The History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill (Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2003). ISBN 0-7459 5093-0. P/b 352pp, £9.99.
Whatever the state of play in the secularisation versus desecularisation argument (and there is plenty of evidence for both trends these days), it cannot be denied that religion is a topic of increasing interest in the public arena. The tragedy of 9/11 and its uncomfortable links with ‘faith’ has made policy makers, pundits and ordinary people alike stop in their tracks. Religion in its various forms has shaped the modern world. But how equipped are we, believers or not, to engage with it seriously?
As I began to write this review of The History of Christian Thought a useful distraction surfaced. BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start The Week’ programme, a weekly airing of cultural, literary, social and scientific thought, was broadcasting in the background. The topic was the task of seeking truth, justice and reconciliation in South Africa, in post-war Iraq and in Israel/Palestine. Alongside a journalist, a politician and a psychologist in the studio was an Archbishop. Much of the discussion revolved around religion as a force for both good and evil.
Most of it was encouraging. Here we had a Christian leader who could acknowledge the deep problems posed by misshaped faith, a non-believing activist who nevertheless considered himself a ‘student of the teachings of Jesus’, a practitioner interested how our mental / spiritual maps shape the world, and a commentator who brought questions about the internal logic of Judaism and Islam to bear on the issues concerned.
Nevertheless, even among a well-educated forum, there were some pretty superficial judgements flying around, too. What’s more, I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it would be to hold a conversation as good as this (let alone better than) in many churches. Whatever is going on ‘out there’, most of our faith communities remain closed in upon themselves — talking about the wider world as a problem or as an opportunity, perhaps, but often finding it difficult to deploy a wide ranging understanding that would enable us to face the lesions at the core of the Gospel message.
Jonathan Hill’s excellent volume is surely part of the intellectual armoury that can help Christians to shift the balance in favour of faith that seeks understanding and (just as important) understanding that mediates faith. Not ‘intellectual’ as in obscure, difficult or elitist, I should stress; but as in the necessity of loving God with the head as well as the heart, particularly in a fast-changing, forgetful world.
To call a book The History of Christian Thought is a risk on a number of fronts, of course. It is in danger of sounding dryly academic, for one thing. And that definite article is certainly a hostage to fortune, not least among reviewers who might well be tempted to point out just how much the book doesn’t include as well as how much it does!
In fairness, Hill (a philosopher and theologian now working in publishing and broadcasting) makes no claim to being encyclopaedic. His aim is to give a broad, clear, fair and non-technical overview of Christian thinking throughout the ages; one intended for the general reader, both within and without the church. In my view he has succeeded in this important but difficult task.
The book’s organisation is straightforward. There are six sections dealing with the Church Fathers (Jonathan Hill is a Patristics specialist), the Byzantine era, the Middle Ages, the Reformation era, the Modern era (from the Enlightenment to so-called Higher Criticism) and the twentieth century. An epilogue hinting at the shape of debate to come is perhaps least satisfactory in its sketchiness, but the rest in generally superb.
Hill tells us that he has tried to write in a way that assumes no prior theological learning but which does require general familiarity with the Bible as a whole and the New Testament in particular. His claim seems broadly true. The author describes the evolution of Christian thinking from the Early Church onwards in a way that combines thoughtfulness with a lively narrative and plenty of good (but not obtrusive) humour. In places it reads like a good detective novel. What will happen now? Where will the next twist in the plot surprise us? Where will it all end?
Not many people will read a 350-plus pages in one sitting, even if it is attractive and not-too-dense, as is the case here. But if you do so it will probably take you between five and seven hours. Breaking the book up for study or reflection on the part of individuals and groups would also be fairly straightforward. Each section features a short introduction. It then proceeds in generally chronological order by exploring the life, thought and impact of some major figures.
These are mostly theologians (from Justin Martyr to Wolfhart Pannenberg), but sometimes key philosophers (the Alexandrian school, Aristotle, Lessing, Kant, the Existentialists) or key protagonists, (the Mendicant orders, Wesley, liberation theology). There are also short explanatory sections on the principal historical or intellectual streams, from the Ecumenical Councils through to Feudalism, the Conquistadors, Romanticism, the Vatican Councils and — inevitably — postmodernism.
All this is extremely well presented and organised. The glossary, ‘further reading’ and index of names and themes are helpful if a little cursory. A few pages of maps and chronology might have been useful, but these are readily available elsewhere. The virtue of The History of Christian Thought is that it interweaves biography, history and reflection so well. The author does not withhold his views, but his judgements are fair and open. They invite further exploration and often link well to other ‘entries’. Some will feel that Pentecostalism, recent third world thought, linguistic philosophy and post-modern theology (which is almost wholly absent) deserve greater coverage, but the overall selection is pretty good. And it can be dipped-into as well as read in linear fashion.
The major omissions, difficult to excuse in my opinion, are entries on twentieth century missiology and the modern ecumenical movement. The Radical Reformation is also overlooked bar one passing reference. And Modern Roman Catholic thought is dealt with well, but perhaps too briefly. There are also some inevitable small mistakes – Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God is wrongly described as his first work on page 342, though it is correctly located on page 308, for example. But in the broad sweep of this book these are not major objections. Hill is especially strong and clear on Patristic and Orthodox thought. And he untangles the web of Trinitarian and Christological disputes with admirable (but not, I think, deceptive) brevity. A great deal of learning is condensed in a highly readable way.
Overall, this summary of how the Christian Gospel has been appropriated, developed and thought-through across the ages is a wonderful resource. Its importance is not simply descriptive. In a lively and compelling way it illustrates the great variety and fecundity of Christianity, as well as the terrible mistakes it has made. And for those such as the psychologist in the radio programme I mentioned at the beginning of this review, who said inter alia that Christians seem to think of reconciliation in purely me-and-God terms, it would be a good way of summarising some of the subtleties of a tradition which is these days more caricatured than appreciated by advocates and detractors alike.
I’m usually reluctant to be prescriptive and say that ‘every local church should have one’, but in the case of this book I’m tempted to make an exception. Unless someone can point me to a better modern summary and introduction, of course.