Takeaway: Theology does not exist in a vacuum.
Historical Theology is a massive and far reaching undertaking. All theology has a history and a context for when and why it first came to prominence. My personal learning style is such that I tend to learn best when I understand the context of why.
My frustration with my seminary Historical Theology class was that it was focused on the thought and theology, but rarely talked about they history and the why around the thought.
Gregg Allison is writing a Historical Theology to accompany Wayne Grudem‘s Systematic Theology. I have not read Grudem, I used Erickson’s Systematic Theology text in college. But regardless, Allison is writing on the history of the basic points of theology that would be included in any systematic theology.
Obviously this is not a short book. And even at almost 800 pages, I still want more history and more wide ranging discussion. Allison says in the beginning that he is not dealing with Orthodox Historical Theology. So this is a historical theology of the western church, and as you read, you will see that it is a historical theology that is focused on providing context to Evangelical readers. I understand why he is fairly narrow in his wide-ranging task (in part because this book intended to be a partner to Grudem’s Systematic Theology), but I think that Allison’s conservative Evangelical understanding of theology would be better served if he was a bit wider ranging in his understanding of history. And I am sure that the general Evangelical student would be better served by a work that showed them that they are not the center of the Christian world.
Right now I have read the introduction and the first section on scripture and I will post a couple more times as I thematically work through the book (there are seven sections). There are seven different chapters on this history of understanding of scripture. These topics include the Canon, Interpretation, Authority, Inerrancy, Clarity, Sufficiency and Interpretation of scripture. Obviously this is a huge topic to cover and I have read half a dozen books on scripture this year and none of them have attempted to cover as much material in less than 200 pages.
Obviously, there has been a lot of changes in our views of Scripture over the past 200-500 years. 500 hundred years ago printing of Scripture was just starting. But Allison never talked about how the historical changes in the method of scripture distribution affected the way it was viewed. He spend some good time on the focus on local languages and importance of individual reading of scripture. But without talking about how printing, the context of why the theology of scripture started changing in the reformation seems to be abstracted from history. Suddenly, Luther and Calvin and others reformers are making theological arguments for a new understanding of scripture, but those arguments would have not gained traction if there was not the technology to actually get the scripture into people’s hands. And Luther and Calvin and others would not have had the raw materials to work with if new editions of the Greek and Hebrew text were not recently available for them to be able to compare to the Vulgate.
While a modern understanding of historical critical reading of the text was not present during the reformation, one of the reasons that there was a new understanding of scripture was that there was a comparison of the texts and it was clear that the Vulgate was wrong about some of the translation. This lead to a problem of whether the authority was in the Vulgate and the church or the original text. This crisis is a precursor of our modern problems of where to place the authority of scripture. But because there was no discussion of the history, there was not sufficient discussion of these theological issues.
I also thought that Allison too quickly dismissed recent discussion. For instance in the chapter on the Authority of scripture, he dismissed Stanley Grenz (and NT Wright and others that are making similar claims) idea, that the authority of scripture is not in the text, but that the text is authoritative because it is from God, in less than a page. He suggest that placing the authority of scripture on God instead of in the text itself reduces scripture to ‘an instrument’. He does not really deal with their argument, but just suggests that this view leads to a lower view of scripture and moves on.
Another issue that comes up with scripture because of a lack of context in the discussion (although if I had not just read Mark Noll‘s Very Short Introduction to Protestantism this would not have occurred to me), is that much of the splintering of theology over the past 500 years (previous there was really one major split of the church, after the reformation there are now thousands of denominations), is the rise of the concept of the Clarity of Scripture. The concept of the clarity of scripture is important and overall I think Allison deals with this fairly well. But in all of his discussion he does not really deal with the problem of this doctrine giving rise to heresy and disagreement. He was good in the discussion about why it was important to the reformers to break away from Rome and that the clarity concept placed the authority in the text and not in the church, but did not take it to the next step and talk about how this doctrine, abstracted from the church and in context of the cultural movement of the Enlightenment and individualism has lead to a ‘cafeteria model’ of Christianity.
I probably sound like I am more critical than I really am about Historical Theology. I have more disagreements that do not need to be shared here, but given the enormous task of the book, I do not think it would be possible to write a single book that could really deal with both the historical movements and the theological changes. If you want to be really ambitious, I think reading Historical Theology with Christianity: The First 3000 Years would probably be beneficial on both sides. Allison does not spend enough time dealing with the history that gave rise to the changes of theology and MacCulloch does not spend enough time on the theological issues as he discussed the history. But together they are right at 2000 pages. So yes, it is a big task.
Purchase Links: Hardcover, Christianbook.com ePub eBook Not currently available in Kindle format
A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.