The Trials of The Trials of Theology- A Negative Review

The Trials of Theology is categorized by many as a “must buy.”  The book is glowingly endorsed by Reformation-theology luminaries John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, and Keith Mathison and is favorably reviewed by Nathan Pitchford and Mike Leake.  Aside from Leake’s slight misgivings (which I agree with) I have not seen any “negative” criticism of it.    I think it is deserving of some.

The Trials of Theology is weakest where the hands of the editors are most apparent.  When I got the book and surveyed the contents I was looking forward to reading the chapter from Bonhoeffer entitled Becoming Real Theologians.  I have not read a lot of Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Psalms: The Prayer book of the Bible are the only works I can think of, but I have enjoyed what I have read.  Knowing something about his life and death, and seeing the title I was hopeful when I came to it.  Unfortunately the German has suffered greatly at the hands of his translators.

I found the translation of Kay Avery and Brian Rosner…distracting:  which is about the kindest thing I can say.  Throughout, the reader has forced upon him the dreaded language of 21st century PC-speech rather than that of a man who truly struggled with the implications of his faith and the implication of holding to his faith.  The first sentence is representative of most of what is wrong—grammatically and ontologically—with the inclusive language movement:

However, the person who actually thinks that he or she is only able to study theology should not imagine that they are better in any way than other students.

I am not sure whether this “person” in question is a hermaphrodite (“he or she”) or suffers from multiple personality disorder (“they”); but whichever the ailment is, he/she/they might have greater trials than simply theology.  Was Bonhoeffer this unambiguous when he wrote in 1933?  I have not noticed this tendency is his other works that I have read, so I am prone to attribute it to his translators.  Perhaps a chapter on the ever-advancing feminization of the faith would have been warranted in this work.

The very next chapter in the Voices Past section is supposedly by C.S. Lewis.  I wish that it were.  Rather, Inner Circles and True Inclusion is Andrew Cameron’s commentary on Lewis’ treatment of the topic with selected Lewis quotes scattered throughout.  I read the essay with sighs and shaking of head.  At the risk of falling into the same error I am about to outline, I offer a quote from Lewis’ famous introduction to Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

I know nothing about Andrew Cameron except what is written on the author blurb on the back of Trials.  But he seems to be pretty familiar with Lewis, so I find it hard to believe he is not familiar with this quote or its source.  I cannot help but wonder why Cameron did not heed Lewis’ counsel and just include Lewis’ own essay on the subject rather than his own commentary on it.  Lewis seemed to have a pretty good career by clearly communicating profound truths.  I’m prone to think he could have done just fine explaining himself without Cameron’s help.

Would I recommend this book? No, not really.  I think it is somewhat a waste of money considering:

  • The entries of Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, and Warfield are available free online.
  • The Bonhoeffer translation is an inclusivistic mangle (But if you are not put off by PC language, you will have a different reception than I.)
  • The Lewis chapter isn’t Lewis

If “this is the book that so many of us have been waiting for,”  I think we have set our sights a bit too low.  In place of this book I would highly recommend Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.  It is of similar size and price, but the material is much more even and was much more beneficial to me.