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I don’t read much systematic theology (ST). If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, either you’ve seen me say that before, or you’ve noticed that of all the books I have reviewed, very few are on ST. It’s not that I don’t like ST, but it doesn’t click as well with me as biblical theology (commentaries and books about the biblical text). This makes sense because understanding what the biblical text says comes first.
We examine the words and phrases of a text (exegesis), how it fits into the Bible’s story (BT), how it has been understood throughout the church’s history (HT), and what the whole Bible says about the topics considered in the text (ST). As D. A. Carson says (in an article linked to the image below), ST asks, “What is true about God and his universe?… ST is systemic: it is concerned with how the whole Bible logically coheres in systems of thought.” After having worked through that, we can move on to pastoral theology (PT). What does this text, its place in the canon, what others have learned from it in their own time and culture, and what it tells us about God or any other doctrine, have to say to us today? And how should we respond to what God tells us?
I enjoy the first links: exegesis and BT. ST usually comes too heady and ethereal for me, especially when it considers God, the trinity, and Christ’s incarnation. Philosophical language comes into play, something I don’t know enough about. Why use philosophy to study God? Christ is wisdom and knowledge to us (1 Cor 1:30), and we are to love God with our whole selves, including our minds (Mk 12:30). Christ shows us God’s character, the Bible shows us God’s character and vision for life. We can use our minds and the worlds resources through the lens of God’s word to work to rightly understand God.
So… the Book
What has this to do with Barrett’s book? I have really enjoyed other books Barrett has written. He is very sharp. I read a few reviews of this book, and people really enjoyed reading it. Though this book is not an introduction, I knew I needed to pick this one up to get into understanding the doctrine of God. I was both pleased and disappointed.
The Chocolate Milk
In referencing the parable of the unclean spirits (Matt 12:43-45), Barrett wants his book “to fill the house with good theology proper, the type that will keep the demons away for good” (xvi). Our God is one who is high and lifted up, higher than anything we can imagine. Nothing is greater, and he is not like us. We too often compare God to ourselves. We do this, so God must do this, only perfectly. We love in this way, so God must love like we do, only perfectly. We make him “a greater version of ourselves” (xvi). Yet our God is greater “not because he is merely a greater version of ourselves but because he is nothing like ourselves” (xvi). In an effort to show people how great God is, we have domesticated God to make him palatable to others.
Barrett’s book revolves around one central question: What must be true of God if he is the most perfect being? (10). To help answer this question, Barrett’s joins forces with the A-Team: Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (along with members of the B- and C-Team: Herman Bavinck and Stephen Charnock). Friends are important, and these friends clarify and both “warn us of ditches on the side of the road and inform us of hidden gardens to enjoy while we refresh” (12). Though the book focuses primarily on the doctrine of God, Barrett occasionally brings the trinity (ch 5) and Christ’s incarnation (ch 7) into discussion.
This book is great because it revolves around the questions people often ask about God: Does God depend on me? Does he change? Does he have emotions? Is he in time or bound by space? How is he both holy and loving? Why is he jealous?
In the chapter on impassibility (God’s emotion), Barrett argues against Jürgen Moltmann’s claim that God suffers with us. While it might sound encouraging that when we suffer, God is right there suffering with us, Barrett says that this is faulty. In fact, we wouldn’t want this kind of God at all! When a fireman runs into a house, we don’t need him to have experienced a fire in his own home or on his own body. He doesn’t need to have experienced all the suffering to have compassion on anyone who is in the burning house. He is not overcome by emotion, but he stoically runs in the house to save whomever remains.
God’s love has no potential. He is always loving to the full. Impassibility says that nothing can take God’s love down a notch or ten. He cannot be manipulated by us or our situations. In fact, “a suffering God is a God we start to feel sorry for” (136). But didn’t Jesus suffer? Yes, Jesus suffered as a man, but his divinity did not. How does that work? Well, now you’ll just have to read Barrett’s work.
There is a ten-page glossary at the end of the book. Keep that in mind; it is helpful.
The Spoiled Milk
Perhaps this is because I haven’t read enough ST, but sometimes I couldn’t follow Barrett’s argument. In almost every chapter there is a paragraph or two that I simply didn’t understand. In chapter 3, Barrett, focusing on God’s perfections and infinitude, compares the idea of God being unlimited in size with the fact that he is unlimited in essence. While God is “a different species entirely,” I still haven’t figured out quite what Barrett means that God is “unlimited in essence” (44). Due to my lack of understanding, this made the rest of the section fuzzy and hard to pin down.
There are other instances, but they take up more text and are harder to explain. If you come across these places, slow down, reread the text, move on, and finish the chapter. Then come back and see if you understand it now.
Barrett’s book is also repetitive at points. Different ideas are repeated throughout the book, treated almost as if this is the first time you’ve read it. One small but memorable example was when Barrett twice commented on how Piper would (only slightly) tweak a sentence in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that “man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever,” and how how Piper himself has said he would only slightly tweak this sentence (158, I can’t remember the other page). So certain arguments about God’s attributes show up again throughout the book, which causes the argument to be busier than it needs to be and had me questioning if I’d read this before or was simply having déjà vu.
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend this to just any layperson. If you enjoy reading systematic theology, or books about the doctrine of God/Christ/the trinity and so on, then this book is for you. You are probably familiar with the language used. This book does not claim to be an introduction, so don’t come into reading it thinking it is. It is both enlightening and challenging. You will be rewarded by reading it, and don’t try to read it all at once. Take a chapter at a time, or whatever you have time for. Put the book down and let what you’ve read simmer. Mull over it. When you’re ready, come back for more and read about how God is much greater than what we can imagine. It helped me want to read more systematic theology and to better appreciate it’s role in understanding God and Scripture.
- Author: Matthew Barrett
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Baker Books (March 5, 2019)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.