I was both skeptical and interested. Bethany House offered me a free review copy of the book The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe by Daryl Aaron. I have quite a few books that are collections of short biographical sketches of famous Christians. I think that one of the first Christian books I ever bought and probably the first church history I ever read was a small paperback called Heroes of the Faith.
I love biographies and so the collection of 5 to 10 page life stories appeals to me. But the problem is this: Other than being handy for quick reference, these kinds of books tend to be too superficial for my needs. They are great for the novice, the beginner, the person who gets John Calvin and J.C. Ryle confused. I am not trying to sound too erudite or too sophisticated for such books, but I know that I often need to read more than just a short clip on a person or subject.
There happens to be lots of enjoyable books that contain short, usually inspiring biographical sketches. In recent times, Eric Metaxas wrote a book called Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. John MacArthur wrote Twelve Ordinary Men, Twelve Extraordinary Women, and Twelve Unlikely Heroes, all of which are biographical sketches and devotional studies of Bible characters. Warren Wiersbe has a book called Fifty People Every Christian Should Know. A slightly different approach and some different subjects can be found in Saints and Scoundrels: From King Herod to Solzhenitsyn by Robin Philips.
So, before I received my review copy of The 40 Most Influential Christians, I figured I had the book already classified. “Great for younger readers.” “A good introduction to famous Christians.” “Enjoyable stories of famous believers.” “Inspiring tales of faith.” But this book surprised me. These biographical studies are quite in-depth, even though they are each 5 pages long. There is more here than just the basic facts of birth, life, death. Instead, each chapter consists of 3 parts: the context, the contribution, and the conclusion. The first part, the context, gives a snapshot of the place where the church or culture was at the time. The second tells what the particular Christian did, while the third part is an evaluation of that person.
I am currently using the book in my theology class with high school students. We have “Theologian Thursday,” which is a time when I introduce a historical figure from Christian history (not necessarily a theologian). This book is quite useful for such.
There is another fun part of books like this. It involves who gets included and who gets left out. To be surprised, shocked, bothered, and confirmed all takes place with the opening of the book to the table of contents. The argument with the author begins: “Why did you include ****?” “What! You left **** out?” I will note many of the influential Christians that were included below, but first notice this. Dr. Aaron says that the list consists of who in his opinion are the 40 most influential Christians in his opinion. And, he points out that he is not necessarily a fan of the theologies of all those included, but is only noting that each is influential.
Here are some that Aaron says are blatantly obvious: Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. In the category of the unfamiliar or less familiar, he includes Clement, Cyprian, Cyril, Julian, Richard Hooker, and Rosemary Reuther (who I have never previously heard of). Some of the others in the book are Anselm, Peter Abelard, Menno Simmons, John Wesley, and James Arminius. I winced over that last name, but realized, that Arminius has been extremely influential.
One of the modern theologians is Friedrich Scheirmacher, who is one that I think the author would be refering to when he says that some of the theologians have been more harmful than good. Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are in the book, and rightly so. So are J. Gresham Machen and Carl F. H. Henry. It might not be easy to have a pleasant meal with the last five people mentioned, but the case can be made that they all made important contributions to Christianity.
Who would I be adding if I had the chance to “correct” the book and increase the number? Definitely, I would add Abraham Kuyper first, and then add on a few more Dutchmen, such as Herman Bavinck and Herman Dooyeweerd. Maybe Machen represented the Princeton tradition, but I would like to have seen chapters on Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield. From the most recent decades, a strong case could be made for Francis Schaeffer and Billy Graham. There are always a few favorites, such as George Whitefield. George Grant would be miffed that Thomas Chalmers isn’t on the starting line-up. He and I both would want to see Charles Spurgeon included. Neither Cornelius Van Til nor Gordon Clark were included, and for that matter, Alvin Plantiga. And where are John Witherspoon and John Murray? Since the book isn’t all about theologians and preachers, Flannery O’Connor would be a good addition.
Yes, I could see the book expanded to some 1000 plus pages, and I would still have a complaint or two. But back to the actual book and the actual list, this is a fine book, a good study. I really like this book and am inspired to know more about these 40 influential Christians.
This book was published by Bethany House Publishers and I received a review copy free. I did not have to write a positive review, but I did. And I did have to include this bit of information.