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First guides to God-talk

13 June 2014

Martyn Percy reviews different approaches, both good beginnings

An Introduction to Christian Theology: Biblical, classical, contemporary
Anthony Towey
Bloomsbury £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70 (Use code CT413 )

Theology: A very short introduction (Second edition)
David Ford
Oxford University Press £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT413 )

THE OUP Very Short Introductions have something of a following, and justly so. International experts cover vast subjects within the limits of a handy pocket-sized book. Each one manages to combine a certain comprehensiveness with a somewhat moreish character - the reader is left well fed, but always wanting more.

The series as a whole covers everything from advertising (Winston Fletcher) to Wittgenstein (A. C. Grayling), and includes Anglicanism (Mark Chapman), Christianity (Linda Woodhead), Fundamentalism (Malise Ruthven), and Spirituality (Philip Sheldrake) .

David Ford's approach to theology will be well-known to many readers. This second edition contains valuable new material that recasts Christian theology in the light of developments in scriptural reasoning and interfaith dialogue. This is most welcome, and the expansive way in which Ford addresses and advances theological thinking is both fresh and original.

Ford's sentences are peppered with the traces of his long-time colleague (and father-in-law) Daniel Hardy. Phrases pivoting on words such as "rich", "deep", "wisdom", and "intensities" pervade the book. The "multiple intensities of modernity" are to be met by discernment, cultivated creativity, new partnerships, virtues, practices, and discipleship. All of this is to be rooted in the overwhelming abundance of God, the face of whom, in Jesus Christ, theology constantly seeks.

Ford's theology is a rich and subtle blend of deductive and inductive methods, but is cautiously reticent about any of the more reductively inclined theologies. This might account, perhaps, for the rather slight focus on liberation theologies, under which umbrella one might include feminist, queer, and other forms of radical theological reasoning. And it may be that when it comes to a third edition (as it surely will) much more could be said about the urgency of reshaping our current theological discourses - ideally, with much greater focused attention to the experiences and voices of those who experience the Church as marginalising and apolitical.

Anthony Towey's book is a rather different project, and hails from a Roman Catholic foundation. At more than 500 pages, it is excellent value for money, and offers an open, clear, and lucid perspective on theology - the kind that could be bettered only by Alister McGrath. Indeed, Towey's work would make an excellent companion for the kinds of introduction for which McGrath has become well-known. It is strong on ecclesiology - as one might expect - and his coverage is unfailingly clear and comprehensive.

Towey is clearly a very gifted writer, and able to take his readers through dense and complex theological issues with assurance and clarity. In the highways and byways of Christian history, and the maze of doctrines, and theological and moral issues, he is as sure a guide as one could hope for. The treatment of sacraments, for example, achieves in about 20 pages of text more than most authors could convey in a long book. Towey has that great knack of distillation and clarity, but without oversimplifying or distorting.

But both volumes could, arguably, do more to affirm the tradition of loyal dissent that often drives the Church forward - restless, uncomfortable, and rebellious though such proponents may be. In an ecclesial world that sometimes feels increasingly "climate-controlled", both volumes could perhaps do more to emphasise and honour the prophets who have given us clarity and conscience in equal measure.

The danger of all introductions to theology is that there is a tendency to neaten and straighten the edges. Yet it is the rough edges of ecclesial communities which often bring the greatest creativity in their interaction with the real world, and then go on to challenge the centre of the Church. The rough rims of religion are often the ones that contest the borders and boundaries of those vested power interests governing faith.

The difference between the two volumes - price and size aside - is that Towey lays out arguments and theological issues in very clear sections, and the book is, in many respects, analogous to a well-signed motorway, pointing us towards divinity. The clarity will suit some readers well, especially at the early stages of undergraduate level. But, if you think the route to divinity should be a more labyrinthine journey, with space built in for getting lost, sidetracked, and distracted, then it is likely that you will be more drawn towards Ford's approach, with its emphasis on density, depth, richness, wisdom, and expansiveness.

But to evaluate the two is really to compare apples with oranges. Both are excellent value, and represent sure and sublime introductions to theology. Careful readers will know, however, that all introductions to theology are a beginning and not an end. But with Towey and Ford you could not make a better start.

Canon Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and of the Oxford Ministry Course. He is the Professor of Theological Education at King's College, London.

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