Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Faith of Your Own -- A Review

A FAITH OF YOUR OWN: Naming What You Really Believe.  By Ronald J. Allen.   Louisville: WJK Press, 2010.  x + 144 pages.

    It would appear that even progressive Christians didn’t get the message Harvey Cox put out in last year’s Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009).  Cox insisted that we are entering a new age of the Spirit where belief will give way to faith.  Like Philip Clayton, whose Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society (Fortress, 2010) has called for a theological conversation that involves the laity, Ron Allen believes that it’s important that you be able to name what you believe.  As to why it’s important to know what we believe, Allen notes that “what we believe determines not only how we see God, ourselves, others, and the world, but also what we expect from God and from ourselves and from the world” It influences our worship, our prayers, and our actions (pp. viii-ix). 

    The author of the book is a New Testament scholar and homiletician (he teaches preaching at Christian Theological Seminary), and not a historian, philosopher, or a systematic theologian.  Therefore, in his presentation the biblical interpretation tends to be stronger than the historical.  He’s a Disciple, which means he comes from a non-creedal tradition.  That may be one reason why he seems comfortable with presenting a wide perspective on theology.  He’s also a progressive, with an affinity for Process Theology – and despite trying for a sense of objectivity, that affinity does show, which he does acknowledge at points.  

    With a strong sense of the importance of what one believes, Allen sets out to provide an introduction to Christian theology for laity.   His hope is that once readers finish the book, they’ll be able to articulate a faith of their own.  In the course of nine chapters, he introduces the reader to the resources for doing theology (this includes Scripture, as well as the other important sources that we draw upon), God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, “God’s Ultimate Purposes” (eschatology), the Church, Evil, and Christianity’s relationship with other religions.  In order to introduce the reader to these basic topics, which are similar to the seven core Christian questions that Philip Clayton highlights, Allen breaks the discussion of each topic into three parts – the biblical witness, the historic church, and the contemporary church.   Concluding each chapter is a series of discussion questions that can be used both for individual reflection and group study.

    In rather brief compass, the author introduces readers to a fairly broad spectrum of viewpoints.  This occurs at each historical level.  Noting that both the Bible and theology require interpretation, he intends for the reader, whom he assumes are laity, to “recognize possibilities, to compare and contrast them, and to select the one(s) that are most promising” (ix).  As one can quickly see, with a method such as this, there is a lot of overlap and redundancy in the presentation. 

    The book concludes with a very helpful “Final Exercise,” which is designed to help the reader formulate a faith of their own.  Pointing back to the journey they have undertaken to this point, Allen suggests four criteria for formulating one’s faith.   Our faith professions should: 1) show “continuity with the core of the Bible and Christian tradition.” Even though we might reject parts of the witness, there needs to be continuity.  2) This faith should be “logically coherent.  3) It should be “seriously believable.”  That is, God should be able to do what we say God does. 4) Finally, this faith should be one that “calls for the moral treatment of all people and elements of nature” (pp. 128-129).  With this set of criteria, one can set out to discern one’s belief system, a conversation that is best undertaken in the company of others.  As one does so, they might choose to write a “credo,” a belief statement that can take a variety of forms.  To help the reader reflect on what they had read, Allen also provides a listing of statements on each of the nine areas of consideration, so one can see what one might believe.         

    Ron Allen is to be commended for putting together a resource that individuals and small groups can use to discern their belief systems.  By laying it out in such a way that both the biblical and the historical perspectives can be seen, one is able to see both the diversity of beliefs and their implications.  Of course, in a book this brief, not every aspect of a doctrine can be rehearsed.  Because it is designed for a broad readership, one also does not get a deep sense of any one tradition.  Perhaps understanding that readers might feel the need to go deeper, he provides a brief annotated reading list that gives some of the possible theological resources. 

    This is a very useful book, but it’s not perfect.  Although the method of presentation is quite useful, sometimes the redundancy is overly apparent.  In addition, while the biblical portions are quite strong, the historical presentations are occasionally weak.  A couple of examples should suffice – at one point he attributes the Heidelberg Catechism to the Lutherans though this catechism is Reformed in origin (an error that seems a bit odd considering the publisher is Presbyterian).   In his discussion of the Trinity, it might have been helpful to note that the primary issue at Chalcedon wasn’t the Trinity but the two natures of Christ.  Finally, while Anselm’s atonement theory is substitutionary, it might have been useful to speak of it as a satisfaction theory so that a distinction can be made with penal substitution.  With these few caveats, only one of which is a true error, I would suggest its use for moderate to progressive laity, seeking a means toward better articulating their faith. 

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