The History of Christian Thought

27 February 2007

Book title: The History of Christian Thought
Author: Jonathan Hill

Publisher: Lion
Church Times Bookshop £9.00

IF history is, according to the pre-feminist adage, the study of “chaps”, then the history of thought is the study of chaps with a supporting cast of “-isms”. This book — better treated as a reference work than a story to be read from start to finish — devotes about 40 essays to individual theologians, and half as many again to topics like “The Great Schism” and “The Mendicant Orders”, and to schools of thought such as process and liberation theology. Interspersed with these, in a smaller typeface, are explanations (generally more than a page long) of historical events and movements such as “Gnosticism”, “The Rise of Islam”, and “The Inquisition”. Oddly, all of the early general councils (and several later ones) are relegated to this secondary treatment rather than being made the subject of main essays — which shows up the disadvantages of the “chaps” approach. There are no surprises in store here for the experienced student or teacher. Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Barth alone merit ten or more pages. The second division consists of the pre-Nicene Fathers Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, together with Anselm and some moderns — the latter all German. Most of the longer essays are adequately provided with quotations from original sources. There is a brief glossary of basic theological terms, a bibliography that lists both original and modern sources, and (importantly) an index that covers subjects as well as names. There are some weak points: for example, the essay on Arianism says almost nothing about Arius’s own views, and quotes none of the famous Arian catchphrases (the Nicene Creed is quoted without the anathemas); Athanasius is also sketchily treated, and the importance of the concept of “substance” to the Arian controversy is not brought out. Generally, however, this is a book that can be fairly safely recommended to beginners, even by teachers who think that the history of Christian thought can be adequately understood only when combined not just with the history of secular ideas and culture, but with the history of the Church as an institution, and of Christian life and worship as the religious realities in which theology is grounded. The over-simplifications of a book like this, which are inevitable become dangerous only when it is treated not as a vade mecum nor a handy point of reference, but as an “all you need to know”. Graham Gould is a freelance theologian and co-editor of the Journal of Theological Studies.

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