Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer
Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed is part of an ongoing series by T&T Clark designed to help people make sense of complex topics by presenting them in an introductory manner. Paul Allen, Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, makes great strides toward that goal in this volume.
Allen’s goal is “to survey and analyse the history of Christian reflection regarding how we speak of God and the life of the world in relation to God” (viii). He does this using a “wide-angle lens on the horizon of Christian theology, with peaks and valleys of theological method revealed in cursory snapshots over the bulk of its 2000-year history” (ix). Indeed, these two sentences sum up Allen’s accomplishment in this volume well.
After the introduction, the book is divided into eight chapters. In chapter one, Allen analyzes Paul as a theologian. He does this with respect for the authority of Scripture, but his approach does not seem to regard the canonical status of Paul’s work as highly as most Evangelicals would like. Though he picks up major themes from Paul’s writing, such as justification by faith, the triune God, and personal holiness, he seems to approach Paul as a theologian like us, rather than an inspired author of sacred Scripture. Nonetheless, there is value in his analysis.
Allen then moves on to the Patristic era theologians, outlining the approaches used by Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. He deals with these theologians well, though with the sweeping strokes necessary to move through all of church history in a few hundred pages. Chapter Three focuses on Augustine, particularly through his clearest teaching on Christian theological method in De Doctrina Christiana. Allen’s summary of Augustine is well-done, though brief.
The fourth chapter surveys the theological method of the medieval era, examining the schemes of Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. These three theologians fairly represent major schools of thought through medievalism, which have been significant through church history. Chapter five focuses on the Reformation interpretations of sola scriptura, which Allen recognizes as more complex than it may seem on the surface. In this chapter he interacts with Martin Luther, Philipp Malanchthon, and John Calvin to show how these three men understood the balance between Scripture and reason in rightly doing theology.
The early modern theologians are the subject of the sixth chapter. Allen aptly notes that these theologians were among the first to be self-aware of the method behind their theologizing. The individuals of interest in this chapter are Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack. Allen is successful in showing how these theologians developed methods influential in shaping later discussions.
Chapter seven brings the reader to modernity, an era where theological method becomes even more confused and perplexing than in any previous time. In this chapter, Allen deals with Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx. Demonstrating his Lonerganian roots, Allen shows a thorough interest in Roman Catholic theologians in the modern era. In the final chapter, Allen describes contemporary theological method as wisdom. He chooses the schools of Radical Orthodoxy, Post-liberalism, and Liberation theology, as well as Joseph Ratzinger, to make his case. Wisdom in this case is the use of reason in conversation with tradition to shape Christian identity. In several of the cases Allen highlights, the result is more clearly balanced toward contemporary interpretation than tradition as found in Scripture or history. The quest, therefore, may be for a theological identity consistent with both contemporary culture and tradition, but the result seems to be a new form of Christianity. The fractured nature of theological method in the modern and post-modern eras is evident as the number of case studies Allen presents increases dramatically with more contrast between the different theological methods.
Theological Method is not an introductory volume in the pure sense. It relies too much on the reader to recognize names and general themes in theologies. That being said, it would be helpful to students in seminary in upper-level electives or those doing doctoral studies in systematic or historical theology. This is a book that is useful after the basic pieces of theological understanding are in place.
One weakness of the book is that it is not consistently systematic in its presentation of the theological methods. In the introduction, Allen proposes four themes in theological method, but these themes are not evident in his presentation of the various theological schools. Additionally, in the final chapter Allen offers “five fundamental questions at issue in theological method” (208), but those questions are not readily apparent earlier in the text. The overall structure of the volume would have been improved had Allen applied either of these rubrics consistently. A second weakness of the volume is a focus on innovation. By the very nature of the book Allen is looking for new developments in theological method, thus he neglects more conservative approaches that have interacted with the innovators of an age. This makes the conversation somewhat one-sided and may lead to the false impression that there have been few advances in method among conservative Christian theologians through the years.
The chief strength of this volume is its breadth. In just over two hundred pages of content, Allen manages to clearly present the main schools of theology from a two thousand year history of the church. He does so in an objective manner that assists the reader in drawing her own conclusions. Though he summed up some major figures in only a few pages, he well represented the essence of those theologians’ work. This is a feat worthy of applause.
Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed is a useful reference to refresh one’s understanding of historic theological approaches in a few minutes. This is a concise book with explanatory power. Allen has produced a helpful volume that belongs on the shelf of a theological student or academic.
Andrew J. Spencer is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC.
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Theological Method: A Guide For The Perplexed