Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: God is Love by Gerald Bray

It's hard to read a book on it's own merits, because you don't read a book tabula rasa, without any prejudice or expectations.  It's hard to read that way, and it's hard to review that way, and so I only offer a brief preface before reviewing Gerald Bray's book God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Bray's book is not written for me.

Gerald Bray begins God is Love by stating that the "main purpose of this book is to set out what God has revealed to us."  A fine purpose, if I do say so. His aim, however, is what will make the book either make or break for most readers. He says it "is to reach those who would not normally find systematic theology appealing or even comprehensible."  He goes on: "Technical terminology has been avoided and the concepts underlying it have been explained as simply and directly as possible."  Up front, I will say, then, that in terms of contemporary systematics, I'm definitely more of a "Michael-Horton's-The-Christian-Faith" man myself.  But this book wasn't written for me. And so I will try to review it for what it is, in the context of what it intends to be.

One of my favorite things about Bray's book is that it begins with God's own inter-Trinitarian self-love and then moves from there out to His own love of humanity.  The structure of Bray's work left me delighted.  I like that Bray has a somewhat presuppositional approach to apologetics and arguing for the truths of Scripture.  Of course, he avoids the familiar language, but in the end it is unmistakeable.  Another winning aspect of the book is that Bray speaks in a way which is not overly-technical.  If you put each chapter of Bray's book up against other contemporary STs - say - Michael Horton's The Christian Faith, you would reckon that Bray is writing for a non-technical crowd.  In Bray's introduction he indicates a desire to write a book which could communicate the truths of God in a cross-cultural way to both Westerners and to those in the growing church in the southern hemisphere.  The book reads like it would translate very well into other languages because the language is intentionally simplistic.  It is for this same reason that I think most people in the church who are not "theo-geeks" would benefit a great deal from Bray's work.

While there are manifold positive aspects to God is Love, there appear to be a few missed opportunities for a richer discussion.  At the beginning of chapter 12 he says, "Why God created the universe is a question the Bible neither asks nor answers.  For the writers of Scripture, it was enough to know that God created the universe for his own purposes, but what those purposes might be remained a mystery" (225). That thudding sound was of Jonathan Edwards rolling over in his grave. There is a sense in which Bray is certainly correct, regarding the mystery of God's purposes, but in another sense he misses a profound opportunity to explain God's own revealed love of His own glory and His desire to put that glory on display by showing forth his manifold attributes via creation.  He also has a subsection in that chapter called "The Purpose of Creation," and while he discusses creation as a "testing ground" for humanity, he misses, once again, the overarching purpose of God's glory.  In a Systematic Theology which purports to be centered around the idea of God's love, it is disappointing that God's own self-love as the purpose of creation remains somewhat out of the limelight.

Also, Bray's discussion of "hearing the voice of God" isn't exactly my cup of tea.  He leaves open possibility of God's giving further "private" revelation beyond what is written in Scripture but differentiates between "private" and "public" revelations.  Rightly, he admits that if God were to speak to an individual, that revelation would not be for the wider church (65).  He's not exactly Wayne Grudem in this respect, and I don't see Bray standing up and telling us to publicly prophecy in tongues, but I still would have appreciated some discussion of the closing of the canon and its relationship to cessation of new revelation.  In his conclusion of this section, Bray says that if someone thinks it is God speaking, they should test whether it is Scriptural, and if it is not opposed by Scripture, he says the only way to know if it is from the Lord is to follow through on it and see how it pans out.  But sometimes God commanded people in the OT to do things which resulted in their personal pain or perceived "failure." (I think of the poor prophet Hosea, for instance.) I would propose that no matter how the situation pans out, such a person could not be able to know whether it was really God speaking to them.  Now I will digress.

Some nit-picking: I’m not a fan of putting Bible references in the footnotes.  This is a personal preference, but then again, this is a personal review.  I like to be able to read the page and skim for Bible references, and while the footnote style does de-clutter the text, it makes finding the place where the reference appeared a bit more challenging.

The blurbs on the back of God is Love seem to imply that this is a book for theological beginners.  One reviewer described this as a book for those “intimidated by theology books.”  They hit the nail on the head, and I really can’t improve on that description.  I thought of many of my friends while I read this book, and I plan on sharing this book with those around me who aren’t as schooled in theological terminology and contemporary discussions.

The book is described as being a "Biblical Systematic Theology," but in my opinion it does tend much more towards being Biblical Theological, with less interaction with differing perspectives than one might have expected.  If you want exhaustive bibliographies and lists of people who hold this or that view, Bray’s book is not what you’re looking for.  This book is less a reference material and more of a straight reader.

Those of us who tend to get tucked into the complicated theological debates from time to time could take quite a few cues from God is Love. Not only has Bray admirably worked to make this book comprehensible to a broad audience, but in my opinion he has done it quite well and with no lack of clarity. Bray's book is not a niche book and will hopefully receive broad attention in the evangelical world.

In spite of the negative things I’ve had to say about the book, if it is taken on its own merits, it’s really quite good.  After all, it was written by an Anglican for a broadly evangelical audience, and with the intention of being read and understood in a broader way by the global church.  With that intention in mind, I think God Is Love is quite good and admirably fits its Biblical/Systematic Theological niche.

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