The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology

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Anthony C. Thiselton
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     2015.
     884 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802872326.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Well known for a variety of works on hermeneutics over many years, Anthony C. Thiselton, professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England writes an impressive reference work that richly shares the bounty of a long and deeply reflective career. Like his Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion (One World Publications, 2002), The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology is entirely the author’s own work, rather than an edited compendium of entries by multiple authors. This has advantages and disadvantages: it lends coherence to the work, giving readers a solid sense of the author’s perspective, value judgments, and special insights; but it also leaves some areas of the field less developed than others, mirroring the contours of the author’s own research. The advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages. The Thiselton Companion has a kind of organic structure, despite its alphabetical arrangement. The primary figures and issues that have most profoundly captured the Christian imagination take center stage with lengthier entries (for example, Balthasar, Barth, Calvin, Luther; authority of the Bible, Christology, God/Trinity, grace, hermeneutics, Holy Spirit, sin). Thiselton carefully grounds these topics within their historical contexts, and provides fairly in-depth critical analyses of the issues. The subjects of the shorter entries cluster around, and project out from, the deeper patterns generated by these various thinkers and trends. Such framing reveals the DNA of this wildly complex organism we call Christian theology. I find this an extraordinary feat for a reference work of this kind.

The Thiselton Companion contains over 600 entries on theologians, philosophers, movements, theories, doctrines, and specialized vocabulary from the first century through our own time (there are 27 entries on theologians living today). And while it’s not possible for any single work to do justice to all of the critical traditions that have helped shape the vast diversity of Christian theology, most are represented to some extent. Thiselton’s work is aptly titled a “companion” to Christian theology. It interweaves some of the features of dictionaries and encyclopedias—basic definitions of terms and factual discussions of thinkers, doctrines, and movements—with what we’ve come to expect from companion volumes: essays that analyze and evaluate thinkers and ideas by contextualizing them in personal biographies and socio-political histories. This author has a remarkable talent for packing maximum meaning into the fewest possible words, so that even the shorter entries convey a wealth of information and a depth of reflection that belies their length.

Thiselton aims at a holistic treatment wherever possible, especially in the longer entries. He offers an understanding of the subject matter by discussing not only what was argued, but how and why. With respect to theologians, he provides concise biographical and historical contexts, focused analyses of their major works, and brief discussions of the thinkers and trends they influenced. Where doctrines, movements, or controversies are involved, he gives careful attention to representatives from all sides. With specific terms, Thiselton often provides a history of their usage, citing individual theologians. More cross-referencing of terms would have strengthened these analyses. In many cases, Thiselton uses bold font to indicate other relevant entries in the book, but this is not done uniformly. For example, in quite a few entries on philosophical terms and theories, Thiselton does not explain their theological impact; and when discussing relevant theologians, he neglects to refer to philosophical terms. Absolute idealism and Hegel both appear in the volume, for instance, but neither entry mentions the other.

A wealth of recent theological scholarship is represented here, both in the analyses and in the bibliographies included at the end of many entries. Thiselton is meticulous in providing complete bibliographic information for the scholarship he cites—a welcome feature for any researcher who has been frustrated by other reference works that don’t clearly identify specific resources to pursue. There are a few entries, such as “fundamentalism” and “process thought,” where I find the discussion somewhat dated, and some entries are treated much too briefly to be helpful in navigating contemporary debates, such as creationism, natural theology, panentheism, and the social gospel. There are no entries for intelligent design theory and other more recent terms and figures one might hope to find. But in a volume that’s already nearly 900 pages, difficult choices must be made, and I find these shortcomings minor in view of both the depth and breadth evident here.

I highly recommend this book for anyone teaching or researching in Christian theology. No matter how long you’ve worked in this field, you’ll find enlightening information and ideas that interconnect with and expand your own areas of expertise. The Thiselton Companion also serves pastors and students well, though it is a bit of a mixed bag with respect to general readers. Unlike his Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, this volume is not especially suited for beginners in academic theology. There are some helpful features though: at the beginning of the volume, Thiselton includes a timeline of theologians from the first through twenty-first centuries; he incorporates entries on some rudimentary philosophical theories and approaches that underpin major theological traditions; and provides some helpful cross-referencing of terms. However, quite a few of the entries will be fairly obscure to readers not already well versed in philosophical and theological concepts and history. However, readers can turn to Thiselton’s Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, and to other reference works and dictionaries to help them mine the treasures of this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer G. Jesse is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Truman State University.

Date of Review: 
August 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony C. Thiselton is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England.

Keywords: 

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