How to Read Theology for All Its Worth: A Guide for Students
Stetina, Karin Spiecker. How to Read Theology for All Its Worth: A Guide for Students. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020. Paperback, 224 pp. ISBN: 978-0310093824, $16.99.
Karin Spiecker Stetina serves as an Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University. Having earned a PhD from Marquette University in 2003, she taught at Wheaton College as an adjunct from 2003-2015, then transitioned to Biola. Her thesis (Wheaton) and dissertation work centered on John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, respectively, and both turned into publications. Along the way Stetina taught a range of courses in theology and church history.
The stated intention of How to Read Theology is to “elaborate on how to train our minds and hearts to be more discerning readers of theology” (p. 7; emphasis original). Stetina envisions the book as an aid for students’ initial venture into reading theology; she addresses the basic skills of how to read a book (citing Adler frequently), particularly a book on theology. Yet, a deeper, richer hope surfaces repeatedly: “Ultimately, [a theological work’s] value rests in how it moves you toward truly knowing and loving God and others” (p. 127; cf. pp. 7, 25, 143-144). All of chapter two, “Preparing for Reading,” emphasizes starting with prayer and meditation on Scripture!
Chapter one, “Overview,” does just that. It outlines the book’s structure, offering a progression of discerning questions designed to provide insight regarding a theological work’s true voice. Specifically, How to Read Theology recommends that students examine a book’s publication information, its Sitz im Leben, and the theologian’s framework and sources. Accordingly, chapters three through seven move from elemental traits (textual features) to more advanced aspects such as theological frameworks (chapter five) and sources (chapter six). Chapter seven explicates how to distill the thrust of a theological work. This constitutes the core of Stetina’s work.
Each of the “how to” chapters supplies dozens of questions in multiple categories that students can use to grasp the posture and propositions of a theological work. While chapter one summarizes and groups these suggested inquiries, chapters three through seven consider them extensively in turn. For example, chapter four (“Getting Better Acquainted with the Theologian”) discusses The Setting: “What is the specific context of the work? Why did the theologian write the work?” (p. 55) and The Background: “What is the theologian’s specific background and frame of reference? What are the theologian’s presuppositions?” (p. 60). Additionally, each of the “how to” chapters includes in-line examples of the skills Stetina wishes to develop in students. These “Putting It All Together” sections elucidate the process quite helpfully. Further, the chapters conclude with a “Practice” section that reinforces the skill, and “Questions for Discussion and Reflection.” While well-intentioned, the latter does not contribute substantially.
The final chapter, “Assessing: Evaluating and Applying the Theological Work,” recenters the reader on Stetina’s pastoral care for students—that they undertake reading and assessing for the purpose of knowing and loving God and others (p. 127). She then walks through issues of evaluating the coherency, veracity, and significance of a theological work.
Overall, How to Read Theology equips nascent theological students with insightful, experienced coaching on how to read a theological work. It also furnishes seasoned faculty with a guide they can place into their students’ hands early in the educational endeavor. How to Read Theology best fits an undergraduate Christian liberal arts audience, or even a graduate level audience that lacks the advanced biblical studies from such an undergraduate setting. One outstanding feature of the book is its Glossary. For those new to theological reading, this alone justifies placing How to Read Theology on one’s bookshelf. Stetina augments the core chapters with six appendices; they seek to take the newly skilled reader into the role of teaching others how to read and lead theological discussions. Appendix two, “A Selected List of Significant Theologians and Theological Works,” displays a “Who’s Who” of theology. Everyone will likely find someone they believe is “missing” from the list, but nonetheless, theological students will be well served by the list for a long time.
As a skills-based text, one finds little with which to argue. The process Stetina maps does what it intends to do—familiarize a reader with a theological work in way that the reader can understand and assess a work fairly and accurately, given the reader’s own theological dispositions. In that regard, How to Read Theology could incorporate a discussion on knowing one’s own presuppositions, which often remain unidentified, especially in younger readers.
Other small concerns may arise as to a couple of Stetina’s definitions. First, her description of a “systematic theologian” appears too narrow and insufficiently differentiated from “biblical theologian” (p. 77; cf. p. 83). Second, her formulation of sola Scriptura also appears too narrow. As Kreider and Svigel contend in A Practical Primer on Theological Method (pp. 68-69; Zondervan Academic, 2019), sola Scriptura as the norming norm conveys Scripture as the primary source of theology, but not the only source of theology. Systematic theologians operate more broadly than only in and through Scripture.
At the same time, Stetina’s concise, clear articulations of the categories and formats of theology (pp. 77-80) and of the approaches to theology (pp. 82-84) highlight her strength: giving us all tools with which to read, and to read well. For this reason, How to Read Theology commends itself as a worthy addition to introductory level courses in formal theological education settings, even possibly for church and parachurch settings with eager learners.
Joshua J. Bleeker, DEdMin