Readers of Equip for Ministry have read our reviews on several other books contained in this 10-volume series. Books such as Pocket Dictionary of Ethics, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Pocket Philosophy of Religion have all been part of the series. In each of the books, we find good, solid reference material, easily accessible and easy to read. This volume is no exception. This may be the most important book in the series for Christians to read and study.
Olson and English begin with reminding us of the story of Christian theology. They define theology as “the church’s reflection on the salvation brought by Christ and on the gospel of that salvation proclaimed and explained by the first century apostles.” This reliance on the teaching of the apostles left Christianity unprepared for the era after their death. As the authors explained, no longer would people be able to turn to the apostles to settle disputes; therefore, the next generation was forced to reflect on Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching on their own. That really marked the beginning of Christian theology, or the development of it.
Some the great theological truths that we take for granted were not always easily understood by early Christians. So many doctrines, from the Trinity, to the person and work of Christ, to the role of the church councils and labors in developing these truths in a way that demonstrated biblical faithfulness but also awareness of the context out of which they were developed need to be understood.
As we have addressed some of the old heresies and their modern day aberrations various articles in Equip for Ministry, we have attempted to remind us all of the importance of knowing church history. So many things like Gnosticism and ancient Paganism have expressed themselves in slightly different garb in the twentieth century and unless we have an understanding of how the early church dealt with them, we will fall into their traps. Someone has said that the failure of the church to stand firm in the faith and fall for heretical or near heretical teachings is simply church history repeating itself.
As I read through this volume, I was reminded anew of what went into developing our Christian theology. I was reminded that while God has shown his truth to us in his Word and given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand, it took many Christians in the early church much energy and effort to formulate the Bible’s teaching in clear theological language that separated it from the world’s philosophies. Much of this had to be done without the sixty-six books of the Bible being easily accessible.
For example, recently in our worship service we recited the Nicene Creed. We have done so many times, but having read this book the day before, I wondered if we really know and appreciate this creed. Are we really aware of the process that took place to formulate this creed? Do we know what we are really affirming with these words and what we are declaring? While being patterned after the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest of the creeds, are we aware of how the Nicene Creed was formulated to denounce the Arian heresy, which had twisted Scripture to teach that Christ was actually subordinate to God the Father and was God in a different way than was the Father? I also thought are we, as a congregation, aware as to why the creed says that Christ was “begotten, not made?”
Olson and English have written a concise book dealing with the History of Theology, and they have written in such a practical manner, highlighting the major developments down through church history, that there is no excuse for Christians not taking the time to read and understand what they profess to believe when they confess their faith using creeds and confessions of our history. Not only does this concise view of the development of the church’s theology help us to see how God has worked through his church in its seeking to understand and articulate the biblical faith, but how that unfolding process has brought us to where we are today.
The authors wrote about the five dramatic acts of church history, ending with today. As they conclude, they remind us that while the story is not yet over and the final curtain fallen, the next act may cause Western Christianity to play a lesser role as non-Western Christians emerge through that part of the world. What will Christianity look like and how will theology take shape during the twenty-first century? Only God knows, but as long as he leaves us here, we are part of that story and we need to know what is transpiring.
Read this book. Study it! Use it in the church’s educational program. It will not only enrich, but bring a depth to our understanding and appreciation for biblically developed theology and the context out of which it was born. (This little book is a sequel to A. M. Renwick’s The Story of the Church first written in 1958 and revised in 1985.)