Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Paperback, 155 pages.
I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies. These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students. They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way. Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.
Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it. Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew. It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style. So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics. All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.
Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things. Visual Theology is different; it has four parts: grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ. It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented. It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12). You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ. Visual Theology shows why and how. I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.
As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed. For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33). Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.
By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79). Some readers will detect gaps. Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two. Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings. That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors. Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing. There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.
I have one noteworthy concern: the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism: “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27). The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said. The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism. As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace. However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position. Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.
This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class. For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and more. Visual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation. You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!