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Monday, June 24, 2013

"The 40 Most Influential Christians" (Daryl Aaron)

TITLE: The 40 Most Influential Christians
AUTHOR: Daryl Aaron
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (304 pages).

This book brings together 40 people who have shaped and "influenced" the world of Christianity for over 2000 years. Twenty persons have been selected for the first 1000 years, and the other twenty for the next 2000 years. All of them are dead, but their legacy remains, especially in this latest collection of famous people and their stories that have impacted the Christian world. The author is a pastor-turned-professor of religion at Northwestern College in Minnesota. He attributes his interest in historical theology to one professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Behind the writing of the book lies five reasons to read the book. First, seeing how these Christians have fought heresy and false teachings (especially during the first thousand years), teaches us to be constantly discerning what is being said or taught. Like how Ignatius of Antioch fought the threats of docetism and other heresies, making him a fervent defender of Christ being fully human as well as fully divine. Or how Irenaeus fought gnosticism, and how Clement of Alexandria fought paganism.

Second, we learn to distinguish what is a passing fad versus timeless truth. Despite his unorthodox philosophy in the 18th Century, Friedrich Schleiermacher provides the Christian world with one of the most powerful responses to the rise of deism in that era. Instead of rejecting traditional orthodox beliefs, Schleiermacher re-interprets the doctrines for the times, and becomes the father of modern Protestant liberal theology. He may not have defended the orthodox doctrines and traditions like some of the forefathers of old, but he certainly makes it more difficult for detractors to deny it. His successor, Albrecht Ritschl continues this rather "human-centered theology" and is able to teach widely the universal sinfulness of the human race. Seeing how these believers wrestle with traditions of old and the contemporary cultures of their times, helps us understand how challenging the contexts were at that time.

Third, we learn God is sovereign across all eras. This is the point made by people like Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great; as well as Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer who lets the sovereignty of God be his linchpin for all his theological works.

Four, reading the lives of these people shows us the importance of humility. The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Naziansus) in fighting against the heresy of Arianism and the confusion over the Trinity, unite against the heretic teachings of Arius and confusion over the place of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. While protecting the majesty of God on the one hand, they stress the importance of humility as a human response. This is also what John Calvin insists upon, that true Christianity results in a response in humility.

Five, as we live in a world where relative thought and all kinds of philosophies are being taught, we need reminders that there is such a thing as truth. Several of these influential persons grapple with relative thinking and the need to come to grips with cultural nuances in their land. For instance, Gustavo GutiƩrrez, in his liberation theology, shows how important it is to contextualize the gospel and apply them to culture at large. The advantage is that it brings the gospel alive to the needs of the poor, the powerless, and the helpless. The disadvantage is the vulnerability of the theology to other influences such as Marxism, and worldly philosophies.

Each chapter begins with a description of the contexts each person lives in. Whether it is through a particular era; a pressing theological issue; cultural integration; or reactions to unorthodoxy; it sets the stage for understanding how the person and his work makes its significant mark at that time. This is followed by a description of the key contributions given by each person, ending with a personal conclusion by the author of the highlights of that person's life work. In one book, Daryl Aaron has given us a brief sweep through history from the first century to the Millennial times; from theological giants to martyrs; from orthodoxy to liberation theology. Like Mark Noll's work of history according to turning points, Daryl Aaron gives us a work of history through people who help create great moments of history. We can then join the dots of history together and formulate a pretty good idea of how wonderful and creative God is when He moves among men and women both then, now, and the future.

So What?

For a book like this, it is a given that we ask how these people have been chosen. What is the criteria? So what if they have been "influential?" Are we then supposed to follow them, or what then do we do about this book? Maybe, it is to inspire us to be the best person of faith that we can be, just as these 40 individuals have done in their exercise of faith. Deciding who to put in is probably harder than actually writing this book. Well, for every one name included, we can argue why another is excluded. Books like these need to be understood in the light of the author's perspective. Don't expect to see Billy Graham, JI Packer, or some of your Millennial Christian heroes. That said, when reading about these men of faith, I am impressed for five good reasons. Firstly, these men are powerful voices who stood up for truth, so necessary when the people either needed an affirmation of the old, or a fresh new direction in Christian thought and culture. We can recall how Martin Luther stood against the entire Roman establishment, birthing the Protestant movement; or how John Wesley helped spur the holiness movement during a time of social unrest. Also, there are people like Thomas Aquinas who stood in the gap between intellectual scholastic theological world and the pastoral care of the flock in his parish.

Secondly, whether it is the affirmation of orthodoxy or the introduction of new thought, these men fill in a specific need at a specific time. Tertullian in the second century was the first theologian to write in Latin rather than the Greek, and is able to defend Christianity in the language of the people, during a time of massive cultural change or adaptation.  Another example is Theodore of Mopsuestia, one of the earliest proponents of literal interpretation and the contextual studies. This is a powerful step against an increasingly allegorical way of understanding the Bible. The over-spiritualizing methods are simply too radical and too liberal for him. The method he had proposed continues to be widely practiced in our modern day and age.

Thirdly, it reminds us that each generation needs to fight its own theological battles. Whether it is heresy in the early centuries; reformation in the middle ages; or cultural adaptations in the modern age; we need to read our Bibles on the one hand, and read the times on the other. In both cases, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us.

Fourthly, these people are powerful advocates for the Christian faith, and in some ways can be seen as heroes of the faith. We may not agree with their exact doctrinal positions, but we can surely identify with their  passion in the pursuit of truth. Together, they form a compendium of truth seekers in a world of false religions and deceitful philosophies. In standing up for the Christian faith, they are doing their form of battling evil principalities with the best they can muster up with.

Finally, the book gives more prominence to some of the lesser known figures (compared with famous names like Augustine, Martin Luther or John Wesley). People such as Cyril of Alexandria, Philip Spener, J. Gresham Machen, Albrecht Ritschl, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, just to name a few. It reminds me that for every visible name mentioned, there are hundreds, even thousands more theologians, martyrs, pastors, teachers, scholars, servants of God, who had remained under the radar for various reasons. It is like a reminder that the heroes in Hebrews 11 only represent the tip of the iceberg, as far as faithful believers are concerned.

Read any one chapter and be inspired! Better still, be motivated to do the same for your own generation, in your own community, according to God's perfect timing, as you let Him.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Bethany House Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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