Jacob Boyd’s Review of HISTORICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE CHURCH, edited by Jason G. Duesing and Nathan A. Finn

Published on June 27, 2022 by Eugene Ho

B&H Academic, 2021 | 416 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Jacob Boyd


Historical theology belongs in the local church. Today many churches recognize the need and place theology has in the church, but sadly the desire claims historical theology has been a slow process. Drs. Duesing and Finn seek to fix this problem by showing the church the place historical theology has in it, through their editorial work in this volume. This work consists of four units, covering the span of Christian history including the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern eras. Every chapter is structured the same way, starting with the introduction and overview of the given doctrine in its historical context, specific case studies are presented, an application for the church today is given, a further reading list is shown, and then five study and discussion questions presented.


Brief Content Survey of Book

In the introduction to this volume, Jason Duesing suggests that historical theologians need to act as the Lord’s Remembrancer, a title originally attributed to Cotton Mather (1663-1703). The Lord’s Remembrancer is the one who serves the church and regularly reminds her of the previous theological endeavors from the earlier eras in Christian history. The introductory chapter plainly lays out what historical theology looks like when done for the church today by suggesting five blueprint points to follow.

  1. Historical theology for the church upholds the primacy of the Bible over tradition and history but recognizes the value of tradition and history.
  2. Historical theology for the church follows the two Greatest Commandments, as it is for the church catholic and church local.
  3. Historical theology for the church is done as a means to the end of fulfilling the Great Commission and glorifying God.
  4. Historical theology for the church is academic and edifying as it functions as friend to the work of systematic theology, biblical theology, and applied theology.
  5. Historical theology for the church as an academic endeavor is done as a servant of the church, not as a master.

These five points set the pace for the entire volume by letting the reader know what preunderstandings each contributor has in this volume. Each chapter is an example of historical theology for the church.

The first unit of this volume consists of four chapters covering topics on Jesus Christ, The Trinity, Scripture and Tradition, and Salvation all under the umbrella of the Patristic Era, AD 100-500. The first chapter looks at the doctrine of Christ and the development of language used to articulate who he was/is as the God-man. One of the main points of discussion this chapter looks at specifically is the tension between the Alexandrian Christology, which identified Christ as one subject, and the Antiochene Christology, which identified Christ as two subjects – this was an argument about the divine nature and human nature of Christ and their relationship. This tension lead ultimately to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which developed the Chalcedonian Definition to recognize the two natures of Christ while still remaining a single person.

The second chapter unpacks the development of the Trinitarian doctrine before, during, and after Nicaea. Individuals such as Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus (c. 120-c. 200), Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240), Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c. 255), Alexander of Alexandria (250-326), the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine (340-397) are all examined to see their specific contribution to this doctrine. Scripture and Tradition as sources and guides for the church are looked at in the third chapter. This chapter unpacks what books were recognized as Scripture and what qualifications were needed for a book to “make the cut” in order for it to be included in the canon. The early church tradition also served as a guide during this time in what they called the “rule of faith.” Finally, the fourth and final chapter in this unit looks at the doctrine of salvation. Competing atonement theories are mentioned in this chapter such as Christus victor and the penal substitutionary view.

The second unit consists of only three chapters, which include chapter five on The Church, chapter six on Salvation, and chapter seven on Scripture and Tradition during the Medieval Era, AD 500-1500. The first chapter in this unit divided the Medieval Era into three sections: early (500-100), high (1000-1300), and late (1300-1500), when unpacking the political and theological context of the church. Important matters are discussed such as church leadership, sacraments, the papacy, the Filioque controversy, the crusades, and important individuals who prepared the way for reformation such as William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), John Wycliffe (1330-1384), and Jan Hus (c. 1372-1415).

The chapter on salvation only looks at the European medieval tradition by discussing many individuals such as Gregory the Great (540-604), John Scottus Eriugena (815-877), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Peter Lombard (1096-1160), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Many of these individuals dealt with issues surrounding grace, free will, and predestination. Next, the final chapter on Scripture and Tradition is developed the same way chapter five is, by looking at the early, high, and late eras of this time period. Throughout this chapter, the main question being asked is, “Where does the authority of the church come from (Scripture/Tradition) and how does one interpret these sources?” For example, John Cassian (360-435) is mentioned as one who separated the knowledge of Scripture into the historical and the spiritual understandings, which further developed into the Quadriga.

Unit three covers the Reformation era and also consists of three chapters spanning the same three topics as unit two: Scripture, Salvation, and the Church. Chapter eight begins by looking to Martin Luther (1483-1546) to answer the question, “Who has final authority to decide this debate over indulgences and justification?” In answering this question, there is a section called “Tradition versus Tradition” to show how the slogan sola scriptura did not mean Scripture absent from tradition. Instead for the Reformers, like Luther, tradition served as a “maidservant” to Scripture. The Romans’ Catholic understanding of tradition is the one the Reformers opposed, which taught that tradition is on the same level as Scripture by claiming that they are both inspired. This chapter brings out how many Protestant Evangelical churches today have wrongly understood sola scriptura to mean nuda scriptura. Second, the chapter on salvation in this unit looks to Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), the Anabaptists, John Calvin (1509-1564), and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) to look at the development nature of this doctrine. Doctrines such as justification, adoption, and sanctification are all major points of discussion throughout this chapter.

The final chapter in this unit is written by one of the editors of this volume, Jason Duesing, to discuss the church during the reformation. This chapter also looks to Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Anabaptists, and the English Reformers to answer the simple question, “What is the true church?” Duesing argues that the Reformers did not need to focus on sola ecclesiae because that was what the Roman church was doing; instead, they looked at what were the marks of the true church.

The final unit of this volume looks at the Modern era and consists of six chapters in total. Chapters eleven and twelve look at Scripture/Authority and Creation/Humanity respectively. Both of these chapters engage with philosophical assumptions as the Enlightenment era arises and therefore a new methodology is proposed for knowing reality. God is no longer the starting point in hermeneutical and human identity endeavors. Chapters thirteen and fourteen cover core doctrines of the Christian faith such as the Trinity/Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit/Salvation, respectively. In light of this new epistemological shift, many foundational doctrines of historic orthodox Christianity were questioned. For example, in chapter thirteen, the Rationalist and Unitarian age is examined and the historical Jesus was brought into question. However, even though historic Christianity was being questioned, chapter fourteen shows how there were still great revivals happening through men such as Jonathan Edwards, Gorge Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney, etc.

Chapters fifteen and sixteen covers the doctrine of the Church and Eschatology, respectively. Chapter fifteen looks at what the effects on the local church were as a result of the Great Awakenings. Topics such as Dispensationalism, Catholic ecclesiological developments, Pentecostalism, the emerging church, etc. are discussed in this chapter. Finally, chapter sixteen demonstrates how the shift from emphasizing the doctrine of God to the church emphasizing eschatology has led to significant controversy about the order of events in Christ’s second coming.

In the concluding chapter, Nathan Finn, suggests four ways historical theology has ministerial value. He suggests,

  1. Historical theology should inform the devotional lives of believers and the liturgical lives of churches.
  2. Historical theology should inform the preaching of the Word.
  3. Historical theology should inform systematic theology.
  4. Historical theology should inform ongoing debates about faith and practice.


Book Analysis

This volume seeks to do an ambitious task, to show the local church today the role historical theology has in it. This is ambitious because all of the contributors attempt to do this by spanning Christian history and pulling out lessons for the local church today for each subject/doctrine in each era of church history. On one hand, Jason Duesing and Nathan Finn are successful as editors; however, on the other hand, they do not even begin to scratch the surface of the task they seek to accomplish. This project could have been developed with dozens of volumes and still, there would be more relevant material to dissect and analyze. Because of this reality, one question that arises is, “How did Duesing and Finn decide which topics/doctrines to add and not to add?” Also, “How did they decide which order to place many of these chapters in their given units?” For example, it is odd that the unit on the Medieval Era and the unit on the Reformation has the exact same chapter topics, but they are placed in reversed order. However, this is only an editorial critique.

In the first unit, the chapter on the Trinity deserves a closer look. There are foundational doctrines on the Trinity that emerge from this chapter such as Eternal Generation, Divine Simplicity, Eternal Relations of Origin, Inseparable Operations, and even Divine Appropriations (even though this doctrine is further developed in the Medieval Era by Aquinas). R. Lucas Stamps, the author of this chapter, appropriately places these doctrines in the right order of historical significance. This chapter shows how the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity was developed historically by observing the groups/individuals who contributed to the distinct doctrinal components. For example, the Cappadocian Fathers are known for their emphasis on distinguishing divine persons of the Trinity by looking to their eternal relations of origin, while Augustine is known for emphasizing the inseparable operations of the Trinity. Both of these components work together and are developed in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed. Stamps looks at these doctrines fairly by not setting the Eastern Church (the Cappadocians) and the Western Church (Augustine) understanding of the Trinity against each other, like others are guilty of doing. In the “For The Church” section of this chapter, Stamps rightly shows how a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity needs to influence your biblical interpretation. This conclusion suggests Stamps may be a proponent of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) hermeneutical method.

In the second unit on the Medieval Era, Zachary M. Bowden makes an interesting claim that the church unites the Middle Ages. This claim seems unremarkable at face value because one can claim that the church has unified the entire church age. However, Bowden is getting at the very identity of the church. Questions on church leadership are brought to the table, which leads to discussions on church authority. As the bishop of Rome was rising to power, such as Gregory the Great (590-604), theological education was scarce for many of the other church leadership. Without this widely obtained theological education for the officers of the church, many churches simply looked to the papacy for direction to know how to operate. This caused sermons to become almost nonexistent and the services centered simply on the sacraments. Bowden demonstrates well how these events ultimately led the church to be unsure of its identity and why many blindly followed the Pope.

Matthew Barrett’s chapter on Scripture in the third unit is one of the best chapters in the book for its historical development and practical application for the church today. As mentioned earlier, Barrett uses Heiko Oberman to make the important distinction between the Roman Catholic view of history and the authority it bears on Christians (T2), the view of history as a “maidservant” to Scripture (T1), and the third view that some of the Radical Reformers held, history has no role for the church (T0). Barrett shows how all three of these views affect the way one interprets the meaning of sola scriptura. The Reformers understood history as a “maidservant” to Scripture; meaning history still served a role in theological endeavors. Scripture alone was the source of God’s revelation, but history helped set the parameters for theological pursuit. Barrett makes the helpful conclusion that many Protestants have “misaligned themselves with their own heritage” by adopting the T0 tradition and not the T1 Tradition (204).

Finally, in the unit on the Modern Era, it is interesting comparing the chapter by Matthew H. Hall on the Trinity/Christ with the chapter by Lucas Stamps in the Patristic unit. Hall and Stamps both portray the theological world in the Modern Era and Patristic Era, respectively, on the Trinity. One of the benefits of this volume is that the reader can compare and contrast easily the same doctrine under different eras of church history. By the time of the Enlightenment, the doctrine of the Trinity is greatly altered. Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Jürgen Moltmann (1926–) are both appropriately mentioned in this chapter, but Hall does not spend enough time talking about their contribution to social Trinitarianism. Social Trinitarianism is a major new development in the doctrine of the Trinity, which makes it vastly different from the Patristic formula of the Trinity. However, this is probably true because Hall also develops the doctrine of Christ in this chapter and needs to choose what to include.

Historical Theology for the Church by Jason Duesing and Nathan Finn is a volume every church should purchase to help reestablish the church in their theological heritage and to help the congregation appropriately understand the great work of the Lord’s Remembrancer.


Jacob C. Boyd

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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HISTORICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE CHURCH, edited by Jason G. Duesing and Nathan A. Finn

B&H Academic, 2021 | 416 pages

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