An Introduction to Christian Theology
New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018
Anthony Towey’s massive An Introduction to Christian Theology consists of twenty-six chapters purporting to take the reader chronologically through a survey of historical theology from Genesis to the present. Each chapter comprises several subsections covered in one to three pages. The cursory treatment of each topic becomes evident from a quick glance through the table of contents. The Council of Nicaea, for instance, occupies all of three pages; the Great Schism, two pages; the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, ten pages covering four subsections. Towey writes in an informal style which I find at times engaging, at times off-putting, at times painfully unserious—as when he says that Adam’s exclamation in Gen 2:23 makes him “the original rap artist” (p. 25).
This edition differs from the original version (2013) mainly in the inclusion of a chapter on prayer—in order to add “conversation with God” to a book on “Theology as thoughtful conversation about God” (p. xxii; second emphasis mine)—and in the creation of supplementary electronic media accessible on Bloomsbury’s website.
From my perspective as an Orthodox Christian, the book suffers from the assumption common to Western writers—and implicit in Towey’s title itself—that “Christianity” only ever means its Western embodiments by default. His admission that the second edition “retains a predominantly ‘Northern’ and ‘Western’ theological purview” (p. xxiii) seems not to have given him pause to rename the book more accurately. His treatment of the ecumenical councils in four subsections (pp. 213-23) ends with Chalcedon. This leaves monothelitism, the corrective doctrine of two wills in the incarnate Son of God, and the enormously consequential Maximus the Confessor without so much as a mention in the index. The subsection on the schism of 1054 careens from 8th-century iconoclasm to 11th-century disagreements on unleavened bread and the filioque in two pages (pp. 281-83). The Orthodox Church rates neither a chapter nor a subsection, but nine scattered mentions in the index (p. 553). The most satisfactory allusion to Orthodoxy in the entire book consists of a single sentence: “Indeed, the fact that Russia follows a Byzantine rather than Roman tradition is attributed to the experience of Prince Vladimir’s emissaries in 988, who, when visiting Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, famously reported back that they ‘didn’t know whether they [sic] were on earth or in heaven’” (p. 402).
Neither Oriental Orthodoxy collectively, nor the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, and Syrian Churches individually, receive any mention in the index, but find themselves buried in a single sentence: “Originally a recognizably Protestant initiative, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches were part of the World Council [of Churches] from the beginning” (p. 418). In a textbook conceived as a “primer” (p. xxi) for those with “no prior knowledge of the subject” (p. xx), the hapless student is left to wonder who these “Oriental Orthodox” might be. Chinese? Japanese?
The foregoing observations point to what stands out for me as the book’s most fatal shortcomings. Even as an introductory textbook on Western theology, it runs on for too many pages, traverses too much terrain historically, and fails to address a single one of its multitude of topics in any more than the most perfunctory manner. It becomes less and less clear whom Towey envisions as his intended reader. Anyone coming to the book with a foundation in Western Christian history and theology will find it lacking in sufficient detail and boring in its redundancy of what he or she already knows. Anyone enrolled in a course that uses this book as its textbook—assuming that one can finish it in a semester, or even two, of an undergraduate program (because it mostly certainly is not suitable for a graduate-level course)—will come away with a very long list of chronological facts, but have no in-depth understanding of either the history or the theology of Western Christianity.
Towey’s book leaves me with such a strong sense of dissatisfaction that I cannot recommend it, either for personal reading or most especially as a course textbook.
Clearly, Towey has a firm grasp of his material. He writes in a style that will connect with those unaccustomed to the gravitas of more classical theological writing. He acquits himself better than adequately in laying out the case for the organic evolution of Scripture over many centuries, from its roots in the oral traditions of different times and places through its various manuscript recensions, and in refuting a fundamentalist hermeneutics. One might have hoped for a more satisfactory introduction to Christian theology from his pen.
The Toronto Journal of Theology commissioned this book review and then declined to publish it.
See the Book Reviews and Book Summaries sections in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.