Joan Didion once said that the first line of a book is the decisive part. “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”
Didion was talking about essays, I think, but others (Hemingway?) have made the same claim about fiction. It got me thinking about theology books: what’s the best opening line of a theology book? The worst? As I wondered, I reached out and pulled down from the shelves the best-known texts I could see from my desk. Here’s what I came up with. Comments are open: if you know an especially good or especially bad first line, feel free to share.
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism:
The purpose of this book is not to decide the issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself.
Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle. Here is no ‘genius rejoicing in his own creative ability.’ (Zundel).
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:
The subject-matter, origin and content of the message received and proclaimed by the Christian community is at its heart the free act of the faithfulness of God in which He takes the lost cause of man, who has denied Him as Creator and in so doing ruined himself as creature, and makes it His own in Jesus Christ, carrying it through to its goal and in that way maintaining and manifesting His own glory in the world.
We enter that sphere of Christian knowledge in which we have to do with the heart of the message received by and laid upon the Christian community and therefore with the heart of the Church’s dogmatics; that is to say, with the heart of its subject-matter, origin and content.
Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope:
Eschatology was long called the ‘doctrine of the last things’ or the ‘doctrine of the end.’
Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God:
The cross is not and cannot be loved.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, v. 1:
Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church.
H. R. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation:
What is the meaning of revelation?
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, v. 1:
The word ‘theology’ has many meanings.
T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of God:
The Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation, in accordance with its proclamation in the Gospel and its actualisation through the Holy Spirit in the apostolic foundation of the Church.
Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, v. 1:
Publishing a system of theology is an irremediably hubristic enterprise.
The introductory chapters of this work are less ambitious than may be expected.
Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity:
What can be said prior to God’s identification must be said.
Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Colin Gunton, The Christian Faith:
To create is to establish, to bring into being something previously without existence.
Colin Gunton, The One, The Three, and The Many:
When William Morris said that ‘Modernism began and continues, wherever civilisation began and continues to deny Christ,’ he indicated that salient aspects of modern culture are predicated on the denial of the Christian gospel.
John Webster, Holiness:
This book is a Christian theological essay on holiness.
John Webster, Holy Scripture:
What follows is a dogmatic sketch of a topic much neglected in contemporary theology, namely, the nature of Holy Scripture.
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite:
The rather prosaic question that initially prompted this long, elliptical essay in theological aesthetics, stated most simply, was this: Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible?
Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology:
The apostle Peter distinguishes the gospel from ‘cleverly devised myths’ by rooting the former in eyewitness testimony (2 Pet 1:16).