This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2006 vol. 163 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Systematic TheologyBethany House Publishers, Minneapolis September 1, 2005
This four-volume set is a magisterial work by a seasoned evangelical statesman. It is Norman Geisler at his best. In each volume his philosophical, exegetical, historical, and theological skills combine to provide a readable and accessible treatment of theological issues and doctrines. These volumes provide a wealth of resource material for pastors, students, and laypersons interested in understanding theology. Geisler defines systematic theology as “an attempt to construct a comprehensive and consistent whole out of all revelation from God, either special (biblical) or general (natural) revelation” (1:16, italics his). With nearly three thousand pages in these four volumes, it seems Geisler takes seriously the goal to be comprehensive. His outline progresses logically through the standard doctrinal categories from bibliology through eschatology.
The first volume begins abruptly with a definition of “prolegomena” rather than an introduction to the author and his purpose for writing. An introduction to the series would have helped to orient readers, particularly anyone unfamiliar with Geisler and his impressive body of writings. Readers would be aided by an explanation of the approach of the work, the author’s ecclesiastical perspective, education, and experience, and similar preliminary matters.
The first volume treats the doctrinal categories of prolegomena and bibliology. After a brief chapter of definitions of several key terms Geisler begins chapter two with the metaphysical claim that “the existence of a theistic God is the foundation of Christian theology” (1:18). Several chapters discuss miracles, revelation, logic, meaning of language, truth, hermeneutics, and similar issues of theological methodology. But the heart of the book is bibiology. Nearly two-thirds of this first volume is devoted to the doctrine of Scripture. Geisler’s defense of inspiration, inerrancy, and the authority of the Bible from the teaching of Scripture as well as from philosophical arguments and historical figures is clear and compelling. Two appendixes complete the first volume, one addressing objections to theistic arguments and the other arguing that historical facts do not speak for themselves but need to be interpreted. It seems unclear why this material was not included in the body of the text.
In volume two Geisler discusses the doctrines of God (“Theology Proper”) and creation. The section on God consists of over four hundred pages on divine attributes, most of which are organized in couplets. For example Geisler discusses together immutability and eternity, impassibility and infinity, life and immortality. The reason for this emphasis on attributes is explained by his conviction that “all basic theological truth depends upon God’s attributes” (2:17).
In the other major section of this second volume, creation, Geisler defends the theistic view of creation out of nothing in contrast to other proposed views of origins. Angelology is treated within this section on creation, as is the doctrine of divine providence. Several appendixes complete this volume. One lists “some three hundred references to Creation in the Bible” (2:632), another surveys various views of the “days” of Genesis, while others treat additional questions on the relationship between science and theology. This material seems appropriately placed in appendixes. Two of the seven appendixes, however, Christology and Pneumatology, seem strangely out of place. Geisler explains that “Christology is discussed in three other places in these volumes” (2:597, italics his), but yet one wonders why Christology is treated as an appendix to the doctrine of God. If Christology is treated elsewhere, why add an appendix here at all? If Christology is deserving of a section in this volume, why not put it in the body of the text? Also, the appendix on Pneumatology is barely three pages long. This lack of explicit Trinitarian emphasis is surprising. True, he explicitly affirms and defends orthodox Trinitarianism (see 2:279–312), but one cannot help but wonder why Christology and Pneumatology are marginalized to appendixes.
In the third volume Geisler discusses the doctrines of anthropology, hamartiology, and soteriology. Again, as is his pattern throughout these volumes, Geisler organizes the chapters according to a set of propositions to be proven, a summary of biblical evidence for the doctrines, followed by quotations of historical figures that support his positions, and then responses to inadequate views. It should be noted that the selection of historical voices is based on their agreement with the author. Statements that express other positions are seldom included. Little interaction with historical figures occurs; they largely serve to support the author’s views. Readers would be helped by some dialog with these statements. This is particularly the case in this volume. Geisler rejects the views of what he calls “extreme Calvinists.” His work would be strengthened if he had identified these thinkers more consistently and also interacted with their works. For example his “Answering Extreme Calvinism on Human Free Will” (3:135–36) includes no documentation of his foils or their arguments. A view that he finds so objectionable is that faith is a gift of God. Later he rejects the view of “strong Calvinism” that humans are born “totally depraved” (3:144, italics his). It seems that in his view “extreme Calvinism” and “strong Calvinism” are synonymous designations. His claim that “strong Calvinism is on the opposite pole from Pelgianism” (3:144) implies that both Pelagianism and “strong Calvinism” are heretical positions.
As in the earlier volumes it is unclear why certain topics are covered in appendixes in volume three. For example Wesleyan perfectionism receives fourteen pages in “Appendix Five” (3:574–87), while surprisingly the doctrine of sanctification itself receives less than one-third that space (3:237–40).
In the final volume Geisler covers the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology. In the section on the church he rightly defends the dispensational view of the church’s origin on the Day of Pentecost, as well as providing helpful discussions on church government, spiritual gifts, and the relationship between church and state. The discussion of the ordinances or sacraments is largely a criticism of the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments and a defense of the Baptist view of ordinances. Little discussion of the variety of views of the sacraments held by evangelicals is found here, including the diversity of views on the timing and mode of baptism.
Geisler’s section on eschatology is an apologetic for dispensational premillennialism. Other eschatological viewpoints are discussed but largely only to reject them. More discussion of the diversity of evangelical views on eschatology would have strengthened this volume, though that would have added to its length.
The order of topics in the fourth volume seems a bit odd. He treats the final state of the righteous and wicked before discussing the second coming of Christ and the millennium, and the volume ends with a discussion of the various views of the Rapture. Yet he provides a strong biblical defense of the major doctrines of eschatology as held by dispensationalists. The volume ends abruptly, however, with a defense of the pretribulational Rapture; some readers may think this doctrine is the end of the matter, the goal of eschatology. One could wish that the final word had been a description of the believers’ eschatological hope, their eternal existence in the presence of the triune God on the recreated earth. Earlier Geisler does describe that hope when he writes, “After the resurrection, after all believing spirits have been reunited with their bodies, heaven will descend to earth in the form of the New Jerusalem” (4:296). But this is near the midpoint of the volume, not at the end where it would seem more appropriate.
A final chapter concluding this massive work would have been helpful, for to stop a journey of this length without a conclusion seems anticlimactic. Instead, like the earlier volumes, Giesler ends with a set of appendixes, treating material which would have been better included in the volume itself or simply deleted.
A lifetime of study and research has gone into these volumes. Geisler’s clear and logical treatment of the biblical, philosophical, and historical issues is a good resource. The great strength of these volumes is their comprehensive nature.
—Glenn R. Kreider