Book Review: The Doctrine of God by Gerald Bray

The Doctrine of God by Gerald Bray is challenging but approachable, academic but practical, and assertive but fair-minded. The task is of his book is to not only to equip the reader with a biblical and functional understanding of the doctrine of God but also to trace the doctrine through history. His task is achieved brilliantly, and the book makes itself a staple of any theologian’s library.

The book is ultimately readable, though it could probably be more so. For example, the entire book is only six chapters. Breaking it into more chapters or sections would give the reader a chance to exhale and reflect on his writing, but instead, he presses on for 60 pages at a time through dense material. Additionally, his diction can occasionally seem cluttered or convoluted, but this is understandable because there are times where he handles content that requires very technical writing. Consequently, there are occasions where many stipulations must be attached to a sentence. Perhaps this is inevitable, but either way, it complicates the reader’s task. If someone were troubled by the difficulty of this book, I would encourage them not to abandon it but rather to find friends and read it in community, as many its sections may be better processed in this manner regardless.

One of the most valuable elements of this book is that it instilled the value of historical theology. Bray’s study reminded of the introduction written by C.S. Lewis to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. Lewis emphasizes the value of reading “old books,” reasoning that studying material from ages gone by will expose us to the biases of our time. While Bray’s work does not qualify as an “old book,” it facilitates many interactions with writers from different eras. Lewis says it this way:

If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation, which began at, eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks, which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance.

Because of Bray’s book, I feel notably more competent and capable in my interactions with older theological material. His book is laced with numerous quotations and direct interactions with Christian authors spanning the entire history of the church. I will never again approach the church fathers without an understanding of the influence (or weight) of Platonism and Stoicism”. In the same manner, I have at least a basic comprehension of the Scholasticism that has impacted so much of the church’s history. On many occasions I have attempted to read the works of the church fathers, but the only thing that was clear in my reading was that I did not appreciate the climate of the writing. I missed many of the nuances and significant statements because I did not have a context for grasping the issue at hand. For example, I may never have realized how many debates—even those reaching into the 21st century—are either misguided or off-center because they do not properly distinguish between God’s person and his essence. Something that seems so simple as that distinction could have been a theological roadblock for the rest of my life. Bray’s writing on the history of Christian thinking has created a foundation for understanding the history of theology, at least in terms of the doctrine of God, and it is my suspicion that his research and presentation will translate to many other doctrines as well. Lewis astutely points out that this awareness applies not only to the past, but also to contemporary discussions:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.”

We too are tethered to the thinking of our age. Through Bray’s study of the historical doctrine of God, I have become much more aware of my tendencies and bias. There is nothing quite like the “clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” to keep our balance and perspective on important theological issues. This is perhaps Bray’s greatest gift to me.
Even beyond all this, Bray’s writing had more to teach me by defining the purpose, revealing the depths, and showing the scope of systematic theology. My generation has had more access to informational resources than any generation in the history of the world. As such, when I turned nineteen, it was simple to begin exploring theology on my own. I still recognize that this was a wonderful privilege, but it is also a dangerous endeavor. It is hard to know where to begin with theology when you approach such a vast subject without the aid of a mentor. I found R.C. Sproul intriguing and began listening to his podcast every day for six years, eventually reading every book authored by him. I progressed to systematic theology; first by Wayne Grudem, then Robert Reymond, Hodge, Berkhof, and more than a few others. Then I began to delve into more complicated books and more specific issues. Realistically, my primary motives for all this study lay in my own ego, or perhaps for the sake of polemics. By contrast, Bray defines his motive as such:

Paul often refers to his teaching without actually explaining it in any detail. The reader is expected to know it already, and Paul’s main concern is usually to correct errors and/or provide supplementary details. It is the job of the systematic theologian to reveal these underlying principles and show how they interconnect in a coherent way throughout the scriptures.

The primary purpose of systematic theology is to serve the church. Systematic theology is not primarily a weapon to alienate some as heretics—although it does still serve this purpose—but it is a tool to be used for aiding the people of God in understanding the Word of God. This intention is likely implicit in all the other authors I’ve read, and I would not presume to question the intent of those men; regardless, Bray’s concisely stated focus was eye opening for me. It seems likely to me that young men, like myself, enjoy systematic theology because it leads to polemics. Polemical debate is appealing because it is fun in a self-justifying sense, but it can be spiritually fatal if it is not a carefully guided and intentional process.

Finally, there is a large section of the book dedicated to the characteristics of God. These are hotly debated in our time and likely will be for the rest of Christian history. Young reformers like myself like to throw around the word “sovereignty” as a theological trump card while reciting lyrics from Walter C. Smith’s “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” It is all too easy to turn God into the sum of philosophical abstractions rather than see Him as He has revealed Himself. Bray says, “To know God (is) to know his works (in creation), to hear his voice (in Scripture) and to enjoy fellowship with him (in the persons of the Trinity).” He continues, “We must never fall into the trap of imagining that God is governed by his attributes, rather than the other way around”. In addition, he reminds, “from the beginning Christianity has been a proclamation, not a thesis supported by various logical arguments”. These thoughts weigh heavily on me and drive deep conviction about some conclusions that I have arrived at too lightly. I truly love theology but Bray’s book has offered great accountability to ensure that my love for theology is driven by my love for God rather than simple philosophical exercises.

For all these reasons and more I would whole-heartedly recommend Bray’s book to anyone with serious inquiry about the doctrine of God, history of theology, or systematic theology. It has enriched my spiritual life by challenging, humbling, nurturing and stretching me. This book cannot be read casually, but is well worth the time it takes to invest in his work.