My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In her book, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, Wheaton University’s Dr. Beth Felker Jones presents an argument that theology is not just for academic discussion. No, theology must go beyond ivory tower philosophical gymnastics and have a deeply practical nature. Her other books are Faithful: A Theology of Sex, God the Spirit: Introducing Pneumatology in Wesleyan and Ecumenical Perspective, and The Marks of His Wounds: Resurrection Doctrine and Gender Politics. These works along with her emphasis on systematic theology at Wheaton College and her work for the publication, The Christian Century where she writes on media, give her a substantial authority in the area of theology and doctrine.
However, as evidenced in Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, theology is a way we live. In the book, Dr. Felker Jones covers the theological doctrines of speaking of God, knowing God, the Trinity, Creation, God’s Image, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. These overviews are brief but profound. The chapters bring the reader into the historical development and complexities of each doctrine. However, Dr. Felker Jones does stop with an explanation of doctrine but emphasizes application. As she states in her Introduction:
“The study of doctrine belongs right in the middle of the Christian life. It is part of our worship of God and service to God’s people. Jesus commanded us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength (Luke 10:27). All four are connected: the heart’s passion, the soul’s yearning, the strength God grants us, and the intellectual task of seeking the truth of God. This means that the study of doctrine is an act of love for God: in studying the things of God, we are formed as worshipers and as God’s servants in the world. To practice doctrine is to yearn for a deeper understanding of the Christian faith, to seek the logic and the beauty of that faith, and to live out what we have learned in the everyday realities of the Christian life.”
Jesus in Luke 10:27 implored His followers to love God with their whole being. That means that theology must have a practical end, not just an intellectual one. This theology, this collection of doctrines, is historical. The Christian’s theological heritage is built upon the practical need to work out beliefs in the face of daunting heresies. Dr. Felker Jones, reviewing David Bebbington’s view on theology, further states:
“Evangelical Christianity is orthodox because it shares the doctrinal commitments of the early church’s creedal tradition, such as a belief in a Triune God. This orthodoxy is a point of connection between evangelicals and the bigger Christian story, beginning with the early church.”
This dedication to the historical connection is evident throughout the book. Dr. Felker Jones consistently through each chapter connects the current day understanding of doctrines back to the origin and development of thought. In this way, the reader is led through the necessary and practical nature of the doctrine. Learning why a doctrine developed is essential in learning why the doctrine is essential and practical today.
For example, consider the chapter on Ecclesiology (in my mind the finest chapter in the book). Starting with Acts chapter 15, Dr. Felker Jones develops this doctrine with an eye towards the realistic notion of what Church is to Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. Acts 15 is crucial because it marks an intense moment of discernment of her leaders. The Church had to decide how to handle the Gentiles; whether to force them to adhere to Jewish laws (circumcision specifically) or not. The tension was between remaining faithful to the Jewish nature of the church while at the same time opening the Gospel to all peoples. Again, Dr. Felker Jones speaks to the practical nature of this debate:
“It matters that this decision is made, not against what God has done in Israel, but in continuity with God’s work in Israel as testified to in Scripture. The new church agrees “with the words of the prophets” (v. 15) and with things God has been making “known from long ago” (v. 18). To free gentile converts from the requirement of circumcision is not to ignore the holiness of God’s law, but it is to recognize the heart of the law.”
“The church of Jesus Christ is this joyous community: the community that rejoices in God’s gracious salvation. The church is the community that opens up, through that grace, to proclaim Christ’s peace to those “who were far off” and to “those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). This is the community that makes room for the Gentiles to be grafted in, not by sacrificing its identity, but by clarifying that identity: the church is the people of God, called out to bear visible witness, in the body and as a body, to the free and transformative gift of grace we have received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we practice ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, we learn what it means to be the people who were once “called ‘the uncircumcision’” (Eph. 2:11) because we were estranged from God, a people of aliens made citizens, strangers made children, those “who once were far off” and have “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13).”(Emphasis mine)
This theme increases in importance later in the chapter when she discusses unity. Unity, in the face of a broken and separated Body, is an essential and practical piece to understand Ecclesiology. How Christians of all flavors understand and commune with each other reflects on who we are as Christ followers. Dr. Felker Jones moves to John 17:17,18, reviewing how this can be realized.
“The church is to be in the world, like Jesus. If this extraordinary comparison were not enough, Jesus then makes one that is even more daunting, praying that church unity would be like the unity he shares with the Father. Trinitarian unity is the truest and realest unity, and Jesus wants the church to be a reflection of that. Next, Jesus names the basis on which the church may hope to be one: the glory of the Father given to us by Jesus (v. 22). Unity, no less than any other aspect of sanctification, is not a work we can perform under our own power. Unity is something that must come by the grace of Christ.”
Later in the chapter she further reflects on this unity and how it affects the missional nature of the Church:
“This kind of visible, unified practice strengthens and nurtures the body for a second kind of practice, one identified by many contemporary ecclesiologists who see that church happens when we are faithful in mission. Christian faith is a missionary faith, and the Christian church is a missionary church.”
As with all the chapters in the book, Dr. Felker Jones finished the chapter on Ecclesiology with a reflection on the practice of the doctrine. The Church, fractured as she is, must be seen as a community devoted to the foundation of the Apostles and Jesus. Practicing Ecclesiology involves praying for grace to love other believers and be open to how God will use the Church’s brokenness as a “witness to his grace.” This witness shines the light on how the church was, how the Church is, how the Church will be.
Throughout the book, Dr. Felker Jones displays great respect for all Christian traditions. Although she does dip into the Wesleyan well quite a bit (with 27 citations, Jean Calvin being second with 9 citations), she takes excellent care do correctly state differing theologies without completely tipping her hand on her individual stand. This is an essential skill for this kind of book. In order to convince Christians that what they believe matters in practice as well as in belief, an author must respect different tradition in approaching these, at times, controversial doctrinal differences.
For example, the chapter on soteriology starts with an acknowledgment of differences:
“Jesus’s work as savior is inexhaustible in both breadth and depth, and it is appropriate that soteriology should reflect some of that abundance. The doctrine of salvation is one of the areas of Christian thought where we see wide diversity—including disagreement—among different theological traditions, but this does not mean that there is no recognizable Christian consensus about soteriology.”
She continues in her development of soteriology by examining the commonalities of the doctrine. Starting with a review of Brenda Colijn’s work on salvation theses in scripture, Dr. Felker Jones explores the critical beginning concepts of salvation: conscience, contrition, election, and repentance. She then moves to the doctrine of Justification. The section begins with a review of the beginning conflicts of this doctrine in the sixteenth century. Being sensitive that this time period does draw up strong emotions on both the Catholic and Protestant side, she briefly reviews Martin Luther and his impact on the subject. Without pulling punches, but yet being respectful of Roman Catholic theology as it is properly understood (as opposed to how it is improperly abused), she can bring the concepts of sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus into a proper perspective. The doctrines of Sanctification and final redemption are treated with equal care.
What this leads to is her section in the chapter on the dynamics of grace and human freedom. Because Dr. Felker Jones has taken great care to respect all sides in the doctrines up until this point, it is refreshing that she can review this subject which has divided many Christians. Although it appears (albeit no overtly) that she is writing form a Wesleyan Arminian perspective, her treatment of Calvinism is accurate and thorough. While reviewing both sides of the issue, Christians from both branches – Calvinist and Arminian – will appreciate each other’s theology. Summing up her review:
“Calvinists find comfort in a doctrine of God who elects without imposing conditions, Arminians in a doctrine of God who offers salvation to all, and both Calvinists and Arminians in the God whose magnificent and free grace reaches out to us in our helplessness.”
In conclusion, Dr. Felker Jones achieves her goal in Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically. Each doctrine is reviewed with care and respect to the historical development and the significant differences among Christian traditions. With that respect, she is able to demonstrate how each doctrine has an essential practical nature. Putting theology into practice means taking critical doctrinal issues and placing responsibility upon the Christian to work them into their spiritual and communal lives. Jesus meant for us to believe rightly and practice the truth of His gospel so that a sick and dying world can hear the good news of His love and grace.