Theologian Trading Cards. By Norman Jeune III. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 315 cards, $26.99.
When taught well, the study of church history opens the door to two thousand years of doctrinal insight, political posturing, and intriguing personalities that shape the thought and theology of the modern church. In one sense, the study of church history is the study of such personalities and the manner in which they interacted in agreement and disagreement. The difficulty for students then, is the sheer volume of these historic figures, their contributions to theological thought, and discerning their rightful place in history.
In his Theologian Trading Cards, Norman Jeune III (M.A., Talbot School of Theology, Biola University) offers a unique study tool patterned after the American baseball card to assist Bible college and seminary students as they explore the leading voices from the early church councils to modern day. The 287 historical figures are divided among fifteen theological and historical “teams” such as the “Orthodoxy Dodgers” (heretics), the “Geneva Sovereigns” (Reformed), and the “Münster Radicals” (Anabaptists). Each card contains a picture or portrait on one side opposite brief biographical material and the historical significance of the figure. One immediately sees the value of such flashcards.
Upon further examination, one begins to notice peculiar inclusions that might not be expected. Contemporary theologians are well represented, including N.T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer, despite the fact that it is too soon to predict the impact of their theological contributions upon history. Their place in the collection at the expense of notably absent names such as Puritans Richard Baxter (who literally wrote the book on Reformed pastors) and William Gouge (whose work influenced centuries of believers’ understanding of the Christian home) may raise suspicion.
Anabaptists are particularly well represented, perhaps reversing the centuries old trend toward minimizing their contributions to Christian thought, while the first English Baptists, Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, are completely absent. John Bunyan, the author of one of the most influential books in all of Christian history, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is not mentioned. One observes further that Baptists in general are marginalized and names such as Roger Williams (who championed religious freedom in the early United States), John Broadus, James P. Boyce, and B.H Carroll (founders of Southern Baptist seminaries) are simply missing from the deck, as is the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Further complicating matters is the reality that all history is interpretive, and that Jeune was, by the very nature of the project, required to make debatable decisions regarding the categorization of particular figures. Such decisions would lead him to categorize Jonathan Edwards as an “Evangelical / Fundamentalist” rather than Puritan, and to group the Anabaptists separately as a whole, despite the fact that many were condemned as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, the Magisterial Reformers, or both. Jeune’s interpretation seems to have led him to conclude that theirs was not legitimate heresy, and was deserving of a separate category altogether. One may agree with his conclusion regarding the Anabaptists, but must still acknowledge that in this case, his is a re-interpretation of historical events, rather than that which was understood at that time.
This same critique extends to the author’s identification of some who classified as martyrs despite the fact that they were executed by the church as heretics. Though one might quickly come to the defense of Balthasar Hübmaier’s accusation as a heretic, one cannot deny that was the charge for which he was executed. While Jeune lists Hübmaier as an Anabaptist rather than a Heretic, he does not account his death as martyrdom.
Despite these critiques, the Theologian Trading Cards will serve students well as they begin to navigate church history. Jeune strives to help students understand historical figures in their proper theological context, which demands he make certain interpretive decisions. While some may disagree with specific decisions, none can deny the strength of this resource for students of church history.
This review appears in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 56.1 (Fall 2013): 109-110.