God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology

Written by Gerald Bray Reviewed By Phillip Hussey

In this follow-up volume to God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), Gerald Bray charts out the development of Christian theology, beginning with its Israelite inheritance and ending in the contemporary period. The purpose is precisely that, a history of Christian theology and not a history of the Christian church. Quite obviously the two histories relate to one another by necessity, for Christian theology is a discourse worked out within and by the church. Materially though, the two histories may be presented in quite different manners, one leaning more toward an intellectual (as is the case here) than social analysis (as is the case with, for example, Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]).

The framework Bray adopts for his analysis is explicitly Trinitarian. Given our present theological milieu, he writes it “seems logical and appropriate to adopt a Trinitarian framework as the basis for explaining historical theology in the current context” (p. 17). The manner by which Bray fills in this framework takes it cue from theological dilemmas as they arose naturally and logically in time. This mode of analysis is neither merely topical nor merely chronological; rather, it is logically Trinitarian, unfolding as a development of the person and work of the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. However, Bray does retroactively appeal to earlier time periods in later chapters for cogency. For example, chapter 15 on the Holy Spirit begins chronologically in the early church even though materially (in Bray’s book) it follows the development of “covenant theology” in the 16th and 17th centuries (ch. 14). Such rationale, for Bray, follows from the fact that “covenant theology” logically falls as a development of the work of Christ (pp. 585–603). This is also why the inspiration of Scripture is treated in chapter 18 as a sub-section of the work of the Holy Spirit (Part VII), even though Bray’s analysis never ventures chronologically past Augustine in that chapter.

Admittedly, this review will not be a précis of each “Trinitarian” section of Bray’s lengthy volume; such a brief synopsis would only cheapen the flavor of his project as a whole. Yet, after working carefully through such a thought-out volume, a few critical remarks and, many more, positive affirmations are in order. First and critically, the volume’s sheer scope leaves certain areas within the history of theology underdeveloped. For instance, Bray’s passing treatment of Pentecostalism in the 20th century (pp. 980–82) has the implicit effect of denying the most widespread movement of Christianity in the contemporary period a place at the theological table. But, to be fair, the lack of rigorously theological material from its leaders and the movement’s newness globally (relatively speaking) makes is much harder to diagnose. Furthermore, based on the large number of persons treated in the volume, especially those outside of Bray’s areas of specialization (early church and the English Reformation), some readers may find his analysis of particular persons and their theological writings underwhelming, even misguided. By way of example, his exposition of Karl Rahner (pp. 1188–92) leaves much to be desired, particularly in Bray’s conclusion that Rahner “depersonalized” the Trinity—a rather un-nuanced reading of Rahner’s Mysterium Salutis, I would argue.

Despite the few difficulties mentioned above, the overall volume is a superb history of Christian theology. Its Trinitarian framework helpfully (and rightly) allows the student of theology to understand how and why Christian theology developed in the manner that it did. For example, instead of depicting the history of the atonement in one, neat section, Bray’s approach enables the reader to grasp the larger questions behind atonement theology that needed to be answered before technical theological quandaries associated with the death of Christ could come to the fore. In this way, different theological positions on the atonement (such as Gregory of Nyssa’s minority position [pp. 441–42]) become intelligible as the reader relives the questions that made such positions, even if ultimately rejected, possible in the first place. This also allows the reader to personally perceive and articulate underlying theological presuppositions instead of mindlessly repeating “textbook theology.” Such repetition is easily forgotten and pedagogically impotent.

Another strength of Bray’s monograph is his engagement with Eastern Orthodoxy, which is, by and large, excluded from Western, especially Protestant and evangelical, treatments of the history of theology. Given Bray’s linguistic fluidity, his inclusion and exposition of this side of the Christian tradition comes as a most welcome addition. Furthermore, his technical ability with language yields a lucid treatment of otherwise lexically confusing Trinitarian and Christological debates in the 4th and 5th centuries, as well as sympathetic treatments of traditional “heretics.” For instance, Bray’s conclusion regarding Nestorius’s theological position on the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ and his subsequent condemnation are most proper: “He was condemned, not because of his intentions (which were good) but because his solution to the problem was inadequate” (p. 347).

Overall, I heartily recommend this work as a resource for pastors, professors, divinity students, and the general reader. The prose is accessible and the technical vocabulary explained. For the divinity student, this volume would serve well as a complement to primary source study. For the pastor or professor, I see Bray’s volume as the single best resource for teaching through the history of Christian theology, whatever denominational allegiance one may have. Given my remarks about accessibility, I believe this to be especially true within the context of the local church. For anyone looking to lead parishioners through the history of Christian theology, they would be served well to utilize this work, despite any reservation they may have over length. The journey is long (over 1200 pages!) but the reward is great.

Phillip Hussey

Phillip Hussey
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, Missouri, USA

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