There are classic Christian scholars and authors that everyone should know about. Unfortunately, many of today’s believers are unfamiliar with some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers of the past. So in this article I will briefly introduce three great leaders and focus upon their written masterpieces.
These historic texts are not only Christian classics but also literary classics of Western civilization. All three of these works have had a profound influence upon Christian theology and philosophy. In fact, these books contain a defense of historic Christian truth-claims. The order of listing reflects a historical order only (from earliest to latest).
ON THE INCARNATION by St. Athanasius
Athanasius (c. 293–373) is one of the most respected Christian leaders in all of church history. His explanation and defense of essential Christian doctrine (primarily Christology) earned him the title “father of Orthodoxy.” All three branches of Christendom—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—hold him in high esteem.
Athanasius affirms that the essence of Christianity is found in the historic truth-claim of Jesus Christ being God in human flesh (a single person with both a divine and a human nature). However, during Athanasius’s lifetime, the incarnation would be challenged directly by the influential Arian heresy. Arius of Alexandria (256–336) taught that Christ (the Son) was not truly equal to the Father in nature but was rather a created being.
In On the Incarnation, Athanasius argues for the truth of the incarnation and indirectly argues against the Arian heresy by insisting that only the God-man (God in human flesh) can save human beings. Thus in the atonement, the unique God-man represents and reconciles both parties. So for Athanasius, the truth of the atonement depends upon the prior truth of the incarnation.
THE CITY OF GOD by St. Augustine
Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains today as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics. Being the most productive author of the ancient world, Augustine penned more than 5 million words.
The City of God (Latin: De Civitate Dei), written intermittently between AD 413 and 427, is considered to be Augustine’s scholarly masterpiece. This work stands as Augustine’s monumental world-and-life-view analysis. It is his longest (more than a thousand pages) and most comprehensive work, and is considered by some to be his most significant contribution to Western thought. In this book, Augustine laid new foundations in the fields of Christian apologetics and worldview and in the analysis of Christian history.
The first part of the work consists of Augustine’s refutation (“Against the Pagans”) of the charge made by some Roman citizens that Christianity was responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. (Rome had been shockingly sacked in AD 410 by barbarian invaders.) Augustine concludes that the Roman Empire’s demise was not the result of Christianity’s influence in its later stages, but rather the result of the empire’s inability to live up to its own highly exalted ideas.
CUR DEUS HOMO by St. Anselm
Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) is honored as a doctor of the Catholic church and has been recognized as the greatest Christian thinker between Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He was a major Christian theologian and philosopher and made important contributions to Christian doctrine, philosophical theology, and apologetics.
As a work of philosophical theology, Cur Deus Homo attempts to provide an explanation for possibly the greatest Christian mystery of all, as the Latin title asks: “Why the God-Man?” Thus Anselm lays out a broad theological theory for why it was necessary for God to become man in Jesus Christ and for the Son of God to suffer. This is then a rational defense of the necessity of the incarnation in light of the atonement.
Anselm’s theological conclusion is that only the God-Man can make the necessary payment to restore both God’s honor and humankind’s relationship with God. Because Jesus Christ is God, he has the dignity and glory to carry out the task, but it is performed in the nature of a human being. Thus, the incarnate Christ appeases God’s honor and justice.
These are three classic works that present, explain, and defend historic Christian doctrine and values. Today’s believers can learn a great deal from reading and studying these theological and apologetics masterpieces.
As C. S. Lewis recommended in the preface to Athanasius’s work, for every new book you read, make it a practice to read two old books.
Reflections: Your Turn
Who is your favorite Christian thinker from the past?
- For more about St. Athanasius and his accomplishments, see my article “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Athanasius.”
- For more about St. Augustine and his accomplishments, see my article “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Augustine.”
- For more about St. Anselm and his accomplishments, see my article “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Anselm.”