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Historical Theology In-Depth
Author : David Beale
Publish : 2013
Pages : 532 and 516
Reader's Review : by David Saxon
Description : During his several decades of teaching church history and theology at Bob Jones University, Dr. Beale became known for painstakingly accurate scholarship, a generous and humble spirit, and an infectious passion for the majesty of God. These three attributes are on full display in this two-volume history of Christian theology.

While most histories of doctrine opt for either a chronological or topical organization of the vast amount of material involved, Beale combines the two approaches. While pursuing a largely chronological narrative, he mixes in various topical studies, finally settling into a topical arrangement of the majority of volume two. The book advertises itself as an “in-depth” treatment of this enormous subject, and, at times, the detail of the discussions fully delivers on this promise. In one thousand pages, however, the history of Christian theology cannot be explored in depth, and the depth of the coverage varies from section to section. Nevertheless, even the sections that feature more summarizing are valuable.

The strongest aspect of this work is no doubt its handling of the patristic material. Beale’s doctoral dissertation dealt with the eschatology of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and it is obvious that he has spent countless hours exploring the Fathers in the years since. Approximately fifty-seven percent of the two volumes explores material from the Early Church (through about A.D. 500). Beale devotes most of the first volume to the Fathers, and he includes valuable readings from their writings in almost every chapter. His handling of this material is extremely judicious, resisting the temptation to minimize their theological aberrations and make Protestants of them but also undermining Roman Catholic interpretations that are equally anachronistic. Some of the highlights in volume one include his analyses of Tertullian (chapter 17), Cyprian (chapter 18), the Council of Chalcedon (chapter 24, which includes the complete text of Leo’s Tome), and five chapters on Augustine (covering nearly one hundred pages). Volume two returns to the patristic era for detailed discussions of sabbatarianism, the eternal generation of Christ (a doctrine Beale distinguishes sharply from Christ’s eternal Sonship and which he disputes as erroneously subordinationist), and abortion. In four appendices to volume two, he gives detailed attention to various cosmological questions (the shape, age, and creation of the earth), once again drawing most of the material from the Fathers.

Beale devotes only about seven and one-half percent of his work to the ten centuries from 500 to 1500. The most interesting discussion from this period is a long chapter on the Second Council of Nicea, which dealt with the Iconoclastic Controversy. The subtitle of this chapter is “Milieus of a Patristic Theology of Art,” and Beale provides an insight-filled analysis of the relation¬ship between the deification theology of Eastern Orthodoxy and its use of icons in worship. Otherwise, he shows little interest in scholasticism. He provides a “Basic Outline of Scholasticism” that lists the key figures in the movement, and he summarizes its key trends, but the discussion is by no means “in-depth.” One looks in vain for a chapter on Anselm, Aquinas, or even German mysticism with the same depth and attention to detail he shows in his treatments of the Early Church. But all authors must choose their priorities.

The first five chapters of volume two discuss the Magisterial Reformation, and chapter eight covers the early Anabaptists. In these chapters, as in the rest of the work, Beale can hardly mention a place, name, or key term without providing a footnote that traces its history, linguistic derivation, or some other interesting tidbit. The two volumes overflow with fascinating facts of this kind. The chapters on Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin devote most of the space to historical narrative rather than theological analysis. A chapter on Melanchthon includes a survey of nine Lutheran controversies of the 16thcentury, but the eight pages devoted to them can hardly do them justice. Beale’s treatment of Calvin’s theology is limited to a survey of the contents of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. A more comprehensive treatment of Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist, and Anglican theology (the last of these receives no treatment) with comparisons between them would have enhanced this section.

To treat modern church history in depth, one must choose particular topics. Many volumes could not address all the strands of theological development since the Reformation. Beale devotes a fairly lengthy chapter to the contest between Arminianism and Dortian Calvinism, although nearly half of it is the complete text of the Canons of Dort. He has a brief but incisive chapter on Baptist Landmarkism, followed by a chapter on Baptist “backgrounds, doctrines, and practices” that includes the text of a number of important Baptist confessions of faith. Interesting chapters follow on the histories of Harvard and Yale and the development of the New Divinity and New Haven theologies. Clearly, American themes dominate the post-Reformation discussions. Indeed, key Continental thinkers such as Schleiermacher and Ritschl appear only in connection with American developments (such as the theology of Horace Bushnell). The longest and, perhaps, best chapter in volume two is entitled “Evangelicalism and the Bible: Apologetics and Philosophy since 1800.” In a sprawling discussion, Beale summarizes evidentialism, Common Sense philosophy, and presuppositionalism; analyzes Louis Gaussen, the Princeton Theology, and the Neo-Calvinist Dutch School (Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, etc.); surveys the thinking of Karl Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy; and concludes with brief treatments of Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer. This is an ambitious program, but Beale delivers interesting discussions throughout.

Beale chooses not to discuss several important themes. There is no detailed explanation of the origins of higher criticism and its impact on theological liberalism. Perhaps because he tells the story elsewhere (In Pursuit of Purity), Beale gives no attention to the development of American Fundamentalism. The five pages he devotes to Barth in the chapter on Scripture is his only treatment of Neo-Orthodoxy; absent are Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, the Neibuhrs, Tillich, etc. Some of these thinkers—Bultmann and Tillich, in particular—are sufficiently sub-Christian to warrant exclusion, but it is still surprising to read a history of theology that omits them. No consideration is given to modern theologies such as Liberation Theology, Vatican II Romanism, or Postmodern theologies.

The selection of topics is distinctly practical, addressing matters such as the Sabbath, abortion, and inerrancy that are helpful for Fundamentalists. The treatment of these topics is scholarly and precise while also being passionate and devotional. For the medieval and modern periods, a reader desiring thorough treatment must supplement this work with others. What Beale does, though, he does extraordinarily well, and the books turn out to have a rare quality: they are precise historical theology that engenders worship.