Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Theologians You Should Know

Theologians You Should Know. Michael Reeves. 2016. Crossway. 336 pages. [Source: Review copy]

From the introduction: C. S. Lewis was a self-confessed dinosaur. He knew perfectly well that he simply did not belong in the modern world. Yet, being born out of due time, he was able to spot what the natives could not. And what he saw in modern culture, perhaps more than anything else, was a suffocating enslavement to the beautiful myth of progress, the dream that history is evolving ever onward and upward, that newer is better. It is the sort of belief that sits very comfortably in the subconscious, giving one the warm glow of knowing that we are faster, better, wiser, more advanced, and more knowledgeable than our parents and forebears. Yet one of the problems Lewis noticed in the myth was that such superiority tends to produce not wisdom but ignorance.

From chapter one: By the end of the first century AD, Jesus’s apostles were all dead and Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed. It was a crucial time of transition for Christianity, made all the more difficult by the hostile notice the Roman Empire began to pay as it saw what looked to it like a subversive new sect in its midst. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are the most important books for understanding those first generations after the apostles: how they thought, lived, and died.

Premise/plot: Theologians You Should Know introduces readers to over a dozen theologians. The first two chapters of this one cover more than one theologian. Chapter one focuses on the 'apostolic fathers,' and chapter two focuses on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The rest of the chapters--chapters three through thirteen--focus on one theologian apiece. These theologians are: Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, J.I. Packer.

Each chapter is well-organized. Readers first read several pages of biographical material. This also helps place the theologian in context--his life and times. Next readers read a (relatively) brief summary of the theologian's "thought." But that is not all--far from it. Readers are provided reader-friendly summaries to that theologian's works. (If the theologian wrote a LOT, then just the "main" books are summarized.) Each chapter concludes with a "Going On" feature. Reeves carefully and purposefully guides you--encourages you--what to read next. (There is also a timeline for each theologian).

My thoughts: Reading the book straight through provides readers with a good, basic overview. But I think the book would also serve as a great reference book. I think each chapter could stand alone, and, your interest could guide you along.

What I appreciated was the author's easy-going, reader-friendly approach. I like his honesty. I came to trust him. This is what he has to say about John Owen, "Owen, it has to be said, was pretty merciless toward his readers. He expected them to be serious and committed" and "There are no gentle introductions, there is often little sense to the order of a book, and, bluntly, he does go on a bit. But all that is nothing to the way he writes. It feels as if Latin was his real native tongue, and so, when he tries to write in English, the result is uncomfortably complicated. Thus, trying to imbibe Owen in large doses can be a bit like drinking rather too much Horlicks. J. I. Packer’s suggested medicine is to read Owen out loud, which can help a bit. But, to be honest, whether read, said, chanted, or rapped, Owen is tough meat." He doesn't suggest you skip him, however. He says the place to start is Communion with God. It's tough, but, worth it in the end.

The book could have been intimidating or condescending. But it wasn't. Reeves is an excellent guide that makes you want to read theology.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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