Daniel L. Akin, ed. A Theology for the Church, Revised Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2014. 770 pp. $54.99.
Every time I say I’m not going to read another introductory systematic theology I read another one; and I have never regretted it. Last year it was Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, this year it was A Theology for the Church edited by Daniel Akin. There are several distinguishing features of A Theology for the Church. One is the length – at 728 pages not including backmatter, this volume is considerably shorter than typical one-volume systematic theologies (which are over 1,000 pages), making this volume more accessible – less daunting and easier to get through for those not accustomed to reading such tomes. Another is that every chapter is written by a different person and the whole book is from a Baptist perspective (though competing views are always presented fairly).
Thirdly, this volume was written by churchmen for the Church. Systematic theology is often perceived as dry, academic, and irrelevant by those without an affinity for the discipline. But many systematic theologies by evangelicals who love the Church and see doctrine as fuel for doxology and orthopraxy do convey that in their tomes (e.g. Grudem ends each of his chapters with a memory verse and a hymn). However, in this volume implications on the Christian life and mission are much more explicit than is typical, and recur much more frequently. In the midst of teaching on the various doctrines, authors frequently exhort the reader to know and love God more and to participate in His mission. This unique emphasis can be explicitly seen in the fact that every chapter ends with a section entitled “How Does This Doctrine Impact the Church Today?
Perhaps the most significant distinguishing feature/strength of A Theology for the Church is that it’s not actually a systematic theology as I had expected: it’s an integrative theology. “The present volume is born out of the conviction that a theology for the church should integrate the historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical aspects of theology as it seeks to achieve a unified, coherent, contextual, and compelling account of the Christian message” (46). Integrative theologies are much rarer than volumes that treat a specific discipline, and typically one must read a different book on each discipline (e.g. many read Grudem’s Systematic Theology at over 1000 pages and Allison’s Historical Theology at over 700 pages, and that leaves several other facets unexplored). To have a one-volume integrative theology at just over 700 pages that is so accessibly written and geared toward the Church is truly a blessing.
Each chapter of A Theology for the Church addresses the following four questions in the following order: 1) What does the Bible say? 2) What has the Church believed? 3) How does it all fit together? and 4) How does this doctrine impact the church today? To provide a taste for this book, we’ll look at Chapter 10 – “The Work of Christ” by Paige Patterson. In the first section (“What does the Bible Say?”) Patterson opens by looking at the offices of Christ (prophet, priest, and king) before going on to provide a sweeping overview of how the atonement was anticipated in the Old Testament and fleshed out in the New. Unsurprisingly, Isaiah 53 and Romans 8 receive extra attention. Moving on to what the church has believed, Patterson summarizes the various atonement theories that have been postulated throughout church history (Irenaeus of Lyons and the recapitulation theory; the ransom or ransom to Satan theory; Anselm of Canterbury and the satisfaction theory; Hugo Grotius and the governmental theory; Gustaf Aulen and Christus Victor; Luther’s view with combined the classic view and the satisfaction model; Calvin’s emphasis on the sacrifice of Jesus and the penal substitution view; and the later subjectivist, neoorthodox, and liberation views).
Next, in putting it all together, Patterson highlights the key concepts in the doctrine of the atonement – propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, and justification. Two “special topics” are addressed here – the extent of the atonement and healing in the atonement. Regarding the former, a few proof-texts for each side are presented along with a plea for humility. Because this issue is so complex, I was happy to see a few key works for each side presented in the footnotes. I do, however, disagree with Patterson’s argument that “the conclusion one draws on this subject is based largely on the presuppositions he brings to the text and on the decision about which texts will be the foundational indicators driving the interpretation of other texts which seem less supportive of one’s position” (467). Here I once again make a plug for the “definitive book on definite atonement” released last year, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (see also this quote on a biblico-systematic approach to the way forward in the debate). The resurrection is also addressed in this section, summarizing the various naturalistic theories and then providing an apologetic for the bodily resurrection of Christ. Finally, in how this doctrine impacts the church today Patterson highlights the modern distaste for forensic justification and penal substitution. I would have liked to see this fleshed out a bit more because of the significant attacks on these doctrines in our day, both in the academy and in popular-level Christianity.
A Theology for the Church is an excellent one-volume theology text that covers all the major loci of systematic theology in an integrative fashion, addressing biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology. For this reason, it’s truly a book every Christian should own. Pastors and lay-leaders in the church alike ought to read this book, but so should the average person in the pew. It is at an introductory level, very accessible to the neophyte, and written from the conviction that the church as a whole (not just the leaders and teachers) needs to pursue theology, for the purpose of knowing God, loving God, and participating in His mission in the world.
Many thanks to B&H Academic for the review copy!