I enjoy reading. I enjoy devotional works, some biographies, systematic theologies, and technical commentaries (some of which I have read cover-to-cover!). But unlike a good systematic theology, church history books — even the best ones — never grabbed me with two-hands on the collar, pulled me to my feet, looked me in the eye, and captured my attention.
Often “church history” books contain too little personal information to understand the characters or too little theological development to understand the contemporary importance of the ancient debates. Sometimes church histories include too many loosely-connected people that they become a mess of names, dates, and cities far disconnected from my Christian experience and theology.
But over the past year I think I’m growing in my appreciation for church history through a growing interest in historical theology. Historical theology being the discipline of tracing events, controversies, personalities and books over the centuries that have shaped the church’s theology.
Historical theology is hard on the collar.
But excellent books on historical theology are a rarity. The most commonly recommend is the standard work by Alister McGrath’s, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell: 1998 ). And there are some systematic theologies with an awareness of historical developments (like Culver and Akin). But my radar is always on the lookout for other volumes.
Enter Carl Trueman. Recently, I listened to Trueman’s lectures on church history from the Fulwood Conference (Nov. 8-9, 2007; Christ Church Fulwood, U.K.). At the beginning of his second conference address, Trueman recommended some books and I scratched them down in a notebook. I’m glad I did.
Here’s what Trueman said:
“There was one question that I was asked. Could I recommend a book to read alongside the historical theology module run by Moore College? Two things I would recommend there: (1) The series being written by a guy named Nicholas Needham. It’s called 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (Evangelical Press) and is proving to be a very good, comprehensive, but easy-to-read account of church history. It comes in several volumes. (2) And the other book I recommend to students – the best single-volume on the history of theology – written by a Scandinavian Lutheran named Bengt Hägglund, titled simply, History of Theology (Concordia: 2007). It’s a single volume that takes you from the early church almost down to the present day in terms of the history of theology. So those would be the two books I would recommend.”
These would prove to become fruitful recommendations. Here are more details:
History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007). The fourth revised edition of this volume was published in the Spring of this year. I’m awaiting a copy of Hägglund’s volume and I’ll pass along more detailed information soon.
But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press). The series will total five volumes, and to date three have been published.
Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998)
Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.
Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.
I’ve read through several chapters in Needham’s two newest volumes (Part Two: The Middle Ages and Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation). Here are my preliminary notes:
- Rev. Dr. Nick Needham is a Baptist pastor and teaches church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. His series of writings are written for a popular audience of modern Christian readers. The back cover notes this series was written “in a style that will appeal to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating.” I agree. Needham is a lucid author that presents a great amount of detail while keeping me engaged. His masterful use of frequent section breaks, clearly numbered outlines, boldly-fonted names, and visual aids keep me reading long sections very comfortably. These volumes excel in readability.
- In the beginning of Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, Needham states he is “Reformed by theological conviction” (3:12). On the same page he goes on to say, “I have little sympathy with that form of ‘ecumenism’ which relativises, and thereby trivialises, the convictions for which men and women lived and fought and died in the 16th century. That isn’t to say I disapprove of deeper understanding among the different religious traditions that claim the name of Christian; I approve heartily. But sometimes, deeper understanding will lead us to appreciate just how deeply we do differ on not a few issues, despite surprising measures of agreement on others. Papering over the cracks in the interests of some ecumenical ‘happy family’ game, in which sincerity is more highly prized than truth, is not this writer’s agenda, either as a historian or a Churchman.”
- The publisher plugs these volumes as a series on church history not explicitly a historical theology although it’s pretty obvious these volumes simultaneously cover the historical and theological development of the church. Probably, I find myself engaged by the content because of the author’s obvious interest in theology. Remember Trueman recommended Needham in answering a question about books on historical theology. A fitting recommendation.
- Needham clearly and concretely explains the broad political, social, and economic climate, then weaves in the specific writers, preachers, leaders, and books that shaped the theology. The volume covering the theological developments during the Middle Ages was fascinating, probably because I have previously dissed the era as a theological trifle. It was not. Especially noteworthy was Needham’s chapter on the global rise of Islam and its impact on Christian theology (2:15-45). I was surprised to learn John of Damascus (675-749) ministered under Islamic rule and even acted as a Prime Minister to the local Islamic rule! Within these medieval debates over Islamic theology opened controversies on the Trinity, incarnation, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of worship. These debates were handled by men like John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas. My point is: Needham’s scope of content expands beyond the walls of the church to provide necessary historical background in the theological developments within the walls. [In contrast, note McGrath's Historical Theology makes no mention of Islam].
- Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material to reinforce the chapter contents.
- Each volume includes a very detailed glossary, an extensive index of names and (best of all) an extensive subject index.
- The covers make for an odd marriage. The bottom 1/3rd is nice, featuring a line of portraits. The upper 2/3rds however are not so attractive. If the bottom appeals to a reader of cultured artistic tastes, I would say the top will catch the attention of roughly the same folks that pack a NASCAR race in the hopes of witnessing an explosion.
- Permit me to construct a hypothetical. What if the title of these volumes was swapped out for something like — The History of the Church and Her Theology — or something to highlight the excellent historical theology? What if they were reprinted as hardcovers with clean and classy dustjack design? Perhaps some light ornamentation on the cover like Eerdmans’ Machen or Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was reformatted from the lifeless Times New-Roman to a graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but with the rising interest in historical non-fiction volumes, a new format would more accurately capture the content of these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience. I would love to see these volumes in the feel and smell of the history books so popular today. You know what I’m talking about (and that’s my point).
In the end, these volumes by N.R. Needham are a nice find for the historical theology buff! I’m glad Carl Trueman recommended them, because likely in my search for good historical theology I would have shrouded them under my suspicion of anything “church history.”