10 Review: Hastings, Christian Thought – A Brief History

Chris Simon, , Southern Cross College


Hastings, A., Mason, A. and Pyper (eds.) Christian Thought – A Brief History. OUP, New York, 2002

What right does a pastoral theologian have to assess a book that combines both church history and theology? Perhaps it maybe that once upon a time, I did lecture in theology, or it could be that I have done considerable amounts of history units in my earlier studies. That is not the point; Pastoral theology seeks to bring about an integration of the other major strands of theological studies – history, theology and Bible – as a foundation for the actual practice of Christian ministry. History teaches us not only the rich heritage of the church’s story, but also should inform the church of past mistakes in order to avoid falling into the same traps. Theology, laying the basis from agreed formularies, establishes ‘basic’ belief as an ongoing reference to similarly keep us ‘on track’. Bible has a similar function.

This book is a brief selection from the larger Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.

The book begins in a welcome positive attitude quoting the late Adrian Hastings (who edited the earlier larger volume: “Christian theology may well be in a healthier, more internally coherent, and less schismatic state than has been the case for many centuries”.[1] This is encouraging in light of much of the doomsday people who want to highlight the decline of much of the traditional Western Church, the consecration of an openly homosexual Episcopal Bishop in the U.S; and the proliferation of multiple denominations in both East and West. The editorial introduction also sees the diversity of the Christian faith as a positive and healthy sign – while not ignoring the ongoing strategic and political debates within the church. “”Whatever the outcome or the rights and wrongs, as argument rages the range of Christian thought is expanded and modified and this is reflected in condensed form here”.[2]

The first chapter reminds the reader to remember that even in the first two centuries of the church, that controversies raged in the process of establishing what was to later become the ‘canon’ of Scripture and the credal formulations.

In the first chapter, there is considerable discussion concerning the early issues of debate where circumstances determined much of the thinking (persecution was far more widespread in the Latin church than in the Eastern Church. In spite of debates being the focus of the, assumed, division between East and West, the writer wishes to follow the theme of the book and that is that there was in fact a far greater unity concerning the ‘essentials’ than is often acknowledged.

The second chapter highlights the amazing advances made in the Eastern church concerning matters of the Trinity, the question of exegetical understanding and even such matters as foundational liturgical practice (still seen today as a common bond throughout the church’s practice from then until the current era. There is ‘nothing new under the sun’[3] and there is mention of the Cappadocians struggling with issues such as: “… whether a scriptural text carried the full weight of a metaphysical revelation about the nature of God, or was merely an illustrative analogy.”[4] Such as Lucien Antioch emphasised the ‘social and historical significance’ in contrast to the more ‘transcendental’ emphasis of Origen.

The chapter on Syriac Christian thought enlarges one’s understanding of the past and ongoing contribution of that part of early Christendom that still influences much of the Eastern Christian church. Interestingly, it is noted that until the post-Nicene era, the Spirit was essentially referred to in the feminine. There is also mention of the tireless work amongst the disadvantaged by the ascetic communities – a reminder that ‘social action’ has been an ongoing part of Christian tradition, and that it arises out of a spirituality that cannot be denied. While often dismissed for some perceived ‘heresies’ the author highlights that more recent ecumenical dialogue has seen that much of the ‘different’ emphasis was as the result of serious theological (Christological’) debate. The Syriac church has also demonstrated an ability to survive without the need to influence or be influenced by ‘kingdoms or empires’.[5]

The insights into the strong influence of the Byzantine monks from the 6th – 16th century is also a reminder of the ongoing debates within the church concerning the ‘interior wisdom’ from contemplation and prayer as compared to the ‘exterior’ reflections of theologians. This theme is also emphasised in the review of the Eastern Orthodox tradition:

Theology is ‘not an intellectual discipline but an experiential communion, a participation’. It is a ‘fruit of the interior purity of the Christians spiritual life’, to be identified with the vision of God… with the personal experience of the transfiguration of creation by uncreated grace’.

The chapter on the Armenian tradition highlights not only the controversies, but the influence on such contemporary writers as Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

With similar detail, the chapter on Latin Theology from the 4th to 10th centuries. Highlights not only the contemporary debates of that era (especially seen in the context of finding a common unity in all matters) but also the strong influence that this era played in the early medieval centuries. The subsequent chapter traces the growing influence of the papacy from the early middle ages to the middle ages saw the development of a ‘centralised monarchy’ that largely resulted from the unified church code introduced by Gregory the Great. Monastic and secular clergy life was similarly more ordered at this time. During this period, there are some significant influences such as the affirmation of the exclusion of women from teaching and ministering – a debate that still continues throughout much of the church.

Space does not allow detailed discussion of the relevant issues of that which followed, but the Reformation debate around ‘works’ and ‘grace’ – although largely resolved these days between the great denominations, is a reminder that such issues can still arise – is not the extreme end of the ‘health and prosperity’ teaching merely revisiting such issues in another form? Some may take comfort from the warning that “increasing dominance of scholastic modes of thought in Reformed theology distorted Calvin’s more moderate doctrine of grace into an extreme form of determinism…”![6]

In contrast to the vibrancy of debate and conflict around major theological debates, the 17th century is often depicted as having “retreated into a stale and limited process of endless elaboration and conservative protection (in increasingly ossified forms) of the theological advances of the previous century”.[7] The writer strongly argues against this perception seeing it as a period of change and ‘challenging new developments’. As an example, it is argued that the Council of Trent was, in contrast to popular perception, an extremely flexible document. Interestingly, we are reminded that this was an era that regenerated a new interest in apocalyptic interpretation – heightened by such events as the Thirty Year War and the English Civil War. Further it was a time of heightened interest in inner piety.

In contrast to internal ‘church’ debate, the 18th century produced a defence by various parts of the church against the arguments of the ‘Enlightenment’ – a challenge that is still impacting the church today. It was science that was challenging the supremacy of the church over its authority to speak on all matters. It was the age of the beginning of formal biblical criticism that subsequently moved from outside the church to subsequently within the church as well – Christianity was no longer to dominate intellectual life and thought. And, it was the age of Wesley and Methodism – why such scant reference?

And so, the book marches on towards our current times, noting the continuing controversies of the nature of the church, it’s authority and the impact of industrialisation that led to a renewed vigour for the ‘social gospel’. Did we not read of the Syriac church’s concern for the disadvantaged? In England the debate on churchmanship in the Anglican church often over-shadows the main thrust of the movement which was seeking to separate church and state. It was the age of ongoing secular debate (Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’; Strauss’ The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) and, as in earlier history as the Greek schools of philosophy informed much debate, so now the church was being challenged to listen and adapt to the growing authority of science and, by default, the right to question accepted theories and dogmas. It was the era of challenge of ‘conservatism’ by the ‘liberal’ mind. The debate also appeared in the Roman Catholic church in relation to it’s ‘modernist’ understandings’.

The 20th century writings of Adolph Harnack were the setting for an age of questioning within the church as the new ‘philosophers’ (Marx; Nietzsche; Freud; et. al.) opened the way for a call back to tradition (Karl Barth: “… surely the most powerful and influential theological mind of the 20th century.”[8] It was also the age of two ‘world wars’ that challenged much of the ‘comfort’ of theological debate – it was the age of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was also the era of the World Council of Churches, of liberation theology and the sub-set of feminism. Finally, it was the age that saw many faculties of theology at Universities turned into sections of the broader ‘school of world religions’ – let alone incorporation into even broader spectrum disciplines.

And so, full-circle, we come to the final sentence referred to in the introduction – a positive outlook to the church.

So, what does one think of the book and its necessity?

At one level there is a frustration that so much is left unsaid – of the practical outcomes upon the life of the church. That is, in many ways not the task of the historian, the theologian or even the Biblical scholar – certainly not in isolation from one another. That is where my earlier comments come in as far as the role of pastoral theology. To ignore the lessons of history, the debates of theologians or the insights of modern Biblical scholarship is, long term, a formula for disaster and a guarantee that the church will continue to make the same mistakes time and time again. This book is a reminder that all ‘theological’ debate occurs within the context of the wider world – both intellectually and in practice. And that is where the role of Pastoral Theology is so important to make sure that theory does not develop devoid of the practice and that practice does not get overwhelmed by a fierce pragmatism that is in danger of losing the essential foundations of faith on which the church lives.

This book should be on the shelf of every theological student, every pastor or priest, and every person involved in ministry – that is unless you can afford the complete volume!!

Chris Simon

[1] Intro. P. vii

[2] Intro. P. viii

[3] Ecclesiastes 1:9

[4] p.22

[5] p. 37

[6] p.98

[7] p.109

[8] p. 160


© Southern Cross College, 2004