Frequently my computer or “smart” phone autocorrects Themelios to Themeless. The latter would make a rather unfortunate name for an international journal of theology! In this editorial, I will reflect on the journal’s name, its history, and my hopes for its future contribution. We certainly wouldn’t want Themelios to become “theme-less.”
1. The Journal’s Name
The journal’s name transliterates the Greek term θεμέλιος, which is typically rendered “foundation” in its fifteen NT occurrences. θεμέλιος refers to the foundation on which a building rests. Jesus highlights the utter folly of constructing a house with no foundation (Luke 6:49)—a warning to those who would hear his words and not heed them. Likewise, he urges would-be disciples to count the cost lest their lives resemble an abandoned construction project with a foundation but no tower on it (Luke 14:27–30). Paul stresses that the church is “God’s building” established on the secure foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:9–11). The apostle identifies Jewish and Gentile believers together as “members of the household of God, built on the foundation [ἐπὶ τῷ θεμελίῳ] of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:19–21).
2. The Journal’s History
The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students first published the journal Themelios in October 1962.1 The initial volume featured articles by Howard Marshall, Donald Guthrie, Leon Morris, Francis Schaeffer, and others, as well as a fine exposition of Ephesians 2:20 by the Irish missionary theologian R. J. McKelvey.2 McKelvey reasons that Isaiah 28:16 lies behind the NT authors’ figurative references to Christ as the “cornerstone” and “foundation” laid in Zion. As the cornerstone (ἀκρογωνιαῖος), Christ not only supports the superstructure of God’s house but also serves to unify it as it is built (συναρμολογέω in Eph 2:21). McKelvey argues that the difficult phrase “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” refers to the twelve apostles and the OT prophets as the foundation on whom membership in the church rests for Gentile and Jewish believers alike.
The journal’s first editor, Andrew F. Walls, describes Themelios as an international and interdenominational journal “addressed to theological students, and all who are preparing for the Christian ministry, throughout the world.”3 Appealing to Ephesians 2:20, Walls stresses that the journal is concerned with “the bed-rock foundation of the historic faith” and Christ, who holds the apostolic building together. He concludes:
The scope of THEMELIOS is the whole of Christian theology: the entire field of the Christian pastor and theologian. In this field, all the powers of the mind are called into service, and the journal will seek to provide information and to provoke thought – sometimes about issues which today are often too lightly dismissed. A humble and a loving heart is also a requirement, and THEMELIOS will have failed if it does nothing to stir its readers to adoration and to devotion.4
In 1975, the Religious & Theological Students Fellowship, part of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the UK, took over publishing Themelios. At this time the journal merged with Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin, a periodical that began circulating in Autumn 1951 and published a total of seventy-two volumes featuring short articles by noted theologians like J. I. Packer, F. F. Bruce, and Howard Marshall. The first issue in the relaunched version of Themelios featured articles by J. I. Packer (“Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority”), the new journal’s first editor R. T. France (“Inerrancy and New Testament Exegesis”), and Robert P. Gordon (“Preaching from the Patriarchs”). In January 1978, Robert Norris succeeded R. T. France as general editor and held the position until David Wenham took over in January 1982. Following Wenham, Themelios was edited by Christopher J. H. Wright (1990–1994), Stephen Williams (1995–1998), and Carl Trueman (1999–2007). The list of contributors to the journal during the RTSF/UCCF years include influential theologians and biblical scholars such as Richard Bauckham, G. K. Beale, Kwame Bediako, Craig Blomberg, Gerald Bray, D. A. Carson, John Goldingay, Paul Helm, Larry Hurtado, Tony Lane, Howard Marshall, Alister McGrath, Richard Mouw, John Webster, Gordon Wenham, and N. T. Wright.
In personal correspondence, former editor Stephen Williams explains that the key contribution of Themelios in the early days was to promote worthy evangelical scholarship to help theological students during a time when liberal theology dominated university departments and some seminaries. He recalls that efforts to increase global circulation proved challenging due in part to limited funds in many parts of the world for print journal subscriptions. In fact, Williams recounted that he once met with some European scholars in Germany where someone asked, “What is Themelios meant to be about?” Since the journal had recently published a series of articles dealing with language, nationhood, and Wales (Williams’s home country),5 a French theologian who was present for the meeting without hesitation responded to the question: “Wales.”
William’s successor, Carl Trueman, explains that the journal provided “many good articles on important biblical, theological, historical, and ethical topics that had scholarly integrity but were also accessible to the nonspecialist.” As editor Trueman sought to establish the UCCF Statement of Faith as the guiding doctrinal standard for the journal. Our consulting editor Daniel Strange began serving with Themelios during these years and worked closely with Trueman as the managing editor and systematic theology book review editor. Trueman reflected that during his tenure, the global reach of Themelios continued to be somewhat muted as it circulated primarily in the UK, Europe, and North America.
The long-standing aspirations for Themelios to have a worldwide impact took an important step forward in 2008 when The Gospel Coalition relaunched Themelios as a freely accessible online digital journal. D. A. Carson wrote in his first editorial, “The new Themelios aims to serve both theological/religious studies students and pastors” while aspiring to “become increasingly international in representation.”6 As the journal’s longest serving general editor, Carson has contributed thirty-three editorials, such as his widely read pieces “Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in Our Lives” and “On Disputable Matters.”7
The decision to make Themelios a free digital journal hosted by TGC has dramatically expanded its global readership and impact. In 2018, Themelios had 694,355 page views, up from 630,165 in 2017 and 495,418 in 2016. Logos Bible Software users have downloaded over 62,000 free issues of the journal since 2013, and academic readers have accessed the journal’s content tens of thousands of times using the ATLA Religion Database. Most Themelios readers live in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, but in 2018 readers in 223 countries accessed the journal online. (There are even 1,500 or so faithful Themelios readers in Wales, which may encourage my editorial predecessor.) The journal’s editorial team includes Baptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans who live in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, and Malaysia. In recent years we have published articles and reviews by authors from many countries on six continents. We have received requests to translate Themelios articles into German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian.
3. The Journal’s Contribution
There are an astonishing variety of theological journals published in English each year, and in recent years new journals have launched such as The Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology (2014), Primer (2015), Reformed Faith and Practice (2016), Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies (2016), and Didaktikos (2017). Many institutions, professional societies, and publishers continue to produce journals that cover various disciplines and sub-disciplines of theology and biblical studies.
So what does this journal contribute in such a crowded field? What themes will keep Themelios from becoming theme-less? Here I highlight three hallmarks of the articles, editorials, and reviews published in Themelios: doctrinal fidelity, scholarly excellence, and readability and relevance.
1. Doctrinal fidelity. Themelios continues its commitment to expound and defend what its first editor, Andrew Walls, called “the bed-rock foundation of the historic faith.” The journal maintained a strong evangelical perspective and doctrinal basis in its years published by UCCF. Since 2008, the journal remains unashamedly confessional, guided by the Foundation Documents of The Gospel Coalition, “a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”8 The editors and contributors hail from a variety of church traditions, but that does not render the journal “theme-less.” Each Themelios publication is marked by doctrinal fidelity, what Paul calls “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim 6:3). This journal offers pastors and theological students (and others) first-rate engagement with current scholarship and important biblical and theological questions while maintaining a sound theological foundation.
2. Scholarly excellence. While the readership of Themelios has vastly widened as a digital journal, it has maintained its selectivity and high academic standards. The journal has an outstanding editorial board composed of accomplished scholars and committed churchmen and women, and it follows a careful peer-review process for article submissions to ensure consistent quality and integrity. Themelios is also accessible in full-text through the ATLA Religion Database, a leading index used by scholars and theological students. Our articles make a fresh contribution to scholarship in a way that is accessible to non-specialists. For example, Keith Johnson’s 2011 article introduced many readers to the scholarly debate surrounding the eternal functional subordination of the Son.9 The 2014 exchange between Gerald Bray and Tom Schreiner clarified the distinctive contributions and methodological convictions of systematic theology and biblical theology.10 The journal has regularly published articles that summarize the state of scholarship in an accessible way, such as Bob Yarbrough on biblical criticism, Nathan Finn on evangelical history, Will Timmins on the purpose of Romans, and the various articles on spiritual gifts in the present issue.11
3. Readability and relevance. Themelios aims to publish high-quality scholarship that is readable and relevant for theological students and pastors. The journal has long been known for its helpful book reviews. The first issue of the new series in 1975 featured ten book reviews, including D. A. Carson’s review of the New International Version: New Testament. In 2017–2018, the journal published 254 reviews.
Themelios articles have reflected deeply on contemporary moral issues such as white supremacy12 and practical concerns like suffering.13 It is noteworthy that Andy Naselli’s Pastoral Pensées contributions on prayer and pornography are the two most widely read articles in recent years.14 The journal does not prize theological abstraction but biblically faithful, rigorous scholarship that presses to ask for the church today, “So what?” Though our journal has many values and engages various theological topics, the singular theme of Themelios is Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. S. J. Stone’s famous hymn captures it well:
The church’s one Foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation,
by water and the Word;
from heav’n He came and sought her
to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her,
and for her life He died.