A Theology for the Church. Edited by Daniel Akin, et al. B&H Academic: Nashville, 2007. 979 pages. Hardcover, $49.99.
The title of A Theology for the Church sets it apart from other systematic theology texts. This is a theology text which attempts to place its conversation about doctrine squarely in the place that its authors believe it belongs: the local church.
As a pastor, I am grateful for this approach. There often seems to be a significant disconnect between those who appreciate theological depth and those who seek to carry out the Gospel ministry in a local church. Almost all of the contributors of A Theology for the Church, however, have extensive local church staff experience, giving them special insight in the application of doctrine to the life of the church. I found myself continually surprised at how well each of the authors maintained theological rigor and relevance to contemporary culture. That balance is a very rare thing indeed in academic circles, and the authors handled it with great skill.
The contributors of A Theology for the Church constitute the “A-list” of Baptist theologians and provide a snapshot of contemporary, conservative Southern Baptist thought. I was pleased to see, however, that A Theology for the Church incorporated many of the positive developments in evangelicalism outside of the Baptist camp. For example, Russell Moore’s chapter on personal and cosmic eschatology shows great appreciation for the “restoration” motif in God’s work of salvation, a doctrine greatly in vogue among emerging and more progressive Christians. However, appreciation for these new emphases did not shift the center of Baptist theology away from the penal substitution of the cross, the reliability of the Bible, and the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation—three doctrines not as popular among progressive Christians. A Theology for the Church is a very Gospel-centered volume, and Gospel-centeredness has been the core of Baptist faith from its inception.
My only real regret for the book is that I wish it had gone farther in its attempts to produce a theology by the local church and for the local church. Of all the contributors, only Mark Dever is a full-time Pastor-Theologian. As a result, there are times when A Theology for the Church still feels disconnected from the actual warp and woof of local church ministry. For example, Russell Moore’s chapter on “natural revelation,” though excellent, devotes 40 pages to the philosophical, theological and historical underpinnings of the doctrine and only 6 to its relevance to the local church. It was not that I found anything in his 40 pages to be problematic, only that adequate space was not given to explaining the relevance of the doctrine to the ministries of the local church. Moore pinpoints some excellent places that the doctrine will affect the ministry of a local church (such as apologetics, political engagement, and international missions), but makes only passing, unsatisfying comments about those subjects.
Paige Patterson’s chapter on “The Work of Christ” serves as another example of where a little more application would have been helpful for the pastor, though Patterson’s chapter the finest theological chapter in the entire book. One could scarcely find a richer, more robust description of the atonement anywhere in print. Patterson’s skillful weaving together of Scripture, church history, theological perspective and devotional reflection is nothing short of majestic. At times the chapter reads almost like prose! However, the chapter does not fully bring to light some of the ways that the centrality of the Gospel is being challenged in contemporary evangelical life. Unfortunately, some pastors may not be able to connect the dots, and thus fail to make the connection between Patterson’s rich theology and its contemporary challenges in local church ministry.
There were a few exceptions to the book’s disconnect from local ministry, however, most notable being John Hammett’s chapter on Human Nature. Throughout this chapter Hammett applies a Biblical understanding of human nature to local church ministry, explaining how our understanding of human nature affects strategies for church “community,” teaching vocational calling, and the application of gender roles.
There were also times I wondered how accessible A Theology for the Church would actually be to “the church.” It is hard to see most pastors, much less a lay person, making it through Thornbury’s “Prolegomena.” While Thornbury shows impressive familiarity with contemporary developments within evangelicalism, readers outside of academic circles may find his language and style inaccessible and off-putting.
If there is any truth to my critiques, however, it is hard to lay the blame for them at the feet of the editors. How can they be blamed for the dearth of evangelical pastors who can read and write theology with excellence? What contemporary pastors could be called on to contribute to such a volume? Evangelical pastors seem to be a breed addicted only to size of their Sunday morning attendance. Shallow, theologically-famished messages are excused because pastors must remain accessible to “the unchurched.” There is an assumption that these unchurched are all simpletons who aren't smart enough to ask deep questions and will grow bored with deep answers. We point to the large congregations of preachers who preach this way as proof that shallow, entertaining, fix-it-now preaching is the most necessary kind. Many of the “unchurched” in these congregations, however, turn out to be simply churched people who've been out of church for a while. We have a culture that is growing up around us who are becoming more and more immune to our shallow, though well-marketed Gospel. While I’m grateful that some ministries are re-claiming these “cultural Christians” back for Christ, I am also concerned that our preaching is becoming irrelevant to the growing, post-Christian culture. The traditional seeker-sensitive sermon is not effective in reaching people with either no awareness or negative perceptions of Christianity, such as you find on a college campus. Our sermons are going to have to deal with the real questions of existence, meaning, and fulfillment. These questions can only be answered through deep reflection on the Gospel.
The greatest tragedy in all of this may be that not only are we increasingly failing to engage the unchurched on a substantive level, we are not even leading the Christians currently in our churches really to know God. To know the Gospel deeply is to know God, and it is only by knowing God that we are able to withstand the encroaching forces of secularism. History shows that a theologically-famished church is a church that will not survive in its given cultural context. We know the church in the world will survive. But will it survive in America?
In the words of Al Mohler, whose conclusion to the book, “The Pastor as Theologian,” summarizes the unique focus of this work, “The managerial revolution has left many pastors feeling more like administrators than theologians, dealing with matters of organizational theory before ever turning to the deep truths of God’s word and the application of these truths to everyday life . . . Congregations that are fed nothing more than ambiguous ‘principles’ supposedly drawn from God’s word are doomed to spiritual immaturity, which will become visible in compromise, complacency, and a host of other spiritual ills . . . (However) we are the stewards of sound words and the guardians of doctrinal treasure that has been entrusted to us at the very core of our calling as pastors. The pastor who is no theologian is no pastor.”
Lead Pastor of The Summit Church, Durham, NC