The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. Edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance


Pp. xi, 708 , Oxford University Press , 2007 , £85.00 .

This is an exceptionally valuable guide to systematic theology. Its chapters are divided into four parts, with the first making up almost half the book: the basic doctrines (17 chapters that move from the existence of God to eschatology); the sources (revelation, scripture, tradition, worship, reason and experience); conversations (with biblical studies, moral theology, history, hermeneutics, philosophy, cultural theory, natural science and the arts); and prospects (theologies of retrieval, revisionism, postmodern theology, liberation theology, comparative theology and feminist theology). Each chapter ends with a bibliography of classical and contemporary studies, and some items picked out for further reading. The 39 contributors come from a variety of major Christian denominations, and are located at universities and colleges in the United States (26), England and Scotland (11), Canada (one) and Germany (one). Seven are women.

Whatever their particular theme, almost all the contributors reveal broad theological learning, and show a rich familiarity with key sources and questions of a scriptural, historical, philosophical, pastoral, experiential, cultural and ecclesial nature. Their theological stances emerge from commitment to Christian life and worship.

Among my favourite chapters is one by David Fergusson, ‘Creation’. Would that the general public would all follow him in recognizing that the creation stories in the Bible are theological and ethical in character, not scientific and historical! The scientific and the theological accounts are not competing but complementary: ‘the scientific account of the how of creation can thus sit alongside the theological account of its why’ (p. 74). Among the gems in this chapter is a lovely summary of what creation in the divine image entails. Ian McFarland contributes an excellent chapter on ‘the Fall and Sin’, which closes by spelling out in a magisterial way the basic theological functions of the doctrine of original sin. Paul Fiddes has written a splendid study of ‘Salvation’. My only, minor reservation concerns the statement that the language of ‘justification’ means ‘putting the accused person in the right’ (p. 181) or declaring such persons ‘innocent in God's sight’ (p. 186). But it is in an extended, metaphorical sense that Paul uses language concerning ‘acts of justice’ in ancient law courts. He wants to say, in summary, that sinners have been found guilty (not innocent) but are forgiven. Yet we might argue that what Christ did and suffered changed sinners, so that the divine judgment could find them innocent and so ‘in the right’ (p. 188).

In a valuable chapter on ‘The Attributes of God’, Stephen Holmes cites the case, which is still endorsed by some theologians, that ‘great harm is done by any attempt’ to bring together the God of Abraham and the God of the philosophers'. This entails a rejection of ‘the unreflective but disastrous adoption of methods of Greek philosophy by the church fathers’; one should ‘purge the Christian account of divine attributes that lack theological warrant’ (p. 57; italics mine), Holmes rebuts eloquently extreme this legacy of Baur, Ritschl and Harnack (pp. 66–67). He criticizes some ‘contemporary rejections of God's eternity, immutability and impassibility’ not only as ‘demonstrably false’ but also as ‘evidence for the cultural demand that God be appropriately Romantic’ (p. 67). In his robust chapter ‘Incarnation’, Oliver Crisp also deems attempts to purge the classical Christology of the fathers to be quite unacceptable. However, his account of the communicatio idiomatum leaves something to be desired. It should not be described as the ‘communication of attributes between Christ's two natures’ (p. 170). Rather it provides the way of justifying the language of Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Luther and our Christmas carols: ‘the Baby in Mary's arms created the universe’, and ‘the Son of God died on the cross’. While the person of Christ is named with reference to one nature (‘the Child of Mary’), an attribute derived from the other nature (‘created the universe’) is attributed to him. Apropos of John Hick's view that world religions ‘offer a path to salvation’ (p. 172), it would be more precise to say that he holds that these religions ‘offer an independent path to salvation’ - i.e. independent of the saving work and presence of Christ.

Ralph Del Colle has provided a brilliant, ecumenical tour de force in his chapter on ‘The Church’. Douglas Farrow on ‘Resurrection and Immortality’ could hardly be bettered. Some of the other chapters that seem simply first-rate are: Richard Bauckham on ‘Eschatology’, Bryan Spinks on ‘Worship’, Andrew Moore on ‘Reason’, Oliver Davies on ‘Hermeneutics’, Nancey Murphy on ‘Natural Science’, John Webster on ‘Theologies of Retrieval’, Christopher Rowland on ‘Liberation Theology’, and Kavin Rowe and Richard Hays on ‘Biblical Studies’. Rowe and Hays argue superbly that biblical interpretation and theological reflection are inseparable.

Some other chapters, while generally very attractive, left me with a few minor quibbles. In his account of ‘Providence’, Charles Wood helpfully suggests aligning the doctrine of providence more closely with pneumatology. That happy recognition of the Holy Spirit made me regret that Wood does not discuss prayer in the context of providence. I would also have been glad to have seen some treatment of special divine acts, one major theme in the fascinating debate that followed Langdon Gilkey's seminal article of 1961 (which features correctly in the chapter). Ellen Charry (on ‘Experience’), while putting a valid case for the theological importance of mystical experience, tentatively argues for experience as a source. It seems, however, more precise and acceptable to maintain that religious experience is a medium or context for knowing God and ourselves, and, strictly speaking, is not a source.

Stephen Fowl's chapter on ‘Scripture’ is largely successful, even if he should have recognized that the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission's document on interpreting the Bible in the Church (a report wrongly dated to 1994), follows a somewhat one-sided, historical critical approach in sections that betray the hand of Joseph Fitzmyer but not throughout. Fowl criticises the Christological analogy often used in biblical interpretation; yet its deficiencies show up primarily (or only?) when scholars fail to follow a key theme in the Chalcedonian definition: the work of the human authors of the scriptures and that of the (divine) Holy Spirit are distinct but never separate.

Here and there questions arose. Is it appropriate and accurate to associate Karl Rahner with ‘the concerns of theological liberalism’ (p. 6; see p. 416 on Rahner and Bernard Lonergan) and to dismiss Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as an ‘evolutionary mythologist’ with his ‘gnosticizing speculations’ (p. 226)? In an account of current theological (and philosophical) anthropologies I looked in vain for any engagement with Charles Taylor's brilliant study of the sources of the self’ (pp. 124–37).

Sensible headings help the readers throughout, and for the most part the whole book is written in clear and attractive English. Occasionally odd language turns up: ‘summarization’ (p. 4), ‘reductionalistically’ (p. 48), ‘kairotic’ (p. 48), and ‘systemically’ (p. 117; perhaps a typo for ‘systematically’); ‘assertoric’ (p. 407), ‘poeticity’ (p. 506, and ‘porosity’ (p. 531). ‘Contests’ is twice used strangely (pp. 2, 3); ‘glide over’ seems what is meant rather than ‘elide over’ (p. 250). In the bibliographies ‘SJ’ regularly follows the name of Norman Tanner but not the names of other Jesuits (e.g. Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan and myself). C.S.C. follows the name of David Burrell, but there is no OP after the names of Schillebeeckx and Tillard. Consistency suggests indicating membership of a religious institute in all cases or, preferably, in none at all. There are a few misspellings: Davis (p. 34), O'Collins (p. 53), Friedrich (p. 174), Reinhold Niebuhr (p. 195), Rudolf (pp. 226, 321), discernible (pp. 56, 61); founded (p. 440). On p. 439 a quotation from Luther should run: James ‘mangles the scriptures, and thereby opposes Paul and all scripture.’

All in all, this handbook is a monumental achievement. Reading it was a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating experience - one, I hope, that will be shared by many students and teachers of systematic theology.