The Dictionary of Historical Theology
A review of Trevor Hart's, "The Dictionary of Historical Theology," by Dr. David Buschart.
Hart, Trevor A., ed. The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000. Hardback, $50.00. 599pp.
During the past fifteen years or so, there has been an explosion in the number of theologically related reference works produced by evangelical publishing houses. The more accessible works among them constitute a boon to students and pastors, as high quality reference works that provide brief summaries and distillations of current scholarship on a wide range of matters. The Dictionary of Historical Theology, produced under the general editorship of Trevor Hart (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), is a useful addition to this genre.
The Dictionary contains 314 entries, ranging in length from 500 to 15,000 words, on persons, schools of thought, and texts that are of particular importance to the history of Christian theology over the past two thousand years. There is inevitably, and of necessity, overlap of coverage with any number of other general reference works on the history of Christianity. From Abelard to Zwingli, there are articles on topics covered in dozens of other reference works. Yet, there are a number of characteristics by virtue of which this dictionary makes its own contribution.
Most notably is the “deliberately international and interdenominational” (Preface, xix) profile of contributors and topics of articles. While a large number of the contributors work in Great Britain, Scotland, the United States, and Canada, a significant number work in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, South Africa, Romania, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, and Australia.
This relatively greater breadth among the contributors is echoed in the inclusion of articles on subjects not typically included in general reference works produced in England or North America. There is a considerable number of articles on subjects with which most British and North American readers are probably unfamiliar. For example, there are articles on Barlaam of Calabria (14th century Greece), Eucherius of Lyons (5th century Gaul), Walter Hilton (14th century England), Philippus Van Limborch (17th century Netherlands), Joseph Maréchal (20th century Belgium), Leonhard Ragaz (20th century Switzerland), and Dumitru Staniloae (20th century Romania).
Another contribution is the inclusion of recent and contemporary figures and schools of thought. Among the figures treated are Sydney Cave, James Cone, Matthew Fox, Hans Frei, John Hick, Eberhard Jüngel, Vladimir Lossky, Jürgen Moltmann, Lesslie Newbigin, and Paul Ricoeur. The recent and contemporary schools of thought covered are even more wide-ranging, and include, for example, African theology, Asian theology, ecofeminism, environmental theology, narrative theology, neo-paganism, post-liberal theology, and postmodernism.
In most cases the editors succeeded in enlisting scholars who are recognized experts on the topics on which they write here. For example, Richard Mueller writes the entry on “Reformed Confessions and Catechisms,” Robert Yarborough contributes the article on Adolf Schlatter, and Robert DeGruchy writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ann Loades presents “Feminist Theology,” Douglas Groothuis discusses Blaise Pascal, and Kevin Vanhoozer writes on Paul Ricoeur.
As already noted, the diversity of contributors and range of subjects treated is broader than is often the case with works such as this which are produced in Britain or North America. Yet, there are still substantial regions of the globe and of Christian thought which are largely untouched. None of the contributors currently conducts their theological work in Africa (other than South Africa), Asia, or Latin America, and the topics covered, and not covered, similarly reflects this distribution. Apart from the articles on African theology and Gustavo Gutiérrez, there is little consideration of topics indigenous to these regions.
Within the classical schools of Protestant Christian thought, the Dictionary is oriented towards Reformed thought. For example, there are substantive articles on Calvinism, Calvin and a variety of Reformed figures, and the longest entry in the Dictionary is Müller’s on Reformed confessions and catechisms. By contrast, there is a brief article on John Wesley, and no articles on, for example, Wesleyanism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, or Pentecostal theology.
Furthermore, an opportunity has been missed here to inform students about the discipline of historical theology itself. It would have been most appropriate, and helpful, to include articles on such topics as historical theology, doctrinal development, tradition, history, historicism, and more articles on figures, both historical and contemporary, who are of particular importance to the discipline of historical theology, such as Jacques Bossuet and Jaroslav Pelikan.
Having noted these limitations, The Dictionary of Historical Theology is nonetheless a useful and welcome resource. There are well crafted articles by excellent scholars, and topics which take me beyond familiar terrain. It would be a worthwhile addition to one’s reference collection.
W. David Buschart
Professor of Theology and Historical Studies