The Task of Dogmatics

Explorations in Theological Method

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Editor(s): 
Oliver D. Crisp, Fred Sanders
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310535492.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The eleven essays contained in this volume were originally given as papers at the 2017 Los Angeles Theology Conference. Looming large over the proceedings was the absence of the late John Webster, whose influence, both explicitly and implicitly, abounds in these papers, including the dedication of the volume.

The theme, as the title suggests, is the task of dogmatics. This is an important step in the theological task because, as Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders explain in their introduction, “how dogmatics is organized, including the particular ordering and privileging of certain themes and notions, is as much a part of the methodological task as the place where one starts” (15). As a general comment, Karl Barth, often mediated through John Webster, is largely determinative concerning the vision of dogmatics from which these scholars operate; however, frequent reference is made to Thomas Aquinas, as well as patristic writers. For a volume of a broadly evangelical frame, there is an important ecumenical engagement with Roman Catholic theology.

While all of the papers are quality pieces, several deserve special mention. Henri Blocher writes with typical rigor, using a vast array of sources, and sketches a solution to the problem of permanence and relativity as grounded in the triune God. Michael Allen writes a masterful treatment of dogmatics in its role of sanctification. This is to say nothing of the other essays by Kevin Vanhoozer, Sameer Yadav, Gavin Ortlund, James Arcadi, Darren Sumner, and Brandon Ellis and Josh Malone, all of whom would need more space than exists here to cover the extensive and diverse ground that they do.

Longer mention should be made of three particular essays. Scott Swain’s paper, “Dogmatics as Systematic Theology,” is an exemplary essay on dogmatics construed as a systematic task, unfolded in four theses explaining how the systematic character of theology arises from theoretical and practical contemplation of God as God’s presence is made known by the glory revealed to humans (54-65). Following this, Swain unfolds a classical organization of the dogmatic loci, beginning with God and then speaking of God’s works, with the doctrine of God governing the whole of the dogmatic project. Swain is adept in his citation of Thomas Aquinas and Reformed Orthodox dogmatics, as well as modern theology. In his discussion of the provisional nature of the theological task and contemplation in the presence of God, Swain arguably could have buttressed his arguments by reference to Wolfhart Pannenberg, who argues for the doxological character of theology and the provisional and eschatological nature of truth.

Chris Tilling’s “‘Knowledge Puffs Up, But Love Builds Up’: The Apostle Paul and the Task of Dogmatics” is decidedly one of the most unique pieces collected here. Tilling writes on the dogmatic endeavor from the perspective of a biblical scholar, and this approach proves fruitful in his essay. The central idea concerns Paul’s concept of knowledge that is “rooted in the covenantal and relational reality of being known by God” (94). From this basis, he launches what may well be one of the more decisive early critiques of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume I, The Doctrine of God (Fortress Press, 2015). The problem, as Tilling sees it, is that Sonderegger uses an abstracted metaphysical concept of oneness that is removed from God as revealed (i.e., God as differentiated unity in three persons). To elevate oneness above trinity is to abstract from its proper context and balance (oneness defined by threeness and vice versa), a concept that governs the doctrine of God and dogmatics as a whole. 

Sonderegger herself contributes an essay on her doctrine of scripture that elucidates more clearly her view of scripture nascent in her Systematic Theology. The typical qualities of Sonderegger’s writing abound: flowing style, pregnant use of biblical idiom, and a skepticism toward theological modernity. This last point can be debated as being either good or bad, but the lack of engagement on that point is at least disappointing. The key idea of the essay is that scripture is a place where humanity meets God, a place where the divine presence is mediated to humanity through a created form, like the burning bush (141-42). Thus, scripture’s authority comes from the divine presence, not from content (143). Is not, however, the content of scripture the very reality of God, attested to by the record of divine action and revelation in the medium of created reality? Is not the content of the gospel the concrete proclamation of the crucified and resurrected Lord, and its authority derived from that content, which is the reality of God? Paul himself founds his authority not on himself but on the unity of the one who called him and the reality of the content of the message in I Corinthians 15. The content is crucial and indispensable, and it is that God of that reality who calls Paul an apostle. This issue remains my primary concern with this procedure of dogmatics and its viability in postmodernity. 

This concern, indeed, is my main one with the mode of dogmatics presented here. Inevitably there are a variety of ways to conceive of doing dogmatic theology. Yet the lack of attentiveness to the issue of truth and its force and importance for dogmatics concerns me, as does the broader influence of such a method. Must not the dogmatic task, in attempting to perform its science as appropriate to its object (to use Thomas Aquinas’s parlance), concern itself with the question of the truth of its content? In view of the postmodern context, will a retreat from such questions of truth or the absence of such questions in the theological task prove appropriate for the context or not? Time can only tell whether such reservations toward this manner of dogmatics will prove correct or not, partially or otherwise.

Even with this reservation, these essays are a tremendous resource and cover much ground in seeking to elucidate the task of dogmatic theology. Their content and style is to be commended, and the book is enthusiastically recommended, and vigorously engaged with and discussed in the academy and the church. Nothing less should be expected, nor anything more important demanded, of writing on the nature of the dogmatic task itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark P. Hertenstein is Assistant Pastor of New City Fellowship in Fredericksburg, VA.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oliver D. Crisp is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is author of numerous books in analytic and systematic theology, including Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation ReconsideredGod Incarnate: Explorations in ChristologyRetrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology; and Revisioning Christology: Theology in the Reformed Tradition

Fred Sanders is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is author of numerous books including The Triune God in the New Studies in Dogmatics series; The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything; and Dr. Doctrines’ Christian Comix. He is coeditor of Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology and Retrieving Eternal Generation. Fred is a core participant in the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project and a popular blogger at The Scriptorium Daily.

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