Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.
Available at Amazon.com
Reviewed by Adam Ch’ng
Most systematic theologies are structured around a key organising principle, whether explicitly adopted or implicitly assumed. For John Frame, it is the lordship of Christ. For Millard Erickson, it is the magnificence of God. And for Michael Bird, it is the evangel, the good news itself.
However, in his Systematic Theology, Anthony Thiselton charts a slightly different course. Instead of constructing a theological core consisting of a single unifying doctrine, Thiselton attempts to engage various disciplines in theological dialogue. In his words, his volume ‘offers as broad an interdisciplinary perspective as has been possible’ (xii).
The volume also has a distinct apologetic bent. It devotes significant attention and deep reflection to issues including theodicy and religious epistemology. It engages seriously with the works of Feuerbach and Freud, Nietzsche and Marx. Indeed, it devotes an entire chapter to answering ‘The Challenge of Atheism: Lessons for Christians’ (Chapter IV).
Interwoven throughout the volume are strands of political philosophy, anthropology and ethics. In this sense, Thiselton provides us with much more than any standard systematic theology. This volume is philosophical theology for the twenty-first century.
However, Thiselton does not allow such philosophical inquiry to overwhelm his core task of theological systematisation. Rather, it is embedded in a well-structured discussion of doctrines common to any classic volume.
Thiselton begins by setting the methodological goalposts of his discussion, delineating issues hermeneutical, philosophical and epistemological as they relate to the conception of truth. He then embarks on his systematic theology proper.
Commencing with a doctrine of God before progressing to a concise Christology and discussion of the Holy Spirit, the volume has a loose Trinitarian structure. It pauses at key moments to consider current social and ethical issues, such as ‘Political Communities, Marriage, and Justice’ (124-9).
Consistent with many other theologies, Thiselton concludes with chapters on ecclesiology and eschatology.
A key strength of this volume is its attention to historical theology. Thiselton devotes three chapters exclusively to the doctrines of sin, the atonement, and the Holy Spirit. In each, he traces their historical development from the patristic era, through Nicea, the Medieval and Reformation periods, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This careful diachronic analysis helpfully guards against a theological system unaware of its own cultural blindspots.
This historical focus, together with its distinct philosophical flavour give the volume a currency and peculiar relevance for Christians living in a post-Christendom context.
The brevity (453 pages) and organisation of the volume into fifteen quite manageable chapters makes it suitable as an introductory textbook, particularly in the USA and UK where semesters vary between fourteen and sixteen weeks.
It would also stand as a fine complement to more comprehensive systematic theologies, such as those of Michael Horton or John Frame.
Thiselton’s high level engagement with the challenge of atheism sets his volume apart as a respectable example of modern philosophical theology. In this respect, it admirably equips pastors, students of theology and Christians more generally to engage thoughtfully and winsomely in the apologetic debates of our time.