Learning about the Past: What Has the Church Believed?

About two weeks ago I began a recommended reading list for those who wish to brush up on the history of the church. My initial suggestions included a couple of church history survey texts. In this post, I’m going to mention a few titles that focus on the development of Christian doctrine over the past 2,000 years or so. The earlier list was comprised of books that emphasize key people and events (the story); these books emphasize the development of theology (the ideas).

In the summer of 1998, I took my first course as a test drive student at DBTS. The course I chose was History of Christian Doctrine, which was then taught by Dr. Gerald Priest. Our textbook for that class was Louis Berkhof’s classic work, The History of Christian Doctrines. I thoroughly enjoyed both the lectures and the reading. Berkhof’s work (first published in 1937) is now somewhat dated, but it remains a fine place to begin reading about the history of Christian doctrine. In fewer than 300 pp., Berkhof discusses the historical development of theology under headings such as prolegomena, the Trinity, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrines of sin and grace, and the doctrine of last things.

Hannah, Our LegacyAnother work that is slightly longer and much more recent is John Hannah’s book Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (2001). Whereas Berkhof was no friend of dispensationalism, Hannah is a dispensationalist and a long-time professor of historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Like Berkhof, Hannah discusses the historical development of major theological ideas within chapters that focus on topics such as authority, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, end times, etc. Both Berkhof and Hannah are excellent “read through” type volumes.
In addition to the volumes by Berkhof and Hannah, there are a couple of very good longer works that one may want to dip into. In an earlier post, I mentioned Justo González’s Story of Christianity. González has also written a three-volume work titled A History of Christian Thought (rev. ed., 1987). Weighing in at something over 1,100 pages, most people probably won’t want to read straight Gonzalez, History of Christian Thoughtthrough this set, but it is a helpful companion to the Story of Christianity volumes. Unlike Berkhof and Hannah, this set is more chronological in nature, with volume one covering the early church, volume two the medieval church, and volume three the Protestant Reformation up through the mid-twentieth century. In keeping with this layout, volume one includes chapters on the theology of the apostolic fathers, western theology in the third century, the theology of Athanasius, and Trinitarian doctrine in the West, among others. Chapters in the second volume discuss topics such as the theology of Augustine, western theology after Augustine, and eastern theology up to the fall of Constantinople (i.e., 1453). And chapters in the third volume cover topics like the theology of Luther, the theology of Calvin, Reformed theology after Calvin, and theology in the twentieth century.

Allison, Historical TheologyAnother even more recent work in this field is Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology (2011). Intended as a companion volume to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, this volume largely follows the topical arrangement of Grudem’s book. Like the three-volume set by González, most folks probably won’t choose to read this work cover-to-cover, but this is a great volume to consult when one wants to read about the historical development of a specific doctrine. This book contains 33 chapters in a little over 700 pp. A few of the more interesting chapters focus on topics such as the canon of Scripture, the interpretation of Scripture, creation, providence, the atonement, justification, church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Christ’s return and the Millennium. Within most chapters, Allison discusses what the church believed about a particular doctrine and how that doctrine developed during four different time periods: (1) the early church, (2) the Middle Ages, (3) the Reformation and post-Reformation era, and (4) the modern period.

All four of these works provide a good overview of how the church has developed theologically over the course of its history. The volumes by Berkhof and Hannah can be read through pretty quickly; the volumes by González and Allison are reference works that lend themselves more to perusal and “spot” reading.

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One thought on “Learning about the Past: What Has the Church Believed?

  1. I would include with Berkhof (and with the same assessment) William Cunningham’s Historical Theology, 2 vols., and The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.

    The following list on Church History is extracted from the “RTS Recommended Reading List” on
    Reformed Theological Seminary at http://www.rts.edu/Site/Resources/Brochures/ReadingList/Readinglist.aspx [accessed 17 APR 2014]. Certainly several under each heading are worthy of study.

    A. Essential Reading
    1. Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelley
    2. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll
    3. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, Everett Ferguson
    4. A Religious History of the American People, Sydney Ahlstrom
    5. The Story of Christian Theology, Roger Olson
    6. Historical Theology, Alister McGrath

    B. Further Reading
    1. Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown
    2. The Thought of Thomas Aquinus, Brian Davies
    3. Luther, Heiko Oberman
    4. Calvin: A Biography, Bernard Cottret
    5. Jonathan Edwards: A Life, George Marsden

    C. Advanced/Comparison Reading
    1. The Early Church, Henry Chadwick
    2. Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly
    3. Christianity & Western Thought, Volume 1, Colin Brown
    4. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern
    5. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (5 vols.), Jaroslav Pelikan
    6. The Medieval Theologians, G.R. Evans
    7. A World History of Christianity, Adrain Hastings