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5 Reasons Pastors Should Introduce Their Congregations to Theologians of the Past

5 Reasons Pastors Should Introduce Their Congregations to Theologians of the Past

If you’ve ever been to a large family reunion, then perhaps you’ll know the feeling of being surprised that all of the people gathered there are part of the same family – your family! Some of them you probably know well, some of them you may know only distantly or through stories that have been shared, and some of them you might be meeting for the first time.

One of the many images that Scripture uses to describe those who confess a common faith in Jesus Christ is that of a family (Rom. 8:29; Gal. 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17). By God’s grace, we are adopted into the family of faith (Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:5). But do we actually know this family? Do we know those who have walked before us as followers of Christ?

Here are Five reasons why pastors should introduce their congregations to theologians of the past:

To know how they were transformed by God’s Word

God’s living Word reveals who the triune God is and what God has done for us, especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That was also the case for those who preceded us in the faith. They, too, read the same accounts of God’s creation of the world, the Psalmist’s pleas and praises, Mary’s uncertainty at the angel’s words, and the surprise of Jesus’ disciples at the empty tomb. They, too, encountered the transformative power of the Holy Spirit through Scripture. They, too, sought to interpret the Bible faithfully and apply it to their lives. In a garden in Italy, Augustine was confronted by Paul’s charge to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14) and committed his life to Christ. After the outbreak of World War I, Karl Barth turned to what he called “the strange new world of the Bible” and heard anew God speaking through Jesus Christ. We won’t always agree with their readings of Scripture, but knowing how God has breathed life into those who have encountered the living Word can encourage our own reading of Scripture.

To know their struggles 

When we are confronted with challenges and questions of faith, it’s helpful to remember that we aren’t the first Christians who have faced such struggles. We aren’t the first Christians to be ridiculed or to suffer for our faith. Consider the early church and its defenders, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, who had to preserve the faith from both external threats and internal distortion. We aren’t the first Christians who have had to navigate the relationship between our faith and the surrounding culture. Consider the life and ministry of John of Damascus, who maintained his faith even while serving in the court of a Muslim caliph. We aren’t the first Christians who have wondered how our faith relates to reason. Consider the work of Anselm of Canterbury or Thomas Aquinas, both of whom showed that embracing faith in Christ doesn’t mean setting aside critical thinking. When we see how these theologians grappled with the complexities of faith, it can help us in our own journey.

To know their faith and hope in Christ

Members of our family of faith can also provide us with examples of the perseverance of their faith and their hope in a risen Savior. Athanasius of Alexandria spent much of his life in exile, but he remained a staunch defender of the divinity of Christ. Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons were often displaced and on the move, but they all appealed to the grace of God found in Christ alone. Gustavo Gutiérrez points to the ways that Jesus’ love for the poor and the outcast gives hope to those who suffer. So, despite the differences among Christians – and there are many – we can claim the same faith as those who have walked before us because we follow the same Lord and Savior. Their God is our God. Their hope is our hope.

To know the contributions of women to the faith

As pastors, we are called to serve the whole church and to support all those who are called to pursue life in Christ through the Holy Spirit. So, too, we should attend to all of those who have contributed to the faith throughout the centuries, including women, whose voices have unfortunately often been overlooked. For example, did you know that Macrina the Younger, the older sister of both Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, shaped the faith of these two Cappadocian fathers? Did you know that the earliest known surviving book written in English by a woman was Julian of Norwich’s Showings, which records God’s revelations to her? Did you know that Dorothy Sayers, a playwright and lay theologian, sought to make the ancient creeds of the church relevant in her day? In sometimes surprising yet significant ways, women have shaped – and continue to shape – our family of faith.

To know that we are a global body of believers

In recent years, there has been more attention paid to the fact that the church is a global body. But the truth is that the Christian faith has always been a universal or (lowercase “c”) “catholic” faith, spanning across languages, cultures, and time. Yes, we live out the Christian faith – week by week, season by season – at the local congregational level. But we are part of a global family whose existence is bound up with the eternal Holy Spirit. By knowing the faith of those across time and space – whether in 4th-century Egypt, 11th-century France, or 21st-century Peru – we can come to know all those in our family who have shaped our faith. Most importantly of all, as we come to know these theologians better, we come to know Jesus better, who says to his disciples of all times and places, “Come, follow me.”

How to Use This Book:

Know the Theologians, part of Zondervan’s KNOW series, can be a resource for pastors and their churches in a variety of ways:

  • Preaching and teaching resource: The book offers 16 chapters on key theologians and their contributions to the Christian faith, organized in four historical sections of four chapters each.
  • Prayer resource: Each chapter begins with a prayer by the main theologian as a reminder and expression of their own faith in Christ.
  • Small group resource: Groups might read the whole book (or a section of the book) together and use the Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter.
  • Adult education resource: Consider using the book in adult education classes and/or inviting the McNutts to teach at your church!

About the Authors:

Jennifer Powell McNutt (PhD, University of St Andrews) is Franklin S. Dyrness Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies and Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at Wheaton College. David W. McNutt (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Senior Acquisitions Editor at Zondervan Academic and Associate Lecturer of Core Studies at Wheaton College. They are both ordained ministers within the Presbyterian Church, the co-founders of McNuttshell Ministries, and the co-authors of Know the Theologians (Zondervan, 2024).


    In his foreword to the book, Alister McGrath wrote, “Know the Theologians is an elegant, accessible, and reliable guide to the wisdom of leading Christian writers down the ages… ideal for both Christian-college survey courses and for church study groups.”