Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2, Revised Ed.

From the Reformation to the Present

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Editor(s): 
William C. Placher, Derek R. Nelson
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , January
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664239343.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

History is a vast field of study. Even when historians limit their focus to particular time periods, the process of selecting the best primary sources is highly selective and deeply challenging. The editors of this present volume have set for themselves the daunting task of introducing students to readings in Christian theology from the Reformation to the present in roughly two hundred pages. As readers might expect, their selections are useful, though highly uneven.

The volume is divided into nine sections. The first three, which comprise nearly one-third of the book, introduce readers to early reformers, such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox; to radical reformers, such as Thomas Müntzer and Menno Simons; and to the Roman Catholic Reformation. This section includes many key Reformation era figures, though it omits the wider scope of the development of Protestant thought, bypassing the period of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy entirely. While the editors have chosen their sources in relation to the authors that they include, the omission of the period of orthodoxy undercuts the fundamental role that this material continues to hold for all subsequent theology. This gives the impression that the Enlightenment was the next significant event in Christian theology following the Reformation (section 4). The section on the Enlightenment is, however, well balanced, including rationalistic and deistic approaches to Christianity, pietistic backlash, the rise of Great Awakening evangelicalism, and the philosophy of David Hume, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Immanuel Kant. The fifth section allows the editors to backtrack in time to some extent by treating theology in America and moving forward from American Puritans through the 18th century.

Following the Enlightenment, Christian theology grew even more diverse, which makes its sources harder to narrow down for students. The material on the 19thcentury includes readings from authors ranging from Friedrich Schleirermacher, philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Søren Kierkergaard, Roman Catholic developments via the First Vatican Council and John Henry Newman. It closes with a single Reformed entry from Charles Hodge. Including major philosophers in this section and preceding ones is a strength of the book, since it is easy for many students of Christian theology to overlook the influences of major philosophers on theology and for students of philosophy to bypass the theological interests of these philosophers. Section 7, treating primarily early 20thcentury theology, follows in this vein by opening with Karl Barth’s shattering theological insights and closing with Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, which continues to influence some theological circles at the present day. Section 8 is dedicated largely to liberation and feminist theology. This leads to the last section of the book, which presents a spectrum of theological trends that bring the volume up to the present time.

One striking feature of this book is that after introducing Charles Hodge, what would be considered mainstream orthodox Protestant theology virtually drops out of sight. This is likely the result of two factors. First, since the authors do not introduce the period of Protestant orthodoxy, jumping from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, readers are not left wondering where such theological strands went. Protestant orthodoxy arguably provides continuity between post-Reformation and pre-Reformation theology, even while earlier Christian precedents were adapted to suit Protestant orthodoxy. Most of the post-Enlightenment authors included in this book, while differing widely in their teaching and emphases, share in common a way of doing theology that was set into motion during the Enlightenment. In this regard, these authors often have more in common with post-Enlightenment philosophical trends than with a Catholic Christian theology that spans the ages. Second, those authors whom we could class as self-consciously continuing in the trajectory of earlier Protestant orthodoxy have been less prominent in the past one hundred years than those in other schools of thought. It is natural to select the outstanding names in Christian history in favor of those who are lesser known. The upside of this approach is that the selected readings give a broad picture of the way things are today. The downside of this approach is that if gives the impression that Christian theology evolved gradually and directly, if not necessarily, into the present state of affairs.

Authors reveal their biases by what they read as well as by what they write. This is inevitable and it is not necessarily a negative assessment. The best way to understand where authors are coming from is to read them in their own words, which is the goal of this volume. Such a collection of readings will necessarily be disappointing in what it omits and useful in what it includes. While the selected readings are too short to provide students with a feel for the thought of each chosen author, students need to begin somewhere. This book makes a good start and it should be helpful in at least introducing students to important names and samples of some influential books spanning the past five hundred years or so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan M. McGraw is Professor of Systematic Theology at Grenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William C. Placher was Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette distinguished professor in the humanities and chair of the department of philosophy and religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including A History of Christian Theology, Second Edition,  Essentials of Christian Theology, and Jesus the Savior, all published by Westminster John Knox Press.

Derek R. Nelson is associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is the author of Sin: A Guide for the Perplexedand  What's Wrong with Sin and coauthor of A History of Christian Theology, Second Edition, published by Westminster John Knox Press.

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