reviewOgdenATR | Theology | Christology

The Understanding of Christian Faith. By Schubert M. Ogden. Cascade books, 2010. 168 pp. $21 (paper).

The Understanding of Christian Faith (hereafter UCF) is Schubert Ogden’s first effort towards a comprehensive systematic theology. The argument is tightly woven and so consistent with his style of writing. UCF covers the traditional categories of Christian systematic theology: God, Creation, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Church, Salvation, and Last Things each awarded its own chapter. The book begins with a chapter entitled, “Prolegomena: On Theology,” and concludes with a chapter entitled, “Epilegomena: On Theology as a Christian Vocation.” Ogden intends the ambiguous title, UCF, to oscillate between both an understanding the Christian faith has as subject and a normative claim of how the Christian faith is to be understood as object. The distinction exemplifies his central claim that systematic theology is critical reflection and appropriation of the entire witness of faith. Critical reflection requires, he says, that claims of adequacy with the content of Christian witness are both appropriate to Jesus and credible to human experience. Therefore, Ogden, as a systematic theologian, is the opposite of a reductive theologian either in terms of a commitment to credibility that dispenses with the tradition or in terms of a commitment to tradition with a blind eye to all other academic disciplines. Rather, he seeks to balance these two poles that vie for position in contemporary academic theology. Ogden intends this succinct introduction to systematic theology as, “the book I myself could wish I had had early on in my own formation as a professional theologian (p. ix).” He particularly has lay theologians in mind. Ogden is committed to the idea that by acquiring the name Christian one assumes a responsibility and commitment to lay ministry. One also assumes a responsibility and commitment as a lay theologian, if only for the sake of one’s ministry. Still, I suspect that laypeople will require assistance both with the content of UCF and the implications of its arguments. Consistent with his earlier thought, Ogden remains a radically Christocentric theologian: in Jesus is revealed the nature of God and thus the nature of what it means to be fully human. That Jesus is decisive for human existence is not simply a call to belief, rather it is a claim that filters, naturally, into his understanding of what it means to be church: “… the essential nature of the church is that it is, in the case of the invisible church, the community of authentic faith working through love in response to the gracious acceptance of God… (p. 96).” By participating in this reality of faith working through love, Christians take on the responsibility of critically assessing this witness and of propagating it to the whole world. I am concerned with Ogden’s rigid notion of the religious use of language. Ogden drives our use of Christological claims like ‘Son of God’ or ‘Lamb of God’ toward a very specific existential point. This is indeed a fruitful consideration only to the extent it is realized that our language has a great many uses; not least of which is to form participants into the image of Christ. An expansive notion of language use will feed back into his argument that Jesus is decisive for human existence. Nevertheless, the academic will find Ogden’s focused argumentation refreshing and challenging. UCF will require the careful consideration of all who take up the task.

A. J. Woods Abilene Christian University Abilene, Texas

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