W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology

There is likely a strong link between the reading of yuge, hefty, weighty theological tomes and body building. The books are daunting to tackle, demanding of discipline to read from start to finish, and impressive on the shelf. They can also be used for curls and tricep exercises.

For those of us who struggle to get a page of paper covered with words, it is amazing to think about those who have written books that surpass the 500 page or even 1000-page mark. One such volume in our time is Dogmatic Theology, Third Edition by W. G. T. Shedd, which is published by P&R Publishing.

Any such weighty book needs to be viewed not as a book that absolutely has to be read from start to finish, but as one that can be used, dipped into, scanned and skimmed, and occasionally read in large chunks. Of course, it can be read all the way through.

I first developed a “must have” connection with this book when I stumbled across copies of it for student use for a class at John Brown University. (I had sneaked into the textbook section of the student bookstore, and I think that mere mortals were not to be in that area.)

I had long heard of William Shedd and could connect his name with the Reformed giants of the past. But concerning theological works, I purchased such stalwart Calvinists as Charles Hodge, Louis Berkof, Robert L. Dabney, and a few others along the way. Shedd, by my impressions, was, perhaps, on the second team, rather than the starting line-up.

Now the competition for shelf space and reading time is even more fierce. A whole shelf of books by Herman Bavinck are top priority items with more translations coming out ever few months. Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley now have three large volumes of a projected four volume work titled Reformed Systematic Theology completed. Geerhardus Vos, whose works are labeled as Biblical theology, now has more translated works available in English, just like Bavinck.

Douglas Kelly has a third volume for his Systematic Theology, of which I only have the first two volumes.

Then there is John Frame’s wonderful Systematic Theology, which complements four volume “Theology of Lordship” series. Baptists are happy to join in on the race for bigger and broader books with Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which has the attributes of being a popular read, a Reformed-leaning work, and a book admired by many who differ from Grudem over details.

Time and my own limited book collection does not allow me to delve into the Puritan and Continental European books from the past centuries.

So, why Shedd? Meaning, why not one of the Reformers? (I am really wanting Henry Bullinger’s Decades.) Why not Puritan studies? Why not Calvin’s Institutes? Why not some of the books mentioned above, plus others I have overlooked?

I am sure that there are plenty of professional, pastoral, and lay theologians who can aptly recommend or dismiss which books one ought or ought not to read. And I have been told that we will not live long enough to read all the books we want to read (and here’s hoping to a great library in the life beyond.).

Shedd’s book is a vital work for several reasons. (For the record: My reading of it is still in the early stages.)

  1. Shedd lived and wrote in the 1800s. Many particular issues that he confronted will differ from those of our time. We don’t read him for prophetic prophecies, even though we often stumble upon quotes that are several centuries old that aptly describe out times.

C. S. Lewis described the benefits of reading old books, including the fact that they are describing a set of conditions different from out times and they force us to think beyond today’s newest trend or most disturbing issues. Most of today’s hot topics will be off the front burners in a few generations. (“Gay Marriage” has many evil ramifications, but like the Shakers of old, they can’t reproduce, so they are on a scale of diminishing influence. Gender “fluidity” is more stupid than phrenology.)

2. Shedd was, to use the term often repeated about such theologians, a high Calvinist. Calvinism, or Reformed Theology, has its waxing and waning periods, its defining and redefining, and its fans and critics. Shedd is standing in the trenches alongside such stalwart Reformed theologians as Hodge, Dabney, and Warfield.

In some ways, and in ways that I have witnessed changes in my own nearly 50 years of Calvinistic ties, it is easy to use the title in our days. Whether one prefers to say Calvinist, Reformed, Sovereign Grace, or whatever else, there are lots who rally behind the flags. By God’s grace, there are fine writers who have boldly asserted the Five Points and more. And they have produced books for the reader in the pews.

But there is a good reason to trace the flowing waters back up the stream a good distance. “Go to the sources.” To borrow again from Lewis, this doesn’t always mean that Shedd and company are going to be right, but they are going to be right or wrong for a different set of reasons than we are right or wrong today.

3. A third reason that attracts me to Shedd is the promise of the editor’s preface. he says, “Shedd cites such poets as Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. He also quotes the standard Latin authors, such as Cicero, often in the original.” Prior tothat, he promises that “a large number of literary and classical allusions appear in Dogmatic Theology–many more thanone would typically find in a work of systematic theology.” (Alan Gomes, editor’s preface)

I am more skilled and experienced in literature than in theology. I have been (for a time of at least 30 and maybe even 55 years) been trying to remedy the literary ignorance that is common today. The assumed knowledge of language and literature of men of the past drives me mad to furious in a quest to recapture our educational heritage.

Shedd offers some help. After all, if we were to recapture the literary attainments of the past and lose our souls, the gains would be loss. Shedd has the right priority and the literary attainments.

I will keep you posted on my reading adventures.

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