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A Short Systematic Theology


A user-friendly summary of the essentials of Christian belief.

This short systematic theology is a refreshing alternative to works on Christian doctrine that are too large or demanding for personal or group study. Paul Zahl offers a concentrated summary of the whole Christian faith in three concise, biblically correct chapters at once serious and popular, scholarly and contemporary.

Arranged around twenty-five theses that cover the core ...

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A user-friendly summary of the essentials of Christian belief.

This short systematic theology is a refreshing alternative to works on Christian doctrine that are too large or demanding for personal or group study. Paul Zahl offers a concentrated summary of the whole Christian faith in three concise, biblically correct chapters at once serious and popular, scholarly and contemporary.

Arranged around twenty-five theses that cover the core Christian beliefs, the book clearly explains the person and nature of Jesus Christ, the meaning of the atonement, and the life that results from Christian freedom. Encompassing a great wealth of knowledge in a user-friendly, easy-to-follow format, A Short Systematic Theology is one of the best resources available for church, group, and personal study.

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Editorial Reviews

Jürgen Moltmann
A radical, challenging theology, truly systematic in the yes-and-no style of the confessing church. Paul Zahl's twenty-five theses will initiate a new discussion about the subject, content, and method of a theology deserving of the name ‘Christian.' This book will help clear up the fog of religious obscurities current today.
George Carey
A splendid introduction to the heart of the Christian faith—namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul Zahl is one of the most exciting theologians in the United States today. He has that rare ability to combine serious theology with the world of art and modern life. I commend this important book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802847294
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 7/1/2000
  • Pages: 120
  • Product dimensions: 0.28 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction (from pages 1-3)

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) said that the whole of Christian theology could be condensed on a single sheet of paper. He did this, and it remains an epigrammatic touchstone for all who come after him (see Appendix A). Karl Barth (1886-1968) tried to do one better: he said that his theology, all fourteen volumes of it, could be condensed on one half of a sheet of paper. Barth never produced the page.

Brevity is a virtue in most things. Chekhov said that "brevity is the brother of brilliance." Jesus demonstrated this in the Lord's Prayer and in the Beatitudes. Dickens displayed the virtue of brevity in A Christmas Carol, which can be read aloud in one sitting. Milton's sonnets are masterpieces of theological reflection distilled to fourteen lines.

Short is better. In all of rock 'n' roll, no one has ever produced a better single than "Can't Explain" by the Who (1964). How long is it? It is exactly two minutes and three seconds long. In the information avalanche overwhelming the world in bewildering forms, short is better. It really is. "For God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few" (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

The New Testament is very short. Without any cuts, it can be carried in your pocket, even your vest pocket. The Book of Common Prayer (1928) is also very short, and the same applies. The truth, while inexhaustible in its applications in individual situations, can be expressed in short form.

A principal feature of this systematic theology of the Christian religion is its brevity. There is no need for padding. There is also no need for this theology to be exhaustive, although it is complete. The reader can think through for himself or herself the implications of the main ideas. The Prologue to the Gospel of St. John is eighteen verses. Yet it tells you everything you need to know about God in his relation to the human race. The eighteen verses are not exhaustive, but they are complete. Their implications are inexhaustible.

In this systematic theology I seek to give the basic points of Christian theology in three chapters. The first chapter gives the subject of theology, the God who is speaking as Subject. The second chapter gives the content of theology, the organizing principle behind which is the atonement of Christ. The third chapter gives the method of theology, which is the intellectual freedom to criticize the text (i.e., the Bible). This quality of intellectual freedom is connected to self-criticism, which is another word for the biblical idea of repentance. Self-criticism roots the method of theology in humility before God, theology's Subject.

In theology, everything hinges on the starting point. The starting point for Christian theology is the "Old, Old Story" of Christ's appearance in world history. World history, theologically speaking, is centuries and centuries of theater, dramatized by millions of actors but featuring two main characters, Christ and Satan. A few principles of interpretation are sufficient to portray the human story and the interactions of God and Satan within that story.

Every theology that has ever existed carries a prism through which the data, in particular the Bible data, are organized. This particular theology has three such prisms: the principle of Jesus' continuity or continued life through to the present day; the principle of atonement; and the principle of intellectual freedom rooted in self-criticism.

The reader should find the basics here of story and of method, from the creation of the world right through to the conclusion of world history. That this theology is Bible-based should be clear from the start.

To provide a teaching tool, I wish to view the theology of the Christian religion as expressed tersely in a cycle of works created by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) in the early Reformation period. These drawings, prints, and paintings depict the gospel message in shorthand. The artist seeks to develop his own shorthand for the whole sweep of the Old Testament and New Testament message, and he seeks to do this in one visual image. That Cranach was able to achieve this reflects his genius for composition. It also reflects the fact that the biblical story of God's engagement with the human race is easily understandable.

This little book is written in the style of Cranach's 1529 woodcut entitled "The Old and New Testament" (see Appendix B). Cranach's woodcut is an unparalleled example of close and dense theological expression rendered visually. This systematic theology attempts also to put the whole story into one short, readable scroll. Then, just as the artist painted himself into the picture in the final version from 1559, I try to set the reader of the scroll within it.

To present the ideas of this systematic theology within a brief one-volume whole, I have chosen the old method of thesis and explanation. The three chapters of the book consist of twenty-five theses. Each thesis is accompanied by a short exposition, either before it or after it. The twenty-five theses outline the subject, the content, and the method of theology from which all subsidiary themes and all applications can be developed.

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Table of Contents

  1. The Subject of Theology: Jesus Christ (Theses 1-11)
  2. The Historical Jesus
    The Present-Day Christ
    The Presence of His Absence
    The Expanding Christ
    Christ as Subject
    The Spirit of God
  3. The Content of Theology: Power in the Blood (Theses 12-19)
  4. Two Metaphors for Substitution
    The Incarnation
    The Trinity
    The Hardest Part
    The Atoned, Atoning God
  5. The Method of Theology and the Method of Life: Libertas christiana (Theses 20-25)


Appendix A: Beza’s Summa totius Christianismi
Appendix B: Lucas Cranach’s "The Old and New Testament"
Selected Reading List
Index of Authors
Index of Biblical References

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