The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Reviewed

Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms


The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) is a succinct compendium of key theological words and concepts.

One obvious advantage to the book is its portability. It’s less than 400 pages and easy to carry around in a satchel… though since receiving it, I’ve kept it on my desk with a few other works I reference a lot.

What sorts of “theological terms” does this dictionary cover? The publisher’s product page notes:

This second edition of The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms provides a comprehensive guide to nearly 7,000 theological terms—1,000 more terms than the first edition. McKim’s succinct definitions cover a broad range of theological studies and related disciplines: contemporary theologies, biblical studies, church history, ethics, feminist theology, global theologies, hermeneutics, liberation theology, liturgy, ministry, philosophy, philosophy of religion, postcolonial theology, social sciences, spiritually, worship, and Protestant, Reformed, and Roman Catholic theologies.

There is also a short annotated bibliography, list of works consulted, and set of abbreviations at the back of the book. The “Major Topics and Distinctive Terms and Concepts” section at the beginning gives the reader a framework of overarching topics into which the dictionary’s terms will fit. (E.g., “Bible,” “theology,” “worship,” “ethics and moral theology,” and so on.)

McKim himself has overseen much larger dictionaries. An initial point of skepticism for me was whether a theological dictionary this small and short could still be substantive. Definitions are somewhere in the 15-75 word range, depending on the term.

Yet as a quick-reference guide, it does well. Consider McKim’s definition of feminist criticism:

A critical approach to reading the Bible that focuses on the political, social, and economic rights of women. Diverse goals and methods are employed, with a common recognition that all texts are gendered. This implies not only that they reflect sexual differences between males and females, but also that they involve power. Feminist criticism seeks to make clear culturally based presuppositions found in texts.

Here’s another example, the entry for “agrapha,” a term one finds shortly after delving into studies of the Gospels:

(Gr. “unwritten sayings”) Sayings attributed to Jesus that circulated as traditions during the period of the early church. Also those sayings attributed to Jesus found outside the canonical Gospels.

The reader will also find terms like “Griesbach hypothesis,” “haggadah,” “Muratorian Canon,” perspectivalism,” “cuneiform,” “body-soul dualism,” “Trisagion,” “interiority,” “rechte Lehre” (German for “right teaching on doctrine”), and many more.

McKim’s goal was to provide a “wider, synthetic work that gives short, identifying definitions over a more comprehensive range of theological disciplines,” as opposed to something more “specialized” and “extensive.” The beginning theological students that McKim seeks to reach will find such a dictionary an especially useful entry point into the large and growing world of biblical and theological studies. McKim seeks to be more “broad” than “deep”; in this he succeeds, but the definitions are still plenty substantive to be useful to students at various stages.

The annotated bibliography is just five pages and glosses over important works (e.g., the commentaries section lists Anchor but omits Hermeneia). It does include a good page on Web-based resources for theological studies. The abbreviations include a couple pages of textual criticism abbreviations (including Latin), which will save the new reader of the Hebrew Bible from having to look most terms up elsewhere.

One feature I felt to be missing was a lengthier set of introductory essays on the nature and methods of theological study. I’m assuming Dr. McKim didn’t include this because it might exceed the intended scope of the work, but perhaps future editions could include–as many dictionaries do–at least two or three introductory essays to further orient the reader to theological study.

I’ve had the dictionary at my desk all summer, and each time I’ve looked up a word or phrase, I’ve found what I was looking for (with the exception of dereliction or “cry of dereliction”).

Especially for its price and accessibility, The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms is an excellent starting point for seminary students or for pastors who want to stay up-to-date on theological terminology.

Many thanks to WJK Press for the review copy, given to me with no expectation as to the content of my review. You can find the dictionary here on Amazon (affiliate link), or here at WJK Press.

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