Book Review: “Historical Theology In-Depth” by David Beale

bealeDavid Beale, a longtime professor of historical theology at BJU Seminary, published his two-volume Historical Theology In-Depth in 2013. This is an outstanding work, and every pastor and interested Christian should use it as the “go to” text for a foundational explanation of key themes in historical theology.

It doesn’t cover everything, of course. Instead, it hits some high points of historical theology by way of 57 different essays and four detailed appendices over the course of its two volumes. The essays are roughly chronological, written at the introductory level and include helpful bibliographies and extensive citations throughout.

Volume One

The first volume begins with a summary introduction to the early church fathers (1), followed by extensive chapters on major patristic figures (2-8). Beale then moves to the Greek apologists with explanation of their worldview (9), then to a discussion of Christian apologists such as Justin, Irenaeus and others (10-13). He discusses Neo-Platonism (14), Origen and his hermeneutical school (15), Tertullian and Latin Christianity in general (16), then Cyprian and his incipient episcopal ecclesiology (17).

Beale then provides a helpful summary of the “seeds of Roman Catholicism” (18), followed by an essential and superb discussion of the ecumenical creeds from Nicaea through Constantinople III (19-25). He provides some long discussions on different aspects of Augustine’s impact on the Christian church (26-30), followed by an excursus on Manicheanism (31) then some discourses on Nicaea II, icons, and Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism (32-33). Beale closes with a very interesting discussion on the patristic teaching on justification by faith (34), and then some brief discussions of Roman Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation (35-37).

Volume Two

The second volume opens with biographical sketches of Luther (1), Melanchthon (2), Zwingli (3) and Calvin (4) as foils to introduce the Protestant Reformation. Beale never discusses the English Reformation, or any national aspect of the Reformation outside of the four great reformers. He finishes his reformation section with a helpful discussion on Arminianism and Calvinism (5).

This is followed by a 40-page discussion on the sabbath day, an odd choice to take up fully 8% of the volume. This is an extensive discussion, but out of place and perhaps unnecessary. Beale lurches back into the reformation with a brief survey of the first-generation Anabaptists (8), then a critique of Baptist Landmarkism on historical grounds (9) and a discussion of Baptist origins and beliefs (10).

From here, Beale moves straight into colonial America and never leaves it. He provides a fascinating chronicle of the rise of Unitarianism in America (11), then the saga of the rise and fall of Harvard (12) and Yale (13-14). Indeed, these colleges are almost used as foils to describe the theological scene in colonial America. These are fascinating glimpses of early promise and zeal for God ruined by apostasy and unbelief. It’s a sober reminder that all institutions are earthly, but our triune Lord and His word alone are eternal.

Beale discussed Jonathan Edwards and the birth and incestuous growth of New Haven theology (14-16) and its impact on 19th century evangelicalism (17). He then provided a survey of apologetics and bibliology from 1800 to the present (18). He closed with a survey of pagan, Jewish and Christian attitutes towards abortion (19), and added four appendices on the shape and age of the earth, and the doctrine of creation.

Highlights

It’s very difficult to pick out the highlights from 57 essays! However, I’ll provide two examples that will illustrate how valuable Beale’s work is.

Creeds and Confessions (vol. 1, ch. 19)

Beale explains that doctrine is vital for two reasons; for the spiritual health of the church and to combat false teaching (1:208). False teachers ply their trade by doing three things; subtraction, addition or misrepresentation of the truth (1:209). He explains, “[t]he Scriptures provide protective guidelines for keeping our churches spiritually healthy and for combatting false doctrine. These guidelines constitute the basic paradigm and essentials for our own confessions of faith,” (1:209).

Beale then provides an extensive summary of the confessions of faith we find throughout the Bible (1:209-215). He clearly establishes that, from the beginning, God’s people have been interested in codifying what they believe and writing it down, so it could be passed on. Beale’s work here is very valuable in demonstrating that God’s people have always had a concrete “rule of faith.” If a Christian is troubled by the Bauer hypothesis of Christian origins, which is the theory Bart Ehrman advocates in scholarly1 and popular2 writings with evangelical fervency, then this chapter is a good place to direct him.

Creeds, Beale argues, are a good thing:

In historical theology the most permanent responses to error have been creeds and confessions. A creed can be both confessional and didactic. It can be both apologetical and polemic. It can be defensive and offensive. As a badge on the breast, created out of exposition, a creed can bring to the surface underlying truth from Scripture previously assumed but never fully defined. Like a raised sword, crafted out of conviction, a creed can militate against heresies and make them more decipherable (1:216).

Creeds are guardrails for orthodoxy. They’re “explanations rather than quotations,” (1:216). And, from the beginning of the Christian church, God’s people have been compelled to write their faith down, particularly in response to heresy. Beale then provides excerpts of several creedal statements from the early patristic era (1:217-222), then moves immediately into a long and extraordinarily helpful discussion of the ecumenical councils (chapters 20-25). This section is critical background for any pastor when teaching or studying Christology, and Beale points him to easily accessible, public domain source documents (e.g. NPNFand NPNF2) for further study.

Eternal Sonship, not Generation (vol. 2, ch. 7)

Beale doesn’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation. To him, the doctrine “originated from the metaphysical blending of the meanings of the two New Testament words begotten and monogenes,” (2:142). The standard lexicons make it clear, he argued, that the Greek word translated begotten primarily means “to be born or conceived” (2:142). The Bible teaches Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And, the word monogenes means “unique” or “one and only.” But, Beale argues, “[o]n the dubious assumption that the word monogenes derived from gennao (‘to beget’), fourth-century patristic writers depicted monogenes as ‘only begotten,’” (2:142). So, the doctrine developed based, in part, on a faulty understanding of two Greek words.

In addition, Beale insists, the very idea of “eternal generation” implies some kind of derivation of essence. Yet, he cautioned, “[a]n essential attribute of deity is self-existence. Christ’s deity inherently includes the perfection of autotheos, meaning ‘God in Himself,” (2:143). Beale quotes Calvin3 as denying eternal generation. However, I must note that, in this same section, Calvin admits “in respect of order and gradation, the beginning of divinity is in the Father.”4 Beale also quotes Warfield as saying the act of “begetting” is not an eternal act, but an eternal fact about Jesus’ eternal Sonship.5

At the Council of Constantinople, the Christian leader’s mistakes on the etymology and meaning of gennao and monogenes resulted in “the transfer of begotten from a literal-historical event into an eternal concept,” (2:145-146). Platonic philosophy unconsciously colored their thinking. Beale argues strongly that:

“[b]y definition, the concept of eternal generation highlights derivation and subordination. It obfuscates Christ’s selfexistence, which is an essential attribute of deity. It blurs his uniqueness. It is impossible even to express the concept of eternal generation without the use of terms indicative of eternal derivation and subordination,” (2:146).

Beale then provides a historical survey from Justin, to Origen, to Jerome and thence to the Nicean-Constantinople creed (2:147-166) to “show how the terms begotten and monogenes were gradually codified from the grammatical and historical into the conceptual and speculative,” (2:147). He ends the discussion by concluding, “Unfortunately, many have equated the term eternal generation with a separate and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, the eternal sonship of Christ,” (2:167).

I am torn on this. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with the doctrine of eternal generation, for the very reasons Beale objects to. I’ve always been more confused after reading theologians try to explain it.

Augustus Strong, as Beale warned, speaks of Christ’s sonship and eternal generation as synonymous. He explained eternal generation was,

“Not creation, but the Father’s communication of himself to the Son … not a commencement of existence, but an eternal relation to the Father … not an act of the Father’s will, but an internal necessity of the divine nature … not a relation in anyway analogous to physical derivation, but a lifemovement of the divine nature, in virtue of which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation, and in virtue of which the Father works through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.”6

I confess I have no idea what this means. I never have. Berkhof tries to explain …7

It is better to say that the Father generates the personal subsistence of the Son, but thereby also communicates to Him the divine essence in its entirety.

But in doing this we should guard against the idea that the Father first generated a second person, and then communicated the divine essence to this person, for that would lead to the conclusion that the Son was not generated out of the divine essence, but created out of nothing. In the work of generation there was a communication of essence; it was one indivisible act. And in virtue of this communication the Son also has life in Himself.

… but I still don’t get it. His summary definition doesn’t help, either.8 So, Beale has succeeded in really making me think deeply about some theological assumptions. He hasn’t convinced me yet, but I’ve certainly been thinking about the doctrine of eternal generation a lot lately!

Conclusion

Beale’s work is excellent. It belongs on every pastor’s shelf. Any Christian will benefit enormously by reading this text and growing to appreciate the rich theological and historical heritage the Christian church has. Church history didn’t start with Billy Sunday! I cannot recommend this work highly enough.

Notes

1 Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, updated ed. (New York: OUP, 2011).

2 Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: OUP, 2005).

3 In Historical Theology, 2:144, Beale quotes Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.29.

4 Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.24.

5 In Historical Theology, 2:144 (footnote 5), Beale quotes from Benjamin Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1968), 58-59.

6 Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 341-342.

7 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 93–94.

8 “It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change,” (Ibid, 94).

 

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