Observations on Theology, Culture and the Hosier family

Thursday, 17 November 2011


The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing great theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas, by Michael Reeves

The longer I continue in Christian ministry, the more convinced I become of the vital importance of having a grasp of church history. Perhaps this is partly a consequence of age, but more than that, church history is incredibly useful both in terms of instructing us about important matters we might otherwise struggle to grasp, and in warning us not to repeat the mistakes that others have made.

Getting into church history, however, can feel intimidating – where is one supposed to start? One good starting place is Greg Allison’s Historical Theology, which is a brilliant systematic theology, written through the grid of historical theology. That is quite a big book though, and so still might be quite intimidating. And that is where The Breeze of the Centuries comes into its own. In just 150 pages Reeves gives an overview of the life and thought of the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas; and does so with wit and panache.

As well as outlining the big theological issues of the ages, Reeves is good at slipping in those aspects of human interest that make history interesting – such as the Letter to Diognetus only being discovered in 1436, being used to wrap fish in Constantinople, and Aquinas’ family trying to tempt him away from his spiritual calling with a scantily clad seductress. But the big theological issues are big – and still very relevant today. Questions of the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature of eternal life, and the rationality of faith are hardly novel to our age, and the battles of the past prove fertile ground in which to work out how to respond and what to believe.

Viewing theology through the lens of history is also helpful to us in working out where the battle lines should be drawn in defence of the truth. We live in a time when there is both an incredible level of rancour amongst people who all claim to be followers of Jesus, but also a general cultural assumption of ‘tolerance’ that means many Christians find it difficult to ever say, “that is wrong.” Where the likes of Polycarp and Athanasius draw these lines is deeply instructive.

As Reeves points out, the theologians discussed here offer a broad range of personalities and beliefs, and some are more attractive than others. For example, I find Athanasius and Augustine far more convincing than Anselm and Aquinas, yet each repays study – if only for the shaping influence they have had on later cultures and theology.

This is an excellent little book – get hold of it if you can!

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