Review: Uche Anizor’s How to Read Theology: Engaging Doctrine Critically and Charitably

36739670Anizor, Uche. How to Ready Theology: Engaging Doctrine Critically and Charitably. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018.

We don’t give much thought to reading theology. Sure we read it and interact with it, but we don’t often step back and consider how we should read and interact with theology. In other words, we do theology, often with very little thought. Uche Anizor helps us push the pause button before we engage with theology. In his short primer, How to Read Theology, he argues that we must engage theology charitably and critically.

This work is meant to be a “primer to theological texts.” A behind the scenes look which will help us carefully, correctly, and charitably evaluate theologies (3). He believes that “something special can be gained from most theological texts” if read critically and if that reading is done in love. 

His work is divided in two parts. The first two chapters focus on reading theology charitably. This is where the book shines.

Ch. 1 addresses the challenges of reading theology charitably. How are we to read with “intelligent charity” (Alan Jacobs’ term)? And what are some of the factors that keeps us from reading with such critical charity? Anizor focuses on four: pride, suspicion, favoritism, and impatience.

Pride brings a blindness to our theologizing. It keeps us from seeing clearly. “Humility sharpens our eyesight or even lifts the veil” that prevents us from seeing rightly. Anizor writes, “Humility prompts me to recognize that I do not have the market cornered on theological truth, but that I am in constant need of the palliative breeze of other, diverse voices blowing through my mind.” We need to learn from others. Pride keeps us from learning, but humility opens us up to graciously hearing the voices of others.

Suspicion is the enemy of love (11). It makes us incapable of viewing others charitably. “It magnifies bad qualities and minimizes the good” (12). Interestingly, he notes “an encounter with a new theology or theologian may produce a certain kind of theological xenophobia. New theologians are foreigners; as such they may arouse suspicion… Thus we keep them at arm’s length and lose out on the possibility of understanding because we do not want to enter their world” (12). There is truth here. I’ve never heard of Uche Anizor before. So, “naturally” I am going to enter into reading his work with a level of suspicion. I appreciate his concept of theological xenophobia. That’s fair. But at the same time, I don’t think such suspicion is always wrong. But that suspicion should not keep us from reading and interacting with new voices. We need to treat them with charity, but through a critical lens. For better or worse, new theologians need to prove themselves a bit. I think there is a degree of wisdom with that.

Favoritism is a fair charge because we tend to view theologians within our “camp” through more favorable lenses while those “outside” we treat with a bit more suspicion. I appreciate the charge and warning, but at the same time we do bring a theology into our reading of theology. It would be naive to believe otherwise. I am reformed so I have a group of authors whom I generally trust. I don’t think that’s bad. And those outside my camp are treated a bit more warily. I honestly don’t see that as a bad thing because that requires me to read those outside my camp more carefully and I need to be more intentionally charitable. We do need to learn to give one another the benefit of the doubt. This often isn’t done.

I appreciate Anizor holding charity and critical-ness together. Too often, we swing in one direction or another. If we are reading our favorite theologian we tend to read them too charitably. And when we read others we are a bit more suspicious of we automatically read them through a much more critical (less charitable) lens.

Last, he looks at impatience. I admit that this is a challenge of mine. I want to be able to grasp a theologian’s work on first reading. And as I later admit, I had a difficult time grasping some of Anizor’s later chapters. There is balance here. As we read theology, we need to decide which texts require a deeper engagement and which texts don’t. One of the subtle problems I noticed with Anizor’s work is a certain flattening out of theology: wanting to give equal and fair voice to all theologies. I disagree. Not all theology is created equal. Some theology is just not worth our time and we have every right to dismiss it. Now we need to do that on biblical-theological grounds, but we need to evaluate what is worth digging deeper into and what is dross that needs to be tossed. I wish Anizor spent more time on that topic.

Ch. 2 details the necessity of knowing and understanding the author’s context. His main point is this: “Everyone has a story. We cannot profess to know someone well without sufficient knowledge of his or her story.” I’ve always tried to read a biography, if available, and “look up” a theologian before I read them. I did the same with Anizor and discovered that we are both graduates from Southern Seminary. Background information helps provide context. Theology is not written in a vacuum.

The remaining four chapters focus on reading theology critically. These chapters offer a lot more depth and complexity then the first two (I’m not going to spend as much time on them).

First, (ch. 3) he focuses on the relationship of theology to Scripture. This chapter seemed overly complex and confusing. I re-read the chapter and gained more clarity. (See, I practiced some patience!). I appreciate his focus on the authority of scripture. I wish it was clearer. I also wish there was more of a focus on Christ as a key interpretative “grid.” For instance, as John Frame writes, “We have not understood what is most important about a biblical passage until we have seen how that passages preaches Christ.” He continues, “That Christ is the key to the Scriptures and that the most important thing about any text or doctrine is its relation to Christ” (DKG, 184).

Second, (ch. 4) he turns to consider the relationship of theology and tradition. He focuses on how the creeds, confessions, doctors, and other theologians relate to theology and Scripture. And he briefly looks at differing genres of theology (celebratory, conservative, constructive, critical, and contradictory). While I understand the need for categories, I would be hard pressed to put any theology in such a box. Good theology will be marked by most, if not all (yes, even contradictory) genres.

Third, (ch. 5) Anizor considers the relationship of theology and reason. I appreciate his redemptive-historical look at reason. How it was created, how it has fallen, how it is being redeemed, and how one day it will be perfected. A lot more could be said on viewing reason through this redemptive-historical lens. He continues by looking at how theology must have coherence, consistency, and cogency to be rational.

Last, (ch. 6) he ends with considering how theology intersects with experience. This chapter seemed rather scattered to me. I do appreciate the brief focus on how theology must be done in community and how good theology should form good people.

While there is much to appreciate with Anizor’s work I have two major problems (beyond the ones mentioned above):

First, maybe I am just dense (I’m willing to admit that), but this book seems beyond what I would want to give to a first year theology student. As someone who has been reading theology with great regularity for the past 15 years this book had a level of theological density that I would argue, goes beyond what I would expect for a first (maybe even second year) theology student.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because we want to push our students, but at the same time if I were writing this book I would have done some things differently. I would have focused more on the relationship of the spiritual life to the theological task. Anizor does this a bit in the first section, but the second half quickly turns purely critical (with the possible exception of the last chapter).

This book is short, but dense. Maybe a bit too dense. Opaqueness is not a theological virtue I would recommend aspiring to. Clarity and brevity. While this work is certainly brief, I am not sure it is always clear. For a first year theology text I would expect exacting clarity.

I kept trying to read this through the perspective of “if I were teaching theology 101 would I use this book?” I’m honestly not sure. There is a lot to commend here, but at the same time the complexity and level of assumed knowledge may take this out of the reach of the first year theological student.

Though I have strong disagreements with Grenz and Olson’s Who Needs Theology? I found that work far more accessible for the first year student. 

Second, while I appreciate the generally wide exposure to a variety of theologians which Anizor offers in this short work, my concern is that not all theologies, or theologians for that matter, are created equal. While I appreciate the charity Anizor offers sometimes the most loving thing we can do in interacting with suspect theologies is to call them out on the dangers of their thinking. Sure, we can learn from most theologies, but some may just be flat out not worth our time.

Given the sheer amount of theological works these days we need to not only read critically, but we need to be critical of what we read – meaning, we need to filter what we read and what we don’t read. Some theologies are just so empty or vacuous that they are not worth our time. We need to be able to discern and evaluate them before we fully read them. Maybe this smacks of favoritism or suspicion, but it’s just practically impossible and naive to view all theologies in this flattening (is relativistic too strong of a word?) manner.

One more comment: I would have appreciated if he offered some practical steps on reading theology. By practical I mean the following: I’d love to see a section mirrored along the lines of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, but focused on How to Read Theology. I believe that would have added value. And while I understand the reasoning for briefly discussing logic and fallacies there are better books to use. This section (ch. 5) seemed tacked on. For supplementing, I’d recommend: Alec Fisher’s Critical Thinking, D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, and Engel’s With Good Reason.

The strength of How to Read Theology lies in the first half of the book. And I believe this is where we need the greatest help today. We are not charitable readers. Anizor helps us to chasten our criticalness by seasoning it with a bit more love and charity. That is to be commended.

2 thoughts on “Review: Uche Anizor’s How to Read Theology: Engaging Doctrine Critically and Charitably

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  1. Good review Will, thanks! A good reminder for me to not be so short on charity when I find myself in disagreement with an author.

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