Ordained Servant Online
Pages From Church History
Danny E. Olinger
Pages From Church History: A Guided Tour of Christian Classics, by Stephen J. Nichols. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006, 329 pages, $15.99, paper.
Stephen J. Nichols, a member of the PCA and history professor at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School, covers the last two thousand years of church history by focusing on twelve select men (actually thirteen since John and Charles Wesley are combined) and their theological contributions. Nichols examines five household names, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and the Wesleys; three Medieval theologians, Anselm, Aquinas, and à Kempis; the founder of modern Protestant missions, Carey; the writer of Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan; and two martyrs, one ancient, Polycarp, and one modern, Bonhoeffer.
The strength of the book is Nichols's ability to summarize in twenty pages what is crucial in understanding each person selected. He does this by systematically approaching each man using the same grid—an opening quote that represents the man's teachings, the man's life and times, thoughts and writings, analysis of a major book, and then the man's legacy. Nichols strives to be descriptive in each section up to an evaluation of the legacy. In the legacy section, he gently offers a critique from a Reformed standpoint.
A prime example of Nichols's gracious but effective style is found in his look at Thomas à Kempis's effort to reform the spirituality of the church in the fourteenth century. Upset over what he believed was the spiritual indifference of many in the Church, à Kempis (1380-1471) rose to prominence through his great manual of spirituality, The Imitation of Christ. Teaching that God is not known primarily through learning but by experience, he urged Christians to take their eyes off of material things and focus on spiritual things following after Christ's example.
In assessing à Kempis's legacy, particularly the mysticism that he inspired, Nichols writes,
In its finest hour, mysticism reminds us of the importance of devotion to God, that he is indeed the living Word. It reminds us that at most times we are rather full of ourselves and fixated on this world and that we would be far better off to take the eternal perspective. Mysticism wasn't always, however, at its finest. More often than not, the mystics grounded their devotion in personal experience rather than on Scripture. Further, they tended not to offer much help for living out one's Christianity in the world (144).
He goes on to conclude that à Kempis's efforts at spiritual reform did not stick because the church's spirituality lacked a theological foundation. Nichols writes, "The problem with Roman Catholicism in the later Middle Ages was more than a problem of lackluster spirituality; it was at base a misguided theology that had sent the church astray. Thomas à Kempis had correctly diagnosed the problem by only half, and his prescription followed accordingly" (145).
The chapter on à Kempis is indicative of the book as a whole. Nichols is interested in having Christians know those who have preceded them in the church. He states, "Studying the past offers meaningful connections with our legacy. We are enriched through our study of the past, simultaneously humbled by testimonies of courage and emboldened by reflections of God's grace and testimony" (14). Nichols is correct in this assessment. This book should find a reading among Orthodox Presbyterians. It easily could—and should—be used in both high school and Sunday school classes and in adult study groups.
Danny E. Olinger
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania