Christian Theology

The Basics

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Murray Rae
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2015.
     188 pages.
     $25.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780415814942.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Those who take on the challenge of providing a “basic” introduction to any subject will always be met with skepticism and even criticism insofar as their efforts stand or fall on decisions they make about what topics constitute “the basics.” In the case of Murray Rae’s contribution to this popular series from Routledge (The Basics), one finds an exemplary effort. Readers should note at the outset that this book is not a basic introduction to Christianity; rather, it is an introduction to, and overview of, the complex discipline of Christian theology. Although Rae is from the Reformed tradition, his vision of Christian theology is broadly representative and largely inclusive. He offers an amazingly concise yet thorough snapshot of contemporary Christian theology, while at the same time being attentive to its historical development and contextualizing the contemporary conversation within the broad sweep of its long history. 

Rae begins the book with a surprisingly thorough and ecumenically sensitive account of the sources used in Christian theology, without settling the very difficult questions related to methodology and theological foundations. This choice, on Rae’s part, allows the reader to move forward with a very serviceable and even sophisticated account of the sources of Christian theology (in this case, scripture, tradition, experience) without getting bogged down in divisive and sometimes pedantic issues surround the relative weight of those sources. The second chapter provides a wonderful example of the author’s command of biblical and theological material. In remarkably short order, Rae is able to effectively qualify Christian theology as discourse about the God who reveals and is revealed primarily in covenantal relationship. Christian theology is, therefore, indebted to and bound up with the story of Israel and is a continuation of that story—without any supercessionist overtones. Moreover, Rae sets forth a theological anthropology that is illuminated by a thoughtful reading of Genesis, one that includes the fundamental relational dimensions of the human person and a thoughtful engagement with the problem of human freedom and evil (though this is more thoroughly treated in the chapter on Christian hope and eschatology). 

The chapters on Christ, Trinity, and Salvation form the heart of the book, and rightly so. These chapters include breathtaking overviews of the theological traditions that emphasize church councils (e.g., Nicaea, Chalcedon, Trent, Vatican II), classic figures (e.g., Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin), uncommon or neglected figures (e.g., Julian of Norwich, John McLeod Campbell), major figures from the last century (e.g., Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, Elie Weisel), and contemporary figures who amplify and challenge the tradition (e.g., Sarah Coakley, Mary Daly). This reader was pleased that the chapter on christology included a very serviceable overview of the debates about the historical Jesus! The chapter on eschatology and the last things opens up to include a consideration of the status of non-Christians and salvation, covering a lot of ground in a very small space. Naturally, the demand to cover so much ground makes the use of models almost inevitable, and most models and taxonomies are important and helpful (especially for introductory students), but other readers may quibble at times. For example, the continued use of Gustaf Aulén’s taxonomy of soteriological models, positing a Latin model of atonement theology that either conflates or does not adequately distinguish punishment and satisfaction (poena aut satisfactio), caught my eye.

Perhaps the greatest surprise, at least for me, came in the concluding chapter on church and worship, topics that are often minimized in introductory theology courses because they can be so divisive, serving as they do as the primary context where Christian experience the pain of division. But Rae does a wonderful job of bringing theological activity around to include Christian worship and the life of prayer and praise—a wonderfully appropriate conclusion to an introduction to the basics of Christian theology! There is a brief glossary and a wonderfully representative bibliography at the end of the book as well as suggestions for further reading at the conclusion of each chapter. While some of the entries are dated, the lists reflect important voices in the conversation as well as some contemporary classics. Additionally, Rae is able to use in-text citations extensively, thus making the book a very valuable and smart resource for students and other readers who may eventually want more than just the basics.  

Some readers will surely find a point or two they might have expressed differently, or another source or thinker they deem essential to the conversation, but Murray Rae has offered teachers and interested readers a robust (occasionally even literary), yet concise, introduction to the most difficult and debated issues in Christian theology. His efforts will richly reward those who are willing to “pick up and read!”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher McMahon is Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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