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Understanding Christian Doctrine

“Liberal and orthodox, clear and reliable, readable and illuminating, I strongly commend this book to all who are interested in modern Christian thought.”

Canon Keith Ward, University of Oxford

The second edition of Understanding Christian Doctrine presents a completely updated and revised edition that builds on the most popular features of the first edition to offer a lively overview to the central beliefs of Christianity. Ian S. Markham, a noted authority of Christianity, discusses the great thinkers of the Christian tradition and puts them in conversation with contemporary progressive theologies in a book that goes from Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther to Liberationist, Feminist, and Queer theologies. Designed to be a basic primer, the text is written in a manner that assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of theology or Christian doctrine.

The book is designed to present the basic options in all the key areas of Christianity as well as information on how to make complex theological decisions. The author tackles all the key questions from creation to eschatology. Furthermore, Markham makes his own distinctive contribution: he argues that theodicy (traditionally seen as a major difficulty with belief) is actually a theme that links many aspects of Christian doctrine.

The text is ideal for anyone interested in learning about the foundations of Christianity as well as new ideas about the faith. Christianity is presented in a manner that embraces the richness of the tradition and affirms the central claims of the historical creeds, while engaging with liberationist challenges to the tradition.

Ian S. Markham is the Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary and Professor of Theology and Ethics. Previously, he was Dean of Hartford Seminary, Connecticut and Professor of Theology and Ethics.

Understanding Christian Doctrine


Second Edition


Ian S. Markham













For my stylish and

Nicola Johnson,
Abbie Furnival,
Lizzie Markham,
Ellen Sowden

Preface to the Second Edition

This is the textbook with an edge. Naturally, understanding the traditional options is important. This edition aspires to ensure that is still the case. But twenty‐first‐century theology needs to be in conversation with the challenges of our age. We need to make sure that the voices of the historically invisible – women, minorities, persons of color – are heard. This is a deliberately edgy volume.

This new edition aspires to combine traditional approaches to theology with the more contemporary, identity‐focused approaches. This is the first time a textbook book has made this an explicit goal: there are plenty of texts that are traditional in approach and plenty of texts that make feminism or liberation theology central, but this is the first text to combine the two.

It has been satisfying to find colleagues in the academy appreciate the distinctive approach of this textbook. One joy of writing for a publishing house of such excellence as Wiley Blackwell is that they work extremely hard to ensure that they collect hard data on which an author can modify a book. The data showed that teachers in theology appreciated the distinctive methodology and the aspiration to show not simply the options in theology but also how one might make decisions. Therefore this feature remains central.

The data did suggest certain changes. Therefore this edition has the following additions: First, the historical description of the development of doctrine needs to be supplemented with a greater emphasis on contemporary approaches to theology, especially those emerging from feminist and liberationist perspectives. For a textbook that aspires to be “liberal” in approach, it is embarrassing that the first edition is so totally dominated by white Western men. Second, there were sections in need of improvement – for example, Moltmann’s Social Trinity needed a more sympathetic presentation. Third, the first edition appeared in 2008. Naturally, since then, debates have moved on and new questions have emerged. So a general updating was necessary.

One last change is worth highlighting. One goal of this text is to introduce the basics and model decision making. In every chapter, I become a participant in the discussion. Now my own mind has changed. So careful readers will find that there are different emphases in certain places. Perhaps the best example is Chapter 2, “The Theistic Claim.” In the first edition, I argued that faith is rationally plausible and that treating the arguments inductively should perhaps produce a person of faith. In this edition, I see the arguments as supportive of an experience that sees the transcendent all around us. This is, of course, totally part of the methodology advocated in this book. Theology is a constant life challenge. It lives with you; the questions are revisited and revised. We are exploring the most complex topic in the world; it is not surprising that we find ourselves reexamining an assumption or an approach. This is just the nature of the business.


Please allow me to start by expressing my deep gratitude to the remarkable commissioning editor at Wiley Blackwell, Ms. Rebecca Harkin. Working with Rebecca is always a delight. Thank you, Rebecca. As the manuscript passed from Rebecca into production, I was grateful for the attention provided by Felicity Marsh and Vimali Joseph. I am very grateful to a delightful Junior at Virginia Theological Seminary called Brit Bjurstrom Frazier who worked on the Index.

This revised edition would never have materialized without the hard work of Kristen Pitts. Her energy, passion, and interest helped to make sure this second edition is a distinct improvement on the first.

I am grateful to the countless students who have used this text. Their feedback provided plenty of ideas as to how to improve the book. My colleagues at Virginia Theological Seminary are important conversation partners as I shape my own theology. And as always I am grateful to the senior staff: Melody Knowles, Heather Zdancewicz, Barney Hawkins, and Katie Glover. This is the team that understands the importance of writing and creates the space for me to do it. Katherine Malloy sent me regular reminders of my writing obligations and works hard to ensure there is time for writing during the regular week. Finally, I want to thank the Board of Trustees, especially my Board Chair, Bishop Bud Shand. The gift of a year’s sabbatical created the opportunity to complete this project. Thank you.

While I was working on this second edition, we had Sophia Weber staying with us. It has been a complete honor to enjoy time with this compelling, charming, engaging young lady. I am pleased to recognize the following people who helped Sophia be the delight she is: Hannah Sternemann, Luisa Wegewitz, and Carolin Putz.

My siblings are so special, and their families bring me so much joy. So, as with the first edition, I acknowledge the gift of my delightful nieces; I am pleased to dedicate this book to Nicola, Abbie, Lizzie, and Ellen. My son, Luke, remains one of my most important conversation partners. Our shared concern for Liverpool Football Club has been a gateway into numerous other issues around ethics, God, and hope. For the gift of Luke, I am forever grateful. Finally, my wife, Lesley, is quite extraordinary. Time spent with her is always special. Her friendship and love are the most precious of gifts, for which I thank God every day.

Epiphany 2016Ian S. Markham


We are going to embark on a journey – a journey that starts with the problems with belief and culminates with a discussion of Christian beliefs about the end of the world. The “we” here is simply the author and the reader. The reader may be in a variety of different places. Many of you will be Christians – an umbrella term that embraces considerable diversity. Some of you will be clinging on to faith – finding the orthodox story of a creator God who redeems humanity through Christ difficult to affirm. Others are firmly located in a particular tradition, for example, the Roman Catholic or Baptist traditions. Other readers are non‐Christians. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who suspects that Christianity belongs to a pre‐scientific era. You might be an adherent of another faith tradition – a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Hindu. I have tried to write this book so we can all walk this journey together. For the agnostic or atheist, I hope this book will be a challenge. Along with reasons for the fundamental beliefs, I have attempted to provide an attractive, plausible account of the Christian faith that takes the problems seriously. For those who are in another faith tradition, I have attempted to make connections with other faith traditions – sometimes alluding to similarities or confronting key differences. By the end of the book, I trust you will understand some of the debates within Christianity and reasons why Christians talk in certain distinctive ways (e.g., about God being triune). For the Christians, I am offering a particular account of the faith, which will contrast markedly with others.

One primary goal in writing this book was to be accessible. It is aimed at the student or the intelligent lay person. At every point, there are aids to help understanding – a glossary and brief vignettes of key theologians. In each chapter, I attempt to provide an overview of Christian attitudes to the topic. So there is a map of the main arguments and issues within the Christian tradition. However, unlike most textbooks, which are exclusively descriptive, this book has an argument. It takes positions.

The reason for this is that the hardest skill for any student to learn is how to decide what she thinks is true. The risk in teaching Christian theology is that one presents the options – in a detached, fair way – and then leaves the impression that all options are equally valid and legitimate. Students find themselves becoming relativists (there are many options and no rational way of deciding among them). To counter this tendency, this book attempts both to describe positions and to decide between positions. Using the reflection questions at the end of each chapter, students are invited to disagree with my judgments. While I am countering the relativist tendency of many modern textbooks, I am not seeking to imply that I have all the right answers. God is complicated, which means doctrine is also. We need students of theology to continue to challenge the “received” answers. But we do so on the assumption that there are better and worse ways of making sense of God. We are on the quest for the truth; and our arguments are often a valuable way of discovering that truth.

Clarifying the Vantage Point

Having admitted that this book seeks to model theological judgments, it may help if I set out precisely what vantage point is taken. All of us are rooted. We are shaped by a culture, a language, and various traditions. I was born in England and became an American citizen in 2010. As an Episcopalian, I am heavily shaped by the Anglican tradition. With its affinity for natural theology, the emphasis on the Incarnation, the high view of sacraments, readers may recognize an Anglican approach in the text. More broadly the theological approach is broadly “mainline” Protestant. It celebrates the tradition while recognizing that there is much that can be learned from the present and from other cultures. It also recognizes that there are aspects of the tradition that have been wickedly oppressive. And we should use other aspects of the tradition to challenge the oppression. It also celebrates a faith that is comfortable with scientific discovery, the critical study of the Bible, and the presumption that faith is viable for the thoughtful modern person.

In summary, I argue in Understanding Christian Doctrine, for the following positions: First, natural theology is a legitimate enterprise that supports and underpins religious experience. Of the three approaches delineated in Chapter 3 (the Schleiermacherian, Barthian, and Thomist), I argue that the classical Catholic approach of Thomas Aquinas needs to be shaped by a Schleiermacherian emphasis on experience. We need to start with our shared human experience of life – an experience common to all people. Granted, this approach does not bring us to the triune God revealed in Christ, but it does lead some to a sense of the transcendent who created this world. The arguments created the possibility of a God option, which then makes sense of our experience of the transcendent.

Second, Christian doctrine is the Christian response to the problem of evil. Unifying many of the chapters is the idea that it is in the narrative of Christianity that we find the response to the mystery of evil and suffering. Traditional theodicies, I argue in Chapter 5, are insufficient. Instead the Christian response is the story of the Fall, the claim that God was in Christ dying on the cross, the action of the Spirit in the world, the gift of the sacraments, and the promise of God in the life to come. None of these explain why God allows evil and suffering. But they do locate the problem in a narrative where God takes the complete responsibility for the hurt and pain within God’s creation.

Third, this is a liberal theology. The word “liberal” needs to be reclaimed. It is not liberal in the sense of increasing skepticism about the truth claims in Christianity. The liberalism of the Anglican theologian Don Cupitt, who finally decided that even an objective God must go, is tantamount to atheism. The theologian should struggle with doctrines. In this book, I defend the Trinity and the Incarnation as indispensable aspects of the Christian understanding of God and God’s relations to the world. But this book is liberal in the sense of affirming the generous heart and disposition of Christian orthodoxy. As I argued in A Theology of Engagement, the orthodox Christian tradition is deeply committed to taking reasons seriously, learning from non‐Christian sources, and interpreting experience appropriately. This book is “liberal” in that sense. It is also liberal in the sense of wanting to learn from those more progressive theologies that are emerging (feminist and liberationist). Trying to find the balance between representing the traditional debate and including some of these neglected contemporary voices has been difficult. And there are sections where I am still not sure I have it quite right.

It is not necessary to go into further details of my argument in this book. Suffice it to say, this book is written out of the conviction that the drama of God in Christ continues to be good news for humanity. Tragically, there are many people who have encountered versions of the gospel who have been enslaved rather than liberated. The challenge is to struggle with the message and to allow the God of love, who is calling us to love each other more deeply, to emerge.