Hope and Community

A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Volume 5

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Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , October
     575 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is the fifth and final volume of an innovative series by Finnish Lutheran theologian and ecumenist Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen in which he constructs a Christian systematic theology in relation to recent research in Christian theology and also in conversation with four “living faiths”: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This volume discusses the doctrines of last things (i.e., eschatology) and the church (i.e., ecclesiology), drawing primarily upon the biblical tradition and the history of the church’s reflections on these doctrines up to and including contemporary discussions and debates. Moreover, Kärkkäinen dialogues with current natural and social scientific research and, in particular, the comparative study of religions to weave a unique presentation for how Christian theology should be done in our contemporary, pluralistic world.

After providing an introduction in which Kärkkäinen sets forth his distinctive interdisciplinary methodology, part I begins with chapter 1, in which he argues for the ubiquity of eschatology in the Christian faith and its various doctrines and then provides an orientation to the following chapters on the many aspects of Christian eschatology. Chapter 2 sees Kärkkäinen turn to the natural sciences wherein he discusses the various models and predictions of the end of the cosmos stemming from the natural sciences and their possible overlap with Christian eschatology. In chapter 3, Kärkkäinen then turns to the four living faiths under consideration and examines their respective contributions to eschatology. Returning to Christian eschatology in chapter 4, Kärkkäinen employs his chief theological paradigm—the Trinity—to demonstrate how eschatology is best understood as a trinitarian doctrine. Chapter 5 discusses the dynamic interrelation of time and eternity, particularly with regard to the eternal future being recast as the perfection of temporality, not its negation. The topics of bodily resurrection and physical death occupy chapter 6, and the role and place of nature as new creation is discussed in chapter 7. In chapter 8, Kärkkäinen takes up the perennially difficult topic of theodicy and argues for a more eschatologically orientated view of this temporal “problem.” Chapter 9 sees Kärkkäinen tackle another difficult and current issue, that is, universalism. Kärkkäinen rebuts both the traditional “two destinies” and dogmatic universalist views and offers a hopeful alternative that tries to steer a middle path between the two extremes. Chapter 10 concludes part I with Kärkkäinen discussing the promises, tensions, and ambiguities in the New Testament over the return of Christ, the millennial reign, and the eternal state.

In part II, Kärkkäinen discuss the doctrine of the church, with chapter 11 looking at how the influences of globalism, secularism, and religious pluralism shape the task of constructing a doctrine of the church at the beginning of the third millennium. In chapter 12 Kärkkäinen turns again to the four living faiths and their respective ecclesiologies, and in chapter 13, Kärkkäinen employs the doctrine of Trinity as paradigmatic for his constructive ecclesiology. In chapter 14, Kärkkäinen discusses the ecclesiality of the church by looking at the traditional “four marks” (i.e., unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity) and then combining them with two Protestant reformation emphases on the proclamation of the gospel and right administration of the sacraments. From these conclusions, Kärkkäinen argues in chapter 15 for the church as a communion of communions, putting particular emphasis on the trinitarian nature of the church, and asserting that the church is a communion of saints both temporally and eternally. Chapters 16 through 20 look at the various aspects and ministries of the church through the lens of mission. In chapter 16, Kärkkäinen argues for the missional nature of the church, and chapter 17 discusses the concrete acts of mission as seen in the rites of baptism and Eucharist. Chapter 18 delves into the topic of church offices as empowered by the Spirit (“charismatic”) to serve inside and outside the church (“diaconal”). As a life-long ecumenical theologian, Kärkkäinen discusses the unity of the church in chapter 19, and chapter 20 is a lengthy chapter wherein Kärkkäinen compares and contrasts interfaith engagement between the Christian church and the Jewish synagogue, the Muslim ummah, and the respective faith communities of Hindusim and Buddhism. An epilogue concludes the book and the whole five-volume series.

This book provides an intriguing perspective on two core Christian doctrines and affirms many of the traditional conclusions and confessions thereof, all the while moving beyond them to embrace many of the findings of natural and social scientific research. As a veteran ecumenical theologian, Kärkkäinen describes well the current state of theological affairs across many traditions in the Christian faith; moreover, Kärkkäinen negotiates well in interreligious dialogue with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism toward the goal of mutual understanding and appreciation without degenerating into a naïve pluralism that glosses over the many theological differences between all five faiths. This book, along with the other four volumes in this series, fills a gap in Christian theological scholarship by constructing a systematic theology that is fully anchored in the historic and orthodox Christian tradition and also reaches out to dialogue with and, at times, critically incorporate conclusions from other disciplines and religions. I commend Kärkkäinen for his courage to embark on and complete a long and arduous task by providing the academy and church with a resource that will hopefully be consulted for years to come. My only criticism of this book is more formal than material: Kärkkäinen’s discussion of eschatology before ecclesiology seems to be more of a novelty than a thought-through argument. I believe it would have been better for Kärkkäinen to follow the traditional ordering of the church before the last things; however, one could read part II before part I with no confusion of argument. This volume would be most appropriate for classroom use as a graduate-level textbook or for personal research due to its massive bibliography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and docent of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki, Finland. His many previous books include Christ and ReconciliationTrinity and RevelationCreation and Humanity, and Spirit and Salvation, which respectively comprise the first four volumes in A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World.


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