Saturday, March 17, 2018
Basic Readings in Church History: Suggestions for the Beginner
Many Christians are poorly versed in Bible content and in theology, and last week I gave some suggestions for changing that. But compared with their knowledge of church history, those same Christians are virtual scholars in Bible and theology. For many, it seems that the history of Christianity began with their birth, or perhaps their rebirth. There is little to no sense of where they currently live in relation to the broader scope of the entire history of the church. Yet there is a vast library of accessible books that can correct that problem. For the person looking to begin an exploration of church history, I would recommend the following books.
First is S. M. Houghton’s Sketches from Church History. This is not a continuous history, but rather, as the title suggests, glimpses into episodes and persons from the past. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the first 1,400 years of church history, with the remainder focusing on the Reformation and, after the Reformation, focusing on the Protestant Church, especially in the West. While the selection of material doesn’t give the reader much on the Eastern Church or on the development of Roman Catholicism after the Reformation, it is a good introduction for a modern American evangelical. It has plenty of illustrations, which is also helpful.
Second would be Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. This book is now in its fourth edition. It is also light on the Eastern church but gives more information on Roman Catholic developments in the post-Reformation period. It is divided into forty-eight chapters, most of them in the ten to fifteen-page range. Thus, over the course of about a month and a half, at the rate of one chapter a day, the reader can get a decent introduction to the history of the church.
A third recommendation is Church History: The Basics from Concordia Publishing House. I am less familiar with this work, but it appears to be a good alternative to Shelley. It is an abbreviated form of the book The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, also from Concordia. This is a substantial church history in one volume. One advantage of it is that it includes readings from primary sources in each of the ages. A similar work would be Justo Gonzales’s The Story of Christianity, a popular choice for use in seminary church history survey courses
A little more advanced treatment can be found in the Pelican History of the Church series. This is a seven-volume collection consisting of the following: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages; Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789; Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions; and (a relatively new addition to the series) Owen Chadwick, The Christian Church in the Cold War. As indicated, this is more demanding reading, but it gives a more thorough treatment of many of the doctrinal disputes that characterize the history of the church.
Finally, I would recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson is not a church historian, but this is a readable account. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. From Kirkus Review: “Though the narrative is fast-paced and the style vigorously economic, the account brims with telling details and reasoned judgments and never seems superficial, Johnson eschews all special theological pleading and abides by professional canons of evidence and objectivity. Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, he maintains a healthy balance between the internal and external dimensions of Christianity's development; events and ideas mesh into a coherent story.”