Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine

By John D. Hannah
Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress (2001). 395 Pages.

Reviewed by Clifford McManis
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 118-120

 John D. Hannah has been the department chairman and distinguished professor of historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary for almost thirty years. This book is the by-product of his many years of study and teaching in that capacity. Hannah specifically directs this book toward pastors, Christian workers, and the laity with the hope of sounding the clarion call for true theological reformation in the evangelical church abroad (9, 20). He avers,

It is time for a reformation in the church…. [T]he greatest need in the contemporary church is to rediscover the gospel, its glory, and its power. It is time to return to the fundamentals of the faith and be refreshed in its truths, to gain anew a love and respect for the Holy Scriptures (20).

The author believes such a reformation in the church is possible, but is contingent upon Christians gaining a new and fresh appreciation of their theological “legacy” via the study of historical theology. Studying key doctrines of the faith through the lens of history has many benefits. It helps the church distinguish between the transient and the permanent. It also helps the modern church to discern error and deception from the wealth of accumulated Spirit-led illumination provided to the saints through the ages. Furthermore, studying theology in the vortex of history manifests the developmental progress that certain doctrines have undergone over time. In this sense history is a teacher and informs theology.

Hannah examines what he considers to be the priority doctrines of the church, dedicating a chapter to each. His analysis of each doctrine is from a “systematic-historical approach” (28), whereby he isolates a particular doctrine, tracing it through every stage of church history, highlighting the positive and negative development through the centuries. His chapter titles represent his doctrines of choice, which include the following:

  1. Authority: Where to Go for Truth
  2. The Trinity: God as Three-in-One
  3. The Person of Christ: Meet the God-Man
  4. The Work of Christ: What the Cross Means for Us
  5. Salvation: A Story of Sin and Grace
  6. The Church: God’s Gathered Community
  7. The End Times: Fulfillment of Our Blessed Hope

Before analyzing the above seven doctrines in their historical context, in the preface and chapter one the author lays the foundation of his methodological approach. He warns the reader that when it comes to historical theology, multiple models exist (24- 28). The author clearly lays out his presuppositions in this vast field of study. They include the authority of the Bible as a standard of objective truth, the doctrine of illumination as the Spirit leads the saints individually and collectively into truth (1 John 2:27), and the sufficiency of the Scripture. Regarding the latter point, the author believes the canon is closed and the role of history in the progress of dogma is “explanatory” and “static,” not “organic” and “expansive” (27).

One of the strengths of the book is Hannah’s lucid style of writing—he has an uncanny ability for distilling the complexities of history into digestible portions for the reader. And his objectivity as a theologian is admirable. For example, when dealing with the development of “premillennialism,” he seeks to let the historical facts do the talking. Though acknowledging that the early church “Fathers embraced a premillennial understanding” (306), he notes that in its seminal stages it was not formally systematized by them, nor did they jointly express that the kingdom was “to be one thousand years in duration” (306). Amillennialism came to the fore under Augustine, overshadowing early premillennialism, and enjoyed a hegemonic dominance till Calvin, who labeled it “childish” (320). But with renewed interest in biblical studies following the Reformation, premillennialism began to establish itself once again, this time more systematically and persuasively. The testimony of historical data reveals that premillennialism is neither novel nor faddish, but rather has roots in church history and biblical theology.

The author concludes his book with an impassioned, practical plea for the church to proclaim and teach with clarity the priority doctrines of the Bible (339-44). The book includes a helpful glossary of terms (365-76).

This reviewer highly recommends the book for pastors and serious Bible students. Bible colleges and seminaries would do well to consider it as a fresh survey text in historical theology classes.