Thomas Haviland-Pabst’s Review of TONGUES OF FIRE: A SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, by Frank D. Macchia

Published on April 15, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Cascade Books, 2023 | 478 pages

A Book Review from Books at a Glance

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst


Frank Macchia, Professor of Christian Theology at Vanguard University in California, writes from a Pentecostal perspective that is particularly shaped by the theology of Karl Barth. His most recent work is Tongues of Fire: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. With this book, Macchia offers a one-volume treatment of Christian doctrine while admitting that some of the topics he is exploring for the first time in writing. 

This book is structured in a manner that one would expect from a systematic theology textbook. The first section (chapters 1-3) addresses issues of prolegomena (e.g., the nature and task of theology). The second section (chapters 4-7) focuses on theology proper. The third section (chapters 8-9) gives attention to Christology. The fourth section (chapters 10-11) explores anthropology and soteriology, with a distinct emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s connection with these two loci. The fifth section (chapters 12-13) surveys the church and the final section (chapters 14-15) concludes with eschatology. 

The remainder of this review will be divided into two parts. In the first part, we will draw the reader’s attention to some strengths that characterize Macchia’s theological project. In the second part, we will make note of some weaknesses of the same. 

To begin with, Macchia’s writing style is not only clear but doxologically oriented. In other words, he is gifted at drawing the reader in and presenting theology in a manner that is both worshipful and meaningful. Sadly, many systematics that perhaps have better content (see below) simply do not come with the same vibrant style that Macchia’s does and so prove to be inaccessible and even intolerable for the average reader. This alone sets Macchia’s book apart as a model to follow in contemporary theological writing (at least as far as it is possible given the recognition that some topics or methods utilized do not easily lend themselves to readability). 

In his discussion of prolegomena, he holds a high view of Scripture, arguing that Scripture is the main instrument of salvation and that it is God’s self-revelation that provides the ontological grounding for human knowledge of God. His view of inspiration is consistent with an organic understanding of divine revelation (cf. Warfield), i.e., the Spirit speaking through human authors. Thus, he writes, “it is not only the authors who are inspired but also their texts, which are verbally inspired” (p. 19). Further, he rightfully affirms the Christological orientation of Scripture and assumes a conservative stance to the question of the canonicity of Scripture, following such scholars as Michael Kruger. He is careful to add that tradition deeply informs our reading of Scripture such that Scripture alone does not equal Scripture only; however, he is careful to note that while tradition is important, it is not an infallible authority in competition with Scripture. 

Turning to theology proper, Macchia presents a robust, theologically sound perspective on the doctrine of God in that he argues for classical theism (e.g., divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility). In fact, his discussion of divine impassibility is one of the clearest I’ve read to date! For example, after noting the Christological controversy that brought to the foreground the paradox of divine impassibility, he writes, “The Logos suffered impassibly or in a way proper to God. The Logos bears the suffering of flesh … in a way that maintains the overcoming transcendence [and thus immutability] of the divine strength in the process” (p. 189). In addition, he argues that God created ex nihilo. Intriguingly, he employs Thomas’s four proofs (e.g., the cosmological argument) in his exposition on the existence of God. 

Regarding the Trinity, he affirms what is essentially an orthodox view. He rightly pushes against social doctrines of Trinity, arguing that the “Father as the ground of love and guarantor of unity God … qualifies considerably social doctrines of the Trinity that advocate for three centers of consciousness in God” (p. 153). Moreover, he rejects a reading of Rahner’s rule which reduces the immanent Trinity to the economic Trinity. On the question of the filioque (the Spirit’s procession from the Father and Son), Macchia sides with the Eastern perspective, namely, that the Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son and adds the debatable notion, following Weinandy and others, that the Son generated “from the Father through the Spirit” (p. 162).  

Finally, though writing from a Pentecostal perspective and offering something of an apology for the movement(s) as a whole, he pushes against the understanding of Spirit baptism that would unduly separate it from regeneration. He writes:  

The gift of the Spirit itself cannot be divided. It is one gift received by faith at regeneration. Either one has the Spirit or not! … When speaking about sanctification, charismatic empowerment, and resurrection, we speak of different realizations of the one gift of the Spirit’s presence in our lives (p. 307). 

Turning now to some problematic aspects of Macchia’s theological work in this book, some readers will wish he had defined more precisely what he means by inspired (does it entail infallible and inerrant?) and it is not completely clear how he would distinguish the Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture from the Spirit’s illumination of the same for the believer. Also, though critical, he is more sympathetic to liberation theology than some readers may find agreeable. 

Regarding the relationship between free will and God’s sovereignty, he argues for an Arminian position, stating, “Divine omnipotence does not determine my choice in advance if I am a genuine person who is who … contributes to the direction of my life” (p. 129). On election and providence, Macchia sees God’s love as taking priority over his sovereignty and thus the stress, for him, ought to be placed on God’s love toward us in Christ rather than God’s determinative will. Although in the main, his doctrine of God and humanity are sound, Macchia does not adequately understand or fairly represent the Reformed tradition on these matters. Rather, he instead insists on adopting stereotypical arguments to the contrary that do not adequately wrestle with the claims of the Reformed. 

Though Macchia embraces the Anselmian understanding of the atonement, drawing from the work of Karl Barth, he rejects penal substitutionary atonement categorically, reflecting a misunderstanding of the relationship between God’s love and his wrath, i.e., God’s love is opposed to whatever is opposed to him for God cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13), and what appears to be an unawareness of the clear teaching of Scripture (e.g., Heb 9) that a sacrifice was required in order for God’s wrath to be propitiated. Much like his discussion of Calvinism, here, he falls back on stereotypical arguments. 

A few other items that will be problematic at least to some readers are (1) his egalitarian understanding of the relationship between husbands and wives as well as the leadership of the church; (2) his somewhat unqualified endorsement of ecumenicism; and (3) he advocates for the possibility of purgatory or, at the very least, a chance for repentance after death. 

To conclude this review, the results of those theologians who followed after Barth are mixed, often entailing a loss of classical theistic categories of understanding, a lessening appreciation of the authority of Scripture, and a universalistic approach to salvation. Macchia in many ways, though deeply appreciative of Barth, does not always follow the path of his co-belligerents. Happily, his theology proper, Trinitarianism, bibliology, and understanding of soteriology are relatively sound. While not all will appreciate some of the problematic aspects of his theological system, this book is worth reading for anyone interested in the discipline of systematic theology, especially given the fact that there are so few written from both a Pentecostal and broadly evangelical (read: theologically sound) perspective. 


Thomas Haviland-Pabst

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Cascade Books, 2023 | 478 pages

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