On Giants’ Shoulders

Reeves Giants

A review of Mike Reeves’ book On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing Great Theologians from Luther to Barth.

This is the companion volume to the author’s The Breeze of the Centuries which looked at the Apostolic Fathers, Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Michael Reeves, former theological advisor for UCCF, introduces the reader this time, in a lively and engaging style, to Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth. As with the previous volume, this one begins by paying tribute to C.S. Lewis’ view of the past and our modern tendency towards ‘chronological snobbery,’ which sets us up for what follows.

With a racy look at the historical narrative, the chapter on Luther takes a close look at the Heidelberg Disputation as a convenient way in to Luther’s thought, and a brief look at some of his other early works. The chapter on Calvin is similar, giving a good defence in the historical section of Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus affair (‘it seems absurd that Calvin should be held personally responsible’) and then (inevitably!) a broad look at the Institutes. In contrast to some modern scholars, Reeves thinks (quite rightly) that Calvin believed in the complete inerrancy of the Scriptures, and gives some good references for that in both Institutes and commentaries. He also looks at some of the disagreements between Calvin and the Lutherans, but doesn’t indulge (thankfully) in that other modern debate about whether Calvin believed in limited atonement.

Reeves on John Owen is an enlightening experience, and focuses mainly on Owen’s Trinitarianism. He mentions Owen’s many and varied works, including his massive Hebrews commentary, though I’m not sure what he is getting at (or that I quite agree) when he says, ‘commenting on commentaries can get very tedious’!

On Edwards, he helpfully steers us away from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and towards some of the theologian’s other works, so that we get a more rounded picture than usual of him. There’s even a joke about whisky in the footnotes. The inclusion of Schleiermacher and Barth in the volume is important for theological students, since they are required to have a working knowledge of these two theologians. It doesn’t, I suppose, do us any harm to know about them, though one is very far from sound and the other strangely idiosyncratic. It is a shame, however, that two more solid representatives could not be included for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is good, however, that Reeves recommends Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism at the end of the chapter on Schleiermacher, and he is frank that ‘all the Barth-speak’ can feel like razor wire designed to keep out the uninitiated.’

Each chapter includes a timeline so that the events described and books expounded can easily be placed in historical order. The author shows a competent grasp of the main secondary literature on each theologian and gives a useful bibliography at the end of each chapter too, for those who wish to read further.  I wonder if some direction towards internet resources might also be worth including in such an up to date work? My two criticisms are that there is not much criticism (where it is, occasionally, sorely needed), and there is also no index (which is a surprise).  More from Reeves will, I hope, be forthcoming.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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