In John Hannah‘s Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, Hannah discusses the lack of interest (at the least) and knowledge in theology and church history on the part of the church universal. Hannah counters the claim that the church in America needs a revival by stating what the church needs is a revolution – a return to the church knowing God through the authority and power of His Word, and for the church to find its roots again through the teachings of our early church fathers and past great saints.
In regards to theology, Hannah states: “… the quest for the knowledge of God is not an idle pastime, … spiritual vitality in any era is found in people who know their God, and that the greatest danger for the church is ignorance of God” (10). While some are correct in warning against gaining just a head knowledge of God, they tend to neglect acknowledging theology’s vital role in the life of the church and believer.
When speaking of church history and historical theology, Hannah states: “A Christianity separated from historical credibility is not a biblical faith: a Christianity without theology is mere morality is mere morality and not the faith ‘once for all handed down to the saints’ (Jude 3)” (10).
I would like to add to Hannah’s words that Christians would do well to understand philosophical thought as well, particularly the history of Western philosophy (not because I am biased against Eastern philosophy; rather, Western philosophy has had a larger role in Christianity in general and believers in American will connect with the history of Western philosophy easier than with Eastern philosophy. I do think, however, that a survey of Eastern philosophy would be helpful to help understand the Eastern influence on American spirituality today). Before the Enlightenment, most Christian theologians had no qualms in employing philosophy in the service of theology. Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas are just a few who used philosophy to under-gird their theology (though they did so with a critical eye, correcting secular philosophers when their philosophy went against revelation). Understanding the trajectory of philosophical thought over history can help one to understand how we’ve arrived where we are as a culture today, and how one can respond biblically to the ideas of the world that set themselves against Christ.
An excellent book (that is easy to read) is Samuel Stumpf and James Fieser’s Philosophy: History and Problems. While this book has recently been released in its 8th edition, cheaper editions can be found on Amazon.com or Half.com. This book does a good job in providing a general overview on the history of philosophy up to recent philosophers. However, if you want a history of philosophy along with commentary on the major thinkers, then you cannot go wrong with Frederick Copleston’s 9 volume A History of Philosophy. This can be some hefty reading (each volume can run between 300 – 500 pages), but it’s well worth your time.
A Christian who seeks to understand the history of their Christian faith must take seriously the issue of philosophy if he is to understand the development/refinement of orthodox Christian doctrines, the doctrinal controversies throughout history, and the various heresies encountered over time.