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Now for some systematic editing

20 May 2016

Edward Dowler finds a learned text prunable

Systematic Theology

Anthony C. Thiselton

SPCK £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50

PROFESSOR A. C. Thiselton’s one-volume Systematic Theology certainly provides ample testimony to his very wide learning. Readers will find here an able survey of many key theological thinkers, and a helpful refresher course in their central ideas.

Although Thiselton comes from the Evangelical end of the Anglican spectrum, he is, on the whole, balanced, and his range of reference is wide. His own Protestant leanings are perhaps evident in his anxiety to emphasise the fallen state of humanity: he questions, for example, what he takes to be a sentimental idea, that the image of God in men and women is “a natural God-given right or quality”. Rather, he argues, this image should more accurately be understood as potential for the future, since only Christ is the perfect image of the Father.

Against a Zwinglian, memorialist view of the eucharist, however, Thiselton contends that it may be understood as “dramatic participation” in the unique event of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

It was disappointing to find that a perhaps rather narrow definition of systematic theology means that there is almost no reflection on art, music, or literature, and very little on the ongoing pastoral and liturgical life of the Church — with the exception of some well-directed blows at the notions of sin often propagated at “family services”.

My difficulties with this volume focus primarily on its intended purpose: to be a core text for a semester-long introductory course in theology. In the first place, there are frequent comments that will be of no use to students, and which an editor could happily have removed. These include many unnecessary quotations, such as a comment from J. D. G. Dunn that Wesley Carr’s work on angels “has won very little support”, or from D. E. H. Whiteley that “the subject has been both complicated and illuminated by J. A. T. Robinson.”

In an introductory work on theology, it is also unnecessary for Thiselton to tell us, at any rate in the main body of the text, that a particular writer is “one of my Ph.D. graduates” or that the authentic Greek of 1 Cor. 6.20 “may be found in p46, A, B, C*, D*, F, 33, 1379*, Coptic, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian”.

There are numerous lofty, unsupported judgements, such as “There is some truth in this censure, even if Bonhoeffer tended to exaggerate it.” If a particular theologian’s view is indeed a “blind alley” or a “distraction”, then surely it would be better to omit it rather than subject it to a donnish put-down. One wonders how a newcomer to the subject would react to being told that, when it comes to the cosmological argument, “the positions of modern or contemporary philosophers can almost be predicted,” or make of the unexplained assertion that “Norman Perrin argues convincingly that ‘kingdom’ constitutes a tensive symbol.”

Thiselton introduces Chapter X by saying that his preference for two chapters rather than one on Christology would take him outside “agreed limits”; so he has had to entitle it “A Concise Christology”. He continues to worry away at this point as the chapter continues, reminding us at one point that “pressure of space, as we have explained, constrains us to present only a ‘concise’ Christology” and again that “if this were not a ‘concise’ Christology, we should include a large section on John”.

More serious than such irritations, frequent as they are, must be a question about the underlying pedagogical approach, which is surprising from such an experienced teacher of the subject. In Chapter VII (“Misdirected Desire and Alienation”), Thiselton sets himself the task of surveying no fewer than 23 different accounts of sin, from Irenaeus to Zizioulas, and similarly, in the following chapter, he examines a further 25 different accounts of the atonement.

While he is surely right to insist that it is impossible to understand these ideas properly without a grasp of their historical provenance, it is unhelpful and repetitive simply to present the reader with a sketchy outline of a series of different thinkers. It would surely be preferable to provide an exposition of the central ideas of sin and redemption as they developed within the Church, referenced with footnotes where necessary, and, crucially, also to provide some extracts from the original sources, so that students could start to catch a flavour of their distinctive voices for themselves.


The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, in the diocese of London.

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