I thoroughly enjoyed reading The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today. It’s a well-researched book and written clearly enough that the average college student or adult Christian like you and I can read it and understand it. The author is Dr. Daryl Aaron, professor of biblical and theological studies at University of Northwestern – St. Paul, formerly called Northwestern College. (By the way, Donna and I are proud to say that two of our daughters, Krista and Kimberly, are graduates of Northwestern.)
Importance of the book
Why do I believe this book needed to be written? Because the theological truths we hold dear as Christians didn’t just appear out of the blue. They didn’t come to our Christian forbearers naturally and easily simply because they had the Bible. The great doctrines of the faith came to be understood and accepted gradually because great Christian thinkers – church fathers, theologians, priests, and pastors – through the centuries studied the Bible and debated its proper interpretation, as well as defended it against heresies and unbiblical traditions. An example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. The word doesn’t even appear in the Scripture. This teaching had to be studied and debated for several centuries before it could be adequately set forth and accepted by all Christians. It is now a fundamental belief in all three major branches of Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.
The study of the development of theology is a fascinating discipline known as “historical theology”. In the Introduction Aaron explains the history of theology this way:
“… Little by little, Christians were coming to grips with the deeper truths of God and becoming spiritually healthier as a result. So the idea of development of theology or doctrine is not wrong or dangerous; rather, it is to be expected. It does not involve expanding on Scripture, that is going beyond it; the Word of God is sufficient, meaning God has given us everything that we need to know ( 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Rather, it involves explaining Scripture, that is, going deeper into it. Scripture is sufficient, but our understanding of it is not sufficient. Even now in the twenty-first century we are only really scratching the surface of the infinitely deep and high things of God (Job 11:7-9; Isaiah 55:8-9). So theology is a good thing and the history of theology is a good thing because they both help us to understand God better and that is a very good thing.”
Why studying history of doctrine
The author believes studying the history of doctrine (1) helps us to recognize theological errors of the past, which can reappear in new ways today, (2) aids us in distinguishing between what is just a passing fad and what is a timeless enduring biblical truth; (3) impresses upon us the sovereignty and mercy of God who has preserved his truth despite false teaching and passing trends; (4) promotes a healthy humility when we see the great Christian thinkers of the past who have made serious errors in their teaching; (5) and reminds us in an age when many people believe truth is relative that through the centuries God’s people have believed in certain universal truths regarding the Christian faith.
Aaron bases his study of the development of theology primarily on 40 influential Christian thinkers beginning with Clement of Rome near the end of the first century all the way to Carl F. H. Henry in the last half of the twentieth century. Most of the Christians he chose are church fathers and theologians we’ve heard of, e.g. Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, etc. Others are lesser known, but represent great theological movements down through the history of the Christian Church. The only major movement that I personally felt Aaron neglected was the modern Pentecostal movement which has been growing like wild fire around the world during the last century.
This 300 page book consists of an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix with some of the great creeds of the Church. However, the meat of the book is a chapter on each of the 40 influential Christians. Every chapter is well organized with three sections: the “Context” because every theologian speaks and writes within a certain historical and religious context; the “Contributions” the theologian made, both positive and negative in most cases, and finally the “Conclusion” which sets forth some final thoughts on what we can learn and apply today from the particular influential Christian.
I challenge you to read this book or another like it on the subject of historical theology. Doing so will both broaden you and deepen you. You will understand better what you believe and why. You will also comprehend better why there is such a diversity of denominations and theological viewpoints in the world today.
Let me close with an important implication that Daryl Aaron draws from his study:
“… none of us are unaffected by our life setting. As objective as we would like to think we are, we grew up in certain families, experienced certain life situations, went to certain churches, learned the Bible and theology from certain pastors and teachers … and all of this has become a part of us. Even as we try to assess the thinking of these theologians against the standard of the Scripture, we need to acknowledge that our understanding of Scripture has a significant subjective element. We need to own up to this. We need to be humbled by this. We need to be open to different perspectives – which is one of the reasons for doing historical theology. And most certainly, we need to be dependent upon God’s Spirit to lead us into God’s truth.”