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 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.

Introduction

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.

Historical Context

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.

Theological Overview

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.

Sources

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.

Conclusion

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)

This review was originally published at Sharperiron.org and was re-published with permission.

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