Book Write-Up: Approaching the Study of Theology

Anthony C. Thiselton.  Approaching the Study of Theology: An Introduction to Key Thinkers, Concepts, Methods and Debates.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Anthony C. Thiselton has taught Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham in England.  He is the author of numerous books.

As the subtitle indicates, this book is “An Introduction to Key Thinkers, Concepts, Methods, and Debates” in the study of theology.  The book’s Introduction is entitled “Landmarks in the History of Theology.”  It covers the biblical roots of key doctrines concerning God, humanity, and the church, as well as briefly introduces the church fathers, the medieval era, the Reformation, and the modern period.  The section on the modern period examines both Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers.

Part 1 is entitled “Approaches.”  The theological approaches that it explores are biblical theology, hermeneutical theology, historical theology, moral theology, philosophical theology, political theology, practical theology, systematic theology, and theology of religions.

Part 2 is entitled “Concepts and Issues.”  The topics that is discusses include atonement, biblical authority, Catholicism, Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, feminist theology, theology of God, humankind, justification, liturgy and liturgical theology, natural theology, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, the resurrection of the dead, divine revelation, sin and alienation, theodicy, and the Trinity.  Thiselton briefly mentions things that theological thinkers have said about these topics.  Some discussions focus more on pre-modern thinkers, whereas others have a greater emphasis on modern thinkers.  Occasionally, post-modern thinkers make an appearance.  In both Parts 1 and 2, Thiselton mentions thinkers: sometimes he offers a sentence or more about their thought, and sometime he just lists names.

Part 3 includes key terms.  I will not list all of them here.  They range from denominations (i.e., Baptists, Lutheranism), to belief systems (i.e., atheism, agnosticism), to historical theological trends and approaches (i.e., Thomism), to concepts in the Christian religion (i.e., demons, predestination).  This is not a brief glossary tucked in the back of the book.  It is about forty pages, and it covers a lot of terms, providing a paragraph-length discussion of each of them.

The book ends with a bibliography, an index of Scripture and patristic references, and index of authors, and an index of subjects.  The bibliography lists books in the fields of biblical studies (mainly New Testament), theology, and religious denominations and trends.  It includes primary and secondary sources.  There is a star system: three stars are beside works that Thiselton recommends as textbooks, two stars are beside works that he recommends as seminal, and one star is beside works that he believes add special value to a given subject.  Most of the books on the list have no star at all.

In my opinion, this book would serve better as a supplementary reference work than a beginner’s primary introductory text.  Reading it was like going on a quick tour and briefly seeing the sites.  Or it was like snacking rather than eating a full-course meal.  It is difficult to determine whether it is deep or superficial.  It is easy to read this book and say, “Is that what the great, abstruse (insert famous theologian here) thought?  I can get that from watching TBN, or by reading popular evangelical books!”  But that impression would be off-base, for Thiselton would toss in something about the distinctness of the theologian’s thought or approach.  It just went by so fast that a reader may forget the nuance that he or she just read.  The book’s prose was simple, but some of the discussions were a bit elliptical and perhaps could have been fleshed out more.  But one should remember that this is not a major tome: it is a 240 page book that covers a lot of territory, and even then there are topics that it does not cover.  For a beginner who wants to get a deeper taste of theology, Roger Olson’s tomes (The Story of Christian Theology, The Journey of Modern Theology) would probably be better to read.  Thiselton’s book, however, would be a suitable reference work, particularly if you want names of authors to read in a given field or on a given topic.

Occasionally, Thiselton offers his own point-of-view.  Sometimes, he states it by inserting an adverb (i.e., “unfortunately”), without offering much of an explanation.  In some cases, he offered a viewpoint that was intriguing and maybe outside of the box, but he did not really ground it in historic Christian theology.  For instance, he distinguished between justification and divine forgiveness of sins, and he questioned the Augustinian model of original sin.  He appeared a few times to be suggesting something like soul-sleep.  While Thiselton is a greater theologian than I am or will ever be, there were a few occasions in reading this book when I took what he said with a grain of salt.  For example, he seemed to be characterizing Irenaeus as an annihilationist.  I have not done research on this particular topic, but I am a bit skeptical about this.  Saying that unbelievers will experience a post-mortem death is not necessarily the same as being an annihilationist, for believers in eternal torment characterize the torment as a conscious spiritual death.

At times, this book was inspiring and edifying.  The discussion of the Cappadoccian fathers’ views on the Trinity comes to mind here.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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