Redemption revisited

Faith is formed in us by the Spirit and the life of the church. It renews our elemental confidence and creates our disposition toward the world.

Brian Gerrish, who for many years taught theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has written an exquisite intellectual and Christian ad­venture that draws on a lifetime of scholarship. Gerrish understands the subject of Christian dogmatics to be Chris­tian faith, a “filial trust in God the Father of Jesus Christ” that confirms an elemental and general human confidence in the meaning of the world and our existence in it. This conception of faith, alongside Gerrish’s readings of Calvin and Schleier­­macher on religion and arguments made by Schubert M. Ogden, forms a vibrant Reformed theology.

Sin is an estrangement from God and the order of God’s world based in our loss of elemental faith. As sinners, then, we are gripped by a fundamental loss of confidence and an accompanying anxiety. Rather than glorify God we become occupied with securing our own meaning and worth, a posture that sets us at odds with the order of the world and brings with it a train of bad consequences. The gospel addresses our predicament. In Christ, who discloses authentic humanity as well as the design of the Creator, we are reconciled to God and adopted as God’s children. Christ’s work is the gift of a saving faith that is formed in us by the Spirit and the corporate life of the church, renews our elemental confidence, and founds an appropriate disposition toward the world. In addition, through Spirit and church we receive from Christ the will for the kingdom.

A “dogmatics in outline,” Gerrish’s book does not present “full and definitive arguments” but aims to open up reflection and conversation. Rather than offering an exhaustive historical survey, it draws on Calvin and Schleiermacher as benchmarks, supplemented by appropriate references to an ecumenical variety of classical and recent thinkers and followed by constructive remarks. While Gerrish’s theology is clearly a reflective enterprise, its deep subject remains existential and practical rather than merely intellectual. The focus is on the relationship between creation (the doctrine of elemental and theistic confidence presupposed by redemption) and redemption (“the proper doctrine of Christian faith”). Indeed, like Schleier­macher, Gerrish includes a nonspeculative discussion of the Trinity that arrives at no final doctrine and questions whether internal relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are really required by faith’s experience. His closing reflections on eternal life as a present quality and the possibility of personal survival remain centered not on us but on God’s glory.