A Feature Review of
Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction
Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds.
Reviewed by Myles Werntz
As a teacher forever in search of good material to use to explain the sinews and rabbit trails of post-Enlightenment Christian theology, any number of excellent titles come to mind–titles which typically do one of two things. On the one hand, there are titles which emphasize the historical twists and turns which have constituted the present situation of the church. Inevitably, however, how one tells history determines what good one finds in that history. Additionally, books designed to help students grasp histories very rarely enable them to make sense of those histories; knowing a history, in other words, is a very different thing than knowing what that history is about.
On the other hand, a description of modern theology can emphasize systematic elements, boiling the incompatibilities of history into commonalities. While the systematic approach does relative injustice to the complexities of history, these descriptions do offer the benefit of helping students to put the pieces together. In other words, students can see what is at stake in Aquinas’ understanding of nature and grace, and how this relates to how one sees the church, but in doing this, one sacrifices a grasp of how Aquinas’ thinking is one voice among others.
What makes this volume, edited by Kapic and McCormack, unique in this genre of books is its attempt to tell the story of modern theology in a thematic format.
Rather than simply tell the story historically (such that students see the development of Christianity but not the importance of these developments) or systematically (such that historical differences are obscured), the thematic approach attempts to show how specific doctrines changed within modernity, but makes no attempt to fit the doctrines seamlessly together. As such, instead of a seamless history, what appears in the chapters edited by Kapic and McCormack is a kind of family argument of sorts, in which the various voices within modernity are allowed to wrestle over the central topics of the faith but without artificially ending the conversation for the sake of having a systematic answer.
The fifteen chapters cover the typical topics of theology (e.g. creation, anthropology, atonement, pneumatology, etc.), each written by one a leading voice from within a broadly Reformed perspective. As such, the Karl Barth-Frederich Schleiermacher debate frames many of the chapters, as do many of the concerns from within mainline Protestant life. Other perspectives are certainly brought in, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and the free church, but the conversation largely is driven by concerns found within the historically identifiable contours of the Reformation traditions. This is not, as such, a drawback of the volume, but merely an observation that the discussions and concerns of the volume will not be of concern to all readers. As I noted with regards to historical approaches, what one values about a history and how one tells a history are intertwined.
Of particular note among the chapters are the chapters by Brian Brock (Christian ethics) and anthropology (Kelly Kapic). In particular, Kapic’s chapter attempts not only to think through the ongoing discussion of “who are people” as seen in modern theology, but does so as a meditation on the Psalmist’s cry (“What are people that you take notice of them?”). Other chapters are certainly noteworthy, but Brock’s and Kapic’s stand out as particularly strong.
In sum, Mapping Modern Theology is a welcome addition, and one which I as a teacher plan on adopting the next time around. Rarely does there come along a volume which is not only historically rich, but systematically nuanced and readable as well. Kapic and McCormack (and all the contributors) are to be commended for a fine book which will serve students well.