Carl Trueman on Historical Theology (Book Recommendations)

A few years back Carl Trueman provided me with some book recommendations that turned out to have great personal value. During a lecture on church history Trueman answered the following question from the audience:

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, is titled History of Theology. 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. History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007) is very good and worth picking up. But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press):

Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998). Paperback, 400 pages.

Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.

Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.

All three volumes sell for $55.28 at Westminster.

I have read two of the three volumes. 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.

• Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material.

• 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 Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes like 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was changed from Times New-Roman to a more graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but a new format would more accurately capture the history contained in these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience.

Format issues aside, Needham’s works are readable and provide us with a nice contribution to church history and historical theology. Thank you Carl Trueman!

6 thoughts on “Carl Trueman on Historical Theology (Book Recommendations)

  1. Have you come across Mike Reeves’ two books on historical theology – The Breeze of the Centuries and On Giants’ Shoulders. Both very introductory but a great place for people toget started.

  2. Thanks for this detailed review, Tony. I’ve had these volumes on my may-possibly-buy list for a while!

  3. Wow – I have never heard of these and they sound like something I’ve been hoping to find for a while now. Thanks so much for the tip! And I have to agree with your assessment on the outside of the book… when your page loaded in my browser, I didn’t even see the bottom portion and I thought maybe they were a “joke pic” (Pyromaniacs style). After reading your review, though, I was intrigued. Glad you didn’t judge these books by their covers! :)

    Blessings ~
    Simple Mann

  4. Your last point on the external aspect of this series is right on !
    I discovered this series just today through a post I received from Cripplegate and checked the series availability when I stumbled upon your posts.
    In fact I had difficulty understanding how Carl Trueman would recommend a book that looks like a Barbara Cartland’s volume.
    Anyway thanks for your insight.

  5. They are also published in hardback with plain smart covers. Ok, much higher price, but will last better as reference books also.

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