Systematic Theology, Volume 2

Article by   September 2014
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Douglas F. Kelly. Systematic Theology, Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in Light of the Church, Volume Two: The Beauty of Christ: A Trinitarian Vision. Mentor, 2014. 567 pages. $39.99/£24.99

A number of systematic theologies have appeared in recent years from highly respected figures involved in the world of evangelical and Reformed theology. Recent years have seen volumes appear from Michael Horton, Gerald Bray, and John Frame. Douglas Kelly has now released the second volume of his own systematic theology, and it deserves attention alongside these other celebrated volumes. Professor Kelly has served for many years now as the Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Whereas the first volume of this systematic theology series addressed the doctrine of the Trinity, Professor Kelly here turns to Christology and the second paragraph of the creeds. Chapters cover the following topics: the beauty of Christ; the OT and NT witness to Christ; names and titles of Christ in the OT and NT; passages on incarnation and atonement; the hypostatic union; frequently asked questions regarding the hypostatic union; post-critical approaches to epistemology and Christology; the states of Christ; Christ's active obedience; Christ's humiliation; Christ's atonement and descent into hell; the resurrection; the ascension, heavenly session, and return of Christ. In other words, Professor Kelly reflects upon the person and the work of Christ in this volume, bringing the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement together without thereby confusing or mingling them. One drawback to the volume is that the broader structure of the volume - in particular of the components of its three parts (Part 1: The Trinitarian Context of the Person and Work of Christ; Part 2: The Humiliation of Christ; and Part 3: The Exaltation of Christ) - are frequently less than clear. While the superstructure is not atypical, some of the organization therein is creative and not always noted sufficiently to cue the reader. 

The volume is marked by a focus not only upon biblical topics or themes - what some would call Bible Doctrines - but the canonical and literary shape within which those themes are developed. Such attention to scriptural specificity does not always mark systematic theology in the contemporary era, so it is worthwhile to see detailed reflection upon the genealogies of Jesus as key windows into the humanity of the Christ (pp.101-10), the three synoptic temptation accounts as facets to the sonship and active obedience of the incarnate Son (pp.322-28), and the seven last words of Christ as a governing rubric for exploring the atoning death of the crucified Lord (371-416). Further, the argument is frequently extended by detailed analysis of particular words that appear in the biblical writings (e.g. pp.27-28, 71-100, 208-09). Kelly's concern to be biblical is not only evident in his tracing the way the words run and the particular images and concepts that give form to biblical teaching, but in his argument that translation of biblical teaching must not only convey biblical ideas but do so with biblical conceptuality (which he applied to cross-cultural translation work in Muslim contexts: see pp.111-37). 

A brief review such as this may be of service, however, by noting ways in which this volume is distinctive. What will stand out to the likely reader more than anything else, no doubt, is the catholicity of Professor Kelly's theological conversation. It is worth noting that his doctoral study was in patristic theology under Professor T. F. Torrance at the University of Edinburgh, while he has since taught in a confessional context marked by Puritan sensibilities. The influence of these contexts can be seen in his text. His argument regularly moves by way of citation and commentary, and his interlocutors range from the Cappacodian fathers to the Westminster divines, from Cyril of Alexandria to Thomas Goodwin, and so forth. The influence of Torrance shines through, showing a concern to view the reformation and the Puritan movement as well as genuine renewal movements within the catholic church. In a day of parochial segmentation, the breadth of Kelly's vision will pique the reader's attention. 

A self-aware change of tenor and approach is being modeled here, over against much of the work that has dominated twentieth century conservative Reformed theology. "As far as my own Protestant Reformed Tradition is concerned, it does seem that for some reason (perhaps the Enlightenment with its anti-Medieval spirit?), the eyes of many good theologians were functionally turned away from Medieval saints and earlier church Fathers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (p.14). But there was another way: "not long before, such mighty Reformed thinkers as John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Samuel Rutherford, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had mined gold and silver out of Patristic and Scholastic mines (although not without frequently severe criticism of these sources, where they failed to match up to Holy Scripture)" (p.14). Special gains can be seen even in the bounds of this volume, as topics often overlooked in modern evangelical theology are brought forward and shown to be not only scripturally sound but also spiritually vital: the beauty and luminosity of God; the need to distinguish between the life of God in himself (ad intra) and that with us (ad extra); the soteriological significance of the virgin birth; and many others beside them.

This systematic theology puts the lie to the old suspicion that biblical exposition and catholic concern cannot be held together. Professor Kelly has learned well from the fathers, medievals, reformers, and Puritans that tradition is to be biblical and that biblical commitment inevitably leads us to honor and embrace genuine Christian tradition. This book is aptly described by its title: not only a "Systematic Theology," but one that is "Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in Light of the Church." For exemplifying a commitment to reformed catholicity and showing ways in which such a vision can help keep us alert to the vibrancy and vitality of Christ's glory, then, readers will be in Professor Kelly's debt. 


Michael Allen is Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

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