Akin, D. (Ed.). (2014). A Theology for the Church (Revised ed., p. 770). Nashville: B&H Publishing Group
I’ve always appreciated the amount of growth I’ve seen in my own life from reading various systematic theologies but I am plagued by the fact that many in my church have no idea what that even means. Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t expect everyone in my church to have a copy of Bavink’s Dogmatics on their shelves or to know Grudem from heart. What I would love to see is a church built on sound doctrine and the power of the Spirit. It’s for people like me and churches like mine that A Theology for the Church was written and what a fresh breath of air this volume is.
As one would expect from B&H, this volume contains the best in Baptist scholarship with contributions from the likes of David Dockery, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler Jr., and Timothy George. These names, among others, are the most able thinkers that the Evangelical and Baptist traditions have produced, pulling together a volume which is both highly readable and scholarly at the same time. The revised version includes some new contributions in the area of science and philosophy which make this a rounded theology written with the lay leader and small group leader in mind. This text makes the doctrines of faith low hanging fruit for teachers but in no way makes light of the subject matter of theology. Before we dive in I wanted to note one final feature of this volume. Each chapter addresses four key questions: What does the Bible say? What has the church believed? How does it all fit together? How does this doctrine impact the church today?
Each section is packed with careful exegesis and sound synthesis. I appreciate the flow of the text in leading from one section to the next, meaning that the flow from the biblical text to the historical theology, then on to the application and finally on the contextualization flows without harsh breaks or a detracting from the subject matter. Bruce Ashford and Keith Whitfield begin the prolegomena portion by placing their theological method squarely in Scripture alone with a deep-seated desire to see the Kingdom of God advanced through the Great Commission. They define theology as, “A disciplined reflection on God’s self-revelation. The purpose of this reflection is to equip the people of God to know and love God and to participate in his mission in the world (3). They remind us that a condescension on God’s part is the only way we are able to know him on an intimate and personal level. The whole life and task of a Christian is one of knowing and growing in our understanding and worship of God.
Next Russell Moore shows us the beauty of General Revelation and the creation which points to a divine creator. “Natural theology is the attempt to build a theological structure on the basis of general revelation apart from God’s witness in the Scriptures and Jesus Christ (67). We also have in this chapter a robust defense of the gospel and the fact that one must be a recipient of special revelation in order to fully understand the good news and the offer of salvation. Moore points us to nature as the Psalms would, meaning that we must hold the cosmos in awe as we gaze into the mighty creation of God. Without leaving us there and saying that God fully discloses himself in nature, a wonderful segue is made into the next heading of theology and the doctrine of special revelation.
I’m no stranger to the writings of David Dockery. His insights into confessional subscription and the gospel have been a wonderful help to me as I continue to grow as a disciple of Christ. Here Dockery displays God in all his fullness and masterfully instructs the reader on the plenary-verbal inspiration of Scripture, among other important topics. In the last text I read of his, he was constantly urging the reader to return to God and fling themselves fully on the authority of His word and he uses the same language here to entreat his audience to, “confess our belief in the divine inspiration, total truthfulness, and complete of the authority of the Bible. Even beyond this affirmation with willing spirits and open minds and hearts, we must dedicate ourselves anew to the authority of the Holy Scripture, assured that we can place our complete confidence in God’s truthful and reliable Word” (153).
Section 2 treats the Doctrine of God with tedious care as we delve into the nature and works of God. Here we are led by Timothy George quoting the Puritan William Ames in defining theology. He defines the study of theology as, “the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God” (159). This section is chock full of application as the reader is pointed to the immeasurable greatness of God and the divine Condescension which makes knowing him possible. Here, along with the study of theology proper, we dive into some modern complexities which have been raised against the knowledge of God. George does an excellent job in refuting these arguments without making the language too technical or far-fetched for the normal, uneducated reader to comprehend. From there we engage Creation and Providence in a way that leaves God with the first and the final words regarding His creation and His work among that creation. An interesting chapter on Angels follows and closes the doctrine of God on an interesting note.
Section 3 reveals to us that depravity that is ours at birth and the predicament that man finds himself in. The section is headed off by a look at human nature and the divine image which mankind is made in. They anchor their theology of man in the trinity and the decree of God to make man from the dust of the earth. I was helped in this section by the constant reminder that as image bearers we are to bring the gospel to the entire earth no matter of issues which may arise like sexual preference or lifestyle. The reader is pointed to the God who made everything ex nihilo and caused Christ to shine in our hearts and elicits the response of complete worship of His majesty for doing so. At last we have reached the pinnacle of this volume, the doctrine of Christ. A wonderful survey of the entire bible on the person and actions of Christ.
There were some points of doctrine which I found to be a little shoddy on the language employed. In saying that, “the atonement is sufficient for all but efficient only for those who believe, who are the elect of God” (469), sounds to me like the author is trending on the side of Molinism more than the side of the reformed doctrine of election and predestination. While I appreciate the fact that Arminianism is opposed, I would want to see the language affirm a little more of a harder approach to this specific point of doctrine. Saying that the atonement is sufficient for the whole world and everyone who has ever inhabited it and yet is only efficient for those who believe, to me, is like saying that God has not called a number of elect whom he will apply the merits of Christ and they shall reign with him for all eternity. It sounds safe to me and it’s not bad, just not what I would prefer nor what I think the biblical text points to.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has always been a point of contention since I began to understand and lean on the reformed faith in the last several years. Coming from a Charismatic background and understanding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, both in positive and negative ways, I never understood some of the misapplication of the work of the Spirit until I began to study reformed theology. I’ve never been overly Charismatic in my faith and so as I began to study the tenets of Calvinism I encountered a harsh cessation of the gifts. That sort of standpoint, which can be entirely abrasive at times, is not so much employed in this text. The work and person of the Holy Spirit are thoroughly researched and helpfully scriptural. Examining the Spirit in relation to Christ is a most helpful section. The authors here take an open stance on the gifts of the Spirit but are cautious, as they should be, to always hold scripture as the final authority which is a common thread which runs through this entire text.
Section 6 deals with the Doctrine of Salvation. Here we see an unpacking of the “golden chain of theology”. The gem in this section is the scriptural analysis of union with Christ. As the authors point the readers to the heights of the truth of this doctrine in scripture, we see a constant inclination of our hearts to worship God for this most blessed doctrine. The onus of salvation is placed entirely on God found only through His son Jesus Christ. The clarion call from this section is one of praise which shouts to us, “there is no other name by which we must be saved”, and oh what a glorious name it is. The conclusion reminds us of the exegesis in saying that, “salvation is in Jesus Christ, and we are saved when we are united with him by faith. Everything about our salvation we enjoy in the Lord Jesus Christ–redemption’s origin, the gospel call, our justification and sanctification, and the bestowing of the benefits of salvation–all are graciously given to us in Jesus Christ to the glory of God” (600).
In the last few years I read through Mark Dever’s immensely helpful volume The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. In that text he alluded to having a fuller exploration of the church in this systematic theology. This section on the church surely does not disappoint and is taken from the standpoint of a Baptist understanding and Ecclisiology. Mark Dever hinges his section on the fact that, “a distorted view of the Church usually coincides with a distorted view of the gospel” (603). What he’s not saying here is that if you believe in a Presbyterian form of church government than you’re outside the body of Christ. What he means in this phrase is that through the centuries various people have seen the church and salvation as separate doctrines when in fact the two are so closely linked that you cannot disregard one without destroying the other. He ties the good news and the church so closely together that when he speaks of the good news it has to come through the conduit of the church. The Great Commission and the Gospel are so closely united in the mind of God that to destroy the institution of the church is to remove from it the foundation of the good news.
We come full circle and our friend Russell Moore closes out the study with a look at eschatalogical matters. This section was the most confusing for me but I was led through it by a wonderful teacher and exegete. I am not sure my theological convictions fall in the same places that I find in this section but I appreciate the careful study of the end times and the implications of that in the life of a believer. Russell Moore is wise in not speaking where the Bible does not speak and is careful to attach an absolute meaning to the text when there may not be one. In this section we have a fine synthesis of biblical and exegetical theology. In the conclusion of this volume Albert Mohler engages the pastor who may be reading this volume. He urges him to not neglect the discipleship of the mind. He wants to make sure that the pastor is not considered merely a theological consultant instead of a wise and ready shepherd. He calls the pastor, as the guardian of, “this doctrinal treasure that has been entrusted to us at the very core of our calling as pastors”, to be both theological and pastoral in this life.
My Two Cents
This Baptist-leaning volume on systematic theology is one of the most practical and helpful volumes that I have read. It organizes the text into a flow that is very natural and readable. The top-notch scholarly work is not overly technical and can be easily comprehended by the average congregant in the pews. The reader will have to do some engaging with the text of the bible alongside this volume in order to gain a full-orbed vision of what these pastors and scholars are trying to do here. As people of the book they are trying to get people to understand the text of scripture as the very foundation for our understanding of God. This volume does not address all of the in’s and out’s that are present within the study of theology but make for a well-developed disciple of Christ. I would appreciate if the text came with study questions at the end of each section or if they had an additional outside resource which may be used alongside this volume.
Teachers and Pastors alike should consider digging into this volume as its practicality can easily be seen and developed into an introductory course in theology. I am glad to have this on my shelf alongside many similar volumes and will continue to use it for years to come. If you’re looking for an intro into the world of systematics, this volume may be just what you’re looking for. The binding is top-notch, the cover is attractive and the additions found in the revised version are very helpful for gaining a slight understanding on some of the issues going on in the culture around us. If you’re looking to grow in the great doctrines of the Christian faith, I see no better volume to begin with than A Theology for the Church.
Here is a Sample Chapter from B&H Publications.