Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 05:2 (Fall 1984)
Article: Book Reviews
Author: Anonymous

Book Reviews

The Identity of Christianity. Theologians and the Essence of Christianity from Schleiermacher to Barth, by Stephen Sykes. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. 349 pp. $21.95.

Question: Faced with the problem of identifying orthodox Christian tradition, the Vincentian canon (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus) provides one with criteria that are realistic, commendable and historically verifiable. Agree or disagree? To disagree launches one into a complex and fascinating question, a question both esoteric and practical, and one which Sykes tackles in his latest book. What makes Christianity Christianity? Do the many differences between Christians matter? Far from being a dusty theological relic of 19th-century liberalism, the attempt to define the “essence” of Christianity remains vital today. It impinges upon such enduring problems as continuity and change in doctrine, the relation between Christianity’s form and content, and the tensions between unity and diversity in both worship and doctrine. If Gustav Wingren is correct, “the special task which confronts systematic theology both in its historical and strictly systematic functions is to answer the question: What is the essence of Christianity?” (Sykes, p. 1, quoting Wingren).

In Identity, Sykes proposes “to carry out two tasks; in the first place, to analyse and exhibit the kind of question which the inquiry into the identity of Christianity is, and, secondly, to propose some modest minimum conditions under which the identity of Christianity may be preserved” (p. 5). A calculated “sub-plot” of the book examines the special role of the theologian in this problem and has as its goal “to place the discipline of theology and the expertise of the theologian in an explicitly new relation to the total phenomenon of Christian identity” (p. 8). Sykes’ method for carrying out these purposes involves a three-part structure.

Part I, a “prelude,” devotes one chapter each to what Sykes calls three “inescapable constituents” presupposed in any discussion of the essence question. These three studies are essentially biblical in nature. His point in chapter i is simple and profound: complete agreement about the essence of Christianity is unrealistic, inconceivable and even undesirable. Indeed, conflict inheres in the Christian tradition, as is well attested, for example, by the dissensions (σχίσματα) and factions (αιπεσις) at Corinth and Galatia. Such “deeply embedded lack of homogeneity” is not anomalous but normative.

Contributing to this inherent conflict is the Christian “tradition of inwardness” (chapter 2). Does not Christianity ultimately concern what Paul c...

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