Mapping Modern Theology

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Edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012
432 pp. | $35.00

Recent surveys of “modern theology” are by no means in short supply. Examples of capable treatments include Modern Theology: A Critical Introduction by Rachel Muers and Mike Higton, The Journey of Modern Theology[1] by Roger E. Olson, the two-volume Modern Christian Thought by James C. Livingston, and The Modern Theologians, edited by David Ford. And yet, it seem that Mapping Modern Theology, edited by Kelly M. Kapic (Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College) and Bruce L. McCormack (Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary), has identified a niche that sets it apart from other solid primers on the subject.

So then, what is unique about this volume? As Kapic notes, most textbooks on modern theology “are primarily arranged chronologically and/or around particular theologians or movements” (p. ix). While such approaches are of great value, they tend not to overtly explore the impact of modernity upon specific theological topics. This is precisely the gap that this work intends to fill. By organizing the book around key doctrinal loci, the editors are able to make explicit what is often left implicit in other textbooks on modern theology. The result is an intriguing overview of Christian doctrine, viewed through the lens of modernity.

Over the course of fifteen essays – each written by an expert in his or her respective field – Mapping Modern Theology investigates the bearing of modernity upon a number of critical theological heads: On “Modernity” as a Theological Concept (Bruce L. McCormack), The Trinity (Fred Sanders), Divine Attributes (Stephen R. Holmes), Scripture and Hermeneutics (Daniel J. Treier), Creation (Katherine Sonderegger), Anthropology (Kelly M. Kapic), The Person of Christ (Bruce L. McCormack), Atonement (Kevin J. Vanhoozer), Providence (John Webster), Pneumatology (Telford Work), Soteriology (Richard Lints), Christian Ethics (Brian Brock), Practical Theology (Richard R. Osmer), Ecclesiology (Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen), and Eschatology (Michael Horton).

While eminently readable and accessible, it is at the same time informed and intelligent.

While the essays herein can each be appealed to independently, the introductory article by Bruce McCormack serves to set out the trajectory and scope of the project as a whole. Beyond its function as a sort of legend for the map that is this book, McCormack’s theological interrogation of modernity is laudable in its own right. Conceding the difficulty of defining modern theology, McCormack nonetheless helpfully points out that a strict theological conception of modernity ought not to be confused with, for instance, sociological, political, or philosophical notions of modernity. Rather, modernity as a theological concept essentially refers to a number of responses (originating, for the most part, in Germany) to a single basic question, namely, “the nature of God and his relation to the world” (p. 4). Thus framed, modern theology is not equivalent to contemporary theology per se, but rather is aligned with a core set of answers to the above question that has resulted in a “style of doing Christian theology” (p. 17).

Turning to the remaining essays, it is evident that most of the authors here are writing from a Protestant and largely Reformed perspective. Still, as with any edited volume, there is a spectrum to the material contained herein (both in terms of theological commitment and degree of sophistication). That being said, the integrity of the essays in this book is, on the whole, exemplary. Especially considering that the aim of this work is to serve as an introductory textbook, the content here is impressive. While eminently readable and accessible, it is at the same time informed and intelligent. As a bonus, along with an examination of the way in which modernity has impacted a given doctrinal loci, each chapter provides suggestions for further reading. More than just a textbook, this work has utility as a reference volume. Similar to how a theological dictionary operates, Mapping Modern Theology offers a series of brief essays (or articles) on important doctrinal topics – albeit from a deliberately narrow perspective, namely, modernity.

In the final analysis, my assessment of this volume is decidedly positive. Although each reader will have his or her favorites, the editors deserve credit for ensuring that the essays here are all worthy contributions. Overall, by summing up capacious theological concerns in a concise and competent fashion, what is supplied here is a series of masterful sketches that will provide expedient orientation to otherwise overwhelming areas of study. As I see it, Mapping Modern Theology deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in interacting with the way that “modern” theological suppositions have shaped the world in which we live, and the doctrines that we, as Christians, must seek to rightly understand.

 

[1] This is an expanded and revised version of 20th Century Theology, which was published in 1992, and authored by Olson and the late Stanley J. Grenz.

About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.