Historical theology is the unfolding of Christian theology throughout the centuries. The purpose of historical theology is “to describe the historical origin of the dogma of the Church and to trace its subsequent changes and developments.”

Divisions of Historical Theology

I. Ancient Theology (1st Century-A.D. 590)
A. Controversies:
1. Gnosticism: positing dualism, taught that matter was inherently evil and thus Christ could not have a real body.
2. Arianism: Concerning Christ’s person
3. Montanism: Montanus stressed the unity of God, denying a trinity of Persons.
4. Marcionites: Marcion tried to corrupt the canon.
5. Concerning Christ’s two natures:
a. Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) dealt with Apollinaris’ heresy that Christ’s human spirit was replaced by the logos.
b. Nestorius separated the two natures and over-emphasized the human, which was dealt with at the Council of Ephesus (431). c. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) answered the Eutychian view that Christ’s two natures were fused into one-the divine. The Definition of Chalcedon states the orthodox view of two natures united in one Person.
6. Divine Grace and Human Freedom: Augustine of Hippo vs. Pelagius.
7. Monophysite: (the position that Christ has only one nature [divine]) – Eutyches (A.D. 380-456) founded the monophysite heresy, which was dealt with in the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553).
B. The Well-known Theologians and Church Fathers
1. The Sub-Apostolic Fathers: (the generation immediately after the apostles)
a). Introduction: The writings of the apostolic Fathers are significant because those men were close to the events of the life of Christ and the apostolic era.
b). Names of Theologians
Clement (A.D. 30-95)
Ignatius (A.D. 69-107)
Polycarp (A.D. 69-156)
2. Apologetics:
a). Introduction: The apologists were another second-century group that defended Christianity against criticism and vigorously debated the Christian doctrines with philosophers and emperors.
b). Names of Theologians
1). some writers of the second century:
Papias, (A.D. 74- faced a suffered martyrdom in A.D. 163)
Justin Martyr, (A.D. 100-165) foremost apologist, defended the moral and spiritual value of Christianity and championed its being legalized in his First Apology. He also defended it against Judaism in his Dialogue with Trypho
Tatian, (A.D. 120-180)
Irenæus (A.D. 135–202) in Against Heresies upheld the deity and resurrection of Christ against Gnosticism.
2). whose lives reach over into the third century and later?
Tertullian of Carthage in Africa (A.D. 150–230) formulated the doctrine of God’s tri-unity in Against Praxeas[1].
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215)
Origen of Alexandria in Egypt (A.D. 186–253). An allegorist in his interpretation of Scripture.
Cyprian (A.D. 200-258) formulated the doctrines of apostolic succession and Peter’s primacy.
Eusebius (A.D. 264–340) the father of Church History.
Athanasius (A.D. 293-373) – fight against Arius who taught that Christ was a creature distinct in essence from God. Important works: “Against the Heathen” and “The Incarnation of the Word of God”.
Chrysostom (A.D. 345-407)
Jerome (A.D. 340-420) translated the Latin Vulgate, which became the Bible of Christendom for more than a thousand years.
Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) – fight against Pelagius who denied total depravity and insisted man was able to cooperate with divine grace.
Theodore (A.D. 350-428), bishop of Mopsuestia, championed sound grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible.

II. Medieval Theology (A.D. 590-1517)

A. Introduction: The medieval period existed from A.D. 590-1517 when the Reformation began. The period from 500-1500 is frequently called the Dark ages because of the ecclesiastical (church) corruption. This probably was one of the essential reasons that promoted the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther.
The Roman Catholic Church developed during the medieval period most of its doctrine: a. Gregory I (A.D. 590-604): he emphasized the concept of purgatory in A.D. 593; and the sacrificial character of the mass. b. Prayer to Mary, saints, and angels in A.D. 600. c. Kissing the pope’s foot in A.D. 709. d. Canonization of dead saints in A.D. 995. e. Celibacy of the priesthood in A.D. 1079. f. The rosary in A.D. 1090. g. Transubstantiation[2] and confessing sins to a priest in A.D. 1215. h. The seven sacraments in A.D. 1439.

B. Controversies:

1. The iconoclastic controversy: (The worship of images in the Western Church), this heresy was dealt with in the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) 2. The filioque controversy: (did the Father alone or the Father and the Son send the Spirit) – split the Eastern and Western church (A.D. 1054). 3. The predestination controversy: (resulted in rejection of Gottschalk’s predestinarian view). 4. The Eucharist controversy: (led to the doctrine of transubstantiation) 5. The atonement controversy: 6. Monothelitism: (the position that states that Christ had one will) – was dealt with in the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680)
C. Selected Distinguish Theologians 1.

Boethius (A.D. 480-524) Major work: The Consolation of Philosophy Importance: 1) Bridged gap b/t ancient and medieval eras; 2) Known as “the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastics”; 3) Explained Trinity in Aristotelian categories; 4) God is one with the three persons viewed as internal relations; 5) Attempted to translate Plato and Aristotle into Latin 2.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) Major works: 1) Proslogion; 2) Monologion Importance: 1) Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the greatest of all the medieval theologians; 2) “Father of Scholastic Theology”; 3) Gave first serious attempt to give a rationale for the atonement; 4) Held to satisfaction theory of the atonement; 5) Tried to establish the being of God on purely rationalistic grounds with his ontological argument; 6) Known for statement, “Faith seeking understanding” 3.

Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274) Major work: Summa Theologica (systematic presentation of Christian doctrine); Summa contra Gentiles Importance: 1) Most important theologian of the Medieval era; 2) Said there were five proofs for God’s existence (including cosmological and teleological arguments); 3) Brought Aristotelian philosophy to Christianity; 4) Argued for a close connection between faith and reason; nature reveals much about God’s existence and attributes (matters such as Trinity, though, must be revealed through special revelation) 4.

John Wycliff (1330-84) Major works: 1) Summa de Ente (vindicated realism against nominalism); 2) Translation of the Vulgate into English. Importance: 1) Was known as the Morning Star of the Reformation because of his writings against transubstantiation and the pope; 2) Denied efficacy of the mass as well as rituals and ceremonies; 3) Saw church as predestined body of believers; 4) Said salvation is by grace; 4) Known as the author or inspirer of the first complete translation of the Bible into English; 5) Known as Evening Star of scholasticism; 6) Was the last of the Oxford scholastics.

III. Reformation Theology (A.D. 1517-1750)

A. Introduction: The Reformation marked a major turning point in the doctrinal development of the church. For the one thousand years before this time the authority of the church had developed continuously until the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the papacy determined what the people were to believe. The Reformation changed all that.
B. Selected Distinguish Theologians 1.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) Major works: 1) 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament; 2) Diatribe on Free Will (1524). Importance: 1) Leading Christian humanist of the Reformation; 2) Advocate of reform through scholarly effort. He was the epitome of Renassiance Humanism; 3) Criticized the Pope and the Catholic Church for its corruption but did not advocate leaving the church as Luther would eventually do; 4) Encouraged Luther before the Leipzig debate and thereafter began to criticize him. Erasmus disagreed with Luther over the issue of free-will; 5) Rejected Plato’s concept of the “Philosopher-Kings.” According to Erasmus, philosophers would make the worst political leaders. 2.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) Major work: 1) “Ten Theses of Berne” (1528). Importance: 1) Third most important early Protestant reformer; 2) Leader in Zurich; 3) Held to a memorial view of Lord’s Supper; 4) Was strongly predestinarian; 5) Strong commitment to Scriptural authority; 6) Opposed relics and penance; 7) Strong view of providence; 8) Held to inclusivism [complete] believing that there were “pious heathen” who were saved; 8) Inspired and then opposed Anabaptists; 9) Was a Catholic priest; 10) Preached exegetical sermons beginning with Matthew; 11) Died in battle while serving Zurich troops; 12) Had organs removed from church services. 3.

William Tyndale (1494-1536) Importance: 1) Translator of the Bible; known as the “Father of the English Bible; 90% of his words passed into the King James Version; 2) Held to double justification by faith and works; 3) View of Lord’s supper view similar to Zwingli’s memorial view. 4.

John Knox (1514-72) Major work: Helped produce Confession of Faith. Importance: 1) Scottish reformer who wrote on behalf of Protestantism; 2) Said Scripture is the sole and sufficient rule of faith and practice; 3) Justification is through faith alone; 4) The minister of Gospel is simply a servant and steward; 5) The people have a voice in electing pastors and office-bearers; 6) Was ordained as a Catholic priest; 7) Was in exile on the European continent. 5.

Martin Luther(1483-1546) Major works: 1) “Ninety-five Theses” (1517); 2) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; 3) Bondage of the Will. Importance: 1) German monk

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Eva...

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became primary leader of the Protestant Reformation; 2) Linked with Lutheran denomination; 3) Promoted justification by faith alone; 4) Promoted sola scriptura; 5) Held to consubstantiation (the Lord’s supper); 6) Opposed indulgences; 7) Questioned authority of the papacy (considered it antichrist); 8) Held to two marks of church—Word and sacraments (Baptism and Lord’s Supper); 9) Held to strong view of predestination; 10) Rejected church tradition as being equal to scripture; 11) Rejected allegorical exegesis (although inconsistent himself); 12) Promoted priesthood of believers; 13) Viewed the state as the ‘left-hand of God’; 14) Asked to recant of his views at the Diet of Worms (1521); 15) Involved with specific apocalyptic expectations concerning the End; 16) Considered the book of James a “strawy epistle.” 6.

John Calvin (1509-64) Major works: 1) Institutes of the Christian Religion; 2) Commentaries. Importance:1) Along with Luther, the most important Protestant reformer; 2) Magesterial Reformer of Geneva; 3) Father of Reformed and Presbyterian theology; 4) Great systematizer of theology; 5) Held to sola scriptura; 6) Held to historic view of Trinity; 7) Held to secret predestination (absolute, particular, and double); 8) Held to sola fidei; 9) Held to infant baptism; 10) Held to spiritual presence view of the Lord’s Supper; 11) Stressed Christ’s role as mediator; 12) Believed there were two marks of church—Word preached and sacraments rightly used. 7.

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) Major works: 1) Commentary on Romans 9; 2) Declaration of Sentiments; 3) Examination of Perkins’ Pamphlet. Importance: 1) Father of Arminianism; 2) Believed God’s predestination of individuals is based on foreknowledge of whether people believe or reject Christ (conditional predestination); 3) Argued against supralapsarianism (did not believe destiny determined before the Fall); 4) Believed in human freedom; 5) Held to unlimited atonement; 6) His views picked up by Methodists and Holiness groups; 7) Known as “the quiet Dutchman.” 8.

John Owen (1616-83) Major works: Numerous writings on theology. Importance: 1) Puritan theologian committed to the congregational way of church government; 2) Held to major themes of high Calvinism (particular redemption, election), Trinity, Christology, church polity, and pursuit of holiness.

IV. Modern theology (A.D. 1750-present)

A. Introduction: Modern Theology was seriously affected by the Enlightenment and its after effects. The Enlightenment

brought an emphasis on the centrality of man and reason. The work of the eighteenth-century Königsberg-born philosopher Immanuel Kant set a new direction for philosophical and theological enquiry up until our day.

B. Selected Notable Theologians:

1. A.H. Strong (1839-1921) Major work: Systematic Theology. Importance: 1) Most notable Baptist theologian of the 19th and early 20th centuries; 2) Taught from a reformed Baptist perspective; 3) Open to diverse theological opinion; 4) Moderate Calvinistic view of election; 5) Said inerrancy was an indefensible position; 6) Was converted under Charles Finney as a college student; 7) Held to theistic evolution; 8) Some thought he was on a slippery slope toward liberalism.
2. Carl F.H. Henry (b. 1923) Major works: God, Revelation and Authority. Importance: 1) Leading evangelical theologian of the latter half of the 20th century; 2) Defender of evangelical truth; 3) Christianity Today’s founding editor; 3) Involved with Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy; wanted church to avoid excesses of fundamentalism and engage broader theological community; 4) Focused on God, revelation, and various points of controversy; 5) Gave a thorough defense of inerrancy; 6) At Wheaton made friends with Billy Graham and Harold Lindsell; 7) Went to Fuller Seminary in 1947; 8) Viewed Barth’s views as dangerous; 9) Was a presuppositionalist.
3. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) Major works: 1) Mere Christianity; 2) The Screwtape Letters; 3) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Importance: 1) The best-selling Christian author of all time; 2) His works are popular in Great Britain and the United States; 3) Converted from atheism to theism in 1929; became a Christian in 1931.

Footnotes: [1]Praxeas “was a Monarchian from Asia Minor who lived in the end of the 2nd century/beginning of the 3rd century. He believed in the unity of the Godhead and vehemently disagreed with any attempt at division of the personalities or personages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Christian Church. He was opposed by Tertullian in his tract, Against Praxeas (Adversus Praxean).” [2]The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine that the bread and wine of Communion become, in substance, but not appearance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ at consecration.


Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. Banner of Truth, 1985 reprint.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Moody, 1983. Earle E. Cairns. Christianity through the Centuries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954.

Hannah, John D. Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine. Navpress, 2001.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom. 3 vols. Baker, 1983 reprint.

walter A. Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.