Thirty-four years ago I began as a naïve 21 year-old theological student at Moore College. Peter Jensen was the Principal and my lecturer in first year doctrine.
His class notes, which I recall he would hand out in full after each lecture, are the basis, albeit thoroughly revised, updated and otherwise improved, of The Life of Faith, his recently released magnum opus.
It’s a mark of his clarity as a teacher that I soon felt able to invite my mother, who although a church-going Christian, had not been exposed to much systematic Bible study or doctrine, to attend the annual Moore College lectures which he delivered that year (published as At the Heart of the Universe). She found them challenging but digestible. Peter has also earned appreciation as a lecturer in doctrine to trainee youth and children’s ministers, some of whom are without an undergraduate degree.
The Life of Faith proceeds through twenty-seven chapters, under three headings:
Knowing the God who creates,
Knowing the Creator who saves,
Knowing the Saviour who is Lord.
Each of the three sections begins with a sentence to summarise each chapter within the section, which is repeated as the ‘key concept’ at the head of each chapter. Those chapters end with a key verse of Scripture, a pithy quotation from another earlier author, a listing of key terms discussed1 within, stimulating questions for further reflection, and references for further reading, principally to three other excellent systematic theologies by Bray, Horton and Milne (Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist respectively), but also to various Protestant confessions and to Jim Packer.
It might be too much to ask, but I would have benefitted from a brief prayer at the end of each chapter as well, catching up the particular thoughts that had just informed us about God and our relationship to him.
The Life of Faith covers all the major areas of Christian theology: the nature and character of God; revelation and the place of Scripture, creation and humanity; the triune nature of God; the person and work of Christ, and of the Spirit; union with Christ, and repentance and faith; the Christian life and the church, and eschatology. However, one might wish for an index of key words at the end of the work, alongside the Scripture index.
Perhaps its most significant methodological feature is that Peter begins with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is how we know God. That is how he works to save us. That is how we live with him as Lord. So in addressing topics like revelation, or anthropology, he begins not with the idea of God or the creation accounts, but with what we learn from the accounts of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. This is an excellent feature of the biblical theological approach that characterises Moore College, and often allows for a fresher engagement on traditional theological topics. Along with this are connected emphases on history, covenant and God’s relational nature, although not in an excessive way. Peter also remains in constant informed dialogue with classical theism and the historic creeds. And he connects with the thoughts not only of the ancients, but of the moderns as issues like science, human nature or social justice arise along the way.
Peter is more than capable at weaving a series of biblical references together to illuminate the particular topic he is addressing. However just as often, he prefers the approach of what I recall my philosophy lecturer at Moore College, Grahame Cole, called ‘contextualised affirmation’, where rather than ‘proof-texting’, one took a deeper dive into a section of scripture through the angle of a particular topic. For example, in chapter 14 on the atonement, ‘The Crucified Lord’, there’s an extended section on ‘The mystery of the cross in Mark’s Gospel’ (pp 180-84). It may be a little unusual in a systematic theology, but was fruitful for me as I preach through Mark again, and I suspect for others, as they approach the precious doctrinal topic!
Peter is judicious in entering contested areas, and is careful to ‘not go beyond what’s written’; for example, on God’s relationship to time, or on the relationship of Israel to the church.
Peter is eminently quotable. I found myself photographing screen grabs of many little purple passages, which I plan to share on my social media feeds for thought. One brief example, which immediately produced stimulating interchange online, was this: ‘History, not philosophy, is the key to understanding God’ (p 104).
It’s worth knowing that Peter not only writes clearly and engagingly, but also with an expansive vocabulary. I am not just referring to the introduction and explanation of common theological technical terms, which must be done in such a work, but more generally in his writing (e.g. cosmogonies, fecundity, vouchsafed). So some of those whose experience in reading is more limited may find this tougher going at times.
One could perhaps wish for a little more on prayer; others might say likewise on the sacraments or on church government. But what he says is perfectly adequate as far as it goes and there’s no problem with an introductory book leaving you wanting more.
Likewise, given the volume of ink spilt on current debates, Peter is entirely comfortable to address issues to do with ‘complementarianism’ in remarkably few lines. Describing us as social humanity, from the creation accounts, men and women are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and also companions and friends, social not independent (pp 146-47). Then while considering the incarnation’s significance for us, he comments that:
ideology has driven a wedge between male and female, who share far, far more than what distinguishes us. We are first of all human beings before we are men or women. It is the grace, joy, peace, love and obedience of Jesus which we imitate, each in our own way, but without the slightest fear that our particularity is to be subsumed into some gigantic ‘super-Jesus’ transcending sexuality. (pp 170-71)
Lastly, in a section on ministry of the word, Peter simply reports, ‘Likewise, the local church is described in family or household terms, with implications for how we treat each other and for the qualifications for leadership – for example, that teaching elders should be men (1 Tim 2:8-15, 3:1-16)’ (p 340). Obviously, there is a place for deeper discussion and debate, but this strikes me as a good model for balance and weight in how we approach instructing newer believers in basic doctrine, when compared to the greater length afforded so many other key topics in this volume.
In a couple of months, God willing, I will be heading to GAFCON IV in Kigali, a conference of a global Anglican renewal movement for evangelism and biblical fidelity. It is a mark of my respect for the quality of The Life of Faith, and in the knowledge of how widely Peter is respected in the Anglican communion worldwide, that I will be urging every delegate from Australia to buy two volumes of this new systematic theology so that they might share one (or more) with an Anglican pastor from a developing country that they meet at the conference. Whether experienced or emerging, such leaders will benefit deeply.
I could also imagine a Christian reading group working their way through the volume fortnightly over the course of a year to great spiritual profit.
Disclosure: Sandy has served on the Council of Matthias Media for almost two decades. He receives no remuneration for his role, and chooses to forego the discount offered to board members when buying Matthias Media books and resources.
1 Occasionally, and perhaps slightly confusing, a key term listed at end of a chapter has not been mentioned explicitly within the chapter, just implicitly, e.g. Pelagianism in chapter 11, Arminianism in chapter 20.