Building a Theological Bookshelf: Systematic Theology

Mark Gorman

Systematic theology is a vast field with a wide range of sub-disciples and a seemingly endless number of scholarly approaches. It is nearly impossible to keep up with the number of publications annually, so a list of recommended books in systematic theology, including this one, will always reflect the recommender’s limitations as much as the field itself. Importantly, and relatedly, it often takes years for a book or an author to make an impact on the field. A decade in systematic theology is a relatively short period of time for a discipline that is still arguing about how best to understand and incorporate, for example, the work of Karl Barth, who died in 1968.

So in addition to the five specific titles below, I would urge everyone who wants to build up a theological library to do two things. First, before investing too much in recent publications, make sure you have, and have read deeply, works from the past eras. Not all contemporary theologians have read much Aquinas or Barth or Augustine, but the legacies of writers like these still inform and often even frame contemporary debates. Read Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes (not all of it!), Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Wesley’s sermons (yes, all of them), and so on, as much as you can.

Second, learn how to find books that you will want to read and have on your shelves. Bibliographies and book reviews are your friends! If you enjoy a book, look in the notes or bibliography for ideas about what to read next. Have in your collection The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, or a similar volume, that has short articles on various topics, each with bibliographies and suggestions for further reading. Subscribe to a journal or two and read the book reviews, if nothing else. I’d recommend both the Wesleyan Theological Journal and Pro ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology. More ambitious readers should also consider subscribing to Modern Theology.

The best works in systematic theology convey that the author has a clear and coherent conception of what Christianity is all about—with the important caveat, of course, that the author’s understanding is both winsome and consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Each of the following books does that extraordinarily well. They are not necessarily the most important works of the last decade (how could that even be judged at this point?), but they are works that convey a coherent vision of Christianity as a whole and do so in compelling prose.

The list is in order of how challenging I think each book is to read, from least to most, but in every case the challenge is worth it. Every pastor and student of theology would benefit from having all of these works in a personal library.

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, The Love That Is God (Eerdmans, 2020)

Bauerschmidt is an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and a gifted preacher; he also teaches at Loyola University in Baltimore. In The Love That Is God, he takes a basic scriptural affirmation (“God is love”) and turns it into both a prompt for reflection (What is ‘the love that God is’ like?) and a lens through which to see the whole of Christian faith and life. The Love That Is God is a literary descendant of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It is fairly accessible, but not simple. It is a kind of apologetics, inviting skeptics, non-Christians, and marginal Christians to reconsider the faith, and it definitely also is devotional in tone. But because Bauerschmidt’s articulation of what Christianity is all about is vivid, and because he looks at the whole of Christianity (though not in minute detail; the book is quite short), The Love That Is God is also a beautiful introduction to systematic theology, and it is also perhaps the quintessential example, at least among recent publications, of how systematic theology can also be pastoral theology.

D. Stephen Long, Keeping Faith: An Ecumenical Commentary on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Wesleyan Tradition (Wipf and Stock, 2012)

Long’s Keeping Faith is much more recognizably systematic theology. Like Bauerschmidt’s The Love That Is God, Keeping Faith is fairly short and meant to be readable to most pastors and seminary students, but its genre is neither apologetic nor devotional. It is, rather, a commentary on The Articles of Religion and The Confession of Faith of The United Methodist Church. That being said, the book would be useful to anyone in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition and interesting to an even broader audience, because Long does such a good job of communicating, from a Wesleyan-Methodist perspective, the essentials of Christian doctrine in a way that Christians of various traditions can follow along with him. Keeping Faith belongs to the Wesleyan Doctrine Series from Wipf and Stock. That series also has titles on the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the hymns of Charles Wesley, sacraments, and the Christian life (full disclosure: I am a co-author of the volume on Jesus Christ), but Keeping Faith was the first and remains my favorite.

Brad East, The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021)

As a proposal for how to understand the nature and authority of Scripture, East’s book incorporates insights from a wide range of authors both modern and from the church’s past, and for that it is well worth reading. East insists that Scripture must be read from a confessional stance within the church and with a mind toward the reasons Scripture exists, a solid proposal that resonates for Wesleyan-Methodists. Many of his insights will nourish a deeper relationship with the Bible for “searching the Scriptures,” as Wesley would say, whether on one’s own, or in a Bible study, or in pastoral ministry. What makes this an excellent entry in systematic theology, though, is how East organizes and thinks through the church’s affirmation that Scripture is the Word of God. There are echoes here of how other authors have typically thought through the doctrine of God, Christology, and ecclesiology, and this aspect of East’s book reinforces his argument that he is presenting a position that is consistent with how most Christians in most centuries have understood and thought about Scripture. It is also a remarkable demonstration of how to do theology systematically even while maintaining a tight focus on a specific topic.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2014)

Hart is by far the most controversial author on this list and, indeed, one of the most controversial theologians of our time. He is known for his rhetorical flourishes, bombast, and sharp wit, which are nearly always supported by an equally strong intellect—and he knows it. Hart is the kind of author about whom, when he makes certain arguments, you find yourself thinking, “I’m glad he’s on our side … I think.” In The Experience of God, there is much of what people expect from Hart, but he also does something daring: defend theism, belief in God, against materialism, New Atheism, and slapdash versions of theism that make for easy targets by materialists and New Atheists. Hart writes as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but he draws from various theistic traditions to show that there is a sophistication to belief in God that is more than a match for even the most serious critiques. And he does so without reducing Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism to a lowest-common-denominator religious soup, which is no small achievement. Hart’s book makes good reading for those interested in the doctrine of God, for those who might know people who have fallen under the spell of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, and for those who sense that something is deeply wrong with the machine- and computer-derived language so commonly used to describe what it means to be human.

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology (Fortress): Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God (2015); Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (2020)

The most challenging work on this list, and easily the longest, with two volumes so far and a third, at least, in process, Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is also, for my money, the most rewarding. She writes with a verve and a passion that is unparalleled in contemporary works of theology. Exclamation points abound, words are unexpectedly capitalized, and sentences crackle with Sonderegger’s energy for her work. She pulls together many, maybe even most, of the various threads of Christian theology from the last century or so and braids them into a strong cord that is very much her own making and far more than just a summing up of where systematic theology has been. Sonderegger unapologetically roots all her work in Scripture, and her love for Scripture is so strong that it invites her readers to read, and reread, the Bible for themselves. Volume 1, on the doctrine of God, draws the reader to Deuteronomy. Volume 2, on the Trinity, compels a reexamination of Leviticus. These books are a magisterial achievement. They also ask much of the reader. Even those who spend their lives reading academic theology will find themselves needing to read slowly and carefully. If you’re not sure about investing either time or money in both volumes, start with vol. 2, which astonished the group of students who read it with me not long after its publication. There is nothing else like it today in the world of systematic theology.

Posted Oct 19, 2022