Oliver Crisp’s Retrieving Doctrine is a book that makes its presence felt from the beginning. I ordered it from the ironically titled “Bestseller” shop in Dublin (the best of 2 theology bookstores and not really packed with any bestsellers) and the manager of the shop commented on how attractive a book it was. This is no reason to buy a book and cliches warn us that it is no way to judge a book, but tis cool nonetheless.
The author intends for the book to be a conversation with the figures of the past “in order to bring their ideas to the table of contemporary theological reflection.” It certainly achieves this. It is broken into three sections that each feature a number of essays on points of doctrine that a particular significant (if not always well known) master of a previous age upheld. So under the title of “Creation and Providence” we get to hear Calvin on Creation and Providence and Barth on Creation, for example. The other two sections are “Sin and Salvation” and “The Christian Life”.
If it wasn’t so doctrinally problematic, I am sure contemporary Christianity would get some marketing executives to do something about the word doctrine. It has a bad reputation and I can’t imagine a book dealing with this topic suddenly capturing the imagination of everyone so that the Bestseller shop would actually have what it claimed. Even those who recognise that doctrine is important tend to view it like a window pane; through it they see the truth but it introduces a layer that keeps us from actually encountering the truth. If nothing else, this book is a Quixotic effort at pushing back against the perceived sense that doctrinal clarity is something we should refrain from aiming for.
Crisp himself is a young theologian who is at the forefront of a movement called analytic theology. I met him when he came to Maynooth for the Interface Conference where he delivered a paper called “Young Theologians Wanted: The Prospect of Analytic Theology”. I began reading this book in the waiting room of a GP’s office on Christmas Eve morning (which really says something when you consider this positive review!). For once, while reading theology, I didn’t fear opprobrium in the face of my wife, the philosopher’s, relative rigor. I was joking with Patrick Mitchel over the weekend that it is very hard to resist the temptation to describe the author’s writing style as “crisp”. Instead we’ll say that the prose is sharp and succinct. This is not yet one more book made up of a handful of interesting theological musings surrounded by enough padding to protect it on inter-stellar journies.
Or in other words: this book is as long as it should be. Marvelously rare, that is.
So why read a book about what dead Swiss guys think about creation or obscure dead American chaps thought about the church? Well, it is obvious that we as Christians must stand on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before us. The communion of the saints is the democracy of the dead. In the church, just because you aren’t alive, doesn’t mean you can’t vote. The opinions of John Calvin and Karl Barth, Jonathan Edwards and lesser known figures like John Williamson can shine light on the issues that we wrestle with today, even if their formulations are very different to the ones that we are naturally inclined to use.
Through Crisp as your informed guide you get a great grasp of these theologians and the precision with which they (sometimes) mapped out their views. With impeccable style and rigor, Crisp then dissects these proposals under the examination of a logical gaze, drawing out the incompatibilities or the problems and providing alternative models where needed. Without giving the arguments away, the chapter on Jonathan Edwards and admission to communion and the chapter on whether Karl Barth was universalist were stand-outs for me. In Edwards’ case, I have spent much of the last few weeks considering communion standards from the perspective of Catholic Canon Law and the Edwardsian proposal was a very different angle. The Barth chapter on universalism is perhaps the best case in the book for showcasing the potential of analytic theological methods. Barth’s attempt to have his cake and eat it on salvation is torn into the incomprehensible shreds it really is by the application of well disciplined reason. Wonderful fun!
The book is unashamedly written from the Reformed perspective, without being polemic. Again, this is refreshingly rare. One curious thing I found while reading it is how often the word otiose appears. But its usage never becomes otiose. So it’s all ok.
As an introduction to Reformed dogmatics, a thought experiment in analytic theology or a companion to thinking about contemporary theology, this is a nifty and very well written book that will provoke much profitable pondering.
Your Correspondent, He taught the toaster to feel love!