I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.
Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp, $27.95. (link to purchase)
Robert Jenson, a preeminent Lutheran theologian and former student of Karl Barth, has produced a fascinating little introduction to Christian theology. This book, A Theology in Outline, is a transcribed and edited version of lectures he gave to undergraduates as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2008. Comprised of nine chapters plus an introduction, Jenson addresses most of the central loci of Christian theological reflection: Israel, Jesus, the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, Atonement, and Ecclesiology. Due to its style, however, the book is far from a dry exercise in academic theology; on the contrary, the chapters largely retain a lecture-like vibe and the tone is equal parts apologetic and conversational. Apologetic, because he appears to be trying to convince students of the relevance of Christian thinking (more on that in a second); conversational, because Jenson’s presentation of the topics always remains quite accessible without a significant amount of watering down the content.
Interestingly, and I believe helpfully, Jenson frames his entire enterprise here as a response to the question posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” In short, Jenson’s book aims to discover whether Christian theology, the bones in this analogy, retains its relevance and life-giving power in our contemporary situation. This framework for the entire book works well both as a starting point for the myriad of scriptural themes and references throughout the chapters and as an orientation that takes seriously the challenge facing theology today – as well as the skeptic’s charge that theology is just a pile of dead bones, irrelevant for our world, or perhaps even for the Christian life.
To illustrate these features, we can consider briefly his chapter on the Trinity. With his characteristic wit, Jenson skillfully charts the emerging Christian religion’s missionary situation with regard to the competing understandings of God between Israel, the new Church, and the Greek worldview. He continues by describing the scriptural impetus for naming God as three yet lays out the difficulty this would have encountered within an ancient Jewish or Greek worldview, at least on the face of it. By then describing the conciliar consensus around the Trinity in the centuries after Christ, Jenson portrays both the simplicity of the Trinity as well as the various negotiations of worldviews and understandings of the divine that led to its more precise formulation and acceptance. In the midst of this discussion, Jenson never loses sight of the doctrine’s relevance to the Christian life as a means to reflect on the salvation history that we, even today, find ourselves within. The same sort of concerns are taken up in the chapters on other topics.
None of the topics are presented in an overly biased fashion, and one certainly does not get the feeling that Jenson is trying to force his version of the faith upon anyone. He masterfully navigates the main issues at hand in each of the doctrines and he does a good job presenting both an outline of what Christians have believed about the topic in the past, as well as the various options open to the believer today. More significantly, Jenson is always sure to relate each doctrine to its implications upon a Christian form of living. For instance, his chapter on the Church ponders what it might mean for the Church to be holy, and what sort of relation this might imply to the broader culture.
The book ends with a discussion of Christianity’s place within a competing system of worldviews (for lack of a better word) that mark out contemporary life. He is confident in theology’s ability to counteract nihilism and provide a compelling alternative for what makes for a life well-lived in the face of its challenge. These bones, that is Christian theology, can live, Jenson argues. That is, as long as it remains faithful to the cornerstone of its existence – Jesus Christ.
As you may sense, this book does require a bit of intellectual engagement and the ability to understand sometimes complex concepts both historical and theoretical in nature. For that reason, it is best as an introduction to theology for college-aged and older, educated Christians with a desire to think critically about their beliefs, especially as to how they all fit together and result in a semi-coherent picture of our relationship to God and each other. I certainly think this is one of the best introductions out there – one which you would do well to utilize when attempting to introduce Christian theology to those with a desire to explore their faith.