ANTHONY THISELTON is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham, and one of our leading theologians. Thiselton’s academic pedigree includes time served at St John’s College, Nottingham, and at Durham; so his theological range reaches from the Church to academia. So, an introduction to the study of theology penned by him is to be welcomed.
For any theologian challenged with the task of writing a general introduction to the field of theology and its disciplines, the initial problem is where to begin. Any artist attempting a sketch or portrait is faced with the task of ordering, filtering, and representation. There are foregrounded theologians to consider, and those consigned to the background. There are risks and opportunities in characterising the key issues and theological positions — and where to be general, or offer detail. Any writer brave enough to try his or her hand at an introductory sketch will be hit by the enormous historical and theological “dazzle of data” to process.
Thiselton approaches his subject as an Anglican who is also steeped in the Reformed tradition. This brings a certain order to the subject, and a disciplined marshalling of issues and approaches. The introduction brings us “landmarks” in the study of theology — the emergence of doctrine, the creeds and early councils, the Reformations and beyond, right the way through to the present.
The first part covers approaches to theology — biblical, historical, political, practical, systematic, and the like. Readers may wonder at the list here; for there are no separate entries for liberation theology, for example. And an approach such as feminist theology crops up only in the second part under the heading of “concepts and issues”. A third part examines “key terms”, and takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of phrases, terminology, and ideology. It is here that one encounters liberation, queer, and post-liberal theology.
Theology has, increasingly in late 20th and early 21st centuries, taken on a vocation of constructing conversations across disciplines and issues. These days, many theologians recognise that they have a vocation to address three publics: the Church, academia, and society. These frequently overlap, and can cause us to blend our perspectives and methods to create richer theological insight. These can then refract back into the tradition, and re-shape our reading of texts, situations, and possibilities.
Theology is, fundamentally, a self-critical mode of reflection, as well as a creative one. It can re-imagine new urban spaces, as much as it might opine on the inner life of the city of God. It can reimagine a landscape of relationships and covenants, and restore those that were tired and broken.
It is impossible for any sketch of theology not to make some adjudication on foreground, background, and foci. What Thiselton does — and extremely well, in my judgment — is present a clear picture of how to present theology as a range of approaches, ideas, subjects, and issues. This is a solid, sound, and secure guide to the study of theology. It covers its ground well, and, as a skilfully sketched introduction, will put any reader firmly in the picture.
The Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He is also the Professor of Theological Education at King’s College, London.
Approaching the Study of Theology: An introduction to key thinkers, concepts, methods and debates
Anthony C. Thiselton
Church Times Bookshop £13.50