Probably the Best Broadly Evangelical Systematic Theology
Millard J. Erickson’s massive Christian Theology is now in its third edition (published in 2013). The hallmark of the 1,200-page book is its evangelical perspective, concern for application to life, and balance in covering multiple perspectives fairly.
There’s also a newly updated abridged version of the work, Introducing Christian Doctrine, which clocks in at a more modest 512 pages.
Introducing Christian Doctrine begins each chapter with an easy-to-grasp one-page summary, featuring “Chapter Objectives,” a short “Chapter Summary,” and a detailed “Chapter Outline.” This makes navigating the work a breeze, especially if you’re after a particular topic–as I am currently, since my five-year-old keeps asking me about heaven!
Erickson offers an engaging read from the beginning:
To some readers, the word “doctrine” may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps propounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask. (4)
Readers can count on, even in this abridged version, a thorough survey of biblical references and concepts from which to derive a solid theology. Erickson covers well the expected basics: revelation, the nature of humanity, salvation, eschatology, and so on.
Balanced as he is, there are occasional areas that deserve further nuance, even in the unabridged version. In the larger edition, for example (preserved in the abridgement), Erickson says, “Jesus did not make an explicit and overt claim to divinity” (611). He means that Jesus never explicitly said, “I am God,” although verses like “I and the Father are one” seem to counter Erickson’s claim here. What follows, though, is a great read on Jesus: there are what can only be divine “prerogatives Jesus claimed” (611).
To take just one example, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man in Mark 2:5-10. The teachers of the law object, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They are right, of course, that only God can forgive sins. Jesus here is exercising a divine role: “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). Jesus also exercises an authority reserved only for God when he re-casts the Decalogue in his Sermon on the Mount with a refrain of, “But I say to you.” And when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, he displays power over life and death themselves, a power available to no mere human being. This is not to mention Christ’s own resurrection, showing his divine power over death.
Erickson offers some nice turns of phrase, too. Speaking of God’s age, he says God “is no older now than a year ago, for inifinty plus one is no more than infinity” (91). Together with the Scriptural support Erickson gives for God’s being “infinite in relation to time” (91), one easily sees how useful Introducing Christian Doctrine can be in church settings.
The abridged version does a impressive job at condensing Christian Theology without significantly compromising or neglecting the content. One surprising move in the abridged version is that the chapters are re-ordered and numbered differently from the full edition.
This may be inevitable with an abridgement, but most readers will want to be able to know how the two titles relate, for purposes of accurate cross-referencing and further reading. Future editions ought to bring the abridged chapter numbering in line with that of the fuller version. Even the section headings change, so that Part 5 of the condensed version is “The Person and Work of Christ” (spanning chapters 23-27), while Part 5 of the unabridged edition is “Humanity” (chapters 20-24).
The annotated Table of Contents (see them here) in Introducing Christian Doctrine do, however, allow the reader to easily locate a given theme and sub-topic.
There’s much more to interact with in Erickson’s book, but it’s the best broadly evangelical theology of which I’m aware. Erickson blends academic thoroughness with pastoral concern, an approach I love.
And now, some link love: You can find the condensed Introducing Christian Doctrine here (Amazon), here (Baker), and in electronic form here (Logos) and here (Olive Tree). The fuller, unabridged Christian Theology is here (Amazon), here (Baker), and in electronic form here (Logos) and here (Olive Tree).
Thanks to Baker Academic for the copy of Introducing Christian Doctrine, which they sent me for review, but with no expectation as to this review’s content.