Practicing Christian Doctrine: Book Review

JonesOver the last several years, my studies and ministry have taken me through a fascinating exploration of the relationship between beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that evangelicals have not emphasized this subject as much as it probably deserves. Even in lamenting the unhealthy disconnect between thinking and living, it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that part of the blame is due to the way that theology is written. That said, the publication of Beth Felker Jones’ Practicing Christian Doctrine (Baker Academic) is an encouraging sign about the potential for change.[1]

As one reads Jones’ work, they certainly will find it to embody the book’s subtitle: “an introduction to thinking and living theologically.” Here I’ll review the book’s structure, substance, and success in communicating one key premise, which is that “our beliefs must be put into practice, and faithful practice matters for what we believe.”[2]

Structure & Substance

Professor Jones’ book accomplishes two ends. First, it introduces central Christian doctrines for a Protestant evangelical audience. Second, she rehabilitates an historic view of doctrine that connects beliefs with practices. The opening pages call attention to King Josiah’s reforms in 2 Chronicles 34, and shows the links that these reforms had with a rediscovery of the Law and repentance. In so doing, Jones prepares readers for her argument about “performing the words of the covenant”[3] (34:30-31; ESV). To put it differently, doctrine is something to be practiced.

Jones’ explanation of theology provides a practical center for relating it to Christian living. She offers several key elements:

Theology as Both a Specific and General Term – “Theology takes a bird’s-eye view of the other disciplines, seeing them all in light of God’s Word. On a smaller scale, though, theology speaks about an organized set of Christian teachings, doctrines about important themes in Scripture and Christian life.”[4]

Theology as a Response to God – “Theology, as the study of the things of God, as God who loves the world, is a discipline for all Christians. It is to be practiced with love, and, by God’s grace, it can make the practitioner more loving.”[5]

Theology as Speaking Rightly about God – “Theology is the discipline of learning from the Word of God and learning to use words faithfully when we speak about God.”[6]

Theology as Biblical and Practical – “Theology begins with God’s revelatory word to us. It continues as we respond with words. . . . So prayer, praise, testimony, preaching, and teaching are all parts of the daily theological work of the people of God. . . . That living relationship informs orthodox or correct belief even while belief informs the life of faith. So, the connection between academic theology and theology that happens in the life of the church runs both ways.”[7]

Theology as Doxological – “By helping the church think about God, theology helps the church worship rightly. It also helps the church measure its words, so that it can pray, praise, preach, and perform in ways that reflect the truth about God and the gospel.”[8]

Theological as Evangelical & Ecumenical – Though situated within the Wesleyan tradition, Jones emphasizes the ecumenical and evangelical dimensions of theology. Felker argues that “evangelical Christians are people of the gospel, called to be witnesses to Jesus in the world.”[9] Because God has raised witnesses for the Gospel across generations and cultures, “[e]vangelical theology has to be ecumenical theology. We simply cannot tell the story of theology—nor can we practice discipleship faithfully—without accounting for the wide variety of ways that God has used Christians through history to spread the gospel to the world.”[10]

These descriptions collectively reveal a practical shape to theology that orients believers toward spiritual maturity and practical ministry. As she states early in the book, “Doctrine and discipleship always go together.”[11] Or to put it differently, “Christian spirituality requires both doctrine and discipleship.”[12]

Following this opening chapter entitled “Speaking of God: Theology and the Christian Life,” the chapters are as follows:

“Knowing God: Doctrines of Revelation and Scripture”

“The God We Worship: Doctrine of the Trinity”

“A Delightful World: Doctrines of Creation and Providence”

“Reflecting God’s Image: Theological Anthropology”

“The Personal Jesus Christ: Christology”

“The Work of Jesus Christ: Soteriology”

“The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: Pneumatology”

“Church in a Diverse World: Ecclesiology”

“Resurrection Hope: Eschatology”

One will appreciate the simplicity, clarity, and thoroughness of the outline and the “evangelical and ecumenical” account provided. Due to the limitations of space, I will reserve my review to two chapters that tend to be divisive across Christian groups: the chapter on Scripture, and the chapter on the church.[13]

Knowing God: Doctrines of Revelation and Scripture

In what is sometimes a highly technical subject, Jones offers clarity on revelation and Scripture. She defines general and special revelation and provides some explanations as to how the two relate and differ. She also covers other topics one would expect in such a chapter: inspiration and illumination, the nature of biblical authority, canon, and the principle of sola scriptura.

Jones offers a high (that is, biblical) account of the type of word we have in Scripture. As she puts it, Scripture is the “key locus of God’s gift of revelation.”[14] Moreover, her account of Scripture integrates how the doctrine of God and understanding of human fallenness relates to this doctrine. She explains, “True knowledge of God is available to us, not because we are perfect knowers, but because God is a good God, a God who wants us to know him.”[15]

I was curious as to how Jones would handle a sometimes controversial issue like biblical inerrancy. In defining and defending biblical authority, she discusses this term as well as infallibility, lamenting the fact that much “mutual incrimination” has transpired between those who prefer one over the other. Yet she explains that a charitable understanding of inerrancy reveals that it does account for the type of book Scripture is in terms of genre, precision, and so forth.[16] Jones concludes this section by showing that personal faith in God also helps one to embrace Scriptural authority.

Church in a Diverse World: Ecclesiology

Jones’ ecclesiology provides what one would typically see in a Protestant treatment of the subject: attention to the New Testament images of the church, explanation of the marks of the church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), and discussion of church practices like sacraments. But this chapter includes other notable elements.

The chapter begins by discussing the Gentile-Jew conflict in Acts and its implications for the Christian church. By beginning like this, it paves the way for a decidedly ecumenical flavor to Jones’ discussion of the church—an unsurprising approach given the book’s wide, intended audience. One would expect diversity to be emphasized.

On the other hand, Jones grounds this diversity in an orthodox definition of the church that would be acceptable to a broad, Protestant readership: “the church is the people of God, called out to bear visible witness, in the body and as a body, to the free and transformative gift of grace we have received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[17] Jones especially emphasizes how the biblical images for the church, namely the church as body and bride, challenges the individualism of contemporary culture, and provides a basis for learning about the church’s unity and interdependence, which are essential to its physical, material, and communal witness.

Yet as these qualities are established, Jones explains that the church’s brokenness must be taken seriously. We must recognize “[f]irst, the visible church matters, and second, in a world of sin, there is no pristine church.”[18] And, “[w]ithout honesty about that brokenness, our witness to grace is impossible.”[19] This discussion of the church’s brokenness is interwoven with Jones’ celebration of the globally diverse church.

When one couples God’s work through the church, despite its sinfulness, with the church’s empirical diversity (pp. 203-209), it does raise questions as to where contextual faithfulness ends and cultural captivity begins. This is perhaps where some categories could have been established differently. Curiously, little-to-no attention is given to crucial passages like Matthew 16 and 18.

Response

Not all readers will be satisfied if their denomination’s emphases are discussed briefly, or overlooked altogether. Yet if one approaches Jones’ book seeking a doctrinal book that takes practices, the embodiment of Christian truth, and the significance of community seriously, then I believe they will find that this one succeeds.

Jones uses helpful apparatuses throughout, including excerpts from key biblical passages, notable Christian figures, and even quotations from poets and hymns to support and illustrate theological arguments. It is reasonable in length (240 pgs.), charitable in tone, nuanced when needed, and accessible to many. It would be ideal for first or second-year college students, the training of church leaders (particularly those in teaching roles) and believers entering into Protestant evangelical churches from non-evangelical backgrounds.

____________________

[1] Jones is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College.

[2] Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2

[3] Ibid. The trope of ‘performance’ has become popular in conceptualizing the nature of Christian doctrine in contemporary theology. Most notably in this would be Kevin Vanhoozer’s work. But Jones avoids the eccentricities of this trend and keeps her explanations grounded in rather untechnical language.

[4] Jones, 14.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] W. Jackson Watts, Biblical Beliefs: Doctrines Believers Should Know (Carol Stream, IL: Evangelical Training Association, 2013), 88.

[13] One could perhaps select a number of chapters to focus on if “occasional controversy” or “divisiveness” is the litmus test. For example, one statement stood out in her chapter on creation: “God’s initial act of creation is ex nihilo, but this does not preclude God’s working with and through that which he has created already. So, the doctrine of creation may well coexist happily with contemporary evolutionary biology or cosmological theories, but it cannot exist alongside idolatry” (81). Though this chapter is good in many respects, statements like this, which aren’t necessarily parsed out any further, leave me in disagreement with the “happy coexistence with contemporary evolutionary biology” argument, or more simply the failure to clarify which aspects of contemporary biology she has in view.

[14] Ibid., 32.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] She even quotes Carl Henry favorably.

[17] Ibid., 195.

[18] Ibid., 205.

[19] Ibid., 207.

Author: Jackson Watts

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  1. BA Books & Authors on the Web – January 23, 2014 - […] Watts, at the Helwys Society Forum, reviewed Beth Felker Jones’ Practicing Christian […]
  2. Gregory the Great on Spiritual Theology | Helwys Society Forum - […] of theological assertions. Indeed, the only theology that is a real theology is that which is lived out in…

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