Unfortunately, much of contemporary academic theology is written for consumption and critique by other academic theologians familiar with complex methodological debates and specialized jargon. Academic theologians publish brilliant books, but few of these books are accessible to non-academic audiences. Each week, millions of Christians go to church to understand how the Christian tradition's wisdom might transform their lives and hearts. The pews contain remarkable theologians who reflect theologically with both beauty and power, even if not using academic terms. The lives of faithful Christians are living testimonies to how Christian doctrine learned over time can shape a life. Many of these people want to understand their own faith better, want to understand the jargon that sometimes makes its way into sermons, or want a deeper understanding of Christian tradition. In understandable and winsome prose, Cynthia L. Rigby makes sophisticated theological reflection comprehensible to non-specialists. She shows how the teachings of the Christian tradition speak to the realities of the lives of those people who populate our pews each Sunday hoping to hear how the tradition they profess might heal and shape their blessed and broken lives.
The book's title and introduction promise a “practical” introduction to Christian doctrine. The book keeps that promise. Rigby is clearly and deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition. That fact may not be as evident to general readers as it is to those who bring to this book a wider view of the map of Christian systematic theology. At the same time, the book is generous enough in the narrations of the disputes to make the book ecumenically accessible without being simplistic and draws on a wide range of sources from outside the Reformed tradition. Her book's stated purpose “is in large degree ... to get at the question of why Christian doctrine matters to our every day lives of faith” (xix). She argues that faithful theology is not simply about repeating the doctrines of the past, but also about discerning when the formulations of the past need to be let go so that other life-giving configurations of Christian truth can emerge.
The book revolves around traditional classic loci, but it does so not in the classical ordering. Rigby orders the book in a way that invites readers to think systematically about theology. So, she begins not with the doctrine of divine unity, but with Revelation. In other words, how do we know about the God we claim to worship? That question allows the book to explore the notion of general versus special revelation and the nature of scripture itself. She provides helpful exercises that would help a Sunday school class understand their oftenarticulated doctrines of scripture's authority.
In the next section titled “God Meets Us” Rigby manages to provide short accessible summaries of the ecumenical councils, drop in a quote by feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, and mix in some Calvin. But she introduces those thinkers and what they have to offer the conversation in a flowing narrative. Sure, those highly trained in academic theology might want her to be more precise, more careful, and to acknowledge the known social and political power dynamics at work in the ecumenical councils that shape the definitions of orthodoxy. She doesn't allow herself to be side-tracked, staying focused on the practical questions: “Why does this doctrine matter to my life, to the life I hope to live, to the life of the Christian community now?”
In the next section, Rigby does the same for the doctrine of the trinity, scripture, and theology. Practical questions are woven together in a jargon-free way that lets readers know what theologians think about when they talk about Trinitarian theology, and helps readers understand why the debates matter.
The book often drops references to popular culture in ways that seem on point and relevant, helping readers see the importance of theology in the world around them. This review can't go into all the details of every chapter, but the book treats the doctrines of creation, sin and redemption, and the Christian life in general. Each chapter is filled with insight and peppered with relevant illustrations, even from sources such as popular movies.
This would be an outstanding book for parish study or Sunday School classes. It would be fantastic for those seeking a deeper understanding of debates over Christian theology who can't take a seminary class, and it would be a great introduction to theological reflection for those just starting to train for ministry. This is the case not only due to its accessible prose, but also because Rigby reminds us that theology matters to the lives of those who claim to follow the one who inspires its subject matter. It also challenges those of us who write theology to write for those in the pews, and to think about why and how our reflection matters for the lives of faith that all theology should intend to inform.
Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice of East Carolina in Durham, NC.
Date Of Review:
October 12, 2018
Cynthia L. Rigby is The W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. She is a general co-editor of Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Westminster John Knox Press).
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