Review: Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians

Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians
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In a compendium of Christian theologians, editor ]] compiles accounts of ten (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Three Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) early and medievel doctors of the Christian church which secured Christian orthodoxy for generations to come. While orthodoxy was not always present, the contributors are able to show a clearer line of connection between the ancient writers and thinkers by writing short theo-biographical essays and laying in a chronological method. While there is no end to the making of books on these theologians, by having shorter essays, next to each other and in one (con)dense volume, modern Christians can easily spot the building blocks to modern orthodoxy.

This book works as a teaching tool for Church history as well as an introduction to how to do theology – something that the editor notes he learned from reading Augustine. Far too often, many modern Christians are disconnected with their past, namely the theologians who have shaped and built the ancient theological framework of the Church. Simply put, not every theological stance seen as orthodox today came suddenly from the Apostles. Most developed in one way or another over time. So do the methods of theologizing (not Anslem and Thomas Aquinas), but we often simply study the now well-developed theology as if it has always been. What each essayist does is to remind us that with each theologian, he was building only upon those who came before, but also putting himself into the mix. For example, Shelton notes that Irenaeus spoke of God personally, and not about God as those pre-dated the Bishop of Lyons while Augustine, according to Green, continuously rehashed his life while working through his theological treatises while Athanasius made use of Ignatius of Antioch.

Each essay on the life of a theologian begins with a brief biographical sketch but is mainly focused on the theological centers of the saint’s writing. For example, Green’s essay on Augustine is sectioned off into areas such as ‘The Theology and theologizing of Augustine’, ‘Augustine the recipient of grace’ and such, but with each of these main sections broken down further into smaller focuses such as ‘God the cause of evil?’ which falls under the subsection of Man under the formerly mentioned larger area. In ‘God the cause of evil?’ Green attempts to correct a long held view that Augustine viewed God as the ultimate cause of evil, which is of no small disconcerting effort to modern senses. The essayist answers the question not by merely explaining Augustine, or making excuses for him as many are apt to do for the tougher theologians such as Tertullian and Calvin, but by letting Augustine defend himself against such tradition. Each essay is well cited, filled to the brim with actual quotations, and bookended with the essayist’s evaluation of the theologian or some form of appropriation for the modern reader. Essentially, the questions are asked as to who the theologian was, what did they bring to the Church, and more importantly, why do they still continue to matter today. Along with this is included, for each theologian, and well stocked bibilography.

What may be lacking, or perhaps an unwelcomed addition, is a pure Protestant viewpoint. For example, with Irenaeus, the essaying seems to go out of his way to defend the Protestant viewpoint about papal authority and observance of Mary although I am sure he would readily admit that Rome and the East appropriate the theologian in much the same way that Protestants do, both to their own ends. Further, his study and treatment of Irenaeus’ view of the Godhead seems to be overly optimistic to the Trinitarian doctrine while ]]’s treatment of Marcellus of Ancyra is rather one sided, forcing Marcellus deeper into heresy, the pit from which modern scholarship is pulling him from. While the effect of bringing various essayists to bare is that different styles and biases appear, the only consistent bias is that certain doctrines are to remain almost undeveloped from the start, all the while acknowledging that they were developed and to tread upon ancient prejudices. If we accept the principle of doctrinal progression, then it would be useful to acknowledge it for most to all of the doctrines and ask the question, which is glossed over in this book, to what end can we say that any of them are now fully developed?

Many Christians today simply do not have an understanding of how, or who, developed doctrine. Not only are the people necessary to know, but so too the circumstances in which these doctrines developed and beyond that as well, how radically different Christianity may have turned out had heresies become orthodox. Books such as this one work towards that end with the goal of educating the Christian to know more about his or her faith and in some way contribute themselves to the progression of the Christian Church. We may each have our favorite theologians, but to see them almost in a ladder form, helps to place them in the context of both the history and the future. We know upon whom they rested so that we know upon whom we rest.

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