Admittedly my writings may not always be everyone’s cup of tea. Here I almost guarantee to reduce my audience quite substantially. Indeed, I may be down to about eight people on the planet who will wish to read further, but for those few brave souls, this may be of interest.
I have always had an interest in theology (that is, since becoming a Christian), and the study of its historical progression and development makes for fascinating reading. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and that is true of how different aspects of Christian thought have developed over the centuries.
Even how we do church today is impacted by how theological thinking has evolved and morphed over the ages. For example, if one’s church takes a fairly lightweight approach to the Lord’s Supper, both in terms of frequency and intensity of its celebration, that can actually be traced back historically in terms of its theological foundations.
Being well-versed in theology not only explains a lot of current Christian practice, but it also helps us to avoid error and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Current theological debates may seem new and fresh, but usually the same issues have been heavily debated in the past.
I will not further defend the importance of historical theology, but will now simply mention some great books in this field. Some are old and some are new. Some have sat on my shelves for many decades, while others have just been recently acquired and perused.
Let me discuss these in some sort of historical order here. For an overview of theological development over the past two millennia, a number of volumes might be mentioned. And some of these volumes may fall more in the category of church history than historical theology, but they do go together.
I recall while living in Holland so greatly enjoying reading Phillip Schaff’s eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1910, but still available from Eerdmans). Although it only goes up to the time of the Reformation, it is a tremendous set which provides plenty of historical and theological discussion.
Another multi-volume series is that of Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan. His five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-1989) is a marvellous set and well worth getting. Also of help is the three-volume set by Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1970-1975).
Single volumes would include James Orr, Progress of Dogma (1901); A History of Christian Doctrine edited by Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (T&T Clark, 1978); Alister McGrath, Historical Theology (Blackwell, 1998); and Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (IVP, 1999).
Other recent works which are also very helpful include Trevor Hart, ed., The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Eerdmans, 2000); and Jonathan Hill, A History of Christian Thought (Lion, 2003).
For some helpful reading on the theology of the early church, two very helpful volumes are by J.N.D. Kelly. His Early Christian Creeds (Longmans, 1950) and Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed. (A&C Black, 1958, 1980) are still well worth tracking down and adding to your library.
Also quite useful are three volumes by Christopher Hall: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (IVP, 1998); Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (IVP, 2002); and Worshipping with the Church Fathers (IVP, 2009). And another author who deals nicely with this period is Bryan Litfin. See his 2007 volume, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Brazos).
On the early heresies, see Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (Doubleday, 1984). On a broader look at early theological development see Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (Mentor, 1984, 1997). On the life and thought of Augustine see A Companion to the Study of Augustine edited by Roy Battenhouse (Baker, 1955, 1979).
For the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, see a recent volume by Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneway Publications, 2009). And of course another quite helpful introduction to the thought of Aquinas is Peter Kreeft’s A Summa of the Summa (Ignatius, 1990). And plenty of works by Protestant theologians and philosophers can be mentioned here as well. See for example Norman Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker, 1991).
As to the Middle Ages, a number of works can be mentioned. For more on history, the classic work by R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (Yale University Press, 1953) is still worthwhile. For more on theology, see G.R. Evans, ed., The Medieval Theologians (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
A very nice one-volume work on the Reformation period is Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers (Broadman & Holman, 1988). He looks at the theology of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Simons. Alister McGrath also has a helpful volume: Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed., (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (Pierce and Smith, 1950) is a modern classic on the life of Luther. For Calvin, many volumes come to mind, but John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism (Oxford University Press, 1954) is still very good.
For more on this period, see Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Beacon Press, 1952); A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (Schocken Books, 1964); William Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Eerdmans, 1963, 1975); and Richard Greaves, Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation (Eerdmans, 1980).
For developments in Catholicism during this period, see A.G. Dickens, The Counter Reformation (Harcourt, Brace & Ward, 1969); and Robert Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700 (Catholic University of America Press, 1999).
For the Puritans, many good volumes exist, such as John Adair, Founding Fathers: The Puritans in England and America (Baker, 1982, 1986); and Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Zondervan, 1986). A terrific work by J.I. Packer is A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990).
On the age of revival and awakenings see the excellent five-volume series, A History of Evangelicalism, of which three volumes by Mark Noll, John Wolffe, and David Bebbington are now ready (IVP, 2004-2006). See also Revivals, Awakenings and Reform by William McLoughlin (University of Chicago Press, 1978).
A terrific biography on Jonathan Edwards, which covers much of his thought along the way, is the 600-page volume by George Marden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University, 2003). The newest and best work on Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (also 600 pages) is the just released 2010 volume by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer (Thomas Nelson).
For readings in more recent theology, see any of the following: Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology (IVP, 1992); G.C. Berkouwer, A Half Century of Theology (Eerdmans, 1974); Millard Erickson, Where is Theology Going? (Baker, 1994); David Ford, The Modern Theologians (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005); and Alasdair Heron, A Century of Protestant Theology (Westminster Press, 1980).
For where Christianity is headed in the future, Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2002) is the place to begin. See also Alister McGrath, The Future of Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Also quite helpful is The New Shape of World Christianity by Mark Noll (IVP, 2009).
And for books on the future of evangelicalism see Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (IVP, 1995). Also, a new book which will appear next year should be quite important as well: D.A. Carson, Evangelicalism: What Is It and Is It Worth Keeping? (Crossway).
This is only the briefest and roughest sketch of what is available in historical theology in particular with a bit of church history thrown in as well. But this very brief listing might whet your appetite to pursue some of these volumes further for some of these periods. And undoubtedly many of you will have your own favourites to recommend as well.
Happy reading and happy theologising.