Jonathan Hill’s The History of Christian Thought has a weighty task. It is a book written for a popular audience and covers 2,000 years of thoughts and figures. For the most part, it is up to the task. Its omissions do leave a bad aftertaste at times.
The book is split into six main sections, The Church Fathers, Byzantine Empire, Middle Ages, Reformation, Modern Era and the 20th century. Hill’s academic training was steeped in the Patristics and the quality in the Church Fathers section demonstrates this. Part of the strengths of the book are not only explaining thinkers but large movements and their relationships to one another. The contrasts and points of contact between a movement like “Neoplatonism” and “Post Nicene Christianity” proved lucid and helpful. Constant call backs to previous theologians (for example, highlighting Tertullian’s disagreements with Origen or tracking the development of the classical doctrine of God) allows one to see the threads of Christian thought develop into a tapestry over time. Later eras also have quality explanations of individuals and whole movements. The section on Evangelicalism I found fair, engaging, and reflective (in a short space) on the “very broad and varied movement, in both attitude and doctrine” (248), and I am not easy to please when it comes to nuance in my own oft-mischaracterized tradition.
Unfortunately, a one volume book shows a glimpse of a tapestry which is incomplete. Missing is significant attention to the Radical Reformation, Missiology and the Missions movement, and any sort of significant attention to the contributions of women. Hill acknowledges this lack in a short section on Feminist Theology. He attributes the lack of women present. While sexism is a significant and powerful force in Christian history, I think this reason is insufficient for the omission. No feminist theologians are mentioned in this section, though, Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Sexism and God-Talk is listed as Further Reading. By contrast, other sections do mention significant contributors in text. Nor are there named references to the renewed attention the Christian Tradition’s older female contributors even as Hill recognizes that there “have been many female saints”. There is no mention of Theresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, or others who wrote significant works. Some absences can be excused by the breadth of book. But the complete absence of even names seems to paint a little too broadly a brush concerning the Christian tradition and women’s contributions. Similar restraints also hinder other sub-sections like those on Pentecostalism in the last section.
For a fuller understanding of the sweep of Christian History, including its thinkers, one may one to turn to Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity or more specialized tomes like Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. For a shorter, broad over view of the Christian thinkers and movements one most often may here referenced, Hill’s book could be a useful starting point.
IVP Academic Provided Words about God a review copy of The History of Christian Thought: The fascinating story of the great Christian thinkers and how they helped shape the world was we know it today by Jonathan Hill in exchange for an honest review.