Icon (Close Menu)

Hauerwas, Thiselton: Two Very Different Theological Styles

Theology is not neat and tidy, but is messy and incomplete, which invites other voices into the conversation for our mutual enrichment: there is more than one way to do this, and we need them as well.

Systematic Theology
By Anthony C. Thiselton
Eerdmans. Pp. 467. $40

The Work of Theology
By Stanley Hauerwas
Eerdmans. Pp. 305. $28

Review by Robert MacSwain

Eerdmans published both of these books in 2015, and both authors are distinguished emeritus professors looking back over a lifetime of work, offering reflective late-career surveys of major themes in Christian theology. Thiselton (b. 1937) is a British evangelical priest best known for his contribution to hermeneutical theory and New Testament scholarship, while Hauerwas (b. 1940) is an American post-liberal Methodist/Episcopal layman whose work in theological ethics helped reshape the field in both method and content. But the material differences between these two volumes outweigh their formal similarities and run much deeper than their respective authors’ national, ecclesial, and disciplinary affiliations.

Thiselton’s Systematic Theology cannot quite figure out if it wants to be a user-friendly textbook or a single-volume original systematics and so falls uneasily between these options. While providing an ostensible introduction, Thiselton often assumes background knowledge (particularly in philosophy) that many readers will lack. The book is structured into 15 chapters dealing with the traditional loci of Christian doctrine, but with some surprises in order and length of treatment.

For example, Thiselton provides two chapters on soteriology before offering just one chapter on Christology and devotes two chapters to pneumatology. These central five chapters (VIII-XII) are heavily exegetical and selectively historical. Thus, the 32-page Christology chapter consists of 23 pages of biblical exegesis followed by nine pages of paragraph-length summaries of figures from the patristic era to today, omitting the medieval period entirely; and the two chapters on the Holy Spirit are likewise subtitled “Biblical Doctrine” and “Historical Insights,” again skipping from the patristic period straight to the Reformation.

Systematic theology, whatever it is, is not simply a fusion of biblical and historical theology, but requires an additional act of normative synthesis, yet Thiselton rarely provides any creative, critical, or constructive contribution. While he surveys and summarizes an impressive scope of material (often most helpfully) it is thus difficult to discern what precisely is distinctive about his approach. He draws almost exclusively on fellow British evangelicals for biblical exegesis, depends largely on German Protestants such as Moltmann and Pannenberg (his clear favorite) for theological content, is dismissive of feminist and liberationist concerns, and gives Anglo-Catholic convictions such as purgatory short shrift.

Also, rather oddly, although he mentions Sarah Coakley a couple of times, and engages with Eugene Rogers on the Holy Spirit, otherwise Thiselton basically writes as though the most important Anglican theologians of the last 30 years did not exist: Rowan Williams is cited twice as the author of his monograph on Arius but not for his constructive work, and there is no mention of David Brown, Ellen Charry, David Ford, Daniel Hardy, Ann Loades, Mark McIntosh, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Ben Quash, Ephraim Radner, Katherine Sonderegger, Stephen Sykes, Kathryn Tanner, or Graham Ward. In short, if you are looking for an evangelical survey of Christian doctrine from a biblical and Protestant-historical point of view, you will find much value in Thiselton’s text, but if you are looking for a work of Anglican systematic theology in dialogue with the current conversation outside of evangelical circles, you will be disappointed.

Hauerwas presents a very different volume. The Work of Theology may be read as a more thematic sequel or companion to his Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2012). Having worked through his significant contribution as a theological ethicist from an autobiographical perspective in Hannah’s Child, Hauerwas now revisits many specific key themes from his work, as well as topics that he had previously neglected. The book is thus both retrospective and forward-looking.

Instead of a standard list of doctrinal loci, the 13 chapters of The Work of Theology are presented as a how-to list: “How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically,” “How the Holy Spirit Works,” “How to Be an Agent: Why Character Matters,” “How to Write a Theological Sentence,” “How to Think Theologically about Rights,” and “How to ‘Remember the Poor.’” It also contains some unexpected entries, such as “How to Be Theologically Ironic” and “How to Be Theologically Funny,” and concludes with a postscript replying to Nicholas M. Healy’s Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Eerdmans, 2014).

The Work of Theology is unusual for Hauerwas. Rather than a collection of previously published essays, it is a more cohesive argument, and is distinctive in its explicit attention to doctrinal matters that he normally leaves implicit in favor of ethical or more practical topics. In his response to Healy he says, “I have tried to show how the ‘parts fit together’ in a way that does not abstract doctrine from ways of life in which doctrine does work. I have never attempted, nor will I ever attempt, to provide an account of the Trinity or of the Incarnation as an end in itself” (p. 271).

But as he explains in the first chapter, “How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically,” for Hauerwas all theology is in fact “an exercise in practical reason” (p. 11). Drawing largely on Alasdair MacIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Taylor, and Aristotle, Hauerwas concludes that practical reason “deals with matters that can be other, that is, with the contingent” (p. 19). Against the common view that theology must deal with the universal, the abstract, and the necessary, Hauerwas insists that it deals with the particular, the concrete, and the contingent.

This means that Hauerwas is suspicious of the very category of systematic theology and says: “I do not think the development of theology in the early centuries of the church to be ‘systematic’ theology. Rather I associate systematic theology with developments after the Reformation in which ‘doctrine’ became an end in itself” (p. 24). By contrast, Hauerwas endorses the occasional character of Paul’s letters, and says that such ad hoc theology “has a concreteness that resists false, universalizing tendencies. I should like to think, at least in terms of form, that the way I have done theology is not unlike letters to the church” (p. 24).

This is why I found The Work of Theology more interesting and valuable than Systematic Theology. Like Thiselton, Hauerwas can be (and has been) accused of not paying sufficient attention to feminist and liberationist concerns, drawing mostly on other white male figures, and so on. But Hauerwas has never pretended to offer a comprehensive survey of systematic theology, but rather writes idiosyncratic letters to the Church, helping us think more clearly and creatively about what it means to belong to this odd community called Church and do this odd thing called theology.

Theology thus understood is not neat and tidy, but is messy and incomplete, which invites other voices into the conversation for our mutual enrichment: there is more than one way to do this, and we need them as well. For Hauerwas, the practical reason of theology consists distinctively in asking about “the difference God makes for the living of our lives. The exploration of that difference is never finished, which means the theologian always has something to do. I take that to be a great gift” (p. 257). So should we.

The Rev. Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the University of the South’s School of Theology.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Sean Rowe: ‘I See Significant Changes’

The Presiding Bishop-Elect brings a deep reservoir of Episcopal experience to his coming role.

Covenant Hires Calvin Lane as 3rd Editor

“I think that Covenant has got a major foothold in the Anglican world, and I do mean beyond the Episcopal Church, and we need to continue to grow that. But at the same time, I want to hear more ecumenical voices.”

Conversation Across Difference

Kelli Joyce, Jordan Hylden, and Matthew S.C. Olver discuss Communion Across Difference, a task force of the Episcopal Church.

Bishops Respond to Former President’s Shooting

Episcopal Church leaders responded to news of a bullet grazing former President Donald Trump's ear at a Pennsylvania campaign rally July 13 with calls to prayer and calming words for a troubled nation.