Introduction to Historical Theology

August 16, 2011 — 3 Comments

[This is the first post in the Historical Theology mini-review series]

Zondervan was gracious enough to send along a review copy of Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology. My parents were kind enough to send me a copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for my birthday. Having not read either, it seems like a suitable time to progressively work my way through both since the books are meant to be read in tandem.

I’m not entirely sure how it will all come together, but I’ll start today with thoughts from the preface and first chapter of Allison’s book and maybe later this week or next, do the same for Grudem. I’ll probably go back and forth like the chart in Allison’s book suggests. Overall, this will be similar to my series on The Christian Faith, which had chapter overviews and then culminated in a concise review.

From the preface, it looks as if Grudem contacted Allison about this book over 10 years ago, with the specific intention composing it to be a companion volume to his own book. Allison details then some of his specific objectives for this volume in light of how it will work with Grudem’s:

  • Present each doctrine in its chronological development
  • Let the voices of the past be heard in their own words
  • Exercise restraint in criticizing historical developments
  • Focus on major developments in each doctrine
  • Focus on the development of evangelical doctrine
  • Discern “a sense of the urgent need for greater doctrinal understanding in the whole church”

This last objective is held in common with Grudem’s book, whereas the the previous five are meant to fill in areas where Grudem’s book did not go because of space constraints. Part of what I’ll try to do here is comment on how Allison’s book fills out places in Grudem’s.

Turning to the first chapter, Allison defines historical theology as “the study of the past interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of doctrine by the church of the past” (p. 23).  As such, it must either be “approved or chastened by the Word of God.” Because of this, Allison sees historical theology as having a ministerial role rather than a magisterial one. He then lists eight benefits provided by the study of historical theology:

  • It helps the church distinguish orthodoxy from heresy
  • It provides sound biblical interpretations and theological formulations
  • It presents stellar examples of faith, love, courage, hope, obedience, and mercy
  • It protects against the individualism that is rampant today among Christians
  • It can help guard Christians and churches from the penchant for the novel, the yearning for relevancy, and the tendency to follow strong leaders who are biblically and theologically shallow
  • It not only helps the church understand the historical developments of its beliefs, but enables it to express those beliefs in contemporary form
  • It encourages the church to focus on the essentials, that is, to major on those areas that have been emphasized repeatedly throughout the history of the church
  • It gives the church hope by providing assurance that Jesus is fulfilling his promise to his people
  • It supplies the church of today the benefits of a heritage of doctrinal development that is sovereignly overseen by Jesus Christ, allowing us to enjoy a sense of belonging to the church of the past

With these benefits in mind, Allison plans to follow a diachronic approach to present historical theology (tracing the development of theology doctrine by doctrine) rather than a synchronic approach (tracing the development of theology century by century). He also operates from a moderate essentialist perspective on church doctrine: “An essential center, a core, of Christian doctrine, does indeed exist, but it does not manifest itself in any one particular church or theological movement” (p. 30). This is in distinction from a relativist perspective which asserts that it is “not possible to identify a core, or essential center, of the Christian faith.”

After Allison presents his approach, he offers a few thoughts on how historical, systematic, exegetical,  and biblical theology interact.  On his understanding, exegetical theology “seeks to determine the meaning of biblical texts,” biblical theology “describes the progressive revelation found in Scripture by examining the theology of its various groupings,” and systematic theology “expresses what Christians and churches are to believe, do, and be today in accordance with all the teaching of Scripture” (p. 32). These three discipline are informed by gleanings from historical theology, which provides “wisdom from the past” and “does not deal with Scripture directly” (p. 33), and are all meant to ultimately inform practical theology.

All in all, I think Allison is off to a good start. I don’t have anything to necessarily quibble with, and noticed right away that he presents his thoughts with clarity and precision. I’m looking forward to pushing on ahead and hope you’ll join me for the ride!


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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!

3 responses to Introduction to Historical Theology

  1. Thanks for the introductory thoughts Nate. So though I have Grudem on the shelf, do you think Allison is strong enough to stand alone as a research tool, or is the Grudem companionship essential?

    • I don’t think Allison replaces Grudem, but can work well without reference to Grudem. Allison is basically filling in the details about how doctrines have developed over the course of time, while Grudem is explaining how we understand those doctrines to exist currently. What might be worth the price of the book is Allison’s chapter 8, which doesn’t have a correspondence in Grudem, and is on the history of biblical interpretation.

      If you were asking whether or not you can use Allison as a reference tool without reference to Grudem (like to look up the history of justification for instance) you probably can, but you’d have to pressupose the current orthodox form of that doctrine.

      Hope that helps,


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  1. Historical Theology: The Canonicity and Inspiration of Scripture « Words With Nate - August 23, 2011

    […] reading each section on the early church in each chapter. (In other words, like we talked about in the first post, one can either study historical theology synchonically or diachronically). By comparison, look how […]

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