Historical Theology: A Bibliographic Essay

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.

[1275 words]

24 Replies to “Historical Theology: A Bibliographic Essay”

  1. No, Bill, this is just the sort of information Christians need (but, as you say, so little time … and the cost of the books …). But yes, the right information. Keep up the good work!
    John Thomas, UK

  2. Hi Bill,

    Well, I am one of the eight who chose to read your post this morning! I also included it in my blog news roundup today!

    I must admit, this is a weaker area of knowledge for me. I have learned of certain heresies and apostasy over the years, but haven’t really studied it as intently as I should. Thanks for the great book recommendations!

    Now I just need to decide which one I should read first!

    Christine Watson, US

  3. I’ve popped in and out of Bible college over the years, doing the odd unit as time and finances allowed. For years I resisted Church history classes. But when I finally did it, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it, how much I learnt, and of course, how important I finally realised it was.

    Like Bill, I would encourage everyone to have serious look at Church/Christain/Theological history. It is important to know where we’ve come, the arguements, discussions and even heresies that have shaped our current ideas, doctrines and practices; and how those discussions have shaped and formed the differing theologies of today.

    Good work Bill, I will look to getting some of these books.
    You continue to be in our prayers

    Greg Randles

  4. Brian Davies’ material is also excellent on Aquinas.
    Damien Spillane

  5. I’m not sure why this article should severely reduce your readership Bill. It is true that many Christians do not have the time or inclination to seriously study material like this, and it shows. I have read some appalling misquoting, eisegesis, and twisting of intent out of context by people claiming support from historical theology all in the quest of making their own ideas seem credible. This includes normally meticulous scholars who somehow suddenly forget their scholarship when it comes to finding historical support for their ideas. If more people actually seriously studied this material, perhaps there would be less nonsense written about what the church thought in the past?

    John Symons

  6. Thanks John

    But with only 5 responses so far (I have not even got the 8 that I was hoping for!), if this article has not actually reduced readership, it has certainly not increased it either! But yes I am with you in what you say.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Um well I’m surely way out of my league, but I am going to read the history of evangelism you have recommended.
    Because Bill recommended it and because i need to know this. Even an uneducated person as myself can have a sharper sword.
    And I’m number 7 anyway.
    Daniel Kempton

  8. Hi Bill – I’ll make it 7, unless someone else has written in the meantime. This is certainly one of my areas of interest. I still remember the pleasure of reading Philip Schaff at about the same time you did – one of the best things I ever did in terms of my theological education up to the Reformation – perhaps the very best. But you list some books that I’m not aware of. I’ll have to check them out.
    Your friend,
    Ed Sherman

  9. Hi Bill, if you hadn’t mentioned my hero Dietrich, you would have lost me too ; ) But I’m still here ; )
    Lynn Nerdal

  10. You surely can beat 8: I reckon I’m number 9 at least. If you are writing on theology, as you sometimes do, I lap it up. Theology is still queen of the sciences & therefore basic to the life of the church & the education of its leaders.
    May God continue to bless & use you.
    Spero Katos, Caulfield

  11. Thanks guys.

    OK, I m a false prophet. So stone me already!

    Seriously, nice to find 9 human beings who have similar interests. Would I be pushing it to ask for an even dozen?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Hi Bill- You ask “Would I be pushing it to ask for an even dozen?”
    Sounds biblical to me. 🙂
    Ed Sherman

  13. Just purchased the Bonhoeffer book and have plans to get the 27-volume of the complete works of Jonathan Edwards (assuming the monetary Christmas gifts are forthcoming from the in-laws).

    You do know that there is a self-help group for those of us who can’t stop talking about our favorite books? It’s called On And On Anon. I’m a charter member and I welcome you into our fold.

    With a grin,

    Amy Bailey

  14. Bill;
    You have restored my faith in your understanding of prophecy! I will now withhold the virtual rock.
    While not being studious and being very thick at times (just ask my wife) I do enjoy reading historical tomes, if rather perversely!
    Robert Wickstead

  15. Thanks Amy

    Many of us have long enjoyed the 2-volume Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth). Hope Father Christmas is good to you this year (he will have to be pretty rich to do so).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Thanks Grant

    Actually, by my count you are #12 – an even dozen now. So what about 15? Maybe 20? Or am I really starting to be unrealistic here?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  17. Ah David of the OT ended up in hot water for numbering his troops – may you not do likewise Bill!

    I submit that we are all different parts of the Body of Christ and therefore belong, fellowship and serve with those of a similar calling.

    That is a rationale for saying that I tend to find traditional-formal theology a Holy Spirit quencher.

    While never discounting the miracle of survival of the Holy Bible and its contribution to our understanding of His Way, it is Holy Spirit of Christ Jesus who has the now and ever present Righteous authority to teach and empower us in His ways.

    Clearly Bill your bibliography is an important contribution to a particular part of His Body.

    Ray Robinson

  18. Thanks Ray

    Yes, we are all different, and have differing needs, emphases, callings, giftings, interests, leadings, and so on.

    But respectfully I must beg to differ with you on a number of points. While we all may be different, every single Christian needs both to think and to have sound theology or doctrine. I won’t make that case here, as I have done it elsewhere:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/17/let-my-people-think/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/12/11/a-review-of-think-by-john-piper/

    And I fully reject the idea that one is either theologically knowledgeable or Holy Spirit filled. One can and should be both simultaneously. It is not one or the other, but both. Have some people quenched the Spirit by over-intellectualising? Yes. But have some people sinned against God by not loving him with their minds? Yes.

    And I fully reject the idea that the Holy Spirit somehow bypasses the mind, sound doctrine, and good theology when we are taught by God. Quite the contrary, it is by means of a Spirit-sanctified mind that we can know anything. And the hundreds of commands to strive for sound doctrine (which means good theology) must be obeyed.

    So in one sense this list of titles is not just for some people (intellectuals, or whatever) but for every single follower of Jesus Christ who believes Jesus meant what he said when he ordered us to love God with all our minds as well as with all the others parts of who we are, as created by God.

    Of course one need not read these particular books to love God. But if one has an unbiblical conviction that the mind and theology are a waste of time, then one sins against God, and needs to repent of such proud and unscriptural emphases.

    (Not that I am saying you are necessarily doing these things. But sadly many believers are.)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  19. Add me to the list – I have only just gotten around to the article, as I catch up on my CultureWatch emails this warm Christmas Eve. I have left it a bit late to ask anyone to buy me one of your recommendations for Christmas, so I guess I will have to make a choice for myself..but where to start? One week of holidays left and back to work. No time for reading long theological tomes as I used to some years back.

    What, then is the solution? Tuning into more of your deep, profound writings throughout 2011, Bill…brief, but they keep me in touch with the key important issues and themes circulating in others writings. Thanks for your broad, but pertinent and brief writings that give me a lot to digest and ponder when I have little time for extensive, lengthy reading.

    Blessings Bill.
    Kerry Letheby

  20. It is really a shame that these conversations peter out after a few weeks. I have revisited this one because I now have a Kindle reader and will check if any of these books available in that format.
    Reading the comments though made me think I was in an auction or something:).

    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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