Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed

In my quest for introductory volumes for use in seminary classrooms I have come across t&t clark’s “Guide for the Perplexed” series. From what I can tell thus far I really like the line. 056703195001_sx140_sy225_sclzzzzzzz_It attempts to walk the balance of being introductory without being simplistic, and it seems to me that is exactly what is needed for seminary classrooms – something that can give students a feel for the field, the players and the jargon, and a good bibliography to follow up further material.

Towards this end, t&t clark were gracious enough to send me a review copy of Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2008) by Alan Spence. I have read Spence’s other volume with them, Incarnation and Inspiration: John Owen and the Coherence of Christology, and his love for Owen comes out in this new book as well. It seems that Spence worked a little harder in this introductory volume to provide more nuance in his account of classical Christology, which was appreciated, but still tended to use the “two schools” approach. For pedagogical reasons, I am fine with this, but I think it needs the added caveat that whatever account we give will be an over-simplification. I would have like to see a section, even a short section, dealing with the different interpretive schools of this classical period – highlighting the movement in the field away from stark contrasts.

All in all, I think this could very well be an excellent choice for an introductory class covering Christology. As I remember back to my seminary experience I had difficultly holding in my head the various approaches to engaging “the Jesus question,” and this has only been heightened by the recovery of the historical Jesus quest. Spence, in order to provide a broad context, breaks the volume down into two main sections: “Classical Christology” and “Modern Christology.” Interestingly, Owen stands in the very center of these (even in terms of page count – the discussion of Owen is on pgs. 70-73 and the second section ends on p. 140). This is clearly Spence’s preferred account, which I actually really like. Owen’s account is followed by Edwards in his Christology (as an interesting historical aside), with various differences based on his theology.

Overall, I think Spence navigates the issues well, offering both historical and theological insights that will be helpful and challenging for the beginning student. There are various interpretive decisions towards which (no doubt) people will take aim, but I think that a volume at this level should be alloted breathing room for those kinds of things. I would have liked to see a bit more constructive work, something like what Collins did in the Trinity volume, but this doesn’t diminish the overall helpfulness of it.

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5 thoughts on “Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed

  1. Stephen, yeah, I have a couple of his volumes as well, although I have not really taken the time to work through one cover to cover. I like the concept, but I wonder if it would be better for the professor rather than the student. My worry is that seminaries can easily tend towards telling people what various thinkers think about things without actually having the students read them directly. I could see myself (oneday) using Karkkainen’s work as suggested reading material, which I think would be really helpful before jumping into the source material, but I’m not sure if I would use them for main textbooks. I might not be doing justice to the works, but from what I’ve seen, he offers a global overview. I guess we probably have to choose one evil over another – being narrow but having some depth, or broad but superficial. Which is better?

  2. As a theology student who still takes introductory level courses as part of my BTh, I definitely prefer the “narrow but having some depth approach.”

    The example of my recently completed Christian Liturgy survey course comes to mind. Each lecture was an assault of information covering a broad range of related topics, and I came away every Monday with ejaculatory notes and a few snippets of interesting information. Studying for my exam was near-nightmarish, I simply couldn’t retain enough information to feel prepared, and my final grade suggests I got a mere B+. There was simply too much to know.

    I would have gained much more from the class had I been equipped to engaged liturgical material on my own, with particularly important information used to equip me and ensure I came away from the class with the most relevant knowledge. This was the approach taken in my Pentateuch and Historical Books survey couse, and though we only worked our way through 20 chapters of Genesis, I am now well prepared to engage the rest of the texts on my own.

    Equipping the students to learn on their own while ensuring they come away with some of the most important information is, in my opinion, the better approach because it allows us to come away from the class with the skills to do theology but without an overload of information. As a student myself, more internalising of method and less memorising of facts is always the more enjoyable and effective learning experience.

    For a subject like Christology, I think the better approach would be to give the students a good understanding of the big questions, Historical Jesus, homoousios, etcetera, with a focus on equipping the students to engage critically with those questions. I love Christology, but when i’m in an introductory course I don’t really care about the names of the faction leaders at Niceae, I care about thinking critically about the questions they were fighting over.

  3. Donagh,

    That is my inclination as well. I don’t remember much from my seminary classes that just offered a really broad overview of things because I never had mental hooks in place from which I could hang everything together. If I was able to remember something, it was an oversimplification of someone’s view, or a contrived bifurcation of the tradition.

  4. Thank you for the review, Kyle! Into the Wish List it goes.

    I have Karkainnen’s christology book, and hopefully enough time this summer to read it.

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