Some who came before
We are part of an unfolding story, and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that reality. Those who came before helped shape us, a legacy that when embraced can become a source of insight into the present and a source of wisdom for the future. Nowhere is this more important than for us who name Christ as Lord. Our faith is part of a tapestry of belief and practice that stretches back into history, and whether we know and honor them or not, there is a long line of believers that go back from us all the way to the cross and empty tomb. Someday I hope we get to meet each one in that line, to thank them and hear their stories.
As Christian believers we are indebted to teachers, thinkers, apologists, theologians, and philosophers that over the centuries studied the Scriptures, answered critics, and unpacked the meaning of historic orthodox belief. St Paul states that this is a gift from God to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). That being the case, it can be helpful to be acquainted with some of these faithful forebears, to learn something of their lives, their work, their legacies, and their mistakes.
Here are three books that can help:
A Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers
By evangelical author and theologian Alister McGrath (Oxford University and Regent College), this short book provides a very short, and therefore necessarily incomplete introduction to ten people, some of whom some evangelical readers might find surprising: Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis.
Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians
Eight evangelical scholars were asked to provide, in the editor’s words, “(1) an insightful theological analysis and commentary on each theologian; and (2) a critical assessment of each theologian that asks how evangelicals should view and appropriate (or not) the insights of the theologian.” Chapters are on Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, The Three Cappadocians (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas.
Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures
Each chapter in this book was previously published in the Expository Times, intended to be a brief scholarly introduction to each historical figure. Chapters cover: Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Hippolytus of Rome, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Eusebius of Caesarea. I found this volume helpful for a modern reading of ancient thinkers, but found the prose dry and the author’s assumptions of “multiple early Christianities” unconvincing.
SourceA Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers by Alister E. McGrath (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock; 1990, 2005) 137 pages.
Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians edited by Bradley G. Green (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2010) 388 pages + index.
Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures edited by Paul Foster (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2010) 193 pages + indices.