Book Review: Sanctified by Grace
When I was finishing seminary and applying for Phd programs in systematic theology, I had several fellow students and a few professors express surprise that I would want to pursue that particular field. Others at my seminary considering going on to doctoral work were mostly interested in either biblical studies or ethics, excited about getting the church to face either the hard historical facts behind the biblical text or the hard moral requirements our faith makes of us. The conceptual study of doctrine seemed to them “rationalistic”, detached and irrelevant. I had one pastor acquaintance who really didn’t know anything about my theological leanings tell me I like systematic theology because I want to “chop the Bible up into little bits.” Clearly a certain brand of systematic theology, the kind given to an encyclopedic style and proof-texting method, had come to define the whole field for most of the people around me.
I had, thankfully, been exposed to theologies of far greater substance than this, ones centered especially around the being, character and work of God and imbued with a deep appreciation for the history of Christian doctrine, a holistic integration of conceptual and moral dimensions, and a penetrating critique of modern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics. Taking classes at Fuller Seminary from Ray Anderson and Jeannine Graham exposed me to the work of Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance and John Webster. That trio of influences has changed my theology, faith and life forever and led me to Aberdeen to study with John Webster. There I encountered a community of theological study and spiritual life that offered a profound demonstration of what systematic theology can be. I am forever grateful for that experience.
I am also grateful to Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel for compiling and editing this book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life. Both having done their Phds in Aberdeen, the book they have produced offers an excellent introduction to the kind of theology I’m talking about, featuring a good smattering of theologians who either presently teach at Aberdeen or did when we were there – John Webster, Don Wood, Tom Greggs and Phil Ziegler – but also a host of others from across the US and UK who represent the best of the field and demonstrate the rich benefit it has to offer the church today.
One of the great strengths of this book that the editors set out in the preface and introduction is the rejection of any dichotomy between theological reflection and Christian practice, between the intellectual and the moral, between doctrine and life. That is signified in the title: not just our initial justification but the whole scope of our lived faith needs to be understood by reference to the being, character and gracious work of the triune God.
The first essay of the book, “The Triune God” by Fred Sanders, is an excellent example. You couldn’t find a doctrine seen as more abstract and irrelevant by most Christians than the Trinity, but Sanders skillfully demonstrates how an understanding of God’s eternal triune life and the connection between its eternal “processions” and the saving “missions” of God the Son and God the Spirit in time is the key to understanding what salvation really means for the Christian: adoption into God’s life.
And the hits keep on coming. Suzanne McDonald’s essay on “The Electing God” is another example of a doctrine most Christians avoid like the plague being used as an entryway to understanding the peculiar power and beauty of the triune God revealed in scripture. Ian McFarland’s “The Saving God” is another highlight, relating a richly biblically informed understanding of God to a proper understanding of Christian salvation and vice versa.
Another great value of this book is its accessibility and usability. The chapters are fairly bite sized, most running about 15 pages or less, organized around the chief doctrines of Christian faith and practice so that each chapter offers a succinct and well written introduction to the topic, current debates and relevance to lived faith. I’ve already tagged several essays for use in undergraduate and seminary classes I teach. My hope, however, is that this book might find readers outside the academy in the church, where a revived interest in theological reflection is most needed. Lay readers would likely be somewhat challenged by many of these essays, but only to their great benefit. In a time when the church growth movement has produced consumer congregations tolerant of only the easiest encouragements, a deep doctrinal book is always a hard sell, especially one that threatens to stretch our vocabulary and make us ponder the reality of God without immediate “action steps”. But a book like this could be perfect for church reading groups led by energetic seminarians. The impact on the life and culture in such churches would be invaluable.
Wherever this book finds its readership, Eilers and Strobel have done the church and theological academy a great service in bringing together this outstanding group of theologians together. This book is a solid demonstration of unique benefit systematic theology has to offer and the freshness of the current state of the field.