Building a Theological Library: Historical Theology

Samantha L. Miller

St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series

Building a historical theology library must begin with primary sources. I know that many of you are looking to this series for recommendations of recent scholarship to keep your library and your knowledge up to date, but in historical theology, if you have to choose between buying a primary source or a secondary source, almost every time you should buy the primary source.

The people we read—from Irenaeus to Augustine to Macrina to Julian to Luther to Wesley—are also Christians. They’re studied Christians and, especially in the cases of ancient and medieval Christians we’ve bothered to keep around, recognized as faithful Christians. We believe in the same God. They are trying to witness to us about the same God we know. Further, because of the communion of saints, we can treat them like friends on our shelves who have wisdom to offer us. Finally, because we are temporally distant from them, they can often open us up to another way of seeing God. They invite us to think and see differently because their own culture has different blind spots and assumptions than our own. They can call us to question our own time in ways our contemporaries cannot.

So, if you’ve made it this far and are willing to buy some primary sources, begin with the St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series and the Classics of Western Spirituality series. Both are excellent and accessible translations of major (and some minor) works in Christian thought, and both are affordable series. Plus, as a bonus, the St. Vlad’s volumes are pocket-sized!

If you need a place to begin with primary sources, start with Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule or John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. Both are standards in pastoral theology, laying out how to do this work and why it is important, as well as the great responsibility it is.

Introduction to World Christian History, by Derek Cooper (IVP Academic, 2016)

If your church history class was anything like mine, you focused on Christianity in the Western world, especially prior to the Reformation. Yet there was so much more going on in the world. Christianity began in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, including North Africa. It spread to Ethiopia and the Sudan as well as east to India, central Asia, and China within the first few centuries. The story of Christianity in these places is just as important as the story in Europe, especially as we try to recognize the breadth of the Spirit’s work and look for ways Christians practice now in different places.

Cooper’s Introduction to World Christian History is an accessible, digestible introduction to this story. He writes more as narrative than as textbook and keeps footnotes to a reasonable number, even as it is thorough and scholarly. Using the general chronological categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, Cooper then writes chapters on geographic areas in each chronological period. This allows you to easily find and brush up on the stories of God’s work in whichever places you’re less familiar with.

If you want to read more deeply in this area, check out this two-volume series instead: History of the World Christian Movement, by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Orbis, 2001, 2012).

Scripture as Real Presence, by Hans Boersma (Baker Academic, 2017)

Any list of important books on historical theology needs to include at least one volume on premodern exegesis. Our ways of reading Scripture since the Enlightenment, especially since the advent of historical-critical exegesis, are the ones taught in seminary. These methods are essential, to be sure, but they often forget the methods of the earliest Christians. Premodern readers of Scripture knew that the Bible was alive, a witness to Christ himself, and they read in such a way that they could see Christ on every page so that they could get closer to Christ and therefore be transformed by Christ into Christ’s own image.

Boersma’s Scripture as Real Presence offers a look at the various methods of patristic exegetes and shows how all the methods work together because of and toward the goal of seeing Christ. Their exegesis comes out of their understanding of what Scripture is. Boersma argues that even the best historically grounded theological exegesis of today forgets that our earliest Christians understood Christ to be already present in the Old Testament. When we do this, we forget half the story, and we do not fully understand Christ or Christ’s work. This is essential reading for pastors who read Scripture, who preach from Scripture, and who lead Bible studies.

Along with this book as an introduction, I cannot recommend highly enough the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Reformation Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic) series. These series put snippets of commentaries from ancient authors in Scripture order for ease of use. When I preach, I look up the passage here and discover what premodern exegetes had to say. Often it opens my preaching and asks me to consider aspects of the passage I hadn’t noticed before.

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine, by Khaled Anatolios (Baker, 2011)

This is a standard work that needs to be on everyone’s shelves. Understanding how Christians came to believe the fundamental things we do is essential for all other theology, for pastoral care, for preaching, and for any other task a pastor needs to do. Anatolios not only walks the reader through the development of Trinitarian doctrine but explains what that doctrine has to do with being a Christian today. Looking especially at Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, Anatolios demonstrates that the development of doctrine was always an attempt to make sense of the Christ and the Scriptures people knew. If you need a refresher on early doctrine or have questions about how to interpret that doctrine anew for today, this book is the one to read.

Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries, by Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes (Baker, 2017)

In addition to needing a broader picture of global Christian history, there has been a reevaluation of the role of women in church history lately. Though the story has largely been told by men and about men, women have had significant roles and positions of influence from the time Mary and women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Cohick and Brown Hughes provide a picture of women in the early church, each chapter detailing the life and influence of one particular woman—Thecla, Perpetua and Felicitas, Macrina, and Paula, among others. Through these portraits, they explore what women taught and how they were perceived in their own time. Christian women had an unusual role in being both radical in society as well as marginalized. This book will keep your understanding of the narrative of Christian history broad, which is essential for spotting the Spirit’s work among people today.

If you want to read further about women in other centuries, check out The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr (Brazos, 2021); Women and the Reformation, by Kirsi Stjerna (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); or pick up any book on mystics in the Middle Ages to read some primary sources. I especially recommend Julian of Norwich’s Revelations.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez (Liveright, 2021)

Du Mez offers a thorough and accessible account of the rise of evangelicals in the US during the twentieth century and the ways this movement became entwined with politics, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is an important read to understand our current moment in US history, both secular and theological. Her thesis is that Donald Trump’s election by evangelicals in spite of his not being a church-goer of any kind is not an aberration but the culmination of decades of historical and ideological development. If we have any hope of moving forward in healthier theological veins, we have to understand this history.

Posted Nov 23, 2022