A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Scott Cook
Union School of Theology professor Robert Letham has made an extraordinary contribution to the field of systematic theology. Letham’s Systematic Theology is easily the most useful contemporary single volume systematic theology in the Reformed English-speaking world, covering all the loci of systematic theology in fewer than a thousand pages. Students, pastors, and professors alike will find the work both accessible and beneficial.
Letham’s work stands out among recent works in systematic theology for several reasons. First, Letham writes in a clear and crisp style. His prose is not dense, even when covering profound subject matter. He also intersperses his writing with humorous aside comments, giving the work a more human feel than most academic writing.
Second, Letham does not sacrifice thoughtfulness for the sake of brevity. Letham covers a vast number of subjects and, by necessity, often gives doctrinal topics brief consideration. However, he rarely leaves the reader with a sense that the subject has not been fairly covered, even if the coverage is concise.
And third, Letham’s Systematic Theology is valuable for Reformed pastors and theologians because the work is both Reformed and modern. Letham engages the whole spectrum of Reformed Catholic theology, from ancient to contemporary sources. Letham has also written a modern systematic theology, giving serious consideration to more liberal thinkers such as Barth, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. He also interacts with Catholic and Orthodox thinkers from Aquinas to Rahner and Palamas to Lossky. Letham’s Reformed catholicity finds no parallel in recent systematic theology.
We can map Letham’s theological perspective by noting four main theological traditions shaping Letham’s thought: Scoto-American Presbyterianism, Neo-Calvinist theology, Karl Barth, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Letham is a Presbyterian minister who was trained in both the Scottish and American Presbyterian traditions. His three-office ecclesiology confirms a Scottish influence, while his engagement with American theologians, particularly W.G.T. Shedd, shows the influence of American Presbyterianism.
Dutch Neo-Calvinism is also a clear influence in Letham’s writing. He formulates the theistic proofs with Neo-Calvinist sensibilities, arguing that they are demonstrations of the rationality of belief for believers, not definitive proof for unbelievers. Letham draws from Bavinck frequently and occasionally from Abraham Kuyper. (Cornelius Van Til is oddly absent from Letham’s Systematic Theology; Van Til receives only one mention in the whole work.)
Letham also uses Karl Barth regularly in the book, although his criticisms of Barth and Torrance prove that he has avoided the dangerous pitfalls of neo-orthodoxy. He rejects Barth’s doctrine of revelation and universalistic view of salvation, yet the number of times he refers to Barth positively shows that Letham has an appreciation for Barth’s thought.
Eastern Orthodoxy is also a prominent aspect of Letham’s thought. Letham tries to nuance the filioque clause with some Eastern concepts, showing a sense of deference to Eastern concerns. He also appropriates the Eastern concept of theosis, which is unique to Letham among Reformed thinkers.
Letham’s Systematic Theology follows a unique pattern of organization. The work divides into eight main parts. Rather than following the traditional loci method, Letham uses an approach that is “centered on God and feeds thereafter into the works of God in creation, providence, and grace” (36). He begins with the Trinity ad intra and continues the Trinitarian motif as the works of God ad extra are organized, broadly speaking, around the persons of the Trinity. This system works well most of the time. Letham’s work has a clear, logical flow.
However, the Trinitarian approach creates some irregularities in organization. One would expect, for instance, to find the definition of covenant in Part 5, “The Covenant of God” (405-463). Yet Letham defines the concept of covenant earlier in Part 4, “The Image of God” (347-359). Another structural innovation in Letham’s system of thought is that he weaves soteriology and ecclesiology together. This is intentional on Letham’s part: he wants to emphasize, contra Western individualism, that salvation is always experienced in the context of the means of grace, found only in the corporate life of the people of God. The motive behind such a move is most laudable.
However, the structure makes for a somewhat odd reading experience. After reading an (excellent) discussion of union with Christ, it is unexpected to then discuss the nature of the church, the power of preaching, and the nature of the sacraments (612-648), then to resume discussing the Ordo Salutis, only to return again to conclude the doctrine of the church (790-817).
Discussion of the Different Parts
Part 1: The Triune God
Letham gives some attention to prolegomena (41-66), but his main focus is on the doctrine of the Trinity and the attributes of God. Letham is well known for his book on the Trinity, and the Trinitarian section of his systematic manifests the work of a careful scholar who has given much of his career to considering the Trinity. Letham’s reflection on the Trinity is exegetically informed, historically minded, and contextualized by modern debates regarding the Trinity. Hence, Letham’s writing is useful to the pastor and scholar alike. His writing on the attributes of God is, by comparison, disappointing.
His discussion of the attributes is relatively brief (155-167) and lacking in detail. Nor does he treat the attributes of God with the same level of theological insight and historical depth as he does the doctrine of the Trinity. For instance, he uses Bavinck, Aquinas, and Dolezal to describe divine simplicity, who all subscribe to the classic definition of divine simplicity. Yet he also appeals to John Frame to define simplicity, even though Frame does not subscribe to the doctrine of divine simplicity in its classical formulation (157). Aside from the attributes of God, the rest of the chapter deals with the will of God, the decrees of God, and the question of Open Theism in good order.
Part 2: The Word of God
In part 2, Letham deals with revelation in written form (Scripture) and the proper interpretation of Scripture (the role of tradition and hermeneutics). Letham argues that the Church recognizes the canon of Scripture; she does not form the canon. The Scriptures are the Word of God, Letham argues, because God organically inspires them through the work of the Spirit in the authors. The Scriptures are, therefore, inerrant. The Church has affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture down through the ages, yet there are detractors of inerrancy, such as Karl Barth. Letham acknowledges that Barth’s notion of the three-fold Word of God is helpful, but Barth fails to see that organic inspiration makes Scripture more than a “witness to revelation.” Letham also deals with the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. He has a helpful section showing how charismatic theology, typified in Wayne Grudem, fails to appreciate the finality of God’s revelation in Scripture. He also deals with the theology of Peter Enns in a helpful excursus.
Part 3: The Works of God
Letham turns his attention to the works of creation and providence in the third part of his Systematic Theology. Letham argues that creation ex nihilo is fundamental to creation and the biblical worldview. He details that so-called conflicts between faith and science are, in actuality, conflicts between faith and naturalism – two opposing worldviews. While the first section of this chapter is helpful, the rest of the section on creation leaves much to be desired.
Letham seems to want to avoid dealing with the length of the days of creation, relegating this controversy to an appendix (909-932) – an interesting move, given that he chose to dedicate space to the question of extra-terrestrial life in the body of Part 3 (288-289). Nevertheless, the appendix is well written, and it seems he favors the Framework Hypothesis. The rest of the chapter deals with the works of God in providence.
Here Letham includes helpful discussions of miracles, the cessation of miracles, and the nature of free will. Letham also deals with theistic evolution, both at the micro and macro levels. Letham is cautiously negative towards macroevolution, arguing that the narrative of macroevolution has difficulty including a historical Adam and that macroevolution tends to “collide” with the Bible’s narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Letham also argues, under the heading of providence, that the Noahic covenant is not part of the covenant of grace. Rather, God’s covenant with Noah is part of God’s common grace that helps form the foundation of the regularity of providence.
Part 4: The Image of God
In Part 4, Letham deals with questions of anthropology, covenant theology, and hamartiology. Letham argues for a dichotomist anthropology, and that man is made in the image of God both in metaphysical and moral dimensions. The narrow sense was lost in the fall, while post-fall man is still in the image of God, broadly considered. Letham deals with questions of feminism and the origin of the soul as well.
Next Letham treats God’s covenant with Adam in the garden, commonly known as the Covenant of Works. After working through modern criticisms of the Covenant of Works in James Torrance and John Murray, Letham shows the various theological implications of God’s covenant with Adam. In the remainder of the chapter, Letham writes of the fall of humanity into sin.
Letham takes the position that Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity realistically. That is, the transmission of Adam’s sin was not grounded on an immediate, forensic declaration of God. Rather, all humanity was really, metaphysically in Adam when he sinned. Mankind sinned in Adam and, therefore, because of their participation in his sin, all men are condemned.
Part 5: The Covenant of God
Letham begins his section on covenant theology by discussing the doctrine of election. This may strike some readers as an odd placement for this doctrine, but he discusses election under the heading of covenant because many in the Reformed tradition have seen election as part of an inter-Trinitarian covenant known as the Pactum Salutis.
Letham offers an excellent historical analysis of the Pactum, noting some of the strengths and weaknesses of its historical formulations. His treatment is, on the whole, fair and balanced, though Letham prefers to speak of an “eternal trinitarian counsel” (438). In the course of this discussion, Letham speculates that the doctrine of the Pactum Salutis had some part to play in the resurgence of Arianism and Unitarianism following the restoration of the Monarchy in Britain (437-438). This is an odd proposal at best. Otherwise, Letham’s treatment of election and the Pactum Salutis is valuable.
The rest of Part 5 focuses on Covenant Theology, sans the Noahic Covenant and the Covenant of Works. He has a helpful discussion of the nature of the Mosaic Covenant with reference to recent debates over the nature of the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works (447-460). The only noticeable lacuna in Letham’s Covenant Theology is that he does not address the Davidic Covenant. He says on page 443 that he will discuss the content of the Davidic Covenant, but he never seems to get around to it.
Part 6: Christ, The Son of God
The first three sections of Part 6 deal with questions relating to the person and work of Christ. Letham first lays out the biblical data on the incarnation, followed by a section detailing the Christological formulations of the Church, concluding with a section on ongoing debates and issues in Christology.
His section on the impeccability of Christ and his criticism of the Barthian notion that Christ assumed fallen human flesh are, in particular, worthy of mention. He also includes a section on the nature of predication regarding Christ as the God-man that is helpful. The last half of Part 6 deals with the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. Here Letham deals with the nature and extent of the atonement. He includes a section on the ascension of Christ that is far more developed than most Reformed systematic theologies.
The curious thing about Part 6 is that Letham does not give much attention to the role of Christ as prophet. He dedicates one chapter each to the roles of Christ as priest and king, but he gives only a few pages worth of material to Christ’s prophetic ministry.
Part 7: The Spirit of God and the People of God
Letham combines the loci of the church and soteriology together in Part 7, making it the largest section in the book. He opens Part 7 with a brief but robust discussion of union with Christ, relating this key doctrine to most every other facet of theology. He works through the various parts of the Ordo Salutis with the same balanced concern for exegesis and historical theology that marks the rest of the volume.
When discussing the relationship of justification and sanctification, Letham argues that justification is not the cause of sanctification. He appeals to the logic of union with Christ that God is, properly speaking, the cause of every aspect of salvation. However, he does argue that justification is “the necessary condition for sanctification but not its efficient cause” (737).
Letham also covers matters of ecclesiology in this chapter. He advocates a three-office view of ministry and has a High Calvinist formulation of sacramental efficacy. The most interesting chapter of Part 7—and perhaps of the entire work—is the section on the Lord’s Supper and theosis. Theosis is the Eastern concept of “divination,” of being made, in some sense, divine by participation in the salvific work of Christ. Some Eastern thinkers tend to take theosis in a more metaphysical and mystical direction, while others argue the participation is primarily ethical.
Letham clearly avoids the former view of theosis, arguing that there is no essential divinization (786-787). He seems to identify theosis with the transformative and sanctifying elements of salvation. The focal point of Letham’s concept of theosis is in the Lord’s Supper, when worthy participants who partake by faith feed upon Christ spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit (787-788). It is clear that Letham’s use of theosis grows out of his love and appreciation for Eastern theology. What is not clear, however, is what substantial contribution Letham’s doctrine of theosis brings, considering that it is does not alter his doctrines of sanctification or the Lord’s Supper in any substantial way.
Part 8: The Ultimate Purposes of God
The final part of the book takes up questions of individual and cosmic eschatology. Letham argues against what he calls “eschatological preterism,” the (heretical) notion that the second coming of Christ has already occurred. What lies, then, in the future for the church? Letham’s basic position on the book of Revelation in particular is partial preterism (that the book was written primarily with events of the first century in view) and an amillenial/postmillennial outlook.
The judgment of Christ entails judgment for all based on works, but believers are justified only on the works of Christ. The life of the believer in heaven is one where we are graciously rewarded for obedience and experience perfect communion with God forever. The unbeliever, however, is destined for hell. Letham has a helpful section where he considers the arguments against personal, conscious torment. He considers annihilationism, conditional immortality, universalism, and pluralism. Letham appears to come down in favor of some form of personal eternal hell, but he is hesitant to be dogmatic on the nature of hell. We must, Letham argues, preach hell.
It is a “litmus test” (898) of the church’s faithfulness in ministry. But hell is not “an explicit part of the church’s confession. We do not look for everlasting punishment. We are responsible to warn, in the most serious and responsible manner, but it is not something about which we want to know a lot” (898). He ends his work reflecting on the glory of the world to come. “Come, Lord Jesus,” are the finals words of the work.
Letham’s Systematic Theology deserves a wide readership in Evangelical and Reformed circles. Students in seminary will benefit from having Letham’s work at hand as a quick reference for getting the basics on issues in key doctrines and for guidance in obtaining more specialized literature in the field of systematic theology.
Professors and teachers should consider Letham’s volume as a potential text for instruction so long as the professor is able to address some of Letham’s more idiosyncratic positions in course lectures. The busy pastor will benefit from owning Letham’s text most of all. Letham provides pastors with a one-stop work that will give exegetical, historical, and theological insights in most contemporary issues in systematic theology.
Scott Cook is the pastor at Oconee Presbyterian (ARP) in Seneca, SC.
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SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, by Robert Letham