The Formation of Christian Doctrine
W. David Buschart's Review of "The Formation of Christian Doctrine" by Malcom B. Yarnell, III
Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007. xx + 218 pp. Paperback, $19.99. ISBN 978-0-8054-4046-1.
Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine. And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)—theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.
Yarnell has a working knowledge of a large body of primary sources related to theories of the development of doctrine, and cites or engages the major figures associated with this topic. He is both descriptive and analytical, presenting and critiquing major theories, and he is constructive, formulating and proposing a “free-church” view of doctrinal development and the history of theology.
Rather than attempting to engage the entire scope of the book, every chapter, in the space of this brief review, I will limit myself to three chapters in which Yarnell advances constructive proposals. Chapter Three is devoted to “The Foundation of Doctrine: A Believer’s Church Proposal.” Reflective of Yarnell’s free-church perspective (noted above) he looks to the sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader Pilgrim Marpeck for wisdom in formulating “the foundation of doctrine.” Yarnell gives a thorough description of Marpeck’s thought on a wide range of topics, including theological method, the authority of scripture, the covenantal character of free-church ecclesiology, the importance of obedience and discipline in free-church ecclesiology, and elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. Unfortunately, he never brings these matters together into a coherently articulated synthesis or “proposal” regarding “the foundation of doctrine” (the title of the chapter).
And, the following and final chapter does not resolve this. Identifying Chapter Six as “the goal toward which” the entire book is directed, Yarnell moves “toward a free-church history of theology” (chapter sub-title). The chapter is thought-prompting and shaped by clearly articulated free-church theological commitments and emphases (such personal salvation and covenantal freedom). But, what is not clear is how it serves as the culmination for the book. While echoing once again numbers of the distinctively “free-church” beliefs, it is not clear how what Yarnell says here is dependant upon or builds from the preceding five chapters. In the final pages of the book, he discusses some of the history of Southern Baptist views of slavery, and this could have served as one case-study for a theory of development or history of theology, but he provides historical description without any substantive theoretical analysis.
Associate Dean, and Professor of Theology and Historical Studies