Speaking of God is the task of all Christians. A lot has been said, and the story of this conversation is not a simple one. But Anthony G. Siegrist has done it well. In Speaking of God: An Essential Guidebook to Christian Thought, he links the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation with how people have talked of God over the past 2,000 years.
I’m not kidding: Siegrist means to tell this whole story — and does so in a gentle and patient teaching tone. By the end of the 240-page book, complicated theology terms are couched in a personal memoir.
Siegrist is a pastor — currently of Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ontario — who loves to explain complicated theological concepts to ordinary parishioners.
I needed that patience. I haven’t reviewed my historical theology books in ages. I have forgotten most of the classroom debates about depravity, Calvinism, trichotomy, apophatic knowledge and dispensationalism.
Yet the fog in my brain cleared when he wrote about pacifism, wisdom literature and eschatology.
All the technical terms are bolded and explained within the chapters. And there is a helpful index and list of definitions for key terms.
The book is audacious. It takes the reader on a sweeping review of conversations, debates and events. At times, disputes and decisions about church teachings and individual beliefs were matters of life and death.
The meaning of God has been fought over and prayed over. It’s clear that neither fighting nor praying solves every Christian problem.
In fact, Siegrist says, “our lack of biblical and theological literacy means our churches are having a hard time finding well-prepared lay leaders and that our ability to respond with faithfulness and creativity to large-scale cultural shifts is seriously hampered.”
Siegrist’s own conviction is that how we think of God affects how we live — from the food we eat to the pastors we choose to the societies we build.
The first seven chapters (of 18) are based on Genesis. The writing swirls with documentation of mystics, theologians, heretics, emperors, preachers and prophets who based their ideas on this important first book. No other biblical book receives as much explanation.
For example, when we say God is the redeemer or savior or liberator, “we do so knowing that there are people who fit this description as well,” Siegrist says. “. . . The question that arises is how these terms can relate both to God and to creatures. Human creatures, even the really good ones like the chatty barista at your local coffee shop, have more in common with a rock than with God.”
That’s a perfect example of Siegrist’s style of writing and his theology. It’s personal yet global, biblical yet ordinary.
The middle third of the book is slower going. Maybe it’s just me who is less enamored with theological arguments of the medieval times and the resulting Crusades, witch hunts and emperor/pope decrees. Nevertheless, now Professor Siegrist (a graduate of Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto and Eastern Mennonite University) plods through critical eras of theological discussions with explanations and biblical sections that connect the reader to a more expansive view of who God is. That made sense to me.
Siegrist believes — in true Anabaptist fashion — that all biblical theology should be seen through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From chapter 11 on, we are engaged in Christology and what difference that makes in the lives of human beings.
“The life of Jesus, and its impact on humans, must surely be more than a theory. If it doesn’t change — objectively change — how we relate to God, to each other and even to ourselves, then there is nothing more to the Christian faith than a theological conversation,” Siegrist says.
“Throughout this book I’ve been trying to make the case that theology is integral to the Christian faith. The real stuff of the Christian life is changed lives, new hope and a deeper knowledge of God.”
Preach it, Pastor Siegrist!
I suppose there are a hundred theological terms sprinkled throughout the book. There are dozens of historical figures like Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila and modern theologians like Karl Barth, James Cone and even Mennonite J. Denny Weaver who fill each chapter.
I appreciated the inclusion of social justice issues amid complicated philosophical theories. Every reader will learn something. A study guide would make the book more user-friendly.
Speaking of God offers not theology “lite” but theology lived. The strong case for the community of believers, the church, challenges the reader to take seriously and joyfully the call to be a Jesus follower.
Dorothy Nickel Friesen is a retired pastor and denominational minister living in Newton, Kan. Her book The Pastor Wears a Skirt: Stories of Gender and Ministry was published by Wipf and Stock in 2018.
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