Introduction to Christian Theology: A Draft Syllabus

As a part of my “pedagogical experience” at Wheaton College this semester, I was required to draft a syllabus for an introduction to Christian theology. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.


Note: the length of this syllabus doesn’t necessarily correspond to the difficulty of this course

Contact Information

  • Email: [REDACTED]
  • Phone: [REDACTED]
  • Office Hours (Buswell Library Carrell): T, W, R, 15:00–17:00.

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the methods of systematic theology and the major topics within biblical revelation. Special attention is given to the rationale for these Christian doctrines, their systematic interconnections as well as their development within the history of Christian thought, and their contemporary challenges. This class is your opportunity to reinforce why you believe what you believe and to examine how it impacts your life.

  • ~15-20 students, graduate, non-theology majors; assuming that this is the first and last systematic theology course you’ll take (but not the last time you’ll do theology, hopefully!).
  • Meets twice a week (T/R) for 110 minutes (80 mins of content, 20 minutes of breaks, 10 minutes of intro and conclusion). We’ll be modeling each class session after the “Pomodoro Technique,” in which you do focused work for 20 mins and then reward yourself with a short break. Here’s the rough outline:
    • 5 min: opening prayer, introduction
    • 20 min content
    • 5 min break
    • 20 min content
    • 10 min break
    • 20 min content
    • 5 min break
    • 20 min content
    • 5 min: conclusion, final questions

Course Goals

The student who successfully completes the course will achieve the following goals:

Directly Assessed

  1. (Foundational Knowledge) Understand key concepts, themes, terms, debates, and thinkers within Christian theology.
  2. (Application; Human Dimension) Know how to read and engage with theological proposals both critically and charitably.
  3. (Application) Know how to craft a theological argument and explain theological concepts.

Indirectly Assessed

  1. (Integration) Relate Christian theology to other disciplines and the Christian life.
  2. (Caring; Human Dimension) Grow in wisdom, in the knowledge and love of God.
  3. (Learning How to Learn) Know how to keep on learning about Christian theology after this course is over.

Textbooks

Total cost: ~$75.

Jenson, Robert. A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • 152 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0190214593
  • ~$25 on Amazon.

Kibbe, Michael. From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research. (IVP Academic, 2016).

  • 153 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0830851317
  • ˜$10 on Amazon.

McGrath, Alister E. Theology: The Basics. 4th ed. (Blackwell, 2017).

  • 296 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1119158080
  • ~$20 on Amazon.

McGrath, Alister E. Theology: The Basic Readings. 3rd ed. (Blackwell, 2018).

  • 280 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1119158158
  • ~$20 on Amazon.

Course Requirements

Participation & Assigned Reading – 20%

Participation will be based on class discussions, which will require students to come to class prepared by having read thoughtfully the assigned readings.

Students will be expected to read all of the required texts in their entirety as indicated on the course schedule. This reading needs to be complete prior to the designated class session and students will be graded based on their ability to participate actively in the discussions relative to those readings.

Keep in mind that additional articles may be assigned during the course.

Reading Quizzes – 20%

Once a week (the first class session of the week), students will take a brief reading quiz on the main points of the assigned reading (usually from McGrath’s Theology: The Basics) for that day.

Reading Presentations – 20%

Once a week (the second class session of the week), students will give brief presentations on the assigned primary source readings from McGrath’s Theology: The Basic Readings.

In each presentation, the student will have 2 minutes to:
– read a one-sentence summary of the passage that they’ve written
praise one aspect/point of the reading
critique one aspect/point of the reading.

The rest of the class will then spend ˜5 minutes responding to each presentation, before moving on to the next presentation.

Each student will give 3-4 presentations over the course of the semester. The schedule for reading presentations will be assigned by the professor at the beginning of the course.

Don’t like public speaking? That’s OK. I encourage you to manuscript your presentation and read it.

One-Minute Papers – 10%

Over the course of the semester (5 times), students will be given a few minutes in class to write out their answer to a reflection question, such as:

  • What was the muddies/least clear idea you encountered in class this week?
  • What was the most important idea you encountered in class this week?
  • What important questions remain unanswered for you?

These brief papers will be left with or emailed to the professor, and will be graded on a pass/fail basis for each paper (i.e., if you do all 5, you’ll get full credit, if you do 4/5, you’ll get 80% credit).

Final Paper – 30%

Over the course of the semester, students will work on a 3,000 word essay on a theological topic of their choice (within the broad range of theological topics covered in Jenson and McGrath).

I expect you to incorporate at least two sources in addition to the assigned readings in this class.

Overall, this project will be worth 30% of the final grade. However, it will be completed in stages. Students will:

  1. Pick a topic and let the professor know by the fourth class session (end of week 2).
  2. Submit a 1-2 page outline, abstract, and bibliography (5% of final grade) by the tenth class session (end of week 5). Let me know what additional sources you’re thinking about using.
  3. Receive a graded outline/abstract with feedback by the twelfth class session (end of week 6).
  4. Submit a 3,000 word final paper (15% of final grade) by the twentieth class session (end of week 10).
  5. Receive a graded final paper with feedback by the twenty-fourth class session (end of week 12).
  6. Submit a 3,000 word revised final paper (10% of final grade) by the thirtieth class session (end of week 15, end of term). You’ll be expected to give me a one paragraph summary of how you’ve improved the paper.

Grading

  • A: 94-100
  • A-: 90-93.9
  • B+: >87
  • B: >84
  • B-: >80
  • C+: >77
  • C: >74
  • C-: >70
  • D+: >67
  • D: >64
  • D-: >60
  • F: <60

Course Policies

  1. Students are expected to arrive in class on time, stay for the duration of class, and actively engage in the discussion of material under consideration.
  2. Students should submit assignments on the dates indicated by the course schedule.
  3. Students with special needs or disabilities should speak to the professor early in the semester to facilitate adequate and suitable arrangements to meet the relevant needs.
  4. For academic discourse, spoken and written, the faculty expects students to use gender inclusive language for human beings
  5. Students will be expected to attend every class session except in the case of sickness or when an absence has been arranged with the professor. Missing more than 20% of the class hours will result in a grade reduction.

Class Schedule

SECTION ONE: THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY AND AN EXAMPLE OF THEOLOGY

Week 1: What is theology? How do we do it?

(1) What is theology?

Reading:

  • McGrath, Basics, Preface – Getting Started
  • McGrath, Readings, How to Use this Book – Apostles’ Creed

Assignment:

  • Submit an introductory survey (emailed to students before the beginning of term).
    • What’s your denominational/church background, if any?
    • What theological education, if any, have you received before?
    • What’s one theological question you really hope that we address in this course?
    • What’s a theological debate that you’re particularly interested in and/or confused by?
    • Do you have any favorite Christian theologians, pastors, or authors?

(2) How do we do theology?

Reading:

  • Kibbe, Introduction (11) – Conclusion (91) (Appendices are optional, but will be helpful for your paper.)
  • Vanhoozer, “Letter to an Aspiring Theologian”: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/08/letter-to-an-aspiring-theologian

Assignment:

  • One-minute paper (in class)

Week 2: Theology in Outline

(3) Theology, Israel, Jesus, and the Triune God

Reading:

  • Jenson, introduction and chapters 1–4

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(4) The Image of God, Sin, Salvation, and Church

Reading:

  • Jenson, 5–9

Assignment:

  • Pick a topic for your final paper. The following topics are open game:
    • Israel
    • Jesus
    • Resurrection
    • Trinity
    • Creation
    • Image of God
    • Sin
    • Salvation
    • Church
    • Faith
    • Spirit
    • Sacraments
    • Heaven

SECTION TWO: THE BASICS OF THEOLOGY

Week 3: Faith (“I believe…”)

(5) Faith: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 1

Assignment:

  • Submit your special topics requests/suggestions for the final two weeks of class (emailed to students during the first week of class).
    • We have two “buffer weeks” built into the end of this course.
    • I’d like to devote them to in-depth analysis and debate of at least one topic.
    • Submit your requests/suggestions through the link included in the email.
  • Reading Quiz

(6) Faith: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 1

Assignment:

  • Vote on the submitted topic requests/suggestions for the final two weeks of class.
  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Augustine
    • Vincent
    • Calvin
    • Barth
    • Brunner
    • Tillich
    • Lewis
    • JP2
  • One-minute paper (in class)

Week 4: God (“In God, the Father Almighty”)

(7) God: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 2

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(8) God: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 2

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Athenagoras
    • Aquinas
    • Moltmann
    • von Balthasar
    • Johnson
    • Coakley

Week 5: Creation (“Creator of heaven and earth”)

(9) Creation: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 3

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(10) Creation: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 3

Assignment:

  • Submit the Outline & Abstract for your Final Paper.
  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Mirandola
    • Edwards
    • Paley
    • Newman
    • Chesterton
    • Sayers
    • Polkinghorne
  • One-minute paper (in class)

Week 6: Jesus (“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…”)

(11) Jesus: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 4

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(12) Jesus: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 4

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Athanasius
    • Leo
    • Kähler
    • Tyrrell
    • Farrer
    • Hooker
    • Wright

Week 7: Salvation

(13) Salvation: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 5

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(14) Salvation: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 5

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Rufinus
    • Maximus
    • Anselm
    • Schleiermacher
    • Lonergan
    • Gunton
    • Ruether
  • Mid-Term Reflection (in class; questions taken from Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, 134):
    • What key ideas or information have you learned about the subject or the course?
    • What have you learned about how to use or apply the content of the course?
    • What parts of your knowledge, thinking, or actions have you been able to integrate or connect within or external to this learning experience?
    • What have you learned about the human dimension of this subject? That is, how have you changed in some important way, and have you changed in your ability to interact with others?
    • Have any of your interests, feelings, or values changed as a result of this learning experience?
    • What have you learned about how to learn?

Week 8: Spirit (“I believe in the Holy Spirit”)

(15) Holy Spirit: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 6

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(16) Holy Spirit: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 6

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Ambrose
    • John of Damascus
    • Formula of Concord
    • Gore
    • Swete
    • Webster
    • Meyendorff

Week 9: Trinity

(17) Trinity: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 7

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(18) Trinity: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 7

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Irenaeus
    • Eleventh Council
    • Richard
    • Rahner
    • Macquarrie
    • Jenson
    • LaCugna
  • One-minute paper (in class)

Week 10: Church (“…the holy Catholic Church”)

(19) Church: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 8

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(20) Church: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 8

Assignment:

  • Submit your Final Paper.
  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Luther
    • Newbigin
    • Vatican II
    • Dragas
    • Hauerwas
    • Boff

Week 11: Sacraments

(21) Sacraments: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 9

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(22) Sacraments: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 9

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Cyril
    • Zwingli
    • Trent
    • WCC
    • Williams
    • Benedict
  • One-minute paper (in class)

Week 12: Heaven

(23) Heaven: The Basics

Reading:

  • Basics, 10

Assignment:

  • Reading Quiz

(24) Heaven: Readings

Reading:

  • Readings, 10

Assignment:

  • Reading Presentations (Summary; 1 Positive; 1 Critique):
    • Cyprian
    • Methodius
    • Abelard
    • Wesley
    • Catechism
    • Pannenberg
    • Tanner

SECTION THREE: DOING THEOLOGY OURSELVES


Week 13: SPECIAL TOPIC #1, TBD

(25)

Reading:

  • TBD

Assignment:

  • TBD

(26)

Reading:

  • TBD

Assignment:

  • TBD

Week 14: SPECIAL TOPIC #2, TBD

(27)

Reading:

  • TBD

Assignment:

  • TBD

(28)

Reading:

  • TBD

Assignment:

  • TBD

Week 15: Where do we go from here?

(29) How to become a better theologian “on your own”

Reading:

  • Re-read Vanhoozer’s “Letter to an Aspiring Theologian”

(30) How to become a better theologian in/with the Church

Assignment:

  • Submit your Revised Final paper.
  • Final Reflection (in class):
    • What key ideas or information have you learned about the subject or the course?
    • What have you learned about how to use or apply the content of the course?
    • What parts of your knowledge, thinking, or actions have you been able to integrate or connect within or external to this learning experience?
    • What have you learned about the human dimension of this subject? That is, how have you changed in some important way, and have you changed in your ability to interact with others?
    • Have any of your interests, feelings, or values changed as a result of this learning experience?
    • What have you learned about how to learn?

Recommended Further Reading

The following books would make excellent “next steps” after this course, and/or “first steps” in researching for your final paper.

  • Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology, 3d ed. (Baker, 2013).
  • Gunton, Colin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Jenson, Robert. Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus. (Fortress, 1973).
  • McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6th ed. (Blackwell, 2016).
  • McGrath, Alister, ed. The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed. (Blackwell, 2016).
  • Oden, Thomas. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. (HarperOne, 2009).
  • van der Kooi, Cornelis, and Gijsbert van den Brink. Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. (Eerdmans, 2017).
  • Webster, John, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Rationale for Textbooks

These days, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to theology textbooks. I don’t claim to have chosen the very best textbooks, but here are some of my reasons for choosing the texts I did, as well as my reasons for not choosing 5 books that almost made the cut.

Why I Chose Our Texts

Jenson, A Theology in Outline

I wanted us to read a brief book that (1) showcased a theologian doing theology, and not merely surveying theology and (2) gave a taste for how the various aspects of Christian doctrine hang together. Jenson’s book, comprised of lectures he gave to undergraduate students at Princeton at the end of his career, fit the bill nicely. It will give us a taste of what Christian theology can look like as a whole before we dive into its parts. I also hope that it provides enough grist for the mill early in the semester so that you can choose topics that you’re interested in for your papers.

Kibbe, From Topic to Thesis

Speaking of papers, Kibbe’s book is an excellent primer for theological research and writing. Because people come into this course from different academic backgrounds, some kind of introduction to what research and writing should look like in theology is necessary. I know of no better bang for the buck (and for the page) than this recent book from Kibbe.

McGrath, Theology: The Basics & Theology: The Basic Readings

I’ll admit that it was difficult to choose between these two shorter books and McGrath’s longer offerings, Christian Theology: An Introduction and The Christian Theology Reader.

All of McGrath’s textbooks are excellent in that they expose the reader to the main contours of Christian theology and how those contours have developed over the history of the Church. Furthermore, McGrath teaches you how to engage with primary texts, and gives you guided practice in doing so. Finally, these textbooks have stood the test of time, going through multiple revisions that have incorporated classroom feedback from around the world.

In the end, I went with the shorter options because I’d like us to have time to engage with the works quite thoroughly, instead of feeling like we have to struggle to keep up with the longer books.

Nevertheless, I’ll be drawing from McGrath’s longer books frequently in my lectures, and I highly recommend them to you for after this course if this semester successfully whets your appetite for Christian theology!

The “Top 5” that Almost Made the Cut

(Note: these are in alphabetical order, not ranked.)

Erickson, Christian Theology

Erickson’s work is a classic and would be well worth your time and money to purchase and use as a reference after this course. However, it’s almost 1200 pages long. While that allows him to address many topics that aren’t covered in McGrath’s shorter books, I felt it was too long of a text to require for this semester.

Grudem, Systematic Theology

Grudem’s is perhaps the best-known systematic theology in evangelical circles. It has many merits, especially the extent to which it integrates biblical material at every turn (the subtitle is, appropriately, “An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine”). However, it’s just over 1200 pages long—too long, in my opinion, for a one semester survey.

Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine

This work isn’t a classic, yet! I do suspect, however, that it will gain in popularity because, coming in at under 250 pages, it’s a fantastic introduction to Christian doctrine and the importance of both “thinking and living theologically” (from the book’s subtitle). However, while the book has more of an emphasis on living theologically than McGrath does, it contains less guidance and practice of engaging with primary sources. No single book can do everything, of course, but the associated reader was a big reason why I chose McGrath over Felker Jones.

Oden, Classic Christianity

This book is a wonderful resource for finding out what the consensus teaching of the Church, emphasis on the early Church, has been on the various main topics of Christian theology—“classic consensual ecumenical teaching,” as Oden puts it. It reads almost like a systematically-categorized catalogue of quotations from the early Church. I think it deserves a place on your bookshelf alongside another more “standard” systematic theology like Erickson or van der Kooi and van den Brink. However, at just over 900 pages, it’s too long to work well as a main text for this course.

Van der Kooi & van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics

This is another resource that isn’t a classic yet, at least not in the USA, because it’s only been available in English translation since 2017. However, it’s already a classic work in Dutch since it came out in the Netherlands in 2012. Just like Erickson and Grudem above, this is a pedagogically useful and comprehensive systematic theology. However, just like Erickson and Grudem, at 800 pages, this book is also too long to serve as our main text.

Furthermore, while Erickson and Grudem approach things from a particularly Baptist perspective, van der Kooi and van den Brink approach things from a particularly Dutch Reformed perspective. Nothing against these perspectives, of course, but (1) I don’t hold them and (2) I think McGrath (as well as Felker Jones, Oden, and others) does a better job of exposing us to as broad/mainstream an exposition of Christian theology as possible.

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.