Sunday, February 12, 2006
Mark Mattes reviews Paul Zahl's "A Short Systematic Theology":
A Short Systematic Theology. by Paul F. M. Zahl. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. viii and 109 pages. Paper. $12.00.
With this delightful gem, Zahl, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal) in Birmingham, Alabama, offers a concise summation of the gospel and its impact on life, a work appropriate for personal or group study. His book is decisively Protestant, deeply sensitive to the German Lutheran and Reformed traditions. He builds on his earlier interests in The Protestant Face of Anglicanism (Eerdmans, 1998). Zahl's approach to theology is nonspeculative, narrative-based, brief but meaty and intesnse, sensitive to contemporary pop culture and yet markedly scholarly. Here one will find developed decisive Lutheran themes such as the practical nature of theology, the hiddenness of God in both nature and the cross, Jesus as the friend of sinners, the inability of humanity to escape from the impurity of the heart, sin as self-justification, and the hiddenness of the Spirit's work in the community of the church. In sum, Zahl positions his own work in relation to that of Luther's: "For Luther the unifying principle was God's justification of sinners through Christ's atonement, with the resulting freedom of the Christian. With that principle always in view, the Reformer never needed to organize the rest of his thought. This is the essential model for all theology that is free" (p. 84).
The following points are decisive for Zahl's theology. While God can only be known fully in Christ, God is not divorced from nature - including its sometimes-unfriendly ways toward humanity. Yet, from Christ, we discern that God's will for humanity is a liberation of life - God restructures life from that of a "play of marionettes into life as action and will" (p. 11). Jesus pointed beyond the externals of Jewish legal obedience to the will and its impulses as corrupt, indeed so injured that human agency is unable to heal it (p. 16). Indeed, as an expression of divine love with his gracious invitation to the publicans and tax collectors, Jesus surpassed the law with its demands (p. 19). While this hospitality led Jesus to the cross, such victimization is not beyond God's means of working sub contrario, the "opposite of God's reasoned attributes such as strength and authority and life" (p. 28) to redeem and renew humanity. While Christians currently live "in the presence of Jesus' absence" (p. 35), since Jesus is raised from death and ascended to heaven, we are permitted a direct, nonmediated relation to God (p. 37) and led by the Spirit who we are unable to tame (p. 30). Christ is our "substiture" and as such brings us sinners to God (p. 60). Christian theology is christologically construed, and thus we wee God as Trinity, yet this doctrine is "too intellectual to fuel the Christian movement" (p. 73), which is then properly fueled by the Spirit's agency in us.
This book gets to the core of Christian beliefs quickly and is also fully confident that the historic Protestant tradition speaks to today's concerns. It could be tackled by adult groups in congregations, pastors' study groups, and introductory college or seminary classes. Zahl's is a refreshing voice thanks to his confidence about the gospel.
Posted by John Zahl at 3:37 PM