By Dr. Martha Moore-Keish and Dr. George Stroup
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Shirley Guthrie’s landmark book Christian Doctrine. Generations of congregational members and pastors have turned to this book since 1968 for an introduction to Christian theology—and for transformation of their faith. In honor of the occasion, Westminster John Knox Press has published a new edition of this book, and we at Columbia Seminary are also marking this anniversary by remembering Dr. Guthrie and his lasting influence on theological reflection in the church.
David Dobson, editor at Westminster John Knox, says, “Few books we’ve published have had the lasting legacy of Christian Doctrine. From his user-friendly chapter titles to the conversational but learned nature of his writing, Guthrie managed to do what every scholar dreams of—he wrote an academically grounded book that can be easily understood by the average layperson. The book has found an international audience as well, with editions published in Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Taiwanese, and many other languages around the globe.”
At this moment in the history of the church and in the history of Columbia Theological Seminary, it is fitting to look back and ask: who is this man whose face smiles from his portrait in the refectory? Why did this book touch so many? And what does this book continue to teach us today?
Shirley Guthrie and Christian Doctrine
Shirley Guthrie, the son of a Presbyterian minister in Texas, studied first at Princeton Theological Seminary and then in Basel, Switzerland with Karl Barth, who directed his PhD dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr. He served briefly as the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Rusk, Texas, and then joined the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary in 1957, where he taught Theology until his death in 2004.
The first edition of Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine was published by John Knox Press in 1968 in the “Covenant Life Curriculum” of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (or what was known as the “southern” Presbyterian Church). The student book (the volume known to most readers) was 416 text-packed pages, and the teacher book another 272. Unfortunately, the book did not include a preface that explained the historical and social context in which it was written. 1968 was a momentous year in American history. The country was in the midst of the struggle over civil rights (Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April) and deeply divided over the war in Vietnam. After Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for a second term as President, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, and that summer at its convention in Chicago the Democratic Party split between Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Eugene McCarthy. Furthermore, the so-called “sexual revolution” was well underway and feminist liberation theology was in its early stages (Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex was also published in 1968). Internationally, the United States found itself in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union, with each country threatening the other with huge arsenals of nuclear weapons.
The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (or the “northern” Presbyterian Church) addressed these crises in its Confession of 1967, a document that reflects the theology of Barth. However, in the southern Presbyterian Church, the sole confessional document remained The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647, even though many ministers and church members yearned for a confession with a different theology that addressed issues of contemporary life. In addition, the southern church was haunted by a tradition that affirmed “the spirituality of the church” and denied that the church should address social and political issues. Although theologians such Barth, Emil Brunner, and Niebuhr were much discussed in Protestant seminaries, they were not widely known in church pews.
It was in this social and political context that Guthrie wrote the first edition of Christian Doctrine. Because it was to be used in adult education programs in churches, Guthrie was told to write at a ninth-grade reading level. The book was a remarkable success in at least four respects. First, it interpreted Christian faith from the perspective of Barth and Niebuhr, but it did so in a way that did not require the reader to have a seminary education or to understand technical theological arguments. Second, Guthrie’s book gave the Presbyterian Church in the United States a theological basis for its commitment to social justice and its participation in the social and political issues of the day. Third, Christian Doctrine paved the way for A Declaration of Faith, a confession written from a Barthian perspective by a committee (that included Guthrie) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States that moved in a sharply different direction than The Westminster Confession of Faith. Finally, Christian Doctrine established common theological ground with the northern Presbyterian Church and its Confession of 1967, thereby clearing the way for the reunion of the two denominations in 1983 and the writing of A Brief Statement of Faith in 1991.
Christian Doctrine was received enthusiastically by many in the southern Presbyterian church and widely used not only in its congregations and seminaries but in many other Protestant denominations as well. Not everyone, however, was pleased. Guthrie often told the story of how McDowell Richards, then the President of Columbia Seminary, asked him to meet with the session of a Presbyterian congregation in South Carolina who was less than happy with the book. Shirley drove up to the church on a rainy Sunday afternoon, walked into a dimly lighted session room, and met a dozen grim faced elders. Their first question was not, “How was your trip?” but, “Professor Guthrie, are you a universalist?” to which Shirley replied, “No, I am not.” “Really?” they responded, “your book certainly sounds like you are.” “Well I’m not,” said Shirley. “I think when some people see those God has gathered around the messianic table in heaven—people of every race, social class, gender, and sexual orientation—they will choose not to be there!”
The first edition of Christian Doctrine was such a success that in 1994 Westminster John Knox Press published a revised edition. David Dobson says, “we don’t know exactly how many copies [of the first edition] sold. But our files do include the initial printing order from 1968: 25,000 teacher books and 175,000 student books. The revised edition, which came out in 1994, has sold about 100,000 copies in its life. We suspect the original edition that was part of the Covenant Life Curriculum may have sold five or ten times that.”
The revised edition followed closely the first, with a few important differences. Unlike the first edition, the revised edition begins with a preface that explains the social context in which it was written and the reasons for some of the changes in the first edition. Guthrie describes the impact on his thinking by theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, James Cone, Allan Boesak, feminist and womanist theologians, and Latin American liberation theologians. Conversations with them and others led him to revise the chapters on the authority of the Bible, predestination, providence and evil, and Christian hope. An important example is the chapter on God. The revised edition incorporates new developments in the doctrine of the Trinity—particularly the social doctrine of the Trinity and its use of perichoresis— to describe God as one community or society of persons in relationships that are not hierarchical, monarchical, and patriarchal but are characterized by equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. A close friend of Guthrie’s, Charles Cousar, professor of New Testament for many years at Columbia Seminary, observed that while the first edition of Christian Doctrine was written for people in congregations, the revised edition seemed to be more for seminary students and faculty.
Christian Doctrine has changed the way many people thought about their faith, particularly but not only in Presbyterian churches over the past five decades. For instance, the chapter on human sin moves beyond a personal, individual interpretation of sin, to focus on the corporate sins that infect human societies. In the time when it was first written, Guthrie surely had in mind especially the ways that racism and classism distort our relationships with one another. Subsequently, he became even more aware of the sin of sexism, as attested by the revisions to reflect more inclusive language in the 1994 edition. His corporate understanding of sin continues to ring just as true in 2018 as in 1968.
In addition, Guthrie’s studies with Karl Barth shaped his Christological emphasis throughout entire volume. This is especially notable in the chapter on election, in which he follows Barth’s interpretation of Christ as the electing God and the elected human, in whom all are elect. It was this Christological interpretation of election that got him into trouble with groups like the session in South Carolina, who undoubtedly saw Westminster’s interpretation of double predestination as the only acceptable understanding of election. Unlike the double predestination view, Guthrie emphasized that the God we see in Jesus Christ is the God of grace, who is for us and with us even before the foundation of the earth.
To be sure, there are theological topics that receive less attention in Christian Doctrine than we might like. For instance, in neither the first nor the revised edition is there a sustained discussion of prayer, baptism, or the Lord’s Supper. These are treated briefly in the larger discussion of the church, but these central practices of the church’s life together did not seem to interest Guthrie a great deal, in comparison to his sustained attention to what Barth called the threefold form of the Word of God. One wonders whether he fully recognized Calvin’s emphasis on the church of word and sacrament.
Despite this omission, the primary gift of Guthrie’s theological work is the tone of invitation and openness throughout, including his emphasis on dialogue with those who hold differing theological views. This openness to dialogue infuses the book, and it continues to influence the way theology classes are taught at Columbia Seminary today. Following Guthrie’s lead, theology at CTS is built on the conviction that theology is dialogical, and generations of teaching teams have sought to embody this conviction, beginning with Shirley Guthrie and Ben Kline and continuing to the present.
Donald M. McKim, who wrote the foreword to the anniversary edition of Christian Doctrine, offers these final words of appreciation for the lasting value of this book: “Christian Doctrine was a breath of fresh air for the church when it was first published. Its importance increased through the years as countless seminary students, pastors, and church groups experienced its persuasiveness in presenting Christian belief. Today the book’s influence continues as it accessibly presents the church’s faith. Theology’s importance as lived in our experience helps us understand the Gospel in new and fresh ways. If you have not looked at Christian Doctrine lately, this 50th anniversary edition is a wonderful way to hear Shirley Guthrie speak again; and have your faith stimulated and deepened by our master teacher and friend.”
George Stroup succeeded Shirley Guthrie as the J.B. Green Professor of Theology at Columbia. In 2018, Martha Moore-Keish succeeded George Stroup as the holder of that chair.