Choosing a theology textbook
I’m about to finish a graduate degree in Christian theology, the MDiv. Having a background as a high school history teacher leaves me with some particular reflections on the journey. When it comes to theology classes, the textbook I’ve been recommending is Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction (see prices). Here’s why, from an educational perspective — plus an excursion for evangelicals!
Three educational positives
First, McGrath’s Christian Theology is basic without being narrow or simplistic. It’s accessible to all sorts of students and it’s used around the world, including teenagers in high schools. No Arts degrees required!
Second, the book has an international scope. It assumes that there is more going on in Christianity than simply the Western world or X, Y, and Z church denominations. It deliberately refuses to confine itself to one neck of the woods.
Third, this is a fully-fledged academic textbook, currently in its fifth edition. Its method is expertly designed for the classroom: it is an introduction, a comprehensive background, a balanced survey of the issues. It considers the concept and practise of theology as well as its content.
McGrath’s book is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it explains rather than persuades. McGrath himself is an evangelical Christian, but he doesn’t take denominational sides, never pontificates, and ensures that his own opinions take a back seat — because Christian theology is bigger than that!
All of this is essential in helping students build a theological toolbox instead of pat answers. It equips students to be global learners, to think for themselves, to interact constructively with other perspectives. It teaches systematic thinking without teaching one system.
• This book is: A survey of perspectives • Its perspective is: For anyone studying Christian theology • It treats theological study as: An ongoing conversation involving various Christian voices
An evangelical comparison
I’m also an evangelical Christian, so I reckon it’s worth comparing McGrath’s approach with another popular book that evangelicals use to teach theology: Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.
• This book is: A summary of beliefs • Its perspective is: By an evangelical, for evangelicals • It treats theological study as: Collecting what the Bible teaches on particular topics
These two books come at things from different angles, so they emphasise different things and promote different uses, both for teachers and students.
Grudem approaches theological study as a matter of plain Bible reading, present-day obedience and devotional truth. I’m happy to say these are good and right aims, as far as ultimates go — but as an academic approach, where does this take us?
As a whole, Grudem’s book is a summary of a specific expression of Protestant Christianity. As such, you could say it’s more about what to think than how to think. This makes it potentially useful as a doctrinal handbook, but probably inappropriate as an academic textbook.
Evangelicals in the big stream
By all means, we evangelicals should be encouraging each other to be better evangelicals. But does this mean we need only listen to evangelical voices?
In Christian Theology, McGrath’s approach majors on history. (I dig that. Surprise!) The book deliberately interacts with the whole sweep of Christian theological reflection. That’s also why its companion reader is so useful (see prices).
Not surprisingly, evangelical positions are not always on view in the book. The same goes for typical evangelical methods: there’s not always a great deal of biblical theology in play. Yet I don’t see this as a loss by any means, because the book serves as a launch pad and backdrop for classroom content. Precisely because it introduces and opens up theological issues, the book sets the scene for a more detailed biblical perspective in the classroom, should a teacher prefer this.
In other words, McGrath has not written an “evangelical textbook”, but that’s precisely why evangelicals should be eager to use it. It’s the sort of resource that helps us evangelicals to see our distinct place in the Great Tradition of Christian thought. By mapping out the big stream of Christian reflection, we can better navigate where we ourselves belong. And that’s a robust and far-reaching means of pursuing evangelical faith!