Two words that almost never go together are "concise" and "theology." Many authors have tried to write short summaries of Christian theology that appeal to the average Christian sitting in the pew, and most of them have failed. The difficulty is not so much with the subject, but with the writers themselves. This is not because the writers aren't knowledgeable; in fact the opposite is most often the case—they are too knowledgeable. Publishers will often recruit a seasoned pastor or a seminary professor thinking that these men are the most qualified to write a summary work for layman. The theory is sound, but the reality is seldom pretty. These knowledgeable pastors and professors are generally not accustomed to the constraint of the 15-second sound-bite attention span of the average reader. They have more than a bit of difficulty being brief and concise in print, because they seldom need to be brief in their sermons and classroom lectures.
Although this difficulty is common, there are rare exceptions. One such exception is a book written over 150 years ago by one of the most unlikely candidates to be both clear and exceedingly short-winded. Archibald Alexander was both a pastor and a professor; he was the very first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary when it was founded in 1812. For the next 39 years, Alexander systematically taught young seminarians the Christian faith and prepared them for the difficult work of the pastorate. One would be tempted to think that his nearly forty years inside the walls of the academy would have made it nigh impossible for him to be able to write a concise summary of key doctrines of the Christian faith for the general public, but Archibald Alexander was very much up to the task. His Brief Compendium of Bible Truth is as relevant and needed today as it was in 1846. Probably more so, in fact, due to the crying need and depressing lack of biblical, historical, and theological understanding in the 21st century evangelical church.
In saying, however, that Alexander was successful in creating a concise manual of key Christian doctrines is not the same as saying that he dumbed it down. Readers should not expect an eighth-grade level introduction to the topic; Alexander had far too much respect for both his readers and the Bible to allow that to happen. In typical 19th century prose, Alexander writes dense sentences, full of meaning and multi-syllable words. Newcomers may find the need to read and re-read sections of the book, but will quickly realize that the reward is worth the effort. Finishing this book will either lead the reader to want more, or to be glad that he is through; but either way he will have a far better understanding (and greater appreciation) of the Christian faith than 90% of those who inhabit church buildings once a week.
Packing 38 chapters into just over 200 pages does not allow for sermonizing. Each chapter is between 5-10 pages and can easily be read in one sitting. This reprint includes minor editing to break up long sentences and paragraphs. In keeping with modern expectations of theological works, it also adds biblical references that Alexander did not include in his original manuscript, allowing readers to easily find and read for themselves the relevant portions of Scripture. This book is best read with a Bible near at hand.
A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth could be used in a number of different ways. First, it makes for a great personal or devotional read for those who wish to educate themselves. Second, it would be a good choice for home-study and family devotionals with older children. Third, it would be a valuable resource to use in new member classes at churches, or even as part of deacon and elder training. Lastly, it would make for a full-year of Sunday school lessons, with enough Sundays left over to devote two weeks to some of the more complex lessons. In reality, I think concerned churches should recommend that its members and potential members do ALL of the above. If more individual churches taught doctrine and encouraged its members to study and learn on their own during the week, the universal Church (Christ's bride) would be greatly improved and strengthened.
Ironically enough, Alexander originally wrote his Compendium to be inserted into a larger work intended to teach blind people. He writes: "When this volume was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, it was thought this small Compendium might be rendered useful to others, as well as the blind." Alexander had no way of knowing—in 1846—just how spiritually blind God's people would become, although I'm sure that he wouldn't be incredibly surprised. Like Bartimaeus, the Church has become blind and needs to be given sight in order to perceive and understand correctly. But also like Bartimaeus, we must first want to see: "Jesus said, 'What do you want Me to do for you?' And the blind man said to Him, 'Rabboni, I want to regain my sight'" (Mark 10:46-52). Jesus graciously healed his eyes, but Bartimaeus had to ask for it first. And so must we. If we wish to be able to see rightly with our spiritual eyes, we must take the first step and ask God to open them. Only then will we be able to discern correctly; seeing as He sees. Only then will we be able to pray this prayer with Archibald Alexander:
Being firmly persuaded that divine truth is to be the grand instrument for the illumination and reformation of the world, he [Alexander] feels desirous to contribute his humble part towards its universal diffusion. So far as Bible truth is contained in this brief Compendium, may the blessing of God attend it to the benefit of every reader. And if anything erroneous has been uttered, may it be forgiven, and its evil tendency counteracted.
Alexander is clear that it is the Bible and the Holy Spirit that communicate the real divine truth. Books about the Bible are secondary in importance to their primary influence, but they can be helpful in keeping us on the path. We have a sinful tendency to drift back into our natural blindness; back into the ignorance of spiritual infancy. The Bible gives us the sight and books like A Brief Compendium keep us focused, but we must first want to "regain our sight." May God grant us that desire and the motivation to study and learn, to His glory and the Church's benefit.