Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1, Revised Edition

From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation

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William C. Placher, Derek R. Nelson
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , August
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Originally published in 1988, this compilation of primary sources has been—and continues to be—a perennial text for both the classroom and personal study. Since the passing of its original editor William Placher in 2008, Derek Nelson has taken up the task of revising and updating this work, including various new primary sources neglected over the years. Nelson desires to give more exposure and prominence to women and other marginalized voices. In fact, Nelson’s new additions are the result of Placher’s slight dissatisfaction with the original volume because it had not included more female voices.

This revised edition is structurally identical to the original, with eight chapters stretching from apostolic and post-apostolic literature and up to and including the late middle -ages. Moreover, each chapter includes introductory remarks from Placher outlining the enduring importance of the literature and its impact on the history of Christian theology, and every primary source is given its own short introductory paragraph. Chapter 1 includes non-canonical, pseudopigraphal literature from the Christian sect labeled Gnosticism with sections from the Gospel of Thomas and The Second Treatise of the Great Seth as well as mainstream Christian responses to this sect from Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyon, along with a sample of early Christian historiography from Eusebius of Caesarea. Chapter 2 contains early apologetic works from Greek and Latin apologists including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, and Tertullian of Carthage. Also, a sample of early Christian biography/hagiography from Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina is a new edition to this work. Chapter 3 provides substantial literature stretching from the Arian controversy, up to and including the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), with letters, sermons, and theological treatises from both sides of the respective arguments. Chapter 4 focuses on the emerging literature of the Eastern Church after the Council of Chalcedon, and chapter 5 is devoted solely to the theological giant Augustine of Hippo. Chapter 6 enters the early middle ages, and includes both well-known—Jerome and Athanasius—and not so well known authors—Paschasius Radbertus and Ratrammus of Corbie. Chapter 7 turns to the high middle ages and more familiar texts from the scholastics—Anselm and Thomas Aquinas—and the mystics, of which Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works is a new inclusion. Chapter 8 concludes with texts from the late middle ages, including philosophical texts from William of Ockham, proto-reformation texts from John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Desiderius Erasmus, and the final new addition is from Bridget of Sweden’s Revelation of the Nativity.      

Just as the first edition proved its longevity as a fantastic resource and textbook for both undergraduate and graduate Christian historical theology courses, so too will this revised edition be a natural choice for further adoption and reference. Nelson has done well to rectify an issue that even Placher saw in the original edition, that is, the need for more female voices in the history of Christian theology. Nelson does this by adding three new primary sources—two from women and the third about a woman—in an era where there is a glaring paucity of extant literature by and about women. It is curious, however, that Nelson did not include a section from the well-known Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas as a prime example of early Christian martyrdom, particularly as it focuses on two women. Moreover, it is also perplexing that Nelson opted not to rearrange certain sources but kept Placher’s original order in lieu of a more chronological ordering. For example, Placher’s placing of Athanasius’ Life of Antony and the samples of Jerome’s literature in the chapter on the early middle ages would be better placed in chapters 3 and/or 4. Finally, it is disappointing that Nelson did not include an updated “Suggestions for Further Reading” as found in the original edition. This would have been most helpful for students who are interested in delving deeper into the secondary literature of Christian theology throughout the centuries. These criticisms aside, this is a welcome revision of a classic text that will and should be employed in courses on the history of Christian theology, and included in any self-respecting theological library—personal or institutional.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is adjunct professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
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 TheologyEssentials 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 ofSin: A Guide for the Perplexed and 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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