Few Christians will ever read a systematic theology cover to cover. Part of this, no doubt, is because some of those same Christians don’t really do much reading at all. Why change that for such an acquired taste as systematic theology? Others are avid readers but are intimidated by the size and scope of a systematic theology, or the subject matter it contains. For others still, I would imagine there is a desire to grow in theological knowledge, but no clear starting point. There is certainly no shortage of systematic theologies available, and even within evangelical circles there are plenty to choose from. Even if we narrow the evangelical circle to the just Reformed area, I still have 5 different books on my shelf that fit that criterion (9 if Bavinck counts 4x).
What’s so special then about Gerald Bray’s new volume, God is Love? Why did we need another systematic theology from an evangelical and moderately Reformed perspective?
The immediate thing you will notice when you pick up Gerald Bray’s 700+ page book is that it certainly looks like a traditional systematic theology. It’s not a multi-volume opus (like the aforementioned Bavinck), but it is still a significantly big book. But since you should never judge a book by its cover (or size), upon opening it, you find that inside there is a noticeable difference in this systematic theology.
For starters, you would be hard pressed to find a footnote in the book that is not just a Scripture reference. Unlike other works that continually interact with other authors and point to journal articles, dictionaries, and other books, Bray’s work pretty much only points you back to the Bible. That is because, as he tells us on the opening page, “the main purpose of this book is to set out what God has revealed to us” (11).
Further still, his aim in writing is “to show how Christian belief is firmly grounded in God’s Word, so that we may have a sure and comprehensive foundation for what we preach and proclaim” (12). With that aim in mind, Bray’s prime reader is one “who would not normally find systematic theology appealing or even comprehensible” (12). To accomplish this, “technical terminology has been avoided and the concepts underlying it have been explained as simply and directly as possible.”
After digging into this book a bit, I think Bray accomplishes his goal admirably. There is generally enough discussion for me to stay engaged, but often I found I knew when he was talking about a larger theological discussion that has sometimes been going on for centuries. Take this extended passage for example:
“Expressed in traditional theological language, the main question in dispute has been to decide whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (the Western position), or whether he proceeds from the Father only (the Eastern position). If it is agreed that he proceeds from both, the next question is whether there is some difference in the way that he proceeds from each of them. Do the Father and the Son act together in the procession of the Holy Spirit, so that their roles cannot be effectively distinguished from each other, or does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father through the Son, thereby maintaining a real distinction between the first two persons of the Godhead?” (217)
More informed readers will recognize that Bray is talking about the so-called filioque clause that is a dividing line between the Eastern and Western churches. However, Bray’s discussion continues on for 4 more pages, with only four Scriptural footnotes, one reference to a church council (the Council of Florence), and no mention of any Latin terms, including filioque. I found this both impressive and refreshing. Impressive, because you would expect someone as steeped in theological terminology to at least use the word, and refreshing because he was able to explain it so well in such a short space without chasing any rabbits. From what I can tell, this is just par for the course when it comes to the flow of this book.
Organizing Principle: God Who Is Love
In addition to clear, jargon-absent theological discussions, Bray’s layout is especially helpful. Rather than using headings like “Doctrine of God,” or the usual “-ologies” (soteriology, anthropology, ecclesiology) Bray organizes his systematic presentation around the God who is love. The book has six parts, each of which covers a traditional systematic focal point:
- The Language of Love (introduction to theology and the Bible)
- God’s Love in Himself (the divine nature and the persons of God)
- God’s Love for His Creation (the world, humanity, angels, relationships)
- The Rejection of God’s Love (sin and the fall, demons, Satan, and alternate religions)
- God So Loved the World (the person and work of Christ and the people of God)
- The Consummation of God’s Love (the Christian life, the eternal state)
Organizing the material in this way is very inviting and Bray covers a surprising amount of ground in under 800 pages. He manages to cover all the traditional focal points in a systematic theology using his own unique arrangement, which I should note is certainly more inviting than most. Using God’s love as an organizing principle will hopefully draw in an audience that might otherwise avoid a systematic theology, and Bray’s evenhanded treatment of complex theological issues will keep that audience engaged in his discussion.
While still a reference work more than beachside reading, Bray’s volume is probably readable to the average person in small doses. This makes it an ideal full scale systematic theology for an interested lay person. It may even fair well as a textbook for a training class for small group leaders or counselors. Leaders may not need to necessarily read Bray’s book cover to cover, but being familiar with the territory he covers will make it very useful when questions arise that need biblical-theological answers since Bray provides so many footnoted proof-texts in his clear discussions.
On the whole, I was surprised at how well Gerald Bray in God Is Love could cover his topics without getting too detailed, but far surpassing what would be considered just an introductory treatment. It makes this book, in my opinion, the new go-to systematic theology, ideal for an informal book club or small group resource. In this sense, it is a great systematic theology for the average lay person who has done little to no theological reading before, if they are not too intimidated by the size of the book. Bray introduces readers to theology as if they had never really thought about it before and then quickly moves them into rich discussions of very important concepts and topics.