Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: A theological biography series by Jason Duesing

The following post introduces a "theological biography" series by Jason Duesing, who serves as vice president for Strategic Initiatives and assistant professor of Historical Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Duesing is the editor of Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary. Subsequent posts in the series will appear approximately every other week.

Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History
by Jason G. Duesing

Like many endurance sports, mountain climbers have their own cadre of clubs celebrating the adventures shared by only a few humans in history. In the 1980s, Richard Bass and Frank Wells conceived the mountaineering challenge of scaling the highest peak on each continent and coined the term “Seven Summits” for their quest. The Seven Summits term is now the talk of many who share a lifetime goal of joining their ranks.

In the church history classes I teach at Southwestern Seminary, one of the most helpful ways I have found to display the vast treasures found in the history of the work of God among men and women is the organizing of key events and theological doctrines around major historical figures. Much of my lectures weave in and out of what I present as “theological biography” in order to give a three dimensional aspect of reality and relevance to the names, dates, and places of foreign lands and cultures. My classes are unashamedly apologetic courses as I am seeking always to persuade the next generation not only why a working knowledge of history matters, but also why one entering churches and mission fields in the twenty-first century cannot afford to live without it. I like very much what Timothy George said to his students: “My task is to convince you that there was someone between your grandmother and Jesus, and it matters.” I couldn’t agree more.

Often, I depict the events unfolding in the history of Christianity like that of a great mountain range of immense length comprised of peaks and valleys, enduring both stormy and prosperous weather. Following this picture, throughout history, and by providential design, certain men and women have risen to high peaks representative of significant moments of theological development or major shifts in the expansion of Christianity. Mark Noll classifies these moments as turning points and sees the study of them as “one of the most interesting ways to grasp a general sense of Christian history.” Since I believe it to be the stuff of Greek Tragedy to learn that people have had “boring” encounters with history, my aim is to make the study of these moments, or these mountain peaks, a helpful and engaging way of getting one’s mind around the advance of Christianity as a whole rather than feeling overwhelmed at the thought of consuming all aspects and all facts at once.

Thanks to my friends at B&H Academic, over the next several weeks I will present “Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History.” These brief theological biographies are designed to introduce seven who rose to significant prominence. As with any such list, this one contains some element of subjectivity. Some readers will prefer a different seven than the individuals I’ve selected. These aren’t the seven top theologians or the seven greatest evangelists, and they are not all of equal historical stature. Other lists could be made to explore great Reformers, or Baptists, or Missionaries, or Women, or Texans, or even the unknown servants who helped any of these make their mark. But like the diversity of the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents, the seven I have chosen each served to shape the general direction of the history of Christianity in his own way.

One final note concerning my “Seven Summits” approach to history. Since the nineteenth century, historians have debated the merits of viewing history through the lives of “great men.” Thomas Carlyle’s statement that, “The History of the world is but the Biography of Great Men,” defined the virtue of this approach for many. But others critiqued Carlyle and preferred to elevate the social environment that shaped men of charisma and influence. What I am doing here in my short survey really follows neither path precisely. Thanks to kind instruction from Michael A. G. Haykin, my own views at this point align most closely with those of James Davison Hunter who, in his work To Change the World, puts forward a more balanced approach to the use of biography and cultural context. Put simply, I see the approach of theological biography as a helpful tool for learning and edification. Further in depth study of any individual would and should require wide reading into their lives, friends, and social environment.

Here is the list of my “Seven Summits.” I look forward to exploring them further, Lord willing, in this space in the days ahead.

1. Augustine
2. Martin Luther
3. John Calvin
4. Balthasar Hubmaier
5. Jonathan Edwards
6. William Carey
7. Carl F. H. Henry

What are your Seven Summits? How would you rank or organize key figures in history? Thanks for reading and “climbing” along with me.

Further Reading:

  • Akin, Daniel. Ten Who Changed the World. B&H, 2012.
  • McDermott, Gerald. The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide. IVP Academic, 2010.
  • McGrath, Alister. A Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers. Wipf & Stock, 2005.
  • Noll, Mark. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd edition. Baker, 2012.
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  • I teach early church history, so I'd have to part ways on a couple of those.  Athanasius would be one that I'd have to add to any church history list, though.  When we think about the back and forth of orthodoxy and Arianism during his time and his own experiences in the midst of that - it's a great story that also captures the theological battle that was going on.  I appreciate your article and your thoughts on teaching this important subject!  

  • Respectfully, I would agree with the earlier comment.  That six of the seven "peaks" are from the Reformation period forward seems a bit skewed.  To spin off George's quote, even as a Reformation studies prof myself, I try to help my students see there was someone between Luther and Jesus, and it matters.  And Augustine simply isn't enough to reflect that. But I love the endeavor and hope it comes quickly.  

  • Thank you for your gracious comments. You both recognize the limitations of any attempt to narrow down a list of significant figures. Athanasius is definitely one that was difficult to leave off of this list as are many others from the Patristic and Medieval eras. But, as I hope show, I have a specific reason for selecting the figures on my list.  Thanks for reading!

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Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: A theological biography series by Jason Duesing