Approaching the Study of Theology

An Introduction to Key Thinkers, Concepts, Methods & Debates

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Anthony C. Thiselton
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , August
     255 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is always a difficult task to attempt to summarize and introduce the field of theology for readers, as it covers an area of study with a huge breadth of focus, variance in approaches, and a long and complicated history. Approaching the Study of Theology by Anthony C. Thiselton stands in this general vein of publication—offering up an approachable and expansive attempt to encapsulate the intellectual history of Christian theology, the variety of approaches used within it, a number of key concepts and issues relevant to it, as well as an extensive glossary of key terms. It is written with the general reader in mind, either those engaged in theological study or those contemplating joining the field.

The volume begins this summary and introduction with a journey through the intellectual and religious history of Christian theology, beginning with its biblical roots, extending through the early church, into the medieval period, and then the Reformation and modern periods. By its nature, this introduction is fast-paced and shallow, moving swiftly through historical periods in an attempt to highlight those twists and turns of history deemed important in the theological story being told. Initially, this historical overview offers useful information on the development and emergence of “theology” from the biblical text and early Christian practice, highlighting and foregrounding the development of critical theological concepts from them. This is a useful and often overlooked task in theological education, which provides readers and students with a solid foundation for the later content of the volume, or for their studies. However, the later history offered in this section by Thiselton is further summarized and, in places, too obviously showcases the author’s perceptions of importance, rather than continuing the useful and balanced overview given earlier.

The second section of the work is a selection of approaches in the study of theology, again a useful resource for students engaging in their first steps into theological study. The third section continues this structure with a list of concepts and issues in theology. I wish to deal with these sections together, as the division between them lacks clear conceptual definition— with approaches to theology appearing in the concepts and issues section, depending, seemingly, on the author’s view of their validity. In both sections, the topic of discussion is introduced and discussed through the medium of key theological thinkers in the field, drawing from across the historical breadth of Christian theology and offering some discussion of contemporary trends and positions within the approach or theological area. This approach to each of the subjects of discussion is useful as it introduces students to the broad ranges of opinion present in each area selected.

It is the fourth section of the book, dealing with key terms, which sadly takes some of the weak aspects identified earlier and extends and expands on them. This section takes the form of an annotated glossary of terms relevant to theology, ranging through an assorted topics, such as analogy, baptists, dialectical theology, the fall, Heilgeschichte, law, neo-Orthodoxy, postmodern theology, theism, and the wrath of God. In producing this section, it appears the author has brought together a grab bag of theological concepts, historical moments, ecclesial movements, methodological approaches, and scriptural tropes, all of which, while possibly proving useful for a student of theology to know, lack a clear and coherent purpose. The structuring of the volume as a whole begins to flounder here with little definition given to the different sections and areas, or reason given for the obvious misplacement of approaches within the “concepts and issues” section, or indeed, in the “key terms” section.

The lack of purpose is also evident in the content given to a number of entries in the “key terms” section. While discussions in the earlier sections have generally given a relatively good account of the nature of the area under discussion, it is in the much shorter descriptions given in “key terms” that this coherent and balanced approach begins to break down. While a number of the definitions offered are useful, and in places can be illuminating even to those already familiar with them, there are an equal number of decidedly weaker entries. This is particularly noticeable in areas of contemporary or contested theological endeavor and is in contrast to comparable glossaries of key terms offered in similar introductions to theological study.

In producing an introduction to the field of theology, a difficult and complex enterprise, clarity of purpose and structure are of critical importance. This is even more so when the introduction seeks to serve as part of the initiation into the field for students, who will be in need of clarity and purpose in their own studies. This volume, although offering some significant value in tracing aspects of this foundational knowledge, lacks the clarity necessary to fully accomplish what it sets out to do.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Angus Slater is a Lecturer in Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St Davids.

Date of Review: 
November 23, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony C. Thiselton is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham and a fellow of the British Academy. His recent publications include Approaching Philosophy of ReligionDiscovering RomansSystematic TheologyThe Holy Spirit, and The Last Things.



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