on 16 February 2010
A gem from Mike Reeves, following his thumbnail sketch of the Reformation in 'The Unquenchable Flame'. I say 'gem' because it's small and sparkly - fewer than 150 pages, lively, and sharply observed.
As the title says, the book is meant to be a 'breeze' through key early writers on Christian belief. Like a breeze, it manages to be both light and refreshing. The issues are brought alive through Reeves' own excitement at theology, his evident compassion for his subjects, and his lively sketches of their lives. Sceptics might cavil at someone who deals with such large subjects in so few pages, but Reeves knows his languages, his theology, his history, and the current literature on the subject. Others might be daunted by big books written in Latin, but the author gets straight to the heart of the issues, showing what made them so important at the time, and helping the reader understand what makes them relevant for us today. This book is the first in a series of two. I look forward to the second volume, and learning about more recent writers, and the situations in which they worked.
I'd like to see more, however brief, about writers from outside Europe. An outline of the key issues which weren't dealt with solely by a single author would also be welcome (such as the differences that emerged between eastern and western churches). So too would a bit more info about the long period between Augustine and Anselm. Little writing survives, but barbaric it was not. Leave the library and take us to the British Museum, Reeves!
Only one harrumph: where's the index? Written partly for students, the book will find itself excluded from most university libraries (if not reading lists) because quick reference isn't possible. This needs to be remedied. It would take a week and could be done on two sides of a single page. See to it, IVP.
on 10 March 2011
Nick is right on two counts, first, this is a gem, and he's also right on his "harrumph" point: This would be better served with an index at the back. Having said that, it is short, accessible and clear enough to find what you want pretty quickly. But still.
As an introduction it works brilliantly, even if it is, as Mike writes in the introduction, a highly selective "picking and choosing" of major theologians. But the point is to introduce these titans of church history and point the novice to works of ever increasing volume should they choose to pursue it. Reeves even encourages readers to put his book down and pick up others, such is his passion for these titans to be read on their own terms - BUT READ BREEZE OF THE CENTURIES FIRST, then and only then should one follow the advice of C.S. Lewis in ditching the weedy, tired and cliched "devotional" books and start "working [your] way through a bit of tough theology with a pipe in [your] teeth and a pencil in [your] hand." Genius. I'm off to get a pipe.
on 17 April 2012
In just 150 pages Reeves gives an overview of the life and thought of the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas; and does so with wit and panache.
As well as outlining the big theological issues of the ages, Reeves is good at slipping in those aspects of human interest that make history interesting - such as the Letter to Diognetus only being discovered in 1436, being used to wrap fish in Constantinople, and Aquinas' family trying to tempt him away from his spiritual calling with a scantily clad seductress. But the big theological issues are big - and still very relevant today. Questions of the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature of eternal life, and the rationality of faith are hardly novel to our age, and the battles of the past prove fertile ground in which to work out how to respond and what to believe.
Viewing theology through the lens of history is also helpful to us in working out where the battle lines should be drawn in defence of the truth. We live in a time when there is both an incredible level of rancour amongst people who all claim to be followers of Jesus, but also a general cultural assumption of `tolerance' that means many Christians find it difficult to ever say, "that is wrong." Where the likes of Polycarp and Athanasius draw these lines is deeply instructive.
As Reeves points out, the theologians discussed here offer a broad range of personalities and beliefs, and some are more attractive than others. For example, I find Athanasius and Augustine far more convincing than Anselm and Aquinas, yet each repays study - if only for the shaping influence they have had on later cultures and theology.
This is an excellent little book - get hold of it if you can!
on 10 January 2015
This is a really helpful resource for understanding some of the big names in early church history. Without this book I would probably never have bought Augustine's Confessions, an really encouraging book for any Christian student to read. Michael Reeve is an engaging writer who doesn't gloss over the flaws and errors of early church figures but who really gets you understanding the context the first followers of the risen Christ lived in and their joy, courage and perseverance. I would also highly recommend 'Standing on Giant's Shoulders', which carries on from the early church to introduce figures like Luther, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Excellent resource.