November 30, 2006

David Willis, Clues to the Nicene Creed

In Clues to the Nicene Creed, David Willis looks at the Christian faith through a study of the main themes of the most ecumenical of the creeds, the Nicene Creed. Willis's book isn't reallly a historical discussion of the Creed or its development, nor is it a look at the theology of the creed, so much as it is a collection of theological reflections on the major themes. In some ways it is a mini-systematic theology, though that is too strong of a term.

The strength of the book is that it covers a broad range of important topics, from the nature of faith to the nature of God to Jesus and the Spirit to the church. Willis looks at man of these major themes, and illumines some interesting facets. And many of his reflections contain some useful insights and novel approaches. One of these is his extended discussion of the Christian life as a life of forgiveness, of living an active compassion, and of living forward toward our resurrection life. Willis also does well to keep the lives of believers in view, and investigates how these doctrines can be lived out, probably the greatest strength of the book. He does inspire a vision of a Christian life than makes a difference in our interactions in society. Yet, I think the book has some weaknesses as well. Though Willis does look at some biblical material as he goes, this material mostly remains in the background. Though this probably fits with his intentions in writing, a stronger biblical foundation and more engagement with important texts would have greatly helped. His vision of the Christian life was also mostly sociological, involving our interactions with others moreso than with God. I also felt, as I mentioned above, that the book is best categoriezed as reflections, moreso than an "outline of the faith," brief or not, as the subtitle calls it.

The book was worth reading, and does an admirable job of keeping the applicability of theology in view, though I almost put it down a few times before finishing. Clearly he gives some useful insights, but I think better treatments are to be found. Alister McGrath's I Believe is one worthy alternative: a thoughtful reflection on the Apostles' Creed.

November 27, 2006

F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free

F. F. Bruce is one of the most distinguished Evangelical Biblical scholars of the past generation. In this great book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, he focuses in on the Apostle Paul, his setting, and his theology. He structures the book in essentially chronological order, synthesizing much of the material from Acts with what can be discerned from the letters of his travels. This account includes a very detailed historical discussion of the various settings for the letters, as well as cultural and historical factors that would have effected Paul's thinking. He also pauses to reflect on the character and theology of each of Paul's writings, including the undisputed letters, the disputed letters, and also the Pastorals. He makes a case for Pauline authorship of all of the letters, and takes a more guarded stance on the Pastorals, but still including them in his scheme, or at least allowing room for them.

Bruce's account is full of important information, and helps bring the biographical and historical details about Paul and his first-century setting together with his epistles. This sheds insightful light on Paul's writing, and helps to contextualize his theology. And his well-thought-out and well-reasoned positions on things like authorship, chronology, and theology, make this book a great starting point in the study of Paul. He is also well aware of the major critical issues with regard to Pauline scholarship, and introduces the reader to the relevant questions as well as guiding the readers toward well-reasoned answers. The book was written in 1977, which means that there have been some major changes in Pauline scholarship, but E. P. Sanders had already begun the "new perspective" movement, so even though Bruce doesn't interact with it in detail, the trajectory of what would certainly have become a more detailed evaluation at later date is already evident in its pages.
Paul played a central role in the development of Christianity, and in its spread throughout the Mediterranean region in the years after Jesus' death. And through is writings he has decisively shaped Christian thought ever since. Bruce lends a scholar's and historian's eye to the study of this important figure and the writings he left. His contribution is full of important information, and is certainly an important building block in understanding this most important Apostle. Highly recommended.