A review of Millard Erickson's, "Christian Theology," by Dr. David Buschart.
Erickson, Millard J.1998 Christian Theology, second edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. Hardback, $44.99. 1312 pp.
Too often books which prove to be important or much appreciated are never updated or revised by their authors. Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, first published in three volumes over three years (1983-1985; unabridged one-volume edition, 1986), has proven to be a contemporary “standard” in evangelical circles, and I for one am glad that Erickson has invested time and labor to update his magnum opus.
The wide use of the original edition of this work is easy to understand. Christian Theology was one of the first comprehensive, seminary-level, evangelical systematic theologies to be published after a considerable “dry spell” in the publication of such works. As the story of evangelical theology has unfolded, Erickson’s book has proven to be but one contribution to “a virtual deluge” (Erickson’s description, and an apt one) of comprehensive systematic theology texts in recent years.
But the appeal of Christian Theology is attributable to more than just timing. Erickson’s theological perspective is clearly yet ironically evangelical. He occupies a theological position which, at least at the time of original publication, could be described as centrist evangelical, seeking to avoiding extremes. Christian Theology is rightly appreciated for its clarity of structure and content, and, for the most part, its accuracy and fairness to varieties of theological perspectives. Over the years, I have had many students comment that they both understood and enjoyed reading Erickson’s book. It is also characterized by more concern for the implications and applications of theological findings to life and ministry than was the case in its predecessors. (This latter characteristic has taken an increasingly prominent place in subsequent books of this genre.)
In light of widespread familiarity with Christian Theology and the availability of many reviews of the original edition, the balance of this review will focus on changes incorporated into the second edition. The revisions are more than cosmetic and a close reading will reveal that changes, however small, are woven throughout the book. At the same time, there are no major substantive changes in either Erickson’s approach or his conclusions.
Some of the material which was deemed redundant or no longer significant has been deleted. Sometimes a sentence or paragraph is deleted; sometimes a small sub-section (e.g., material on R. M. Hare’s concept of the “blik”). There are additions of new material, both pedagogical and substantive. A list of objectives, a summary, and study questions have been added to the beginning of each chapter. More substantive is the incorporation of material which identifies and/or engages theological issues of significance to evangelicals during the past decade and presently. For example, he comments on “the openness of God” debate (pp. 307-308), “Third Wave” movements (pp. 872-73), and Lordship-salvation (p. 950).
Many of the most important additions are made in the section of the book that deals with methodology: Part One, “Studying God.” Three pages on deconstruction are added to the review of 20th-century philosophies (pp. 53-56). Erickson is not about to go the way of the deconstructionists, and objects to it largely on the basis of its internal logical inconsistencies. In describing the present theological scene, Erickson adds a brief paragraph on globalization (p. 68), and in his delineation of the process of “doing theology” he adds a step, “Consultation of Other Cultural Perspectives,” stating that “Interaction with other cultural perspectives will help us distinguish the essence of the biblical teaching from one cultural expression of it” (pp. 74-75). Several pages each on structural criticism and reader-response criticism are added to the section on critical study of the Bible (pp. 105-112). Erickson’s reservations and disagreements with these developments are greater than his affirmative appreciation for them.
The most obvious addition is a chapter on “Postmodernism and Theology” (pp. 158-74). Erickson describes postmodernism in relation to concepts of premodernism and modernism, reviews a number of proposals for doing theology in postmodern ways, critiques “radical” postmodernism, and proposes his own “principles of positive postmodern theology.” He articulates a constructively positive posture with reference to postmodernism–”what we propose to do here is to prepare a genuinely postmodern view, not simply a return to the premodern period” (p. 169)–while also saying, “At the same time, we must resist certain tenets of the more extreme variety of postmodernism” (p.169). These tenets include new forms of “logic” which embrace logical inconsistency and untenable subjectivism (pp. 170-71). By contrast, Erickson commends “perspectival objectivism,” which acknowledges and accounts for the particularities of multiple perspectives while upholding the distinction between reality and our knowledge of reality (pp. 171-172). In light of the “postmodern shift” (p. 168), Erickson suggests that theologians “interact with as broad a community of persons as possible,” consider “a more presuppositional approach” to communication with non-Christians, and “use narrative as a communicational tool” (though not as a hermeneutical or heuristic device) (pp. 173-74).
The recent development in which Erickson sees the most strategic promise, not without some cautions, is the application of speech-act theory to our understanding of the language and authority of the Bible (pp. 153-57, 247). “It appears,” he writes, “that speech-act theory can be of valuable assistance to us, by reminding us of the variety of genres in the Bible, their differing purposes, and the several elements that go into communication ” (p. 157). Nonetheless, though stating “what we propose to do here is to prepare a genuinely postmodern view,” this revised edition is essentially no more post-modern than the original, in either its methodology, structural organization, or theological conclusions. That this is the case will surprise few; whether or not this proves to be a disappointment will depend on how completely the reader accepts or rejects a post-modern agenda for evangelical theology.
There are a number of matters which, disappointingly, are not even referred to. In his discussion of the historical Jesus, there is not a single reference to people or writings, of whatever perspective, associated with the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus. The section on justification makes no reference to recent discussions of Paul, the law, and justification. And, while Erickson has done more than most systematicians to listen to and address grass-roots issues in the life of the church, his comments on worship are unchanged, as if the “worship wars” had not been raging.
Between the original and this revised edition of Christian Theology, Erickson has published over a dozen books, and a number of these contain material which can help fill some of these gaps. See, for example, The Evangelical Mind and Heart: Perspectives on Theological and Practical Issues (1993), Where is Theology Going?: Issues and Perspectives on the Future of Theology (1994), The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology (1997), and Postmodernizing the Faith (1998).
This revised edition of Christian Theology does not move forward current discussion of fundamental theological questions among evangelicals, but it does extend the usefulness of a book which is already widely used and, in the view of this reviewer, rightly appreciated.
W. David Buschart
Professor of Theology and Historical Studies