Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press sent me copies of two recent reference publications, and both are superb. If you have any influence over the purchasing of your university or seminary’s library, these next two reviews are for you.
First, The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Given the proliferation and easy access to online resources why produce another dictionary? What sets the Cambridge Dictionary apart is its format. Oriented around a small number of “core entries” which focus on key topics to provide a general overview of major subject areas, the Cambridge Dictionary fills a troublesome void in theological reference texts. More than a few adequately provide brief lexical definitions, and many offer longer, more in depth treatments of major topics (see below for recommendations of both), but none the middle-length treatment provided here. The editors intention was to use these core entries to “provide the conceptual ballast for the volume as a whole, serving as the superstructure around and in terms of which many of the other entries are conceived and composed” (xix).
The core entries fall into five basic categories that together map the territory of systematic theology from distinct, though “complementary, conceptual perspectives”:
- traditional doctrinal topics or loci (e.g., creation, ecclesiology, revelation);
- confessional orientations (e.g., Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox);
- theological styles (e.g., evangelical, feminist, liberal);
- Christianity’s relation to other faith traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam);
- academic disciplines (e.g., biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology)
Making use of related shorter entries it works to impart the reader with a more detailed knowledge of technical terms. These shorter entries are never shorter than 250 words, and the core entries much longer but never more than 2000. Consequently, the Dictionary does not include any purely lexical entries, so a desk reference like The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms or A Concise Dictionary of Theological Terms would be useful supplements.
Our University library will own this text for several reasons. First, while not elementary the entries are accessible for students and provide “for further reading” suggestions ranging from two to six sources. Second, the theological focus ensures that students in my courses on Christian theology will receive the “angle” on these topics most aligned with the content of their classes. Third, the longer core entries entries provide a very helpful middle ground between short lexical entries that fill dictionaries like the ones listed above, and chapter length treatments that can be found in companions like the Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine or The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. Finally, the Dictionary has an ecumenical feel in the spirit of what Hans Frei once referred to as a ‘generous orthodoxy’ (difficult to find in the often partisan or narrow offerings online).