Every New Year has that underlying hint of new possibilities. We foster this feeling by setting ourselves resolutions, though most of the time we brush it all off as a cliché. But even when we do that, there is a sense that with a new beginning there are new opportunities, new hopes either for ourselves or for others.
This New Year, one unlike any other in our lifetime, we have ambitions great and small. We all hope for an end to the pandemic, we long to see family, friends and church members again. Even though lockdowns and daily case numbers give this New Year a certain sense of groundhog day, there’s still the opportunity for some new beginnings, big or small.
As 2020 drew to a close, many shared that they had had more time for reading during that strange year. With lockdowns forcing us inside, and events and business cancelled or stripped back, people had more time to pick up a book, turn on their kindle, or read online. 2021 isn’t starting in the most promising of ways, as much of England is locked down, and the other nations of the UK all face their own strict restrictions. But maybe this gives us some opportunities as well? Maybe this year we could carry on reading more, or start if we perhaps haven’t before. And maybe this year we could read something new; or rather, something old.
Read ‘Something’ Old
There are so many good books out there, and so many helpful books (Christian and non-Christian) are published ever year. But Christianity is an ancient faith, with a long history. It would be folly to ignore that history in what we read, because it is bursting with the writings of so many godly men and women.
So this year, if you hope to read more, why not make a conscious effort to read more historical theology and Christian history?
But why do this? Here’s three quick reasons…
1. Reading historical theology can sharpen our minds.
Writing in different times and in different ways, Christians that have gone before us can often bring a fresh perspective to challenge us with God’s truth. God’s word has been read and studied throughout history, so there is plenty out there for us to learn and explore.
2. Reading historical theology strips away our cultural preconceptions.
Whether we are aware of it or not, a huge amount of who we are and how we think is shaped by the way we have experienced the world around us. Try as we might, we are inevitably a product of our culture and our time, to some extent. Reading the theology and history of a different time can confront us with our blindspots, challenge our ignorance and encourage us in our weariness.
3. Reading historical theology shows us the hand of God over history.
As we read through church history, we are struck time and again by how God poured out his grace and mercy on His people. God inspired great theologians and teachers to encourage His church, He built up great leaders and brave men and women to contend for the Gospel across the globe. As we read historical theology, or Christian history, we see the record of God at work throughout the ages.
So where to start?
There’s so much out there, and some really helpful books and articles to begin exploring the long history of the Christian church, and of Christian thought. One of my own reading aims this year is to read more broadly in historical theology, and the below may help both me and you in this.
Gavin Ortlund’s recent book is well worth a read, making a compelling case for historical retrieval.
This article on historical theology from The Gospel Coalition includes a helpful booklist at the end if you wanted to take these ideas further.
Still not convinced about reading more on this? This article from Christianity.com gives 10 reasons why reading historical theology is a good idea.
If you want a good introduction to church history, I’d recommend The Story of the Church, which I have reviewed here.
And on the Early Church?
If you’ve ever visited this blog before (or just seen the header at the top of this page) you’ll know it’s focussed on the earliest centuries of Church History.
There’s so much that is helpful surviving from these first few years (along with plenty of unhelpful and downright false teaching.) I’d be happy to recommend some great reads, and often there are readable editions online, as well as relatively cheap print editions. I recommend some texts that would be worth exploring below. I’d also like to say that starting shortly, I’ll be ‘reviewing’ some of these Early Christian texts, in an effort to explore some of the more varied writing of these ancient Christians – watch this space for more on that.
Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching
Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man Who Can Be Saved?