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Saving and Secular Faith: An Invitation to Systematic Theology

By B. A. Gerrish
Fortress. 1999. 107 pp. Pb. $19. ISBN 0800628500

Reviewed by Gary Collins
Newport Beach, Calif.


B. A. Gerrish obviously enjoys his role as a dogmatic theologian, whose task, he says, is to stand between the old tradition and the modern day and mediate between them.

He begins his “quest for a workable concept of faith” (p. 46) by leading an orderly march through the old tradition. Along the way he casts new light on Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher, and introduces some obscure thinkers worth knowing. Follow Gerrish to the last chapter and, finally, there is the question for which he has so meticulously laid the groundwork. He seems anxious to get to it, too: ” . . . because I have been talking about tradition for most of my life, let me reverse the order this time and ask without further ado: What, if anything, in our modern world separates our thoughts about Jesus Christ from Luther’s and Calvin’s and therefore calls for reformation?” (p. 87).

But for the professor, “without further ado” doesn’t preclude a short excursion into the “christological anxieties” he finds in John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666) and questions of exclusivity in Daniel Defoe’s The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and skepticism regarding the historicity of the Gospels in “the notorious Wolfenbuttel Fragments” (1774) of H. S. Reimarus! It’s fun to be in this professor’s company.

Gerrish does get to the question he sees as unavoidable today, and does it justice: Is faith in Jesus Christ the only saving faith? Can other faiths be variations on the same efficacious theme?

Social science has shown us how cultures pursue and measure truth in different ways. In the honor/shame societies of the Mediterranean world a trial is anything but a contest of facts. Witnesses present their opinions. It is the cumulative honor of the witnesses called by opposing parties more than a construction of provable facts that persuades the judge. Who’s to say their courts are less likely to find the truth than ours are? Just so, may some find saving faith by approaches different from ours?

Look for this book to appear on seminary reading lists. Its audience is not seekers new to the church. Those who have the task of introducing the faith to new disciples and those looking for a refresher in the field will find this a rich resource. Especially helpful are Gerrish’s precise definitions of “saving faith,” “generic faith,” “elemental faith” and “a confession of faith,” which in themselves sharpen theological focus.