Here is the truth of the matter: We are all new Christians. It doesn’t matter if you were converted last Sunday or fifty plus years ago. We are all arriving at the party (okay, let’s say fellowship meal) long after it began. This means that we are going to be constantly surrounded by a discussion where we are lost as to the issues. We miss the inside jokes. We don’t understand the words and concepts being used. We don’t know who the others are talking about.
Christianity has been running strong for over 2000 years. (We could extend that time even longer and include the Old Testament saints.) The most basic and important means of catching up is reading the Bible. But no one does or can read the Bible without help. During all the years the Christian faith has been spreading, there have been teachers and preachers whose gifts and ministries from God has been helping people understand, see, and apply the Word of God to all areas of life. As in any field, there are good and great examples. Some people have been so dominant in the field of Bible study and theology that their names and influence continue to this day.
I know there are plenty of people who are simple folk and who are busy with jobs and families or maybe hindered from pursuing the Bible and theology in depth. I am not judging nor condemning them. But people who can read, people who master computers, video games, sports trivia, and other mind-centered fields of interest can also get grounded in the Bible and theology. This is not being said in order to just fill in some intellectual niche in the life of educated people. Instead, this is a great need in the Church. It is a great need in the local church you are attending.
Most of us are part of churches or church traditions that are small creeks. In so many ways, a creek can be a really fascinating place. (I lament no longer owning land that had creeks running at both the front and back of the property.) But if we never explore and find the river that the creek flows into, we are missing something. And that river itself then leads to a bigger river and on then to the ocean.
Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction by Kenneth Richard Samples is an invitation to explore past the pleasant creek and see the flowing rivers and vast ocean of God’s Kingdom through history. This book is published by Reasons to Believe, a Christian organization devoted to strengthening believers in doctrines, apologetics, and a world-view of Christian thought. Ken Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, along with being an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University. He has authored several books prior to Classic Christian Thinkers, including Without a Doubt and 7 Truths That Changed the World.
Classic Christian Thinkers covers nine Christian scholars: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. Of course, part of the fun of this book is raising questions like “Why did you leave out (fill in the blank)?” or “Why is (fill in the blank) included?” I admit to be a glutton for books with a group of theologians, pastors, preachers, or writers we should know.
This book keeps the focus narrow enough so that we can actually get some depth on the scholars in the line-up. Samples has designed the book as a launching pad. It is well and fine to read the book and be able to say, “Anselm…Yes, I have heard of him.” But there is a need to dig deeper and read the nine men in this book. Samples gives short biographical sketches of the men, followed by a description of key doctrinal positions or insights, distinctive ideas, and contributions to the Christian Church as a whole. Lots of other details are presented, including a few main writings, a defining quote, a timeline, and resources for further study.
This book is the theological equivalent to the Fodor’s travel books. In other words, this book is to be followed up with an actual journey after reading.
Sometimes, looking over the vast writings of an author is intimidating. But many authors can become familiar by reading shorter works or short selections from works. Augustine’s Confessions, which Samples and I both love, is not too long or too hard to read. Luther’s Small Catechism, recently translated and published by Paul Rydecki, is short and very readable. Wading into the wide river is not too hard to do, especially if you take advantage of guides like this book.
One additional advantage of this book is that it forces us to stop thinking so provincially and so denominationally. God has moved across a wide spectrum of beliefs and theological traditions across time. We who are Protestants feel quite comfortable with Luther and Calvin, but they were both nurtured by the Church Fathers, which includes such men as Augustine and Anselm. Thomas Aquinas may be one of the defining theologians in the Roman Catholic tradition, but many men, like R. C. Sproul, have gleaned richly from his writings. Blaise Pascal is an interesting case study because he was French and, therefore, almost automatically Catholic, but he is connected to the Jansenists who were very thoroughly Augustinian. As for C. S. Lewis, he is God’s gift to all believers.
I have often thought in recent years about the decision that John Piper made in his early theological studies to pick and master one theologian. In terms of where I am, I think I must be content to be a dabbler in many theologians, historians, novelists, poets, and philosophers. But books like this remind me that there is a need to get the basics and then follow the stream to where it leads to the rivers.