MYERS Book Review
Early Christian Doctrines Revised Edition, By J.N.D. Kelly; Peabody, MA: Prince Press, an imprint of Hendrickson Publishers, 1978, 511 pp, $19.95 hardcover.
The late John Norman Davidson Kelly, one of the foremost authorities on Patristic Church history from the 20th century, was principal of St. Edmund Hall at Oxford while writing this book. This book followed after his masterpiece Early Christian Creeds, which published in 1950. Quickly thereafter, he completed his Early Christian Doctrines and had it published in 1958. J.N.D. Kelly is also well known for his works Jerome (1975) and the Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986).
Dr. Kelly has offered a modest, fair and impartial, and concise outlined account of theological development in the Church of the fathers. Dr. Kelly intended for his work to be the update of the then dated work of Dr. Bethune-Baker’s Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (pp.v-vi). Kelly’s work still stands as formidable to this day with the revised edition serving to update the book in light of new discoveries and research. However, during Kelly’s time of the writing of this book, there also was produced out of Yale University the profound work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine by Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan. This 5-volume opus traces the Christian doctrines from the first century to the twentieth. However, this work is a step above Dr. Kelly’s work because Dr. Kelly admits in his preface that his Early Christian Doctrines is for a limited purpose causing him to deny himself “the pleasure of investigating some of the wider problems which the evolution of dogma inevitably raises.” (pg v).
The text is divided into four parts in a chronological fashion. Part I is Dr. Kelly’s Prolegomena, which covers the time frame, setting, background, tradition, canonicity, and hermeneutics which contribute to the effect and influence of the continued formation of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Part II deals with the Pre-Nicene Theology centered on primarily Theology Proper and Christological issues leading up to the Arian controversy and the orthodox response in the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Part III deals with the doctrines from Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and centers on the Trinitarian doctrine and the resultant Christological issues that stem from the Nicene dogma and their opponents. Augustine of Hyppo also takes center stage in the discussion as he battles Pelagius regarding the fallen nature of man and the Sovereignty of God and His sovereign grace. Dr. Kelly ends both Part II and III with a brief overview of the Ecclesiology of the church during that timeframe; he gives special attention to the doctrines of the sacraments in his brief snapshots of the Early Church’s Ecclesiology. Part IV ends the book as Kelly’s Epilogue that covers the miscellaneous topics of the Early Christian doctrines regarding eschatology and Mariology and the saints.
More modern books have emerged since Kelly’s work that is relevant to his formidable work. They are such as: The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Wilken) and History of Theology: The Patristic Period (Di Berardino, Studer, O’Connell) among few others. This is why Dr. Kelly’s work remains relevant and useful to this day.
Four areas of strength in Kelly’s work are commendable. First, he arranges the historical theology discussion chronologically. This can at times seem disjointed when such discussion of the historical theology of the Trinity are spread out in three different chapters over 200 pages. But this design allows the reader to experience the development of the doctrines in stages just as it occurred in real historical time.
Second, Dr. Kelly writes in such a way that almost anyone who puts forth an effort to read it can understand it. Dr. Kelly has a style of writing that brings the reader into the book without actually confusing the reader in unexplained detail and jargon. The semi-technical language, such as the discreet difference between homoousias and homoiousias, are clearly defined for the reader. Dr. Kelly also will include the original Greek and Latin during pertinent discussions where language is the key to the doctrinal issues at hand. This not only gives the specialist an opportunity to gain information from the text, but it also gives the laymen the exposure to the true arguments without trivializing and altering the real arguments into simplistic deceiving explanations; history is never simplistic especially the history of theology.
Thirdly, Dr. Kelly provides the reader a legion amount of quotations and footnotes that documents very well the early church father writings pertaining to each theological development. If any student of historical theology needs a starting ground to find where the early church fathers exactly discussed a specific topic, then this book would be the ideal starting point for the study of the first five centuries.
Lastly, Dr. Kelly did an extravagant job staying impartial during the teachings of this book. I would be very hard for the reader to guess what flavor of Christianity that he followed. There were not any condemnations of the Papacy or other such Romish inventions, nor did Dr. Kelly try to say that infant baptism is truly apostolic or non-apostolic. He merely laid out the facts, even admitting when there was not enough information to make a decision for apostolicity, such as the case with infant baptism.
While I have much praise for Dr. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, there are three critiques that are in order. First, the book was not intended to be exhaustive; however, it seems that Dr. Kelly could have been more detailed for his readers. An example is that he lumps the Cappadochian fathers together as if they equally contributed to Trinitarian theology or as if they agreed exactly in their Trinitarian theology. This of course is not true, they had different contributions and they had quite different nuances in their conception of the divine unity. Gregory Nazianzus was unique in that his Trinitarian theology was centered upon his belief in the monarchy of the Father. But such differences were never discovered within Kelly’s work.
Second, in his quest to be impartial and fact-oriented, Dr. Kelly made sure that he stayed away from the details and assessments of controversial topics such as paedocommunion, which he did not mention at all. Paedobaptism he brushed by with great caution. And he hardly plumbed the depths of great details of the papacy and the prevalent objections to it from the outset of its development.
Thirdly, Dr. Kelly’s brief bibliographies at the end of each chapter are not an exhaustive list of the sources he used. A thorough and exhaustive bibliography would have been very helpful for seminary students who wanted to pursue certain topics further and in more depth than dealt with in the text. Also, to any reader that pays close attention to the bibliographies and the references, it is very apparent that Dr. Kelly ignored modern authors in favor of old classics. I was very satisfied with Dr. Kelly’s interaction with classic historians such as Harnack, Tixeront, Loofs, and Seeberg. But I was very dissatisfied with his lack of interaction with modern researchers on the historical theology of these centuries. I believe Dr. Kelly would have benefited himself and his readers by interacting with modern scholarship.
Critiques aside, Dr. Kelly’s modest, fair and impartial, and concise outlined account of theological development in the Church of the fathers of the first five centuries should be read by laymen, undergraduate and seminary students, and pastors alike. This is and will be the best resource for obtaining an overview of patristic historic theological development for many generations to come.
Christopher W. Myers
Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Lynchburg, VA