One of my modern heroes of theological writing is Wayne Grudem, Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. One of his books, edited by his son, Elliot Grudem, is Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know. I read it in 2015 because my pastor and I were team-teaching a class using the book as our guide over several months. I reread it this year because the pastors at my new church were leading a weekly study using the book. It’s a small, 159-page paperback that is quickly read and digested.
On the other end of the depth spectrum is Grudem’s 1290-page 1994 edition of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, which has kept many seminarians and pastors occupied for countless hours of study (myself included). I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word of it, and now I also have the expanded second edition, a 2020 update with 1586 pages.
In between the small paperback and the large volume is the book Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, written by Grudem and edited by Jeff Purswell, a 528-page condensed version of Systematic Theology. So, the reader can pick the size and depth of study he wishes to undertake, from the massive Systematic Theology to the half-sized but still meaty Bible Doctrine or the shorter, simpler Christian Beliefs. And for those not inclined to invest the few hours it takes to read Christian Beliefs, you can cut right to the 6-page laminated book summary of either Systematic Theology or Bible Doctrine. Hopefully, your interest in biblical truth warrants more than a 6-page cheat sheet – something nice to have, but not all one needs to know on the subjects.
So, given that background of relevant Grudem texts, let’s get back to the subject of this review – Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know…
As the subtitle suggests, this book focuses on 20 Christian doctrines (or teachings) considered essential to the Christian faith. Including 20 topics, a few historic confessions of faith, and a list of recommended readings in 159 pages allows only a few pages exist per doctrine. Because of this, the book is appropriate for someone new to the faith or wanting a refresher course on the teachings. It will not (nor is it intended to) provide an in-depth look at any of the 20 doctrines. By comparison, the Systematic Theology second edition has 57 chapters of about 25 pages each in addition to the confessions of faith and other appendices in its nearly 1600 pages. You get what you pay for.
Still, as a guide for further exploration of what the Bible teaches, Christian Beliefs serves the valuable purpose of pointing the reader to various biblical texts for each topic discussed. As Grudem does well in his writings, he presents a faithful explanation of each doctrine and a sound, biblical basis for all conclusions drawn. He never shies away from presenting dissenting opinions by those in various faith traditions, being careful in the appendix listing further reading to provide background about each author’s theological tradition and perspective. The book is not written to present biblical teachings from any one denominational viewpoint; it seeks to answer the question of what the Bible teaches on the subjects – a healthy approach that ought to cross denominational biases.
Like his other texts, the starting point of Christian Beliefs is Grudem’s discussion of the Bible as the word of God. If the Bible is the authoritative basis for beliefs, its authority and reliability are crucial to establish before using biblical texts as the basis for additional doctrinal positions. The list of 20 doctrines covered is evident from the chapter titles:
What Is the Bible?
What Is God Like?
What Is the Trinity?
What Is Creation?
What Is Prayer?
What Are Angels, Satan, and Demons?
What Is Man?
What Is Sin?
Who Is Christ?
What Is the Atonement?
What Is the Resurrection?
What Is Election?
What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?
What Are Justification and Adoption?
What Are Sanctification and Perseverance?
What Is Death?
What Is the Church?
What Will Happen When Christ Returns?
What Is the Final Judgment?
What Is Heaven?
Appendices include a few historic Christian confessions of faith, Grudem’s recommended reading list, and an index. Each chapter concludes with a few questions for review and application that are good for personal reflection or group discussion.
I suspect most churches have members who are differently inclined to tackle the three Grudem works mentioned above. I still desire to take about a year to walk through Systematic Theology with a small group at some point in the future. Laypeople can handle it. We need not “dumb down” theology as though the preaching class can understand things that the people in the pews cannot. We are all led by the same Spirit of God into the truth of His word, and God can speak to whomever He pleases, regardless of position or formal theological education. If I had the benefit of a few current study Bibles and volumes like Systematic Theology when I attended seminary decades ago, I might have been just as well-off studying those on my own as spending five or more years in the classroom, but I digress…
As for recommending Christian Beliefs, I recommend it to those new to the Christian faith, those new to the Protestant faith (as opposed to Roman Catholicism), those interested in the faith, and anyone wanting a quick refresher on critical biblical doctrines. Then, assuming your appetite is whetted, advance to either Bible Doctrine or, better yet, Systematic Theology for an incredible, long-term, more in-depth study of what the Bible teaches on vital theological topics. A workbook is available for the second edition of Systematic Theology to help guide the reader through such a study.
Doctrine matters. Otherwise, the claim of being Christian is left up to individual interpretation - a woefully inadequate approach when the very Word of God exists to teach us what it means to know and follow Christ. Resources such as these from Wayne Grudem help Christians better understand who we are individually as children of God and collectively as the Body of Christ.
(The above review is adapted from my original review published elsewhere.)