Book Review: Historical Theology for the Church

Does historical theology matter for the church today? Does it serve only as an academic discipline? Or does it contain practical value for Christian living? Sadly, historical theology generally receives little attention in non-liturgical churches (e.g. Baptist churches). Growing up in baptistic churches, I never considered the greater heritage within which my local church existed, nor did anyone ever encourage me to do so. In fact, when I began attending seminary to obtain a master’s degree, I still did not know about historical theology and its value for the church. Thankfully, efforts are being made to reverse this trend, and one helpful resource stemming from those efforts is Historical Theology for the Church, edited by Jason G. Duesing and Nathan A. Finn. This book makes historical theology accessible for the church, bridging the gap between the church and the academy.

Historical theology, according to Duesing, is “the study of the development of Christian doctrine and tradition from the Bible by the church and for the church” (6). Notice that the church is the end which historical theology serves. In the introductory chapter, Duesing points out that historical theology is a valuable servant of the church, but it is a harmful master. Consistent with the apostle Peter (2 Peter 1:13), Duesing casts a vision for stirring up the church by way of reminder, and this book achieves that task by drawing out “the treasures from the doctrines of history” (20).

Historical Theology for the Church is arranged into four sections – Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern – that evaluate the significant doctrinal developments within each of those eras (e.g. Patristic includes Christology, Trinity, Scripture & Tradition, and Salvation). In some ways this book looks and feels familiar, fusing the chronological arrangement pattern of Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought with the doctrinal arrangement pattern of Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. The combination of those two arrangement patterns makes Duesing and Finn’s book a uniquely helpful introductory work for the church. In addition to its delightful arrangement, this book includes helpful tools for the reader, namely the “For the Church” section at end of each chapter, which draws out the ecclesiastical relevance of the topic at hand. As an introductory work, the book moves through historical doctrinal developments at rapid fire, yet the ride is enjoyable. Though the pace is quick it is not excessive, and, best of all, each chapter whets the reader’s appetite for more. As an added bonus, the authors have provided recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. 

Finn draws the book to a close by reiterating its purpose as he shares several thoughts related to historical theology’s ministerial value. Finn views historical theology as having value devotionally, homiletically, doctrinally, and practically. For the reader who has no intention of reading this book from cover to cover, Duesing’s introduction and Finn’s conclusion are must-reads. These two sections set the tone for this book, which will certainly play a useful role in equipping pastors, theologians, and other ministry leaders to contend for the historic Christian faith (387). 

Lord willing, this book will serve as a helpful tool for the church for many years to come; however, a few additions would enhance the usefulness of future editions of this work. Apart from some labeling mishaps (e.g. there are two “For the Church” sections in chapter 14), this work could be improved with a glossary, which would make the book more accessible to those less familiar with church history. Although some terms are defined within the chapters, a simple glossary like that which is offered by Alister McGrath in Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Thought would serve the church well. Another helpful addition for this book pertains to the suggestions for further reading. Sub-categories, such as primary and secondary sources, would amplify the usefulness of this section. The chapter written by Matthew Barrett adopts such a pattern, and the rest of the chapters should follow suit. Another note regarding the suggested reading section pertains to the difficulty of some of the readings. While most of the chapters offer a fairly balanced lineup of recommended reading, further categorization could be helpful, particularly in relation to the difficulty of the recommended reading. A practice similar to Tremper Longman in his Old Testament Commentary Survey would be helpful, as he labels the books according to the intended audience: layman, minister, and scholar. A final suggestion that would make this book more valuable to the church is to provide more guidance for the reader throughout the book. For instance, an explanation as to the purpose of the case studies would be beneficial. For readers familiar with McGrath’s structure, no explanation is needed; yet those readers who are not familiar with McGrath could be served by an explanation of the section’s purpose. Other critiques could be made (e.g. additions/subtractions to the recommended reading, and the inclusion of pastor-theologian authors since this work is for the church), but overall Historical Theology for the Church is a fine work which approaches the discipline of historical theology with both humility and honesty while making a valuable contribution to the church. Pastors, theologians, and educated laypersons will be blessed by this work, and it will be especially beneficial to non-liturgical churches who lack familiarity with historical theology. It is a must-read and a must-add to your theological library. Well done, gentlemen!

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