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Posts Tagged ‘Irenaeus’

reeves breeze 1REVIEW: Michael Reeves, The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing great theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas, IVP: 2010.

The title is taken from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’ (an absolutely classic essay you must read) where Lewis argues brilliantly that we are in great danger of getting stuck in the limited horizons of our age (what some might call paradigms or discourses) and:

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

How Reeves has managed to read all the key primary and secondary sources related to these theologians from the second to the 13th centuries (including Aquinas, who, as he wonderful puts it, “seems to have spurted ink like a cuttlefish”) and then summarised it all into very readable introductions to each theologian of about 20 pages each, I have no idea. But he’s done it, and it’s a great service to us of smaller minds and lesser time.

There’s no point trying to summarise his summaries but a few things jumped out at me:

  • Some of the early church guys like Justin Martyr were brilliant. The way they handled the Bible, their focus on the gospel, the way they saw Christ all the way through the Scriptures, their understanding of the Trinity and the atonement, the way they answered the key apologetic questions was masterful. They had no Luther or Calvin or anyone to refer to – just the Bible – and yet they clearly articulated complex theology which was then virtually lost until the Reformation.
  • At the same time there were sections of the early church that drifted disturbingly quickly away from the gospel (as Paul warned the Galatians) into legalism and moralism – The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas being sad examples of that.
  • I had always thought Anselm was a proto-Calvinist with a strong penal-substitution view of the atonement in contrast to the wishy-washy Abelard. But actually it turns out that his theological method was pretty terrible (‘faith seeking understanding’ really meant ‘reason seeking to prove theology without Scripture’), his view of the atonement was not penal substitution and his soteriology was more proto-Arminian, in contrast to Abelard who may actually have been quite good on atonement (the issues on Abelard are complex – see this academic paper on his commentary on Romans if you really want to go into it).
  • An important thread that runs through the different theologians Reeves looks at is their attitude to Scripture. From Ignatius to Athanasius Scripture is the Master. With Augustine you get Scripture plus Platonism. With Anselm you just get Plato. With Aquinas you get Aristotle. It’s the story of a steady slide away from the Scriptures and an increasing confidence in the ability of man to work out God by his own reason. It had to wait until the Reformation for the church to relearn 1 Corinthians 1-2 and the foolishness of wisdom.

What Reeves is really wanting to do is to calm our fears of approaching these theologians, to whet our appetites and actually get us reading the original texts (or at least English translations) for ourselves. So here they are:

And for articles and talks on historical theology from Reeves and others see the UCCF Theology Network’s section on Historical Theology.

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