One of the nice things about my eclectic interests and ecclesially broad employment to date is that sometime books appear in print that friends have written – in the case of the book I’m reviewing today, I remember being enthused by the author whilst working at LST in 2015. Sin, Grace and Free Will: A Historical Survey of Christian Thought is a proposed three volume project on the historical treatment of these key doctrines, by Matthew Knell, lecturer in church history at the London school of theology. This first volume deals with the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine, and so contains some very early Christian writing.
The great advantage of a book like this is that it enables regular readers to engage with original texts that are normally too expensive, obscure or difficult to access (although, as noted throughout the book, online resources like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library contain usable versions for free of many early and historical Christian texts). Knell offers the texts with only minimal comment – letting the historical figures do the bulk of the talking. The comments he makes are however very helpful, with his conclusion for each chapter neatly summing up as well as offering some intriguing suggestions for further reading. I trust that this format will continue into future volumes of this work, and would welcome more of the author’s own perspective. As a general rule, the format lends itself well to this – with a light touch joining together various sections of original source material, followed by conclusion and reflection from the author himself.
Speaking of format, this is somewhat of a mixed bag. Firstly, the positive; the book as a whole is clearly laid out, with good amounts of space given in the writing to the Fathers, the early church, the Greek Fathers, as well as an intelligent division of early and late periods in Augustine’s thinking. The introduction, epilogue and final thoughts that are very much Knells own words do add great value to the simply presented primary sources, and of course there is a lengthy and comprehensive biography. On the negative side (and certainly not the fault of the author – nor, indeed, the publishers normal formatting) there were a few pages where it is not entirely clear where the Body text, quote and footnotes can be distinguished. One of these incidents (photo below) occurs very early in the book and thus distracts the reader somewhat from the quality of the writing.
This section is body text – perfectly readable.
This section is a quote from an ancient source – clearly delineated.
More body text.
Here is the problem – this is a footnote section. Smaller font and/or a dividing line would make this much more obvious
Overall, however, this is brilliant first volume of an important new series. Clearly laid out, nicely written, and throughout comprehensive, this is an excellent introducgion into what early church thinkers actually though about sin, grace and free will. I would recommend it to those studying in these areas, as well as to pastors thinking deeply about these issues or perhaps werestling with them themselves. Matt writes from his own perspective, but lets the sources speak for themselves, and is keen for the readers to make their mind up. I look forward to the next volume, and the next phase of church history. Knell is an able and warm guide!