On Monday, I mentioned a new review series I planned to start. While this book is not part of that series, it covers a very similar terrain. Edited by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel, Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life is a collection of essays articulating the Christian life “in dogmatic key” (3). If we play with the musical metaphor, the idea is that one could compose the melody of the Christian life in a variety of key signatures, but this work does so using the resources of Christian dogmatics. I’m sitting here trying to think of what other “keys” one might use, but am drawing a blank. I think we need to tweak the metaphor a bit so that it works better.
“Modes” is a better option, but transposition doesn’t work as well. A song in C major won’t sound drastically different if played in D major (unless you have perfect pitch). A song in C Ionian (major) will sound much different than a song in C Dorian, but that is a modality shift rather than a key signature change. Technically, it appears as a key signature change on the score, but the tonal center that emerges in the song would lead you to figure out the mode employed. The difference between C Ionian and C Dorian is not the tonal center, but the steps between the degrees of the scale used.
If we take the idea of tonal center and connect that with the Christian life, we would say the tonal center is “communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit” (3). Building out from the tonal center and utilizing all the richness of the tones in the key signature is what the authors seem to envision doing. In that sense, the better description is an account of the Christian life that explores the full scale of notes and harmonic richness from Christian dogmatics. Different doctrinal connection points represent different tones within a scale. Many accounts of the Christian life stick close to a single tonal center, perhaps only deviating to the octave or interval of a 5th above, giving minimal melodic or harmonic variation. Here, the full range of tones and harmonies are brought into play, weaving together a more interesting melodic result.
With that metaphor in mind, here’s how the authors describe (not metaphorically) what their aim is:
While the primary reference of “the Christian life” is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension (3).
Ultimately, they suggest that this volume provides “a theology of the Christian life oriented around the triune God of grace” (6). This is seen in the outline which breaks out into four parts. The first, “The Gracious One” has essays on the triune God (Fred Sanders), the electing God (Suzanne McDonald), the creating and providential God (Katherine Sonderegger), the saving God (Ian McFarland), and the perfecting God (Christopher R. J. Holmes). Part Two, “The Graces of The Christian Life,” covers reconciliation and justification (John Burgess), redemption (Christiaan Mostert), and mortification and vivification (John Webster). Part Three, “The Means of Grace” provides a pair of essays on Scripture (Donald Wood) and church and sacraments (Tom Greggs). The final part, “The Practices of Grace” focuses on discipleship (Philip Ziegler), prayer (Ashley Cocksworth), theology (Ellen T. Charry), preaching (William Willimon), and forgiveness (D. Stephen Long).
While in some sense that gives you an idea of what the topics and writers include, in another sense, it doesn’t quite give you a feel for the book. To help with that, I entered into a technical discussion about music theory just a few paragraphs ago. If you already understand music theory fairly well, you could probably connect the dots. If not, it might have been harder to follow what I was explaining. In a similar way, the more familiar you are with Barth and other major figures of 20th century theology, the more comfortable you’ll be with the dogmatic expositions in this more or less academic theological work. If you have a finger on the pulse of recent theological movements, you’ll follow the discussions fairly well.
I had originally gotten this work for myself out of interest, and abandoned reading halfway through. I was later contacted to participate in a blog tour, and so I resumed and finished the remaining essays. I’m glad I pushed through to get to the ones by Webster and Willimon which I found particularly insightful. Closely behind were the ones on theology and prayer. While the essay on discipleship provides an interesting theological meditation on the topic, it is not particularly helpful if you’re interested in how to actual disciple someone. Granted, that’s not the focus of the essay (or the work as a whole), but it is perhaps a bit ironic.
This further illustrates the kind of book under consideration. This is not a book of practical theology, at least in the typical evangelical sense. It is a book of academic and dogmatic theological reflection on topics connected to the Christian life. The price probably prohibits it from consideration by the average reader and the content makes it something I couldn’t recommend to anyone in my church (which tells you both about my church and the book). However, it could be of particular use in a classroom setting, but most likely only for upper-level undergrad or introductory level seminary courses. With the opportunity to discuss further in that setting, this book could be more useful, but only if the class itself has the facility in modern theology that enables a clearer reading.
That being said, I do like what Eilers and Strobel were aiming at in their goals for the book. I don’t think that all of the essays necessarily hit the mark (although Sanders sure did). I would be particularly interested in a more user friendly version of a book like for people like me involved in the discipleship and equipping of a local body of believers. I’m not entirely sure what that would look like and don’t particularly fault Eilers and Strobel for not producing that volume. This book sets the tone at least for books like that could follow (and I mean that in the sense of the musical metaphor from above) and I will look forward to that eventual composition.
Kent Eilers & Kyle Strobel, eds., Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, August 2014. 288 pp. Paperback, $39.99.
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