical. Bonus points for having an actual prolegomena section in such a short systematic.
Then contents take an interesting turn and go to three chapters (the B section) on creation, angels, and humanity respectively. This is followed by a section (C) on sin and evil. Here Lane provides chapters on sin, the fall and original sin, God’s providence, and a brief theodicy (evil and suffering). The latter is a useful inclusion in a format like this.
What you might notice is that we skipped the doctrine of God. To get to it, we begin the first (D) of three sections focused on redemption, which is exploring God and his work. This is the longest section so far and begins with a chapter on the law and the Old Testament. From here, Lane presents a chapter on the work of Christ followed by one on the person of Christ. He then offers a chapter on the uniqueness of Christ (tackling religious pluralism) before a chapter on the Holy Spirit. It is at this point we have the chapters that usually come after prolegomena, discussing first God as Trinity, and then a chapter on the attributes.
From here on out, the flow is more typical, but still somewhat unique. There is a second section (E) on redemption, this time focusing on the personal aspects. In it, we have chapters on becoming a Christian, baptism, justification and assurance, sanctification, and perseverance. Then the final redemption section (F) contains chapters on grace and election, the church (times 2), and communion. The final section of the book (G) is on eschatology and contains chapters on the end times, hell, and future hope.
While I haven’t fully field tested this book, it seems particularly well suited to the classroom. Because it is a relatively small scale systematic, the options for covering material are either broad but not super deep or somewhat narrow but with added depth. Lane has opted for the former and covers an impressive range of topics in 29 relatively short chapters. Within each of these chapters, there are several small sections of material (1):
- Aims of the chapter (the questions the chapter answers)
- What do you think? (a question to consider during the reading, which Lane answers later)
- Sceptic’s corner (a common objection that Lane then answers)
- Credal statement(s) (selections from a creed or confessional statement)
- Error(s) to avoid (typical ways the doctrine could be misunderstood)
- Tension to hold (perhaps the most important section)
- Speculation (something that is a tentative position)
- Worship (an extract from a hymn)
- Prayer (from a historical source)
Further, you might have noticed the broad structure of the material follows a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation trajectory. This helps explain the unusual ordering of the material following the Method section. Lane further explains his approach in the book:
Getting the framework right is very important, just as the foundations are important for a house. In that sense this is an orderly, structured account. On the other hand, I am opposed to the ‘big idea’ approach, the idea that there is a single ‘central dogma’ or ‘controlling principle’ for theology. For example, (some) Lutherans see the doctrine of justification by faith in this way; (some) Calvinists see doctrine of the sovereignty of God similarly; Karl Barth explicitly made Christology the controlling principle for his theology; some today try to fit all doctrine into the category of ‘relationships’ or of ‘narrative.’ These different perspectives all shed light on theology. For example, much of the Bible is in the form of narrative and interpreting it from that perspective can be helpful – but does not, however, have much light to shed on the book of Proverbs. When one particular doctrine of approach or principle set up as the key to the whole of the Bible or to the whole of Christian doctrine it always ends up bringing distortion (3-4).
If you have read that quote within the book, you would notice an * next to Karl Barth’s name, which would lead you to (hopefully if you need to) look up the dictionary entry in Lane’s A Concise History of Christian Thought. Terms that might be confusing can be found in the glossary. After the end notes in each chapter there is a list of further resources to explore. All of this is hopefully working together to meet Lane’s objectives in writing (1):
- To provide a basic account of Christian beliefs – the primary objective
- To give, as appropriate, a very brief account of the history of particular doctrines, showing how doctrines have developed historically and need to be understood contextually
- To illustrate particular doctrines with key historical texts, especially credal statements
- To show how different groups differ over particular doctrines
- To point to the interconnections between different doctrines, such as the person and work of Christ
- To show how particular doctrines relate to the contemporary scene – both Church and culture
I would say Lane accomplishes his objectives well, though the end result is not very readable as a sit down Saturday morning read. By that I mean it has so many sidebars which break up the text it doesn’t every really get a flow. Also, the text is laid out in columns, further enhancing the starts and stops in the writing. If you’re using this as an in-class resource, it probably isn’t a huge problem. But if you’re looking for a theology book to sit down and read through, the aesthetics are not in your favor.
Layout aside, I like the breadth of topics Lane tackles and I think that these, coupled with the mini-sections covered in each chapter, make it ideal for a teaching resource. If that’s what you’re into, you should probably give the book a perusal. If you’re looking for the next book on your theology reading list, you might not want to prioritize this one. But then again, you might just be curious about what Tony Lane speculates about when it comes to theology and it’s not often you can find a semi-systematic theology book with comics in every chapter. He might not give Michael Bird a run for his money, but it’s certainly I trend I’d like to see to continue!
Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christian Should Believe. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, February, 2014. 308 pp. Hardcover, $30.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!