Book Review: Retrieving Doctrine

Retrieving Doctrine Oliver Crisp

This book review has been a long time coming. I knew the author when he was an assistant pastor at the Church I grew up in, and he kindly showed me around his University Theology Department when I was considering the direction of my undergraduate study. He’s since moved off to sunnier climes at Fuller, but it was whilst writing my dissertation on John Calvin in often-rainy Nottingham that I came across this slim volume. Dr. Oliver Crisp is a great writer and thinker, and this little book, “Retrieving Doctrine: Explorations in Reformed Theology”, is a brilliant way of engaging with some of the incredibly technical stuff he deals with, as well as a great inroad into academic Reformed Theology.

The book is helpfully divided into three parts, each with a few essays in it. I believe a couple of the essays/chapters have appeared in other books as well. The opening part deals with the issues of ‘Creation and Providence’ – two key elements of Christian Doctrine. When I was studying Calvin’s view of God’s Sovereignty I found the first chapter, “John Calvin on Creation and Providence” to be very helpful; and indeed it provided both good fodder and crystallising clarity for some of my thinking. For the interested party thinking of perhaps reading this book, a great example of Crisp’s succinct prose (whilst admirably handling some big ideas and theological giants!) is reproduced here;

This idea that God orders all things that come to pass, such that no event occurs without his concurrently bringing it about in conjunction with mundane creaturely causes, is usually referred to as meticulous providence, in order to distinguish it from those accounts of divine providence where God does not decree or otherwise bring about all that comes to pass.

The following chapter/essay, “Karl Barth on Creation” is a similarly refined look at what Barth – who wrote more pages of dense Dogmatics than most of us can reasonably concieve of reading – had to say on the Doctrine of Creation.

The second part of the book, the largest in terms of number of chapters, deals with the crucial issues of Sin and Salvation. Here we open with a real treat – Crisp has written extensively on Edwards, with his PhD thesis focusing on his Philosophical Theology – a look at “Jonathan Edwards on the Imputation of Sin”. This is a very technical and accomplished – though relatively readable – look at Edwards on this important topic. Secondly we read an exploration of “Francis Turretin on the Necessity of the Incarnation”, where Crisp takes a philosophically theological look at “whether the Incarnation was a necessary or contingent matter“, wherein he ultimately broadly agrees with Turretin, with the bold and joyful conclusion that “Where God creates a world of human creatures in need of redemption, his divine nature constrains him to actin a way that displays his justice and his mercy – and that requires an Incarnation“. The final two essays/chapters of this section are on huge issues – “John McLeod Campbell and Non-penal Substitution”, followed by “On Karl Barth’s Denial of Universalism” – and I won’t go into detail on the here. Regarding the latter, a great deal could be said, and its a question that I ponder from time to time.

The third and final part of the book, perhaps appropriately in light of the journey of Creation/Providence through to Sin/Salvation, comprises of three essays on “The Christian Life”. Three big issues are addressed. The first is our old friend “John Calvin and Petitioning God”, an important subject. Crisp notes that “Calvin’s discussion of prayer in the final edition of his Institutes is second only to the chapter on faith in length“. Calvin is not usually known for his writing on prayer – which is a real shame! We then begin to close with “John Williamson Nevin on the Church”, which is a fascinating study of the ecclesiology of a lesser-known Reformed Theologian of whom Crisp charitably concludes, “he may not have all the answers, but he is asking many of the right questions“. The final essay is “Jonathan Edwards on the Qualifications of Communion”, an issue I have been thinking and writing about recently, and so I read (or rather re-read, at the time of writing!) this essay with great interest. Crisp closes this essay – which I wish could be a longer work – with a question of our (post)modern theologians;

[do] we have a far poorer grasp of the connection between our sacramental life and the life of the Church, and of the wondrous prospect that awaits her as the Bride of Christ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed reading, and subsequently re-reading, this slim but thought-provoking volume. There is a great deal of meat here, but it is (for the subject matter!) a very readable and accessible book. As the title suggests, this is an exploratory, introductory book, but it is the kind of exploration you want to continue. This book isn’t for everyone, but it is a very useful and helpful resource for the issues it touches on. I’d highly recommend it if you want to think about Reformed Theology, or get a thoughtful Reformed perspective on some key theological/biblical issues.

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