This is one of the best single-volume broad-scope introductions to Christian theology available today. Currently in its second edition, it will most likely have more editions, and there are frequent reprintings of the edition as it continues to be a field-specific best seller in the English speaking academic and seminary communities.
One of the things that makes this book such a useful text for teaching, reference and study is that is contains three primary sections that deal with the foundation issues of all subsequent Christian theology: one must be aware of the history and what has been done before; one must know the how, where and why of theology; and one must have a basic outline, pattern or understanding from which to begin.
Landmarks: Periods, Themes, and Personalities
The pattern of historical development on Christianity is presented in a fairly objective manner by McGrath. He deals with a broad overview of the major periods, looking at key theological developments as well as key persons, events and geographic groupings and distinctions. Most chapters follow the same pattern of setting out a clarification of terms, a brief overview historically, a presentation of key theologians, an examination of key theological developments, a section on key names, word and phrases, and a section of questions and further suggested readings.
The Patristic Period is the time of the Church Fathers, post-apostolic but while 'the world' was still a Roman world. Key in this period is the fixing of creedal formulations of doctrine, the establishment of the biblical canon, and various issues of church, grace, and tradition. Key figures McGrath highlights are Justin Martyr, Ireneaus of Lyon, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine. If there is one criticism of this section and the book as a whole, it is that it pays far too little attention to those parts of the Christian tradition that were not mainstream and historically victorious. One could easily be fooled into thinking controversies such as the Arian beliefs were fairly minor.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, McGrath highlights Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Erasmus. Key theological issues include a re-examination of grace (one will notice that certain issues remain in the forefront of Christian consideration and are constantly re-appraised), sacramental theology, patristics, formal theological systematics, and the issue of biblical translation.
In the Reformation and Post-Reformation section, McGrath highlights Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and looks at the issues of the various Reformations, including the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic church. The Modern Period section looks at the Enlightenment and its influence on Protestant and Catholic development, but much moreso the former. Various theological schools highlighted include Romanticism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Postmodernism, Liberation theology, Postliberalism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and the influence of various political developments such as Marxism on theological thought.
This is a rather sweeping examination of the history of Christian Theology, done in a mere 130 pages. It is good for an introduction, and one would do well to take McGrath's recommended readings lists to heart, as so much is glossed over with barely a mention in much of this treatment, by necessity. This is a theology text, not a history text.
Sources and Methods
McGrath in this section addresses the tools and methodologies, as well as the primary and secondary sources of theology. He shows the architecture of Christian theology to be comprised of biblical studies, historical theology, pastoral theology, philosophical theology, and systematic theology. These work together to form a broad framework of support; no one will be complete without addressing elements of the others.
In examining Sources of Theology more directly, McGrath looks at the issues of revelation. How precisely is revelation to be defined, and how does it work? He looks at issues of natural theology, scriptural revelation and authority, the importance and limitation of reason as a source of theology, the various ways in which tradition gets used as source material, and the issues and controversies surrounding direct religious experience as a valid source of theology. The reader will be introduced to some key debates in these topics, such as the Barth-Brunner debate over natural theology, and Feuerbach's critique of religious experience as a basis for theology.
The third part of McGrath's text is the longest, dealing with all of the key issues of a systematic theology. First perhaps a definition is in order. Systematic theology is not a type of theology per se, but rather it is a type of types of theology. For instance, a Liberation theology work can be systematic or not; a Process theology work can be systematic or not. The various 'doctrines' set out are not set pieces of a creed here, but rather areas for examination. In looking at the Doctrine of God, the issues of gender, relationship, creativity, omnipotence and the like are all examined. McGrath gives the picture of God portrayed in the writings of theologians through history; for instance, in examining the issue of evil, McGrath highlights the work of Irenaeus, Augustine and Barth in particular, with a nod to more recent contributions.
The book can be easily adapted for use in an order other than what is presented here; however, McGrath recommends for the self-taught that the book be followed in the order of the Table of Contents, and I would tend to agree with that recommendation. There is a glossary, a good section on sources of citations, a handy reference section for theology resources on the internet, and a well-developed index.
The text is a broad-based approach. It is rather Protestant in its developmental approach and the subtle bias is always in that direction, but it is not so apparent or intrusive as to detract from the true value of this text as a major guide toward theological investigation.