Review: Darren Marks, Bringing Theology to Life

Darren C. Marks, Bringing Theology to Life: Key Doctrines for Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 190 pp. (review copy courtesy of the good folks at IVP)

The disconnect between the church and the academy is one of the scandals within Western Christianity—and it is one in which both sides are guilty. The academy produces theology for other academic theologians, often with little to no concern for how this theology will serve the mission of the Christian community. Theology is just one discipline among others fighting for intellectual legitimacy and serving as the field within which a person gains academic recognition. The disregard most ministers have for academic theology is thus perfectly understandable, even if it only serves to further exacerbate the divide.

The problem from the church’s side is that many ministers no longer think theology is necessary for the work of the church. They no longer read the ancient doctors and magisterial Reformers, much less modern giants like Schleiermacher, Barth, Tillich, and Moltmann. It’s not simply that contemporary theology is often irrelevant to the church’s mission; now many ministers no longer care if it’s relevant or not, because theology per se is often viewed as antiquated and rigid, incapable of informing the concrete issues of faith and practice. It is also often viewed as divisive, which is not an unfounded charge considering the acrimonious nature of much theological debate. What Western Christianity desperately needs are theologians attentive to the concerns of the local and global church as well as ministers attentive to the debates in contemporary theology.

Enter Darren Marks. In this new volume, Bringing Theology to Life, he attempts to bridge this scandalous gulf between church and academy. In the introduction, he points out the problem of most academic theology—specifically its divorce from concrete, parish life—while noting that this is not the intention of most academic theologians. His goal in this book is “to redress that imbalance [between theology and church life] by clarifying that Christian theology is exactly the content of the life of the Christian community in terms of its worship and therefore its understanding of God in Christ” (10). He intends to “introduce the church to the insights of academic theologians” (ibid.). Marks seeks to accomplish this not by surveying various theologians or schools of theology. Instead he presents a kind of abridged “systematic theology” designed for the layperson or “armchair theologian.” It is abridged in that he only covers specific topics and doctrines, but it is systematic in that he still addresses the full scope of theology in a way that demonstrates how these doctrines are interconnected. The chapters are, as he says, “thematic and interwoven” (ibid.). Finally, to his great credit, he avoids academic jargon and arcane debates throughout the book.

The doctrines Marks chooses to address, and the way he frames them, are interesting. He begins, like any good theologian after Barth, with the doctrine of the Trinity. Then, in a move that at least appears to depart from Barth, he discusses the doctrine of sin before moving on to the incarnation. The next two chapters look at pneumatology and the Bible and sacraments. Finally, in a surprising move, he examines the doctrine of heaven (as opposed to eschatology) before concluding with ecclesiology.

The first chapter on the Trinity is the most elementary of the book; it reads like an embellished lecture, which is a good way to begin a book of this kind. Marks presents an overview of the basic trinitarian heresies, including monarchianism and modalism, among others. He then discusses gnosticism and Marcionism, wisely using the doctrine of the Trinity as a response to the bifurcation between the Creator God and the Redeemer God, between YHWH and the Messiah. Brief discussions of creation, perichoresis, and the doctrine of appropriations are all found here. The last half of the chapter recount the “demise” of the doctrine of the Trinity in modernity and its “reemergence” in the work of Karl Barth.

The next two chapters look at sin and the incarnation, respectively, but they should really be read as a single chapter divided into two parts. The reason for this becomes clear on the first page of the chapter on sin, where Marks states up front: “To talk of sin, we need to talk about Jesus Christ” (35). His argument in this chapter is that we must view sin theologically or christologically, not anthropologically. A doctrine of sin thus works backwards from “who Jesus is and what Jesus did” (38). While the chapter is titled “the doctrine of sin,” it should really be called “soteriology” or “the doctrine of salvation.” Marks rightly recognizes that christology is first and foremost soteriology; the person of Christ is determined by the saving work. What follows is thus a discussion of the atonement, based on Gustav Aulén’s book, Christus Victor. Marks takes Aulén’s widely-criticized scholarship for granted, and agrees with making the “Christ as victor” model the dominate one for thinking about the atonement: “Christus Victor is the only cry of Christians!” (45). The chapter on the incarnation follows Marks’s analysis of the cross by looking at Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Against liberalism, Marks argues that Jesus displays the “unambiguous coming of God” (61). This means that “God is Christlike” (64), which leads Marks to endorse Moltmann’s idea of the “crucified God.” The rest of the chapter focus on soteriology again, this time positively appropriating both deification and forensic justification, while concluding with a brief discussion of election as God’s faithfulness as our savior.

The rest of the book—roughly two-thirds of the overall text—is devoted to the third article of the creed, that is to say, to the questions of pneumatology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and eschatology. It’s clear from this where his own interests lie; his writing during these sections becomes more animated and more detailed, indicating a greater investment in the subject-matter. I will briefly describe each of these four chapters in turn, devoted to the “Holy Spirit,” “Bible and Sacraments,” “Heaven,” and “Church,” respectively. What becomes clear is that all four chapters are different ways of speaking about ecclesiology, which is really the center of gravity of the entire book.

The chapter on pneumatology begins by resisting reductionistic perspectives of the Spirit—such as associating the Spirit’s work with charismatic Pentecostalism or individual spirituality. The biblical witness leads us to a much broader and complex understanding of this doctrine. The Holy Spirit is God’s “power and presence” throughout creation. The Spirit is the agent of God’s mission in the world. Here Marks adds to his christocentrism a kind of pneumatocentrism: “God . . . is Spiritlike” (85), in addition to being Christlike. As with his earlier affirmation of an Eastern Orthodox conception of deification (69), Marks also sides in favor of the Eastern understanding of the trinitarian relations over against Augustine and the filioque, which he charges with implicitly “depersonalizing” the Spirit (83). The rest of the chapter looks at sanctification, drawing mostly upon Calvin and Barth to argue that the Spirit grants us freedom to live in hope before God. The Holy Spirit transforms us into “pneumatic humans” who reflect Jesus, “the first truly pneumatic human” (89).

Marks next turns to sacramentology, wherein he includes both the Bible and the traditional sacraments of baptism and eucharist. He describes his position as “a middle line between highly sacramental and nonsacramental theology,” which he takes to mean that “both the Scripture and sacraments are vehicles in which Christ is made objectively and personally present” (97). He defines a sacrament as a “mediating grace,” a means by which God is made manifest for the believing community. Scripture is a mediating grace as God’s revelatory speech. After an odd and lengthy discussion of history, Marks draws on Eberhard Jüngel, John Webster, and Barth to develop a theology of Scripture and preaching that emphasizes God’s self-communicative presence in and through these creaturely media. When he turns to the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Marks addresses the problem of distinguishing between sacramentality and the sacraments. He develops an “ecumenical proposal” for the sacraments, drawing heavily upon Catholic sources, focusing on their mediating and unifying character. He concludes by stating that the church is a sacrament.

At this point, a chapter on the being of the church itself would seem most natural, but Marks makes the reader wait until the last chapter for a proper discussion of ecclesiology. Between sacraments and the church, he inserts a chapter on heaven. This awkward ordering is revealing: it indicates Marks’s attempt to resist as strongly as possible the association of heaven with the “afterlife” or the “beyond.” After another odd aside on Max Weber, election, and the “prosperity gospel,” he briefly describes the images of the New Jerusalem and the beatific vision before turning to a lengthy and very well-done section on the “problem of heaven” in modern theology. Here he touches on Kant, Hegel, Weiss, Schweitzer, Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, and others. Marks argues for a church of hope and a theology of hope which together recognize that the doctrine of heaven is not some abstract idea about what comes after death. Eschatology is not about the “last” things in terms of chronology, but about the “final” things in terms of significance. Heaven refers to the eschatological future of God as it continually breaks in to the world here and now. God’s future guarantees our own future in fellowship with God, and we are called to live now as a “missionary presence in the world” in corresponding witness to this eschatological reality (159).

The closing chapter on the church is simply a recapitulation of the previous chapters. The first sentence states: “The end (telos), at least on this side of heaven, is the church” (165). As should be clear by the attention he gives to the doctrine, Marks has a very high ecclesiology. He states that the church is “the place in which God chooses to work in the world” (166). The last part of the book explores the moral and theological problems associated with the church—the former exploring the Pelagian and Donatist controversies, and the latter going through the creedal confession (in the order: apostolic, holy, catholic, and one). One error stood out in this chapter. Twice in the discussion of the moral problem, Marks refers to the church as “a mixture of saints and sinners” (172) and, even worse, “a mixture of sinful and justified [!]” (174). I suspect this is merely a slip of the tongue—surely, as a Protestant, Marks does not mean that a person is either sinful or justified, either a saint or a sinner—but it’s a fairly important slip, and one that is easily misleading to a populace that tends to think in false dichotomies.

On the whole, this book succeeds in making academic conversations accessible and meaningful to a larger audience of Christians. Marks uses mostly jargon-free language, and he makes complex debates easily understandable. Theologically, Marks presents a “generously orthodox” Protestant perspective, influenced especially by Barth and Moltmann. He tries admirably, as he puts it, to “be generous in roaming the theological family tree.” And it is to his credit that he is “not particularly attached to any single tradition, denomination or account of the Christian life” (11). He does not engage in confessional polemics and freely appropriates insights from various traditions in an ad hoc manner. He thus models an ecumenical openness to the global diversity of the Christian witness.

As helpful as this is, there is at least one noticeable drawback. Marks does not provide the theological and historical context for many of the ideas that he borrows, and this can be confusing, even misleading. Take, for example, his use of the Eastern Orthodox notion of deification. When he lifts this up as a helpful image of salvation, he defines it as “the process of growing into true spiritual maturity; it is participating in or enacting that truest reality by being like God” (69). And while this is certainly a key aspect of deification, it obscures what sets it apart from other soteriological images, viz. the fact that it involves an ontological participation in the essence or energies of God. Deification is not merely an image of salvation; it carries with it an entire theological ontology shared by the ancient Greek doctors of the church. As Marks uses it here, the word “deification” just becomes a synonym for “sanctification.” And that can be misleading for Christians looking for intellectual clarity, and not simply ecumenical cherry-picking.

One other problem bears mentioning. The inescapable danger of a book like this is that it will oversimplify key figures and ideas. While Marks generally does a fine job of summarizing, there are certain places where his use of typologies and overly-broad categories results in some specious statements. For example, in both the chapters on sin and incarnation, Marks makes some disparaging remarks about Christian existentialism, and Rudolf Bultmann in particular. The fact that Bultmann is widely misunderstood is no excuse for statements like the following: “Faith [in Christian existentialism] is not faith in God or even God’s presence, but rather faith in one’s ability to choose to be a whole person in the midst of a confusing world. This is the understanding of sin of many popular TV self-help gurus” (48). Or this one: “Like Schleiermacher and [Thomas] Jefferson [!!], Bultmann finds an extraordinary Jesus, but not a supernatural Christ” (60). In addition to the false dichotomy between extraordinary-human and supernatural-divine, he misconstrues both Bultmann and Schleiermacher. Lumping them in with Jefferson the Deist is akin to theological libel.

It would be grossly unfair to Marks to go through and critically analyze each particular statement. The fact remains that the book is indeed quite helpful in many ways and deserves an audience. But issues like the ones noted above lead me to the conclusion that to use this book profitably in, say, a Christian education class at a church would require an educated teacher capable of elucidating and disambiguating some of the claims that Marks makes. There are also key doctrines missing entirely from the book, such as the doctrines of creation and providence. I thus cannot entirely endorse it as a stand-alone guide for a lay believer seeking a deeper and more thoughtful faith. However, when used in concert with other materials, or aided by a teacher, it can indeed serve a crucial role in connecting the church and the academy. Perhaps the best feature of the book is the fact that every chapter ends with discussion questions and a brief bibliography for further reading. This makes it especially suitable for use in Christian education.

There is much to appreciate about this work. Marks introduces many debates, concepts, and theologians that are likely unknown to the vast majority of Christians. And he does so in a way that makes them relevant to the concerns of everyday Christian life and practice. The book begins by stating that “the lack of intersection between the life of parish [sic] and Christian theology short circuits effective Christian mission” (10). While not without its problems, Marks has taken an important and helpful step in redressing this widespread disconnect. For this reason, Bringing Theology to Life makes a crucial contribution to the future vitality of the church’s mission in the world.