The Development of Theology: A Review of J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines

Like many parents today, I am fighting what seems to be a losing battle with my kids, trying to keep them from the wonders of technology. Whether it’s on-demand shows or games and apps on the iPad, my kids live in a world where they can take all this technological entertainment for granted. I, on the other hand, clearly remember coding on my Apple II and waiting for cartoons to come on at a certain time of the week. Having experienced the development of technology over the past three decades, I have a much deeper appreciation of current technology, and, I hope, a wiser approach as to how to best use it.

In many ways, Christians today can be no different than my kids. They might be aware of their church’s Statement of Faith. They might even recite the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed in a church service from time to time. But for so many, these truths are something they take for granted, a theological package they’ve been handed, which they no idea where it has come from.

It is in this context that J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines [1] is so helpful. Drawing from a vast ocean of primary source material from the earliest theologians, Kelly has organized the theology of the early church and shown its development over that first great period of church history. To read this book carefully is to gain a deeper appreciation of the Christian theology that we have today, and to be equipped to defend it going forward.

Summary

At first glance, it may seem that Kelly’s work is organized along the various loci of systematic theology, beginning with the doctrine of Scripture and ending with Eschatology (with a brief addition of Mariology). On closer examination, however, it’s clear that Kelly has organized his material historically, dividing his study by the Council of Nicaea.

The book opens with a Prolegomena, explaining the intellectual background of that time period and the development of the authority of Scripture. Chapter 1 works through the various philosophical worldviews which shaped the early theologians, from Hellenistic Judaism, to various Greek Philosophies, to Gnosticism and other heresies. Chapters 2 and 3 lay out the development of the relationship between Tradition and Scripture, and the recognition of the New Testament as canon.

The next two sections of the book repeat the main loci of systematic theology but exploring their development before and after Nicaea. Part Two of the book covers the development of theology prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325. Chapters 4 and 5 explore the Trinitarian confession of the church, which has always existed from the beginning but grew in clarity and depth in response to the false teachings of the third century. Chapter 6 explores pre-Nicene Christology, which again developed in response to early false teaching which denied the humanity or divinity of Christ. Chapter 7 discusses an early theology of sin and salvation, which, though underdeveloped, will play a significant role in future theological development. Finally, chapter 8 concludes this section by showing the development of ecclesiology, largely in the West.

Part Three transitions to the development of theology in the West after Nicaea, repeating many of the same theological categories as the previous section. It begins in chapter 9 at the Council of Nicaea, where the relationship of the Father and the Son is hammered out, though the theological and political controversy would continue for many years. In chapter 10, Kelly moves to a consideration of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Trinity, and the further development of Trinitarian theology. Chapters 11-12 cover the Christological controversies that arose, dealing with the relationship of the human and divine nature of Christ and culminating with the Chalcedonian Settlement. Chapter 13-14 deal with hamartiology and soteriology respectively, exploring, for the most part, Augustine’s battle against Pelagius, but also discussing the development of this theology in the East. Finally, chapters 15-16 conclude this section with the further development of ecclesiology and sacramental theology after Nicaea.

The book concludes with an Epilogue containing two more chapters. Chapter 17 lays out the eschatology of the early theologians, which developed largely in response to Gnostic teaching. And chapter 18, added in the fifth edition, covers the approach of early theologians to Mary and the Saints. Though it may seem that the eschatology of chapter 17 would be a more fitting conclusion, this chapter serves as a bridge to the medieval theology that is to come, reminding readers that the development of theology carries on.

The Development of Theology

In addition to being a work of top-rate theological scholarship, for the Christian, this book is a reminder of the privilege we have today of standing on the shoulders of the faithful who went before us. There are three ways in which this book helps the reader to grow in their appreciation of the theology we have been handed down through the ages.

Chronological

First, there is a greater appreciation for the chronological development of theology. As the modern Christians unthinkingly recite the ancient creeds, there is the danger that he would conceive of these theological truths as having dropped out of the sky, not unlike what certain world religions teach. But in how he has structured his book, Kelly is concerned with showing the development of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. He doesn’t shy away from talking about how at certain times or in certain places, a particular doctrine is still underdeveloped or perhaps even more characterized by pagan rather than Christian teaching. And yet, his goal all along is to show how the church continues to wrestle with the Scriptures and over time, respond to those who would undermine her faith. Even when a major theological decision would be reached, for example, the affirmation of the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of Arius, it would still be many years of conflict and struggle before Arianism would be stamped out.

Having this perspective reveals to us the precious gift that we have been given in the theology of the church. These creeds did not arise overnight but took time to develop. And yet, though false teachers have continued to challenge them, they have stood the test of time, and remain a faithful representation of the teaching of Scripture. As we come to appreciate the time it took for theology to develop, it is an encouragement to modern-day theologians to patiently persevere, as we combat the falsehoods of our day.

Geographical

Second, Kelly’s book produces a greater appreciation for the geographical development of theology. Again, it would be easy to look at our creeds and confessions with a wrong kind of pride, not recognizing the diversity of perspectives that are represented historically under those creeds. Yet, throughout the book, Kelly is careful to distinguish between the development of theology in the West versus the East, showing the differing shape of the theology on each side. For example, the East played a much larger role in the development of Christology, while for most of that period, the Christology of the West was undeveloped. In the West, Augustine’s personal battle with sin and temptation produced a deeper theology of the Fall of man, while in the East, influenced by Athanasius, there was a more optimistic view of man’s responsibility before God. Though the West produced a far more thorough ecclesiology, which wrestled with the identity of the church and its fundamental unity, the East contributed a more mystical understanding of the church as the body of Christ, and our union with one another grounded in our union with Christ.

Though I write from the perspective of one who has been raised in the tradition and teaching of the Western church, seeing the different perspectives and emphases of the Eastern church gives me a fuller appreciation of the global church and helps me to see the limits of my own perspective. There is an impression of the early church, which would condemn and exile heretics, as being barbaric and backward. However, when we see the way Athanasius, Hilary, and others worked for the unity of the church, responded to disagreement with charity, and worked towards understanding, we see a model for how we might do theology today. Of course, the early church did not hesitate to condemn false teachers as heretics. But within the bounds of orthodoxy, the church allowed and embraced diversity. In a world that is increasingly divided, an appreciation of the geographical development of doctrine encourages Christians to learn from their brothers and sisters of other traditions, without compromising their faith.

Controversial

Finally, this book should produce in the reader a greater appreciation of what I call the controversial development of theology. Living in the West, under relative religious freedom, it is hard to appreciate the cost of theological faithfulness that our brothers and sisters around the world experience. And yet, the pattern we see throughout early church history is that theology is developed in response to false teaching. It is the teaching of Marcion which forces the church to think carefully about their understanding of the Old Testament and its relationship to the gospel. It is the teaching of Arius which forces the church to articulate the relationship between the Father and the Son. From the Gnostics to Nestorius, from Docetism to the Donatists, it is through controversy and opposition that the doctrine of the Church is refined and sharpened and developed.

What this means is that we should not expect that theological faithfulness will be easy. For many of the early Christians, to remain faithful to God’s Word meant experiencing the slander of their enemies and the scorn of the world. At times, it meant standing up to the emperor, losing their possessions, and being banished from their homes. For some, it even meant losing their lives. And yet, because of their perseverance for the truth, and they conquered. And for their faithfulness and suffering, we hold the fruits of their labors today.

It would be easy to think that the work is finished. However, the challenge of theological controversy continues today, as technological advances and cultural transformation raise questions which would have been unthinkable in a previous age. And so, as in every age, Christians today must face these challenges head-on. And yet, J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines reminds us that we are not alone, and therefore, we do not lose heart. Rather, we persevere in faithfulness, knowing that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, trusting that God will use our labors to bring greater clarity and love for Him and His truth.

[1] Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco, California: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978. 511pp. 0 06 064334 X

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