In Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.
A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).
As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!
1. Irena Backus, Leibniz: Protestant Theologian
Though best known for his philosophy, Backus offers a different perspective by examining Leibniz’s theology. Backus works through the relationship of Leibniz’s Lutheran theology and his philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment.
Have you ever wanted to know what people really think of you? What are they saying when you leave the room? What words are whispered when they think no one is listening? Well, if you are Paul, here is your chance.
Patrick Gray provides us with an interesting take on an important issue. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) reads like a behind-the-scenes look at everyone who ever said something bad about Paul. The work is a thorough analysis of the who’s who of Paul’s critics.
Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
ECH: When and why did you begin writing?
Terry Glaspey: I’ve been interested in writing almost as long as I remember. In grade school I created little 12-page illustrated stories that I sold to classmates for a quarter. And writing papers was the part of high school and college that I enjoyed most. I got started writing books when someone asked me to turn a talk I had given into an article for their magazine. They liked the results, and I wrote several more for them, which eventually became my first book, Children of a Greater God. That was over twenty years ago.
ECH: How did you become involved in the subject matter of 75 Masterpieces?
Terry Glaspey: I’m someone who found his life enriched by the arts—by literature, music, the visual arts, and film. And I have always been interested in the intersection between faith and creativity; by the way that religious commitment can be reflected in various art forms. I appreciate the way that art has a way of giving fresh perspectives to the message of faith.
John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology
Full disclosure, I am not a philosopher. Far from it. However, the history of philosophy has always been an interest of mine. Whether it was working my way through Frederick Copleston’s history or the intricacies of the Hamann-Kant dialogues, the history of philosophy has been a topic I regularly return to.
John M. Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P & R Publishing , 2015; source: publisher) is a reminder both of my love for the history of philosophy and my inadequacy as a philosopher. Frame provides a wide sweep of the discipline, yet detailed attention to key philosophers and philosophies.
This is all standard fare for a history of philosophy. What distinguishes this history is the author. Frame, known more for his work in theology, offers a uniquely Christian and theological perspective on the history of philosophy.
The task of narrowing down centuries’ worth of “masterpieces” in a “best of” list is not one I would like to undertake. Deciding what is a masterpiece is a struggle in and of it itself, let alone having to provide a definitive list. Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Baker, 2015; source: publisher) is a balanced choice of art, literature, music, and film.
Following a chronological ordering, Glaspey begins with the Christian catacombs of Rome (75 Masterpieces, chapter 1). From the second century to the fifth, the underground maze served as a communal burial ground for Christians in times of peace and persecution. Images such as the good shepherd decorated these grounds as a sign of life after death.
A common placement of Gregory the Great (540-604) in his historical context has been to position him in the early stages of the medieval papacy. It has been argued that Gregory should be interpreted as the first medieval pope, initiating a trajectory which would develop over a number of centuries, and in many ways culminate in the Renaissance popes. As the first medieval pope, Gregory established the supremacy of Rome, laying the foundation for the institutional, political, and spiritual rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
In response to this assessment, recent scholarship has sought to better understand Gregory within his historical context. By bringing to light the continuity between Gregory and earlier periods of church history, it has been shown that the title of first medieval pope misidentifies Gregory in the wrong historical period. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but has great implications for the interpretation of Gregory’s theological, political, and literary endeavors as pope (590-604).
The challenges of addressing the entirety of church history within a single volume are well-known. Certain events must be passed over and discussions shelved for another time. Yet, if too much material is bypassed, we are left with an unbalanced history that fails to relate the flow and development of church history.
God’s Story: A Student’s Guide to Church History is Brian Cosby’s attempt at tackling this challenge. Not only does Cosby address the church from the Old Testament to the present, he does so in a concise volume intended for a brief read. In addition, his work is intended for the young, adding an additional level of difficulty.
As Timothy J. Wengert notes in the forward, the early years of Martin Luther has been a long time interest for researchers and readers alike. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand dedicates half of the work to Luther’s life up to 1521 (This classic work is still the best introduction to the life of Luther). Berndt Hamm’s The Early Luther (Eerdmans, 2014) continues this trend in this volume translated by Martin J. Lohrmann.
Instead of a negative depiction of Luther’s monastic days, Hamm deems Luther’s early years as instructive to his mature thought. He situates Luther firmly within his late medieval, Catholic, and monastic context. As an eager student, Luther worked in conjunction with these traditions for many years, formulating much of his theological categories. Hamm demonstrates not only his years of research in medieval thought, but also rightly conveys Luther’s debt to late medieval theology.
The spiritual classics are an elusive category of works that span the history of Christianity. For some, they are celebrated for their notoriety and mysterious nature but in practicality are read only in passing quotes and snippets. For others, the mention of such works results in a rolling of the eyes and scoffs that such esoteric works, and at times contrary to orthodox theology, would be meaningful for today. Perhaps for the majority of us, the spiritual classics have been woefully neglected simply due to our unfamiliarity and hesitation towards them.
Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics (IVP, 2013) is an apologetic for the continued reading of the spiritual classics. In its four sections the work sets out to answer the why, how, what, and who of the spiritual classics. More than merely opening the door for readers to peruse the classics, the authors exhort readers to examine them as formative to contemporary theology, soul care, and edification.