Systematic Theology (Norman Geisler)

GeislerST.pngGeisler, Norman L.

Systematic Theology, 4 vols.

Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002-05. Pp. 627 + 720 + 624 + 784. Hardcovers. $164.96.

Amazon (Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4) | CBD

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Years ago, as a young Christian, I used to frequent Christian chat rooms on America Online.  I’d discuss and debate theology with people from all theological stripes, making plenty of enemies, but some friends as well, in the process.  One friend was a gentleman named Steve Kinney who told me at the time that he was an adjunct professor of philosophy as Biola University in La Mirada, CA.  I was never able to confirm this information, and thinking back on the matter, I have my doubts that he was being completely honest.  But I mention him because at the time he had talked up Norman Geisler as one of the world’s leading philosophers/apologists/theologians.

With this endorsement in mind I immediately went out and purchased a number of Geisler’s publications. Christian Apologetics; Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics; A Popular Survey of the Old Testament; and Chosen But Free were among the first purchases.  While I was less than impressed with his theological work, Chosen But Free, I found his apologetic work to be competent, even compelling, so in early 2006 I purchased his recently completed Systematic Theology set.  I was urged to hold off on purchasing this because once the set was complete it would be sold at a cheaper price.  I heeded this advice and ended up paying $75 for my four volumes.

My distaste for Geisler’s theological writing should have raised a red flag in making this purchase, but a professor from Biola recommended it, and he couldn’t be wrong!  Well, he was wrong, and I wasted $75.  Despite arranging his material according to the classical loci communes, i.e., prolegomena, theology proper & creation, soteriology & hamartiology, ecclesiology & eschatology, Geisler’s ST isn’t actually systematic theology; it’s a reception history of various propositions.  What do I mean?  Good question.  Basically Geisler takes a theological proposition, e.g., God is impassible, and he proceeds to quote passages of Scripture, patristic Christian writers, medieval Christian writers, Reformation and post-Reformation era Christian writers, and at times modern Christian writers on the subject.  The problem is that such an approach is super-selective and what we end up getting are soundbites that are ultimately unhelpful.  This then is not a systematic theology, but a reference guide, or dictionary of sorts.

For certain subjects (such as miracles) Geisler lists objections along with responses to the objections.  These are probably the most helpful portions of this set since Geisler shines more in philosophical matters (he’s thoroughly Thomistic) than he does in matters theological (since his is a strange mishmash of Calvinism, Arminianism, and some other isms of his own concocting).  He certainly seems more at home arguing against Hume or Kant than he does explaining divine aseity, spiritual gifts, or even the doctrine of the Trinity (which receives a scant 43 pages [2:269-312] in a volume that’s over 700 pages; the first 400+ pages of which are theology proper!).  But theology isn’t the only weak spot in this set; Geisler’s exegesis is also less than impressive at times (e.g., when he argues that only the Apostles spoke in tongues on the day of Pentecost, 4:662-63).

Geisler is unabashedly a premillennial dispensationalist; inerrantist; cessationist; and Thomistic philosopher which shines through on every page of this set.  Some readers will be turned off by the way in which Geisler argues certain points (e.g., the Day Age theory) by skimming through alternative positions (although to his credit he does mention them) and presenting flimsy arguments in favor of his position in the process of declaring it correct, but for the audience this set is intended for (i.e., extremely conservative evangelical Christians), it’s more likely that he’ll find agreement.  And while I’d consider myself conservative, and there’s plenty I agree with in this set, I can’t agree with the way it’s put together.  Calling a set of books a systematic theology implies that theology is being done, and unfortunately, we get very little of that.  For this reason I’d recommend almost any set or even single volume over Geisler’s (e.g., Finney; Hodge; Grudem; Jenson; Pannenberg; et al.).  But I would like to end this review on a positive note: these books sure look nice on the shelf.

B”H

 

 

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33 thoughts on “Systematic Theology (Norman Geisler)

  1. Unless the books are together in the middle of the shelf, in which case the shelf sags a bit; and that’s not so appealing. :-)

    In seriousness, I couldn’t agree with you more on this. I, too, found his ST to be more reference-like than theologically and argumentatively bound together. (Admittedly, I only have the first three volumes; the fourth hadn’t come out before I lost interest, but I don’t think I missed too much by not having the fourth–sorry if that’s a bit harsh). Quite honestly, Jack Cottrell’s The Faith Once For All (2002) does a much better job, and it’s only one volume.

  2. I’ve been consistently disappointed with Geisler’s work. I can’t remember if I got it for our library our not; I do know that his Ethics and some other works I looked at put me off.

    Question: When you’re getting into a big work like this and you realize it’s not going to be a winner, do you slog through the whole thing?

  3. After reading Chosen but Free, I knew then that theology was not his game. Philosophy is so obviously what he knows best, and even then I’d take William Lane Craig over Geisler. I guess he thought that he could do it all. But he was wrong. I too held off from buying his set until I had asked around about it. Reading your review only further confirms what I’ve heard. Quoting from him theologically would be like me quoting from Dave Hunt. Ugh.

  4. I think his reasoning concerning the whole Ergun Caner mess has basically made him lose any remaining credibility in my book.

  5. Carl: You’re not missing anything in the 4th volume. Unfortunately the set gets worse as it goes on. I think the prolegomena is by far the best and the church/last things is by far the worst.

    Sean: I did not read each volume in its entirety. After reading substantial amounts of each volume I knew that it wasn’t going to get better and there’s simply too much reading to get done to waste time on something that’s ultimately unfruitful. But this really is a reference work so when I’m curious about what certain folks throughout the church’s history thought about xyz then I pull it off the shelf.

    Billy: When I started Chosen But Free I thought it was revolutionary. Then I got to the parts where he described Calvinism and Arminianism and was let down. He caricatured both positions just to make his look more tenable. And I’d definitely take WLC over Geisler any day of the week. In fact, Craig’s Reasonable Faith is more of a systematic theology than this could ever hope to be!

    Kyle: It’s really a sad commentary on his integrity. That he can defend someone for something they’ve demonstrably lied about is unfortunate.

  6. While I was less than impressed with his theological work, Chosen But Free, I found his apologetic work to be competent, even compelling…

    I still haven’t been able to recover from this. But yes, a brilliant Christian apologist.

  7. Yeah….I bought this set, read volume one, and skimmed parts of two and four. It is awful. Like, super awful. I broke my alphabetical order rule and put it on the bottom shelf of my systematic theology shelf simply because I know I won’t be reading it. I’m afraid to sell it because them somebody else has to own it or might read it and get confused about what real theology is. But I don’t like throwing books away. If the economy tanks, it becomes fire kindling first.

  8. Geoff: I wrote in mine so I’d never get what I paid for them. And as a reception history reference book set it’s kinda helpful so I keep it around for that, and because it looks nice on the shelf. I keep it on the bottom too. :-)

  9. Norelli,

    Everything you complained about made me really enjoy the set. What I did not like though was that he had no formal Christology section. Christology ends up an appendix in the back of the volume on Soteriology I believe. How can you write Christian theology and put Christology in an appendix!?

    MM

  10. Norelli,

    Yes. Seriously. I have really enjoyed reading Geisler’s set. A high view of Scripture, a broad survey of opinion, historical theology, objections and responses, etc., etc. This is all very good stuff. I think it stacks up well against single volume theologies, but multi-volume sets I’m not too sharp on. Although I am working through Carl F. H. Henry right now (six volumes, “God, Revelation and Authority”). But Geisler is cut from a different cloth; Henry is more critical and much deeper, as well as distinctive. Another multi-volume set I’ve looked at is Barth, who is cut from similar cloth as Henry. And, obviously, very distinctive.

    Does this opinion surprise you? I would interject that theology done from a strict dispensational perspective is not very appealing to me. I do not espouse a dispensational view of Scripture.

    MM

  11. Nick, I’ve never read Geisler’s ST but thanks for the advice. I won’t ever be wasting my money on this. When I have more time and money, I would like to widen my scope of reading in ST, preferably from a Lutheran and Calvinist perspective. Any recommendations?

  12. Michael: I can’t think of a systematic theologian that doesn’t have a high view of Scripture, so Geisler gets no points for that in my book, and when you say, “a broad survey of opinion,” I say, “okay, but they’re only soundbites and sometimes in context the real opinion isn’t what we’re led to believe it is.” As far as historical theology goes, I’m gonna disagree, at least in terms of anything substantial. When I think of historical theology I think of engaging (as opposed to simply quoting small excerpts of) what the thinkers of yesteryear believed with an eye on how to integrate their contributions into theology today (when and where it fits, making improvements when necessary). Geisler’s approach is to simply take a proposition and quote a passage from someone about it. He doesn’t engage anything.

    So yes, any positive opinion of this set surprises me, definitely!

    Kevin: Good choice! Robert Jenson is Lutheran but I’m not sure that his Systematic Theology (2 vols.) really constitutes a traditional Lutheran perspective. I’ve heard good things about Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (4 vols.) but I haven’t read it myself. As far as Reformed theologians go there’s so many to choose from. I recently got Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.) which from the little I’ve read seems pretty good. I’ll reserve my final judgment until I’ve delved deeper into the text. Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.) is another set I’ve heard great things about. I have the volume on the Trinity and it’s excellent. Or you could always go with an old standard like Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (3 vols.) which is available online.

  13. Choosen but free? Ever read “The Potter’s Freedom” ? Why spend 75 bucks when Grudem’s is on iTunes for free and on Amazon for 25 bucks? You gotta love it. . .

  14. Michael: Nope, I never read The Potter’s Freedom, and it’s doubtful I ever will. And I spent the $75 before I even knew about iTunes or Grudem. BTW, I don’t have Grudem’s ST, but it’s not on my priority list either.

  15. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics would roughly be considered to occupy the same status level for conservative Lutherans as Hodge’s does for conservative Presbyterians.

    A one-volume Lutheran work published by the Missouri Synod’s Concordia Publishing House is John Theodore Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics: A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors,
    Teachers, and Laymen

  16. Nick, thanks for your recommendations. Pieper is a good solid systematic theologian I’ve heard about and I have Mueller’s one-volume condensation of Pieper and have found it very insightful. Jenson/Braaten’s Christian Dogmatics, vol.1 was what we used in seminary but we didn’t even touch vol.2. But from what I’ve read of vol., it didn’t seem very deep to me. I’m looking for a richer and deeper taste of ST. I’ll have to check into Herman Bavinck and Richard Muller in the future.

    Tom, I do have Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics. It’s old but still useful. Thanks.

  17. Greetings from South Africa! I really enjoyed reading all of your comments. I recently started reading Reformed Theology and came accross Geisler in the process via a friend. If any of you want to sell your books or any books you find gathering dust on your bookshelves please consider mailing me. if for example I take the 75 dollars meantioned, that will amount to 12% of a pastors salary here. Needless to say, if you guys (and ladies) have resources that you think you’ll not use, plse let me know?
    Yours in Christ, Corrie, South Africa

  18. Corrie: Sorry, but as much as I hate these volumes I feel almost obligated to keep them. There’s always something to be gleaned from a book, even if it’s how not to do theology.

  19. I do hope that everyone bashing Dr. Geisler is a theologian with works of their own. Otherwise such subjective commentary only serves to exemplify your own lack of understanding. It is similar to everyone on the sidelines watching a football game and knowing all the right plays, but could not even so much as throw a football much more carry out a play. it would be interesting to read some of your published works one of these days.

  20. Gordon: I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. I don’t need to be a published theologian with advanced degrees in order to review and critique the writing of a published theologian with advanced degrees (if you don’t believe me then just read through my plethora of book reviews; I do it all the time!). I just need to know enough about the subject to offer an honest assessment of it. Same goes for football, btw. I don’t even have to step out onto a football field to know good or bad play calling when I see it.

  21. I ordered the all in one set of this ST yesterday. I read DOCTRINE by Mark Driscoll and it was a brief view of reformed ST. I found it helpful in understanding the reformed side and I loved it that they were emphatic about the trinity throughout the whole book. Being non-calvinist I enjoy Geislers work and am sure most non-calvinists would too over Wayne Grudems ST. I noticed alot of people who lean over to the reformed camp tend to bash Geislers work and see his views on corporate election over individual election as attempting to subvert the text in Romans 9. The fact is you will critique more harshly those you disagree with. One mans testimony makes sense until another takes the stand.

  22. Colin: I’m no Calvinist but I don’t enjoy Geisler’s work. One of his major problems is that he wants to take what he likes from Calvinism and Arminianism and then make some hybrid system of theology, which ends up being inconsistent within itself, and absent from Scripture. But that aside, this really is a poor ST compared to others. I can’t say much about Grudem’s since I haven’t read more than a page or two, but I can say that I’d take any number of Reformed STs over Geisler’s. I can look past my disagreements with Calvinism; I can’t look past a poorly put together set or books and arguments.

  23. Nick: Thanks for the heads up but I appreciate Geislers efforts to reconcile soveriegnty with freewill, and judgement with mercy. No school calvinist; arminian or otherwise is faultless and I like how he presents the two without going to extremes on either end. His 3rd edition of chosen but free is great so far. Truthfully I find myself alienated from calvinist teachers which might be why I enjoy Geisler’s work.

  24. Colin: I reviewed the second edition of Chosen But Free a few years back and one of my main problems with it was that what Geisler called “extreme” Calvinism was just regular run of the mill Calvinism, and what he called “extreme” Arminianism shouldn’t necessarily be connected with Arminianism at all. There may be some people who agree with Arminian soteriology that are neo-theists, but that doesn’t make neo-theism an extreme form of Arminianism. He ends up having to misrepresent both theological positions in order to argue for his hybrid system, which really is little more than popular (as opposed to classical) Arminianism + eternal security.

  25. Muller’s PRRD is not a ST in any sense whatsoever. It’s a mistitled 4-volume work on historical theology.

  26. I accidently stumbled on this while searching for Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology, Volume 4, which I am looking to purchase. I read the review and found it interesting. It seems that the review misses the point of Geisler’s work, and this is also noticeable in every comment as well.

    There are great systematic theology volumes out there for studying Theology. I concur that Robert L. Reymond has a good work. As a pastor, I have invested in three different volumes, written by Paul Enns, Wayne Grudem, and Daniel L. Akin, and I have found them to be invaluable for teaching, preaching, and understanding the theology taught in God’s Word. For anyone interested in the study of Theology, I would recommend them in a heartbeat. Aside from the aforementioned volumes, I have also invested in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology by purchasing the first three volumes, and I am currently buying the fourth.

    Geisler’s Systematic Theology is NOT for studying Theology; it is a tool to be used for studying Apologetics. Comparing Geisler’s work to Grudem’s (or any of the other authors mentioned throughout the comments) is not an accurate comparison. It is, as the saying goes, comparing apples to oranges. If you want an apple, go buy an apple. If you want an orange, then go and buy an orange. If you want an apple and go buy an orange then you will be disappointed. For example, one of the commenters stated “I actually thought about getting Geisler for a more modern Reformed systematic text.” I do not know why anybody desiring this would consider Geisler’s Systematic Theology when it was written for Apologetics, and furthermore, Geisler is not Reformed. If that particular commenter was to purchase Geisler, then there would be disappointment. If you are seeking to engage in dialogue with Atheists, Agnostics, or any other skeptic, then Geisler’s work is a must. If you are seeking to engage in theology, then no, Geisler’s work will not help you.

    And to the author of the article, I am sorry for your experience with “Steve Kinney” that you feel that you were potentially deceived. However, I do want to point out just one thing. Notice that he said (whether true or not) that he was “adjunct professor of philosophy.” He claimed to be a professor of PHILOSOPHY not an “adjunct professor of THEOLOGY.” That is probably why he recommended it. I have been in Apologetics for ten years. I love Geisler’s first three volumes. I have several friends who are in Apologetic ministries, and several of them own Geisler’s complete set, I have heard very little negative from them.

    So, if you are wanting something in Theology, then go a purchase Reymond, Akin, or
    Grudem. However, if you are wanting something in Apologetics, then you need to go and get Jonathan Wells, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and most definitely Norman Geisler.

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