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.


Jeff Dean said...

The third chapter is tough, and parts of the discussion are disagreeable (too light on the Trinity!), but this little book is one of the most important texts I own. I have read through it at least seven times in the last two years, and I give copies of it as gifts!

rka said...

The reviewer saw why this book is so important, inasmuch as it is a summation of the Gospel and its impact on life. SST gets to where a person is, who Christ is, and what that means to me in a most incisive, hopeful way. To read and understand about Christian liberty has been and continues to be invigorating in every sense, it banishes fear, it energises a person. I had never studied about the principle of critical freedom founded on being grasped by the Gospel, and to say this book pulls one out of a rut would be an understatement, but a good reason to read it. It is a gift to a Bible study leader, as my worn copy points out.
And the conclusion is prophetic, a challenge for a 21st century Christian leader.

simeon zahl said...

The third chapter is the best part!

Jeff Dean said...

I didn't say it wasn't good--I just said I have to concentrate!

I'm not as smart as you/the author isn't my Dad.

John Zahl said...

Upon reading SST for the first time, Fitz Allison commented to my father:

"Paul, you don't appear to have much to say about the Trinity."

"I know," answered PZ.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else "hear" Fitz saying those words when you read them. "Pawl,..."

Jacob Smith said...

I read the book this summer and thought it was great. I left it at my friend's aunt's house and she thought it was great. Two endorsements in one comment, WOW!

I loved the discussion on Bibleolatry and the word of God vs. The Word of God. I agree with Mattes, especially since I am interviewing in a ton of law driven parishes, SST would be a great introduction into some thoughtful discussions around graceful Christianity.

Tim Galebach said...

I'd like to read this book again, it's been about 2 years now since the first time I read it, and I imagine my thoughts on it have changed significantly.

Unfortunately, while the Portland public library has about 7 or 8 copies of "The First Christian", SST is sadly lacking, so I'll have to wait a little while.

This book also had the side-effect of making me very belligerent towards prominent people who I meet for the first time. Dean, who was it who geniused me at PZ's thingie last october?

Jeff Dean said...


Oh my freaking gosh.

I was swooning when I met Fitz at PZ's institution.

Tim walked up and I said, "Bishop Allison, I would very much for you to meet my roommate, Tim Galebach."

Quoth Tim, "Hi! Who are you and why should I know you?"

Jeff: [dies]

bpzahl said...


cate west said...

Some questions, Jeff:

Can you recall what Tim was wearing exactly? In addition, did it contrast with what you chose to "sport"? In what way did it contrast?

Jeff Dean said...


I was wearing a grey suit and a blue bow tie.

Tim was wearing jeans and a purple polo shirt.

NOBODY tells Tim Galebach what to do. NOBODY.

Tim Galebach said...

Except for Fitz Allison.

Uh oh. BPZ has a blog now?!

Anonymous said...

Why did it take the reviewer 6 years to write the review? It's not THAT long a book.

Kevin "The Outsider" T.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of PZ, how about an update on his condition (since his blog is not updated quite as frequently as this one). Thanks

simeon zahl said...

PZ is well! He's back at work, and even traveling some. Probably not exactly 100%, but he is definitely better.