Stephen H. Webb
Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College
The following review appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 9/5 (2002): 514-515.
“We seem to be at the end of a period that has witnessed the revival of systematic theology. When theology lost confidence in the sixties and seventies, it became increasingly topical and sociological, intervening into practical issues as an aid to other, more serious academic disciplines. The revival of systematic theology was fueled, in part, by the approaching retirement of a whole generation of theologians who entered the academy during its expansionistic years of the post World War Two baby boom. Many of these works attempted to give one last stand to politicized agendas by wrapping them in systematic garb. Few of them seemed to have emerged primarily from the classroom, where, after all, the best professors spend the least amount of time. Few of them, too, tried to be in continuity with systematic theologians of the past. Instead, they were eager to break new ground for radical revisions of Christianity for the future.
Given that context, the two volumes of Joe R. Jones’ systematic theology constitute a remarkable achievement. This is a work written for the church and destined for the seminary classroom. It is as useful as it is comprehensive, a rare feat these days. Indeed, it could have been written only as the culmination of a career spent practicing the passion for God in the classroom. It reads like a teaching manual, but it is more creative than most theologies that strain after contemporary relevance. This two-volume set could just well be the first systematic theology of the postmodern period to be true to the actual practice of teaching theology. It demonstrates how a life devoted to teaching can lead not only to the most fruitful thinking but also to a thinking that reaches students where they are and moves them to places they never dreamed were possible.
What is most remarkable is that Jones spent seventeen years in university and seminary administration before returning to teaching at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in 1990. This book grew out of lecture outline notes that he made available for students in the CTS bookstore, but this book outgrew the genre of lecture notes. It really looks back to the days of the Medieval Schoolmen, whose lecture notes display a seriousness of purpose and depth of learning that are rarely attempted in the classroom today. By pushing himself to be the best teacher that he could be for his dozens of students, Jones has delivered a surprisingly creative and faithful gift to theologians everywhere.
The methodological underpinning of his work is the concept of “grammar,” but Jones brings a lot of clarification to this overworked term, and he does not overwork it himself. Theology is at once the conceptual analysis of Christian speech and the training in how to use that speech. It is as if one cannot learn to speak like a Christian without being pulled into the various debates that comprise Christian dogma. Jones does theology close to ground, so to speak, without letting his theory take over and take him away from his subject matter. He acknowledges that any grammatical analysis of religious language will be both normative and descriptive, because theology is a servant to the church, not its master. Theology is thus one part of the church’s witness to the glory of God, enacting the very thing upon which it reflects.
Jones sets out to cover the basic doctrines of the church, but in doing so, he meets the challenges of the secular world as well. This is a book that will teach not only beginning students in theology but also the teachers who use it. I predict it will have a long life in the classroom, precisely because it deals with nearly all of the fundamental questions of Christianity in such a way as to show that Christian life today is still a matter of understanding the Christian dogma that has guided the church from its very beginning.”
Stephen H. Webb