IrenaeusTertullianOrigenAthanasiusThe CappadociansAugustineAnselmAquinas The best of evangelical theology has always paid attention to the key thinkers, issues and doctrinal developments in the history of the church. What God has done in the past is key to understanding who we are and how we are to live. The purpose of this volume is threefold: to introduce a selection ofIrenaeusTertullianOrigenAthanasiusThe CappadociansAugustineAnselmAquinas The best of evangelical theology has always paid attention to the key thinkers, issues and doctrinal developments in the history of the church. What God has done in the past is key to understanding who we are and how we are to live. The purpose of this volume is threefold: to introduce a selection of key early and medieval theologians, to strengthen the faith of evangelical Christians by helping them to understand the riches of the church's theological reflection, and to help them learn how to think theologically. These essays offer insightful analysis of and commentary on eight key theologians, from Irenaeus to Aquinas, along with critical assessment of how evangelicals should view and appropriate the insights of these thinkers. The intention of the contributors is to, as Augustine says, cultivate minds "fired by the grace of our creator and savior" so that we might think well and rightly about our good and great God and live in his light....more
Paperback, 398 pages
November 5th 2010
by IVP Academic
(first published January 1st 2010)
Bradley Green is a theology professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is one of the founders of Augustine School, which is a classical Christian school in Jackson. He has written several academic books including one on Augustine: Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: Theology of Colin Gunton in light of Augustine (Wipf & Stock 2010). In the introduction to Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, Green defends his reason for the study of early Christian theologians by stating two Bradley Green is a theology professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is one of the founders of Augustine School, which is a classical Christian school in Jackson. He has written several academic books including one on Augustine: Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: Theology of Colin Gunton in light of Augustine (Wipf & Stock 2010). In the introduction to Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, Green defends his reason for the study of early Christian theologians by stating two propositions: first, readers are able to understand the central truths of the Bible by studying the theology and theologians of times past. Second, readers learn how to do theology themselves through the influence of these great minds. He continues to defend this project by providing examples of his own study of Augustine, saying that the influence of such primary texts was “life-giving,” especially when compared to studying the latest theological tome hot off the press (12). Additionally, Green remarks that Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy intends to introduce students to the key theologians of the Christian church as opposed to simply cataloging names, dates and events in church history. The eight chapters in the book cover the life and work of ten theologians: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Three Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzen), Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Though Green provides little reason for his inclusion of these ten theologians over against others such as Ignatius, Benedict, Cyprian or Ambrose, it is hard to argue against the treatment of any of the ten landmark theologians included. The content of each chapter seeks to provide a short biography, historical context, theological overview of the work of the theologian, and appropriation of the theologian’s work. At the end of each chapter a detailed bibliography is also included for further study. As with any edited work, it is difficult to trace continuity from chapter to chapter. Therefore, the next section in this book review will briefly interact with the author of each chapter and provide a synopsis of his treatment of the specific theologian. Many of the chapters have the same admirable strengths. As a result, the comments on the earlier chapters will be slightly longer than the comments on the later chapters to avoid repetition in comment. The book review will conclude with a statement concerning the pastoral relevance of the chapters and of the book as a whole.
W. Brian Shelton’s chapter on Irenaeus achieves the goal established by Green. He effectively catalogs both the historical context and Irenaeus’ works and thereby introduces the reader to the heart and soul of Irenaeus. One of the most helpful aspects of Shelton’s chapter is that he takes a well-known theological topic such as the doctrine of Scripture and shows how Irenaeus contributes specifically to that doctrine. Shelton recognizes that, “in the end, Irenaeus does not necessarily provide the exact parameters of canon” (52) yet he does display “a doctrinal solidity and accuracy that does not seem so different from that of historic and contemporary Christianity” (60). He understands that Irenaeus is a product of his time, and thus he will not have a fully developed 21st century doctrine of Scripture, yet he made significant strides towards a robust doctrine of Scripture that fought against heresy and edified the church. The reader will feel historically informed after finishing Shelton’s article since he provides details of the predominant heresies of Irenaeus’ day. When Shelton includes primary quotes, he explains their implications thoroughly. Pastorally, Shelton shows how the second-century theologian is relevant for the modern church. For example, he shows how Irenaeus’ historical accounts of the early Christian church prove Bart Ehrman’s supposed evidence against orthodox Christianity to be null and void. Shelton’s chapter avoids some of the problems of the subsequent chapters and provides a solid introduction to a major second century theologian. Tertullian Gerald Bray’s chapter on Tertullian exemplifies careful scholarship and provides a balanced approach to this great theologian. He gives enough historical background for the reader to adequately understand the importance of Tertullian’s theological conclusions. Additionally, he debunks some falsely attributed quotations and ideas, such as his apocryphal statement, “I believe because it is absurd.” He also provides helpful context to his often misunderstood statement, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” When evaluating Tertullian’s theology and philosophy, Bray appropriates Tertullian’s theology with excellence. He summarizes Tertullian’s main theological emphases and clearly has a firm grasp of Tertullian’s overall contribution to Christian orthodoxy. Additionally, he provides an ample amount of excerpts from Tertullian’s writing that allows the reader to interact with the primary sources. While he does provide some commentary concerning Tertullian’s work, if there is a weakness in Bray’s chapter, it is the lack of sufficient explanatory material surrounding the large block texts of Tertullian’s writing. For example, Bray mentions that Tertullian has an “unusual” eschatological idea that amounts to a proto-theology of purgatory (see pg. 99). Aside from simply including the quoted text, Bray quickly moves on to the next topic without providing any reason for his inclusion of this material. In terms of Bradley Green’s goals for each chapter listed in the introduction, such an inclusion does not provide ample information to achieve the goal of listing “a critical assessment of each theologian that asks how evangelicals should view and appropriate (or not) the insights of the theologian” (14). Besides this minor oversight, Bray adequately introduces the reader to Tertullian in a fair, informative and inspiring way.
Of the ten theologians covered in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, Origen presents the hardest challenge. Bryan Litfin tries admirably to summarize his work and theological impact by using the illustration of a diamond. There are many facets of a diamond, and they cause light to shine in many different directions. There also can be imperfections in the diamond even though the light sparkles everywhere. By using this illustration, Liftin attempts to defend the significance of Origen’s works while acknowledging that he has some serious flaws. Though this chapter is an admirable attempt, ultimately, Liftin fails in his project by overstating his case in some potentially dangerous ways. Liftin begins his coverage of the third century theologian by stating that Origen’s writings and theology are too significant to ignore. This statement is true. However, in his attempt to “salvage” Origen, Liftin glosses over serious theological error. Origen’s theology was entrenched in Platonic dualism. He denied original sin and promoted universal salvation and subordinationism in the Trinity. Liftin’s defense of Origen does not adequately account for such grievous error. Liftin defends Origen by showing how he wanted desperately to be remembered as a man who supported the church. While such a goal is admirable, it should not allow errant theology to be overlooked! Yes, modern readers must remember that every theologian is a product of his culture and therefore must not hold older theologians to the same standards as modern theologians. However, Origen differs even from his fellow-African, contemporary theologian, Tertullian. Tertullian expressed a more balanced approach towards the body and the material life, while Origen betrayed a strong Platonic bent. Such an emphasis should not be applauded. Additionally, Liftin misses the mark when he tries to portray Origen as a more balanced pastor-theologian over against Tertullian’s “pedantic exhortations to chastity” (142). Liftin even tries to defend Origen’s excessive allegorical exegesis by comparing him to a “Spirit-filled preacher” who “paint[s] a biblical picture with deftness and artistry, relying on his intuition as much as his concordance.” He continues, “Perhaps today’s interpreter should be more aggressive in using his sanctified imagination to elucidate—and even construct—the fuller sense of the text” (147). At best, Liftin overstates his case in an attempt to defend Origen from modern claims of heresy and irrelevancy. At worst, he glosses over near-heretical views in order to defend a theologian whom the modern church might not be able to ignore, but should certainly not imitate.
Carl Beckwith’s piece on Athanasius invites the reader to learn from the Egyptian theological giant and to cherish the heart of the gospel that Athanasius risked his life to protect. The strength of this chapter is his treatment of On the Incarnation of the Word, which highlights the center of Athanasius’ message: the victory of the cross. Athanasius has sometimes been criticized for a lack of focus on the cross as a result of his focus on the incarnation. One minor weakness of Beckwith’s treatment is that he does not show precisely how Athanasius connects the themes of incarnation and the victory of the cross. It is clear that he comes to this conclusion, but it could have been established with greater clarity. This minor oversight aside, Beckwith’s piece is inspiring and informative. The Three Cappadocians Robert Letham is faced with a unique challenge: his chapter must not only fit Green’s criteria for the work as a whole, but also summarize the work of three different theologians. The one weakness of Letham’s work is that it lacks one clear organizing principle that can sum up the contribution of the three Cappadocians, such as “the victory of the cross” for Athanasius in Beckwith’s chapter. The theme of “deification” would most likely be the best fit: this is a central focus for all three of the eastern theologians. Again, this is a minor issue in the context of an excellent chapter. At the end of his chapter, Letham includes nine positive elements and two negative elements that can be observed from the work of the Cappadocians. This conclusion is one of the best in the book. Letham is willing to acknowledge that the Cappadocians regressed in the formation of orthodoxy in some significant areas such as the authority of Scripture and some important dynamics within Trinitarian life. Yet, Letham allows the reader to marvel at the tremendous advances that the three Cappadocians made in clarifying some of the language of the Trinity, specifically the difference between ousia and hypostasis. Letham has taken a difficult project and allowed the reader to stand in wonder at God’s work though these three men.
The “A” Team: Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas
As stated earlier, these last three chapters will be treated briefly. Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas are indeed three of the greatest shapers of Christian orthodoxy and their respective chapters each fit well within the parameters of the goal for the book. Through these chapters, the reader will understand the historical context of each theologian and will gain a greater appreciation of the pressing theological issues in the ancient church and their implications for the modern church. Though Augustine and Anselm are in the “faith seeking understanding” tradition and Thomas is more in the “understanding seeking faith” tradition, these three thinkers can be easily seen as complementary to one another in many ways. As Green aptly noted, in a sense, all of Western history is a series of footnotes to Augustine. Specifically for Green’s chapter on Augustine, he connects Augustine’s work on the Trinity with some of the theologians previously covered as well as looking forward, showing the continuity between Augustine and Anselm. Though Augustine’s written corpus is both broad and deep, Green provides a thorough introduction to Augustine that will not confuse the novice, but will still educate the well-read. David Hogg’s treatment of Anselm continues in the same vein. Hogg identifies the connections between Augustine and Anselm in their theories of the atonement and in the “faith seeking understanding” tradition. Though he includes large portions of primary text from Anselm, he comments thoroughly on each portion of block text—something that would have helped the reader in Bray’s chapter. As Hogg leads the reader through the catacombs of the philosopher’s thought the reader is able to understand Anselm’s argument in context and connect to the heart of Anselm’s project of “faith seeking understanding.” There are few greater Anselm scholars today than David Hogg. Finally, Mark Elliott shows the similarities and differences between Thomas and Augustine and Anselm and provides helpful commentary on each issue. He is careful to avoid broad-sweeping claims about Scholasticism and demonstrates how Thomism is both similar to and different from the Reformers who would come a few centuries later.
Any student of church history knows that the organizing principles for most church history text books are names, dates and events. While such text books do mention the theology of the great men of the church, it is usually in order to show why an event happened the way it did. For example, Athanasius’ theology might be detailed in order to show the contrast between his and Arius’ theology during the Council of Nicaea. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of approach. However, if such church history text books are the only gateways into the life and heart of the church of old, we will be gravely lacking in our understanding of our own theology. One of the main points of Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy is to fill this lack with a vibrant testimony of the faithfulness of men of old through the lens of their theology. Theology is not just something that affects events in history—theology is a central for history, because Christian orthodoxy is a matter of life or death for the believer! As Green notes in the introduction, history repeats itself. Unless we are aware of the contours of history, then we will be more susceptible to fall prey to the same errors. In today’s age of rampant pluralism, ministers of the gospel must be especially wary of such errors. Shelton makes a specific connection clear for the readers: anyone deceived by the wiles of someone like Bart Ehrman needs to be a student of the church fathers in order to counteract such deceit. Yet other theologians covered in this book will guard the reader from similar errors and provide inspiration for love of the truth. Rob Bell is currently teaching some of the same theological errors that Origen taught. Though Liftin could have been more explicit in his refutation of Origen’s errors, he certainly points them out as flaws in Origen’s theology—a lesson that anyone attracted to Bell’s theology needs to hear. Another contemporary example comes from Pentecostal preacher T. D. Jakes, who is a confessing Modalist. Though we grieve that he has not aligned his theology with orthodox Trinitarian theology, we are thankful for faithful Christian ministers in the Gospel Coalition who openly opposed his ministry at the Elephant Room earlier in 2012. These examples, and many others, show how important a book like Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy is for the church today. If anything is to be received from Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, it should be the resounding fact that doctrine matters. As ministers of the gospel, when we read of the multiple exiles of Athanasius or the careful scholarship of Augustine or Anselm, we should tremble at the responsibility that God has given us to follow in the footsteps of such great men. We cannot be content to let the pluralistic mantra, “It might be good for you, but it is not good for me” to thrive in our churches. The fact that ecumenical councils such as the council of Nicaea were called in order to codify Christian orthodoxy should cause us to have more backbone in what we believe when it is a matter of the purity of the gospel. If these men have gone before us, with heart aflame in love for their God—Father, Son and Spirit—we should also endeavor to labor for the advancement of the gospel in our own corners of the earth, even if it is "contra mundum." ...more
Intervarsity Press is doing a wonderful work for Christians with their commitment to bringing the writings of the ancients to us. Among these is an introduction to some early and medieval theologians that is called “Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy”. This book covers the life, thought, writings, and theology of Inenaeu, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. The contributors are honest about the ones of whom they write. They show their great contributions tIntervarsity Press is doing a wonderful work for Christians with their commitment to bringing the writings of the ancients to us. Among these is an introduction to some early and medieval theologians that is called “Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy”. This book covers the life, thought, writings, and theology of Inenaeu, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. The contributors are honest about the ones of whom they write. They show their great contributions to Christian theology, and they also show their errors. What I appreciated was that they seemed to deal fairly with some who have not been fairly dealt with. I am speaking specifically of Tertullian and Origen. Though not without their failures, these two are certainly rehabilitated through an examination of their lives and writings. Thankfully, we can find that they were not as bad as many of us have been told. In a time when the church is adrift theologically and many evangelicals fear the ancients, this book is a welcome help to those who are serious about Christian doctrine from an ancient perspective. This review copy provided freely by IVP with no expectation or demand of a positive review....more
Reading this book reminded me of what a great debt we owe the early fathers of the church. Whether it is Tertullian wrestling with the relationship of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, the three Cappadocians (not a musical group) doing fine thinking about the nature of the Trinity, or Athanasius meeting the Arian challenge in his work on the incarnation, we owe these believers a great debt.
This book includes biographies of each of these theologians (Irenaus, Tertullian, Origen, AthanasiusReading this book reminded me of what a great debt we owe the early fathers of the church. Whether it is Tertullian wrestling with the relationship of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, the three Cappadocians (not a musical group) doing fine thinking about the nature of the Trinity, or Athanasius meeting the Arian challenge in his work on the incarnation, we owe these believers a great debt.
This book includes biographies of each of these theologians (Irenaus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Three Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). Following this, each chapter gives a summary of their theological contribution, often with extensive selections of their writing. This particularly made me want to read more of Tertullian and Anselm, particularly Cur Deus Homo. Each chapter concludes with an appraisal of their work and its contemporary relevance. Particularly helpful for me was the nuanced appraisal of Origin, likely the most controversial on this list. We see his love of scripture and passion for holiness and the grandeur of God, as well as his questionable understanding of the Trinity and the atonement.
This book serves as a good introduction to some of the most significant church fathers and the bibliographies provide many resources for further study....more
It has often been said that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not just a warning for political, educational or social leaders. It is a warning for the Church as well. If there is anything that recent theological controversies have shown us, it is that knowing the history of doctrinal development–and specifically orthodox theological development–is key to understanding where we are and why we are here (rather than somewhere else), when it comes to the Church’s articulatiIt has often been said that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not just a warning for political, educational or social leaders. It is a warning for the Church as well. If there is anything that recent theological controversies have shown us, it is that knowing the history of doctrinal development–and specifically orthodox theological development–is key to understanding where we are and why we are here (rather than somewhere else), when it comes to the Church’s articulation of the key doctrines of the Christian faith. Time and time again, theological controversy drives the Church back to its history–especially to the first few hundred years after Christ. And it is history that will help today’s Church rediscover the oft-repeated, doctrinal controversies that shaped orthodox doctrine and learn how those who have gone before us responded with Scripture and wisdom.
With this view in mind Bradley Green has brought together eight contemporary scholars to create Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians. This book covers eight early theologians from Irenaeus to Thomas Aquinas. The impetus for this book is the belief that the past has something to say to and to teach the present. Theology is not hammered out in a vacuum nor does each generation reinvent the theological wheel (though some may try).
Green proposes two reasons for studying theologians of the past. First, studying past theologians helps us to see the logic of their doctrinal development and why they felt certain doctrinal distinctions were important to the faithful defense of the gospel. Second, in studying the “theologizing” of these past men, we allow them to teach us how to theologize. We do not merely stand on the shoulders of the past in terms of the doctrinal content we believe, but also in the logic and rationale used to form and shape that timeless content.
With Carl Beckwith’s chapter on Athanasius as a guide, the following outline provides the basic structure of each chapter and provides some helpful information on Athanasius.
Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the life, work and historical context of the theologian in question.
Here we learn that Athanasius spent forty-five years of his life defending the gospel and the Trinity, and that the center of his theology was the victory of the cross.
The historical context seeks to give the reader a better understanding for any political, social and eccleastical factors that influenced or caused each theologian to engage themselves in the theological debates and interests they did.
Athanasius was born into a world that was very hostile towards Christianity, but began his theological ministry with Christianity as the official state religion, thanks to Constantine. While this may have provided some positive benefits for Christianity, it also opened the door for poor Christian thinking. Beckwith notes:
A public Christianity also provided an opportunity for all the different voices within the church to be heard. As these many voices emerged, it soon became apparent that a serious misunderstanding of Christianity had been embraced by some” (p. 157)
It is here that Athanasius finds himself. The defining theological issue for Athanasius was to state and defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The catalyst for his lifelong defense of this doctrine was the Arian heresy that was officially condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Following the historical context of each theologian, an overview of their work and theology is presented. This is not a popular level overview nor is it overly technical. Rather, it manages to be both accessible and challenging.
Following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius began his work responding to Arius. His first works in this regard were Against the Heathenand On the Incarnation of the Word. Here Athanasius lays out the significance of the incarnation as the redemptive answer to the fall of man from creation. As image bearers we were created to know God. Sin affected this and the incarnation makes it possible again by renewing our image in Christ. For Athanasius, it is precisely because of the incarnation that salvation is possible, and this is what makes the teaching of Arius so destructive. During his time as the bishop and patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius’ pastoral heart shone forth. It is here that his deeply formulated theology of the cross of Christ came to bear on his pastoral duties to his people. His pastoral shepherding made its way into the lives of his people through his festal letters. Through them he encouraged his people in good theology and corrected what he saw as destructive teaching. Interestingly enough, during this time he also made great strides in shaping the art and architecture of Alexandria: “He constructed new Christian buildings, expanded existing structures and converted old pagan temples into churches” (p. 183).
Appropriating the Theologians Work
In this section each contributor notes the lessons we can learn from both the life and works of these great theologians.
Beckwith rightly uses Athanasius’ commendation of Ignatius as a model for believers today. Athanasius spoke highly of Ignatius to others because his faithfulness to Scripture was a model to all. Beckwith notes: “The interest and enthusiasm Athanasius had for Ignatius is the same interest and enthusiasm we should have for those faithful writers from the history of the church who have preceded us in the faith” (p. 185). As we learn from Athanasius, as he did from Ignatius, we see the importance of a constant appeal to the gospel as the center of life and theological grounding. As John Piper and others have taught us, Athanasius believed God is the gospel, God as three in one, co-equal, co-eternal, eternally existing together and equally sharing in the divine nature that is God. This is the gospel language Athanasius has given us and we do well to pass it on.
At the end of each chapter the primary and secondary sources on each theologian are provided for further study. There is a wealth of recommended reading provided here that will keep the interested reader busy.
Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy is a great introduction to eight theologians who gave their lives to the formation of orthodox theology. This is a first-rate academic introduction into the lives and theology of these men. Though academic in nature, it is accessible to the interested layman. There is also great interaction with the major contributions of each theologian, especially Tertullian, the three Cappadocians, Augustine and Anselm. Perhaps the most difficult theologian to follow is Anselm and his proof for the existence of God (p. 310-18). Yet at the same time, readers will be instructed and challenged as they read his work, for he does it so prayerfully.
What stands out most from these men is their consistent appeal to Scripture as the sole source and authority for their faith. This does not keep them from making mistakes, but their mistakes do not detract from their timeless contributions. In the words of Bradley Green: “Evangelicals should read all the fathers and gain as much exegetical insight, theological helpfulness and pastoral wisdom from them as possible.” (p. 13)...more
Good overview of Patristic and medieval thinkers. Great use of primary sources in all the essays. There were some controversial doctrines that were mentioned and refuted but not discussed (i.e. Universalism in Origen) but the authors did a great job of doing theological overviews of the great early thinkers of the Church.
Overall, this is a great entry point for further study. For the most part, the entries are well written. The accompanying bibliographies are especially useful. I was not to keen on the Aquinas chapter. Aquinas was closer to Paul than Augustine? Oh brother!