The years between the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) were an incredibly fertile time for the development of doctrinal thinking relative to both the Trinity and the incarnation. While it would obviously be wrong to say that such reflection either began or ended at the two poles of this time period, the primary terms of future debate were established at this time and have remained the creedal touchstones for future theological and ecumenical discussion in these key areas.
Nevertheless, to the neophyte student approaching the subject, it can be difficult to obtain a clear picture of the key personalities, ideas, and events in a way that makes coherent sense of the whole. An earlier generation of scholars, under the influence of the monumental work of John Henry Newman, tended to focus on the central roles of Arius and, more importantly, Athanasius. More recent scholarship has dethroned the "Athanasius against the world" narrative and replaced it with a picture that is at once more nuanced and therefore more complicated. Today's student needs a guidebook through the twists and turns that lead from Nicaea to Chalcedon, where today's good guy is tomorrow's problem (e.g., Apollinaris).
It is therefore a delight to see Frances Young's guide to the literature and personalities of the period back in print, revised for a second edition with the help of Andrew Teal. Taking into account developments in the field since the 1983 first edition, this updated book is a vital handbook for the newcomer to the field and to the teacher or academic who wants a one-volume handbook within arm's reach.
The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a particular character or theme. The usual suspects are all here: Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Cyril of Alexandria, among others. In each case, the authors give a brief overview of life, career, and significance; then, with the more important figures, they offer an account of key works and theological contributions; and they conclude each section and chapter with suggested further reading. The authors also range broadly within the theology of the men they study, thus demonstrating how discussion of Trinity and the incarnation cannot be divorced from the practical realities of church life. This is surely a vital point to make, given the constant tendency throughout church history (as strong today as ever) to assume that such discussions are merely abstract metaphysics of little relevance to worship and life.
The authors have struck a nice balance in what they present: the reader is given enough to whet the appetite but is not bogged down with too much technical detail. In addition, a remarkable amount of ground is covered in just 400 pages, making this book without parallel in terms of investment relative to the information it contains.
To say a book is a must-read or a must-buy is something of a hackneyed cliché today; but anyone’student, professor, minister, elder, or layperson’who wants to understand better how and why the church came to think the way she does about God, the Trinity, and the incarnation could do no better than to purchase this eminently readable and learned book.