The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Volume 1 (A-D)

By Erwin Fahlbusch, et al. (eds.)
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1999). xxxviii + 893 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 124-126

One of the important theological reference works, the Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon: Internationale theologische Enzyklopädie, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1986-97), heretofore available only in German, is now being produced in an English-language edition. Designed to provide an encyclopedic reference detailing the “global character of the Christian faith of the twentieth century” (xi). In the foreword, Jaroslav Pelikan states, “Quite apart from the symbolic or real importance of the year 2000, this is such a moment for the serious study of Christianity as a historical and a contemporary phenomenon, and the Encyclopedia of Christianity is the outcome of a serious scholarly effort to supply both a summary and a starting point” (xi).

The present volume is the first of five in this project. The layout of the work is well-conceived and the material is extremely accessible. The introductory matter includes a much-welcomed “List of Entries,” an eminently useful feature that many of the current crop of reference works have unfortunately chosen to omit. This work has a detailed explanation of the organizational features of the work (xvi-xix), a list of contributors and the articles they contributed (xx-xxviii), and nine pages of abbreviations (xxix-xxxviii). It displays the articles in a standard two-column format, lists the author of each article, and has an extensive bibliography with most articles (although German language works typically dominate the articles listed). It includes a few charts, but no illustrations. The work makes liberal use of “see also” and “see” entries to assist the reader.

One of the most interesting and helpful features of this work relates to the entries for individual countries. It includes helpful statistical information for each country in the categories of (1) population, (2) annual growth rate, (3) area, (4) population density, (6) births/deaths, (7) fertility rate, (8) infant mortality rate, (9) life expectancy, and (10) religious affiliation. Each of these entries details a brief history of the country and various sections dealing with the Christian and religious aspects and history of the country. Though most of the entries for countries are presented in an even-handed manner, some (e.g., Brazil, Chile) reflect some unfortunate politicizing on the part of the authors. One obvious problem in the series will be that the time-line for its completion (at least ten years) will render the statistical information of uneven currency within the set.

The liberal (occasionally bordering on the extremely liberal) and ecumenical end of the Christian spectrum, both in terms of theology, sociology and politics, clearly dominates this work. Its contributors are mostly European and are disproportionately of German background. It assumes the validity of higher critical views of Scripture throughout the entries, such as will dismay conservative readers at the entries on the various books of the Bible. For instance, it describes the book of Daniel as “fiction” and Daniel himself as a “mythical wise and righteous figure” (774). Moses as the author of the Decalogue is “ruled out” (787). The completion of Deuteronomy “in its canonical form can hardly have taken shape before the sixth century, if not considerably later” (816). The work rejects Pauline authorship of Colossians, stating that Colossians itself was not written to the church at Colossae (615), which becomes even more problematic since the entry claims, “In both theology and literary style, Ephesians is dependent upon Colossians” (ibid.). It describes even the Corinthians epistles as “a corpus of several letters” that “owe their present form and arrangement to an unknown editor or redactor” (690).

Some entries will mystify the reader as to the reason for their inclusion and/or the amount of space dedicated to their subject. For instance the entry on “Behavior, Behavioral Psychology” (214-17) constitutes nearly seven full columns of interesting material, which contains nothing even remotely connecting the subject at hand with Christianity, Scripture, a biblical anthropology or sociology, or any other religious theme. Other entries such as “Anonymity” (67-68), “Anxiety” (87- 89), “Biography, Biographical Research” (256), “Child Labor” (409-10) and “Childhood” (410-12), “Crisis Intervention” (728), “Development” (816-20) and “Development Education” (821) reflect this same problem in varying degrees.

Other articles are simply perplexing in terms of their content. For example, the article on “Bible Study” (239-40) defines the subject as “the group study of individual texts or whole books of the Bible by church members” (239). However, it then presents a “history” of Bible study, making the incredible claim that the “beginnings of Bible Study” are to be found in the “Dutch Reformed Tradition from 1550 onwards” (ibid.), the author apparently believing that “Bible Study” did not occur for the first 15 centuries of the church. One other article to note is that on “Dispensationalism” (854-55). Though generally well done, this article nonetheless has clearly sought to advance the position of “Progressive Dispensationalism” by using the categories manufactured by that particular movement. Notably the author equates the 1967 revision of the Scofield Reference Bible with changes in dispensational theology itself: “Some of the most controversial notes were changed, many others were modified and many new notes were added” (855). However, to state that the notes reflect more careful exegesis and clearer explanations of the text, rather than a modification of dispensationalism, is more accurate.

Some articles are most certainly helpful and useful, and the series w ill clearly find its way into the libraries of seminaries and secular universities around the country. However, the pastor will want to save the money he might spend on this rather over-priced work and invest in more reliable reference works such as the Baker Reference Library or even the Anchor Bible Dictionary, which is conservative by comparison to The Encyclopedia of Christianity. This reviewer cannot recommend this work as a reliable reference tool for pastors or students.