Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine

9780310230137

Back in the fall, I attempted a review series for Gregg R. Allison’s Historical Theology. It didn’t quite go the distance as you can see by this list:

The reason for the abandonment was not because the book wasn’t stellar. And it wasn’t because I lost interest. It happened, because unlike Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, there wasn’t much to critically interact with chapter to chapter. At least this was true given my background. Rather, Allison’s chapters were concise and consistent from doctrine to doctrine. So, rather than review each chapter, I decided to finish the book and then offer my summary thoughts.

Clearly I was more than a bit sidetracked since it has been a while since I finished the book (I’m declining to give you the actual month number). But, here we are and here’s what I think about Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology.

Overview

As I mentioned in the Introduction, this book is a companion volume to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Both books bear the subtitle “An Introduction to Christian Doctrine.” A major difference between the two is that Grudem’s book is more of an all encompassing resource on systematic theology, containing not just exposition of doctrines from a systematic vantage point, but cross references to other systematic theologies, creeds, and places for further study. Allison’s book on the other hand sticks more to historical exposition. It’s a bit short overall (though we’re still talking 700+ pages) and his doctrinal foci are more precise.

Generally, speaking here’s the layout of the book:

  • Doctrine of The Word of God (chapters 2-8)
  • Doctrine of God (chapters 9-14, the latter of which is on angels, Satan, and demons)
  • Doctrine of Man (chapters 15-16)
  • Doctrine of Christ and The Holy Spirit (chapters 17-20)
  • Doctrine of The Application of Redemption (chapters 21-25)
  • Doctrine of The Church (chapters 26-30)
  • Doctrine of The Future (chapters 31-33)

For the most part then, Allison’s book covers the same territory that Grudem’s does, but in a more abbreviated form in places. The one exception to this is that Allison includes a chapter on the history of the interpretation of Scripture, chapter 8, that does not have a counterpart in Grudem’s book.

Over and against some of my issues with Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, the systematic organization of this book was a breath of fresh air. Every chapter maintains the same format:

  • Statement of Belief
  • [Insert Doctrine] in the Early Church
  • [Insert Doctrine] in the Middle Ages
  • [Insert Doctrine] in the Reformation and Post-Reformation
  • [Insert Doctrine] in the Modern Period

The benefits of this are that you can consistently expect to cover similar ground chapter to chapter, but also, you could do a survey of the book simply focusing on one period or the other. For instance, if you wanted to use this book to become better acquainted with a sampling of early church theology, then just read that section of each chapter. Likewise, if you wanted a brief map of the landscape of Reformation era theology, you do the same thing.

This is certainly a big strength of the book, though it does lead to some repetitions. For instance, Frederick Schleiermacher’s notion of the feeling of absolute dependence of God as a basis for Christian faith/theology comes up in almost every chapter. Part of this is because he is such a key player in theology in the modern period and changed the landscape substantially. But, by the later chapters of the book, if you’re reading straight through, you could almost guess what Schleiermacher will think about a given doctrine. Similarly, Barth is major player in modern theology and some of his ideas show up chapter to chapter. Allison notes this, and warns the reader ahead of time, so it was at least a foreseen consequence of the layout.

Another strength of the book is the “team” nature of it. Hardly a chapter goes by that Allison does not use a footnote to thank someone for helping with the particular chapter. I can imagine they are mostly graduate students/teaching assistants, but to me it highlighted the fact that while Allison may be the one whose name appears on the cover, he didn’t work alone. As my own thesis adviser told me, while he may ask students to research things or run quotes to ground, he will still double check so that nothing goes out with his name on it that he has not thoroughly reviewed. The way I am reading Allison’s work though is that he is taking final responsibility for the finished, edited project, but it was a product that was produced in community, and I think the work is much stronger for that.

Conclusion

Though I didn’t find many weaknesses in my reading of the book, I did run across a couple of things of note. First, some readers may feel that Allison is forcing the history of the church’s doctrine to reflect his own evangelical theology. I am still deciding what I think about this since it seemed that the doctrines Allison unpacked fit almost too easily into a modern, evangelical framework. This isn’t to say Allison molded the data to fit his conclusions, far from it. It’s just to say, in the space provided, some readers may wish that he engaged voices from the fringe, and may find themselves thinking that Allison is revising history to make it seem that his position has been what the church historically taught. I don’t think that’s the case at all, and for the most part, I think Allison’s historical reconstructions are more or less accurate, and that’s part of why I find myself holding many of the same doctrinal commitments that he does.

One area of divergence though is in the chapter on Christ’s return and the millennium (chapter 31). Here, I thought Allison pushed a little hard to find premillennialism as the “dominant” view in the early church. Also, though he didn’t state it directly, the flow of the chapter made it seem that when it comes to eschatology, if you interpret the Bible “literally” you’ll be a premillennial, and if you opt for a more “spiritualizing” approach, you’ll be an amillennial. The issue is far more complex than that, and though I realize the space allotted didn’t allow time to deal with many of the facets of the discussion, I did think the diversity of eschatological views could have been brought out a little better.

Second, because of the concise nature of the book, these kinds of simplification are necessary. That being the case, this book is best suited as a resource and companion to Grudem’s book, not as an exhaustive treatment of the history of Christian theology. For people like me who consider themselves evangelicals, this book is a highly valuable resource that won’t be read once and shelved. Rather, I expect to find myself consulting Allison’s book as a kind of first stop in researching that history of a doctrine. Allison’s book shouldn’t necessarily be given the final word, but does cover much historical ground and makes a great starting point for further research.

So, in the end, I am very appreciative of Allison’s book and am grateful to have it part of my library. Though we disagree on some minor points, Allison’s style and tone are very irenic and expositions of doctrinal positions he disagrees with are fair. His book reflects an academic service to the church that was completed in Christian community and I think it will be a resource that pastors and Bible students will greatly benefit from in their studies.

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Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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