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On Giants’ Shoulders

By Michael Reeves
March 2012 | Review by Mostyn Roberts

Synopsis

Is 'newer' really 'better'? We often assume so, but if we do treat the past as inferior we will ignore the legacy of history, and thus will find ourselves stranded on the tiny desert island of our own moment in time. In particular, this applies to Christian theology, which should be thought, and lived, corporately by the church down through the ages. The remedy to 'chronological snobbery' is, as C. S. Lewis put it, 'to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds'. Such is the motivation behind Michael Reeves' introduction to a selection of influential or significant Christian theologians. Furthermore, by 'sitting on the shoulders of giants ... our glance can take in more things and reach farther than theirs' (Bernard of Chartres). This accessible and informative companion volume to The Breeze of the Centuries covers Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. Each chapter begins with a brief biography and some background, then surveys each theologian's major work or works, gives a timeline for historical context, and ends with guidance for further reading.

  • Publisher: IVP
  • ISBN: 978-1-84474-495-4
  • Pages: 170
  • Price: 8.99
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Book Review

On Giants’ Shoulders – Introducing great theologians – from Luther to Barth

Michael Reeves

IVP

170 pages, £8.99

ISBN: 978-1-84474-495-4

Due to an error this book was only given 1 star in the Evangelical Times newspaper we apologize for this error. The reviewer (Mostyn Roberts) rates it “three stars” subject to the comments in his review.

Michael Reeves’ design in On Giants’ Shoulders is to follow C.S. Lewis’ advice to ‘keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ and ‘open up the doors to the refreshing influences of other times’. Recognising the limitations of trying to summarise six theologians in one short book, Reeves has chosen men of particular significance for the English-speaking world and has tried to let them speak for themselves. His aim is that people will read more of their writings. Each chapter ends with suggestions for further reading.

      The selected theologians are Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. Each chapter begins with a brief biography. The essential thought of each man is then presented through the lens of definitive texts – for example, Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, Calvin’s Institutes, Edwards’ The Religious Affections, and so on.

The summarising of the theology is stimulating and whets the appetite for Reeves’ earlier volume, The Breeze of the Centuries introducing thinkers from the apostolic Fathers to Aquinas.

      There is one caveat. This is a book that is setting out to make important theologians accessible. One would expect therefore more of a health-warning when those theologians are unreliable or even heretical. After all, theology is not just an intellectual exercise and not all who read Reeves will be able to make the necessary critical assessments. The treatments of Schleiermacher and Barth in this respect are very short on critical analysis. It is good for people to be encouraged to read widely and not always just what they agree with. But Schleiermacher completely undermines Christianity. Machen rightly said that liberalism and Christianity are two different religions. Hodge’s opinion (quoted by Reeves with apparent approval) that Schleiermacher is surely now singing Jesus’ praises in heaven, looks awfully like 19th century sentimentalism. Reeves avers that ‘there can be no doubt’ that ‘Schleiermacher loved Jesus’. How can a man who, amongst other aberrations, jettisoned belief in an historic fall, in Christ as the pre-existent Son of God (he was ‘man becomes godly’ rather than ‘God become man’), whose faith was ‘essentially introspective’, who considered the Old Testament superfluous, the Trinity as ‘something of an appendix’ and rejected the idea of a substitutionary death, be said to ‘love Jesus’ in any recognisably biblical way? Just read 1 John. Barth too was a brilliant man and said many good things, but his system as a whole undermines biblical Christianity.

      This is not to say that no-one should read these men, but not everyone will be helped by reading them. Some indeed may be seriously harmed by them. Due allowance for this, and some differentiation between these and the clearly orthodox men, needs to be made in a book such as this.

      On Giants’ Shoulders can be commended as an excellent introduction to these theologians, but with this reservation: even old theology, particularly that which is brilliant and influential, must be evaluated in terms of truth. Not every breeze from past centuries is clean.

 

Mostyn Roberts

Welwyn

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