Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Clouds of Witnesses

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Perhaps forty or seventy or a hundred years from now, someone will pen a valuable book about Christians who are living in places such as Iran or Syria or Tunisia today.

Like the seventeen men and women profiled in Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses, many of the subjects of this future work will be individuals who will have held fast to the faith despite being at odds with their national culture; a culture that seems inhospitable to Christianity and where one might assume the church will never thrive.

Shi Meiyu was raised by parents who were early Chinese Christian converts. She studied medicine at the University of Michigan, one of the first women to enter a coeducational medical program. She returned to China and was instrumental in developing a hospital and training nurses—nurses who had far more responsibility than their counterparts in the United States.

Shi Meiyu required that her nursing students be trained as Christian evangelists as well as medical professionals.

This is a not uncommon theme in the book—many of the individuals profiled expected that Bible teaching and training of Christian workers would be paired with their efforts in social areas—and vice versa.

The account of Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) is virtually un-put-downable. The journey of this woman of India to faith in Christ did not happen easily, nor all at once. But her conversion and commitment were solid.

Ramabai had a life of incredible experiences and achievements, among which was the publication of The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This work helped educate Americans about the plight of Hindu women, many of whom faced a bleak life. Using proceeds from her book, she aimed to reenter their world in order to bring them hope. She began a school in Bombay, using some ingenious and bold methods to act within a Hindu social system to read aloud and introduce Christian Scriptures to students.

These few words can’t do her story justice, nor can they tell of the culture of the Hindu world she had been born into and knew so well. When you pick up Clouds of Witnesses, turn to her story first!

In addition, you won’t want to miss:

• Byang Kato, who noted that Christianity is deeply rooted in African history, and who outlined four workable, long-term goals for the church on this continent

• Sun Chu Kil, whose conversion and life during times of great national change in Korea greatly influenced the church there today

• Yao-Tsung Wu, who was so impressed with the Sermon on the Mount that it became the basis of the view of social justice he developed for China so all could have enough.

Readers may find some of these richly detailed narratives, with their abundance of unfamiliar proper names, places, and events a bit difficult to follow. But nevertheless, they’re interesting and worth pursuing.

Countless Christians are laboring within their own cultures today—some in hostile climates where we wonder how the church can ever grow—bringing hope, reform, the Word. Their stories, too, should be told one day this side of heaven.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • Author’s Website


  • “What is a Christian view of politics?” “Does the church have political power?” “If so, how should we Christians exercise such political power in order to advance the Kingdom of God?” Questions like these naturally come to mind when we think about the relation between the church and politics. There is no easy answer for such weighty questions. In this book, Peter Leithart looks for the answer in Constantine. Perhaps, for many, it is a surprising place given the fact that Constantine’s accomplishments as emperor are often overshadowed by questions about the sincerity of his faith. His defense of Constantine is twofold: First, he aims to defend Constantine by refuting scholars who accuse the emperor of being a tyrant, egoist, opportunist and the like and by providing a “fairly fair account of Constantine’s life and work” (10). Second, he argues that “Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” (11).

    In the first part of the book, Leithart presents his scholarly interpretation of what kind of Christian emperor Constantine was. He begins with the background of how Constantine rose to power as emperor and describes how he changed Rome. Leithart states, “He [Constantine] was a sincere if somewhat simple believer. He knew some portions of the Old Testament and perhaps the basic outline of biblical history, and he could summarize the story of the Gospels. For Constantine, God was a providential Judge who supports the righteous and destroys the wicked, and he believed that the church had to be unified if it was going to offer pleasing worship to God” (302). Leithart demonstrates solid scholarly work in his interpretation of historical writings to present a fair portrayal of Constantine. Yet, it is fair to say that his own voice seems to overtake the voice of Constantine from time to time.

    In the latter part of his book (Chapters 12 to 14), Leithart engages with John Howard Yoder, whose work in pacifism has received considerable attention and who also coined the term “Constantianism,” which is defined as “a set of mental, spiritual and institutional habits that gets into the blood of careless Christians” (310). His engagement with Yoder is delightful. His criticism of Yoder, as Leithart clearly states, is not mainly historical, but theological. Still, Leithart argues that Yoder gets fourth-century church history completely wrong: He misconstrues his “entire reading of church history which is a hinge of his theological project” (11).

    “He [Yoder] argues that the early church was uniformly, or almost uniformly, pacifist and that Christians who served in the military would have been excommunicated . . . the evidence for Christians in the army in the mid-second century represents an accommodation to worldliness, a sign of drift and ultimately apostasy . . . Constantine consolidated and institutionalized this drift into a centuries-long apostasy” (258). However, Leithart asserts that the historical evidence is too ambiguous to make such a judgment call. Instead, Yoder’s rather hasty judgment may show that his historical interpretation is motivated by his Anabaptist background, instead of a fair examination of the historical evidence.

    Yet, Leithart sympathizes with pacifism. Not with the same intensity as Yoder, of course, but he agrees with Augustine that “One does not pursue peace in order to wage war, he wages war to achieve peace” (337). And this is indeed what we see in the Bible: “The Bible is from beginning to end a story of war” (333) to bring the world the benefit of peace. In this way Leithart shows his appreciation of Yoder. In fact, agreeing with Yoder, Leithart contends, “If there is going to be a Christian politics, it is going to have to be an evangelical Christian politics, one that places Jesus, his cross and his resurrection at the center. It will not do to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount with a wave of the hand (‘that’s for personal life, not political life’) (332). However, for Yoder, this cannot be accomplished with the help of empire, while for Leithart it is plausible because God finds His vessels in unlikely places.

    In conclusion, I believe that what these two theologians seek is the same: To advance the Kingdom of God. Yet, they differ in how to achieve this end. As a student of theology, I find myself in basic agreement with Leithart. Although I disagree with a number of points that he makes throughout the book, I agree with his basic principle: God can use empire, government, and social institutions to advance His Kingdom, as Scripture supports. Yet, I am not fond of Leithart’s interpretation of the Bible as a story of war. I agree, though, that a canonical reading of the Bible is a crucial key to understanding how we should participate in advancing the Kingdom of God. For this, Jeremiah 29 is crucial. How should we understand “seek the welfare of the city?” Perhaps, if we examine Jeremiah 29 in light of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, and the new earth and heaven of Revelation 21-22, we may come to see that God also brings redemption to this fallen world and we are to participate in this redemptive work of the created world (Rom 8:19-21). As William T. Cavanaugh rightly states, “If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom.” It is plausible to conclude that Constantine was one of God’s vessels to advance the Kingdom of God.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Reese

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Uncommon Decency

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  • Paperback: 187 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (August 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Richard Mouw’s blog
  • At the heels of the January 2011 shootings in Tucson that left six dead and many wounded has come the suggestion that our manner of discussing the issues of the day has become acrimonious.

    Comments citing the “vitriol that comes out of certain mouths” and “level of angry rhetoric,” and pleas to “bring down the rhetoric [that] . . . has become pervasive in our discussion of political issues” have abounded in the days after the tragic event.

    Is our age more caustic in our treatment of political and cultural disagreements than previous ones? Probably not. But the question of how to address differences has recurred.

    Richard J. Mouw’s newly revised Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (InterVarsity 2010) is a welcome discussion on . . . discussion. How should anyone, specifically Christians, present opinions about the issues of the day? We need to start with our own sinfulness and others’ humanness, and recognize that many issues are not easily resolved. Accept that we can learn from someone we disagree with. Even pray for the welfare of Babylon, Mouw advises, citing Jeremiah’s injunction to the exiled Israelites: “Seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4–7).

    Mouw tackles some of the familiar topics we tend to be uncivil about, but avoids clichéd responses. For example, he raises the concept of pluralism—a topic conservative Christians sometimes view with dismay, as though such a reality is detrimental to our practice of the faith. He lays out a reasoned and interesting conclusion, though, as to why Christians actually ought to embrace a pluralistic society.

    A strength of the book is his inclusion of issues within and without the church, discussions among believers, and between Christians and those who aren’t. He says Christians often become polarized—and may embrace polarization—even concerning different approaches to sharing the faith. We can obey the call to spread the gospel even while we listen to others, sincerely aim to understand them better, and even to get their perspective on us. Sadly, much incivility occurs within churches, whether in a local church setting or in a public denominational split.

    He recognizes the difficulties of engaging with culture without compromising convictions and offers examples of those whose road can be bumpy while doing so. His chapter on “When There Is No ‘On the Other Hand’ ” expands on this theme. Mouw’s approach to issues is nuanced, and he recognizes that “there will come times when civility alone is not adequate for dealing with our differences.”

    The chapter on whether or not hell is uncivil is fascinating.

    Mouw supports his reasoning with historic persons and contemporary examples, remaining thoughtful and fresh throughout. He concludes that “without grace, civility cannot endure.”

    Uncommon Decency is a welcome addition on how to discuss issues, get involved with others, address matters and persons with civility; a sensible, pleasing, and challenging read, highly recommended.

    —Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review — God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom

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  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (December 30, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com (CBD)
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Graham Cole’s Faculty Page
  • God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom by Graham A. Cole is not the book you might expect. The main purpose of the book is not to introduce the various theories of atonement and evaluate them in order to determine which theory best explains what happened on the cross. Rather, Cole’s main purpose is to explore how God the peacemaker brings shalom to man and creation through atonement. Cole observes, “Atonement brings shalom by defeating the enemies of peace, overcoming the barriers both to reconciliation and to the restoration of creation” (229). In the process Cole does discuss the various theories of atonement (the death and vindication of the faithful Son), but also develops the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation. In so doing, he rightly places Christ at the center of the story. He thus presents a strong argument for the absolute necessity of atonement for man because of our sin, and rightly puts the emphasis on the fact that this atonement was brought by God alone who is the peacemaker.

    Cole begins with God, who is holy and righteousness, to show that divine action flows from God’s character. He is love, holy, and light. The cross is where the character of God was revealed (Ch. 1). He then discusses the problems and effects of sin upon creation, including man (Ch. 2 and 3). As a result of sin, God’s creation became tainted and man is desperately in need of reconciliation with God. But God, who is compassionate, gave the foundational promise (the protoevangelium) that the offspring of Adam would crush the head of the serpent. And as He promised, He provided His faithful Son, Jesus, to atone for our sin (Ch. 4, 5, and 6). Through this atonement, God brought peace over man and creation. Man is now able to be reconciled with God and consequently with one other and creation (Ch. 7). In the next chapter, Cole shifts the focus from the benefits that Christians receive as a result of atonement (e.g., forgiveness of sins) to the responsibilities that come to beings who are caught up in Gods atonement project (Ch 8). In the final chapter, he concludes that the grand purpose of all of this is to bring glory to God who is worthy of all praise and glory (Ch. 8).

    I appreciated this book very much. Perhaps what I most appreciated was Cole’s comprehensiveness and faithfulness to Scripture. His treatment of the reconciliation and restoration of creation (not only the human soul) in light of atonement is evidence of such thoroughness. As noted above, his main purpose is to show how God as the peacemaker brought peace to the world through atonement, rather than simply discussing various theories of the atonement. When one seeks to understand atonement, it is important to consider the background story, namely, God’s salvation project. Without such background knowledge, our understanding of atonement can fall short and we are unable to comprehend what God has truly revealed on the cross.

    Similarly, I appreciated the fact that Cole did not stop at the cross, but continued on to the return of Christ. This again shows his holistic approach to Scripture. In my opinion, chapter eight is the treasure of the book. Here he speaks to contemporary Christians and explores the responsibilities that we have as God’s agents in His atonement project. In other words, Cole’s book is not simply a book that discusses theories, but also contains practical insights for his readers. Cole states regarding the Christian life and our responsibilities,

    “It is an other-person-centered life that expresses itself in self-donation on behalf of others rather than the selfish pursuit of one’s own interests. This is a life prepared to suffer for Christ’s sake and to take its part in spiritual warfare. It is a sacrificial life lived in response to the mercies of God expressed in the gospel. Importantly, it is not a life lived solo. It is lived as part of a great company of salt and light that pursues mercy-showing and shalom-making as agents of peace, and that tells the story both in evangelism and in witness of God’s great reconciling project and Jesus who stands at the heart of it” (217).

    This is a well-put statement of how we should live a life that was bought by the blood of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry did not end at the cross. Rather, His ministry continues through us. We must carry on the cross as agents of peace to advance the reconciliation and restoration of God’s creation.

    One area I would like to see Dr. Cole explore further is the section on union with Christ. I agree with him that Paul’s language indicates an organic rather than simply a moral sense. It would be interesting to see how he could further develop this fascinating topic in light of atonement.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  She has also reviewed The Great Theologians and Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Book Review — Life in the Spirit

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  • Paperback: 270 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • IVP Page, with Sample Chapters
  • Life in the Spirit, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, is an excellent collection of essays on the Holy Spirit and Christian spirituality.

    Topics in Life in the Spirit are varied, and are grouped under the headings of “Theological Contours,” “Historical Approaches,” “Spiritual Practices,” and an epilogue.

    The “Theological Contours” section includes two essays on spiritual formation, and an essay entitled “Getting the Spirit Back in Spirituality.” This latter essay was written by Gordon Fee and it is, in my opinion, the best essay in the volume. Fee urges readers towards the realization that the Holy Spirit is fully active and alive in the church and to open ourselves up to the presence of God. Fee’s article was simply fantastic, and this entire section on Theological Contours is perhaps the highlight of the book.

    The “Historical Approaches” section features four essays that focus on Christian spirituality throughout history. I found each of these essays interesting, particularly Lawrence Cunningham’s “The Way and the Ways” which discusses Roman Catholic spirituality. His insights on different “Ways” within Christianity and spirituality were enlightening. His points could be equally used for other denominations, such as his advice to analyze Catholic spiritual practice by asking, “Do we follow Christ by this practice, or by reading that book, or by participating in the liturgy, or by seeing Christ in others? By the use of that criterion we can then judge whether this vast panoply of Catholic devotional, ascetic, spiritual, liturgical and diaconal practices . . . are worthy of attention” (96).  I urge readers to consider the various “schools” or “Ways” Cunningham discusses. My single complaint about this section is that it seemed a little unbalanced to have two out of four essays on Roman Catholic spiritual practice. Surely there are other spiritual traditions worth exploring within Christianity! Catholicism would obviously be one of the top choices, but to dedicate half the essays on the historical perspectives to it seems a little extreme.

    Part 3 focuses on “Spiritual Practices” and features five essays on the topic. These essays are wonderfully diverse. I was particularly excited to see that the essays weren’t all on topics that were to be expected, such as prayer (though the essay on prayer by James Wilhoit is great). Of particular interest to me was David Gushee’s essay on “Spiritual Formation and the Sanctity of Life” in which he urges Christians to “establish . . . the sanctity of human life as our utterly fixed, unshakable and immovable moral standard” (215).

    There are difficulties with reviewing a work of such a broad scope, as it seems unfair not to deal with each essay individually. I trust this doesn’t reflect on this fantastic work, but instead on my inadequate review. I highly recommend Life in the Spirit for both interested laypeople and scholars. The diverse array of topics alone makes it worth buying, but the incredible insights the authors offer make the book essential.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. blogs on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Author Faculty Page
  • Q and A with the author
  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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