Theological textbooks

Posted on December 5, 2008

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Ben has a teaching job (congratulations, Ben!), and asked on Facebook about textbooks for introductory theology courses. I started writing a comment, which rapidly became an essay; but it seemed a question of more general interest, so I thought I’d move my thoughts here…

Which is the best textbook? I can’t answer this without answering several prior questions about the nature of the course, how it fits into the wider curriculum, the identity of the students, &c., &c. I’d start by thinking about these:

1. What do I want to achieve in this course? (Not ‘learning outcomes’, although including those as well):

  • Do I want students to have a basic understanding of the major loci of theology?
  • Do I want them to have a detailed knowledge of certain key loci (Trinity & Christology, say)?
  • Do I want to introduce them to the breadth of the theological tradition?
  • Do I want them to be seriously grounded in one tradition (Wesleyan; Reformed; Pentecostal; neo-Thomist)?
  • Do I want them to face up to modern critiques of theology and possible answers?
  • Do I want them thoroughly grounded in the patristic debates and ecumenical decisions?
  • Do I want them to understand the nature of theological claims and argument?
  • Do I want them to be excited about the possibilities of theology?
  • Do I want them alive to majority world and gender issues concerning justice, and how these impact theology?
  • Do I want to emphasise the ethical and social implications of theology?

These all pull in different directions. I grew up on the ‘worthy but dull’ tradition of evangelical textbooks – we had Erickson, but McGrath and Grudem are now more popular. For a while, I reacted badly, emphasising interest and excitement over content (if they’re up to it, give them Gunton’s Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, and let Jenson and Hauerwas provoke them with idiosyncratic views). When Colin Gunton, Murray Rae and I wrote a textbook, it was designed explicitly for a course on theological method, and with an eye to introducing people to the major voices of the theological tradition. The thing is, you can’t be both comprehensive and deep, both balanced and provocative; in the space of one module including one thing means excluding something else (or failing to do either…). Only when you know what the course is aiming to achieve can you choose a textbook that will help, rather than hinder, your aims.

2. What does the wider curriculum look like? What opportunities for supplementing or reinforcing your course are there?

Are all the students doing level 1 church history at the same time? If so, what is it about? If it is patristics (it often is, rightly or wrongly), you can choose to focus on ecumenical debates over Trinity and Christology, and expect some reinforcement between the courses, or you can choose to go light on the ecumenical debates, trusting your colleague to give the students the things you are skipping in her lectures/seminars.

How much other theology are the students forced to do? How much are they able to do? If yours is the only compulsory course, what is so central that every student should have met it? If there is another compulsory course in year 2, what does it contain? What do students need to know to engage with that course effectively (you need to give it to them)? What are they going to do in detail there, allowing you to go light on it? Here in St Andrews, Alan Torrance teaches our introductory module. He does a stunningly good job of exciting students about the possibilities and relevance of theology, and of introducing them to certain absolutely central concepts and debates. I get them in the second year; knowing this background, I feel constrained to give them a survey course that introduces most doctrinal loci and the general shape of them. The broader curriculum has to fit together.

3. Who are your students?

This question includes intellectual ability; previous academic achievement; faith commitments; vocational intentions; age, gender and ethnic profile; and some other things. I first taught theology in Spurgeons College, a Baptist college for ordinands. The students there varied extraordinarily widely in intellect and academic background, but were united by a broadly evangelical faith and a commitment to the Christian ministry. Here in St Andrews, the students are uniformly intellectually able and academically well-prepared, but vary significantly in their beliefs and intentions. In Spurgeons, I needed a textbook (or a suite of textbooks) that would interest recent Oxford graduates and be accessible to ex-bricklayers, but I could assume a particular angle on the subject. Here, I can assume a certain level of ability to engage with a difficult text, but I cannot use anything that presumes its readers are Christian.

After answering all these questions, I know what sort of book I am looking for: the academic level; the content; the approach. Inevitably, the perfect book doesn’t exist. Compromise. Or write it.

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