Michael Reeves (UK) is a friend and the author of some really outstanding books like Delighting in the Trinity (2012) and The Unquenchable Flame (2010). I love chatting theology with him. Today he released a new message: “A Complete Church History,” which you can download here, or listen to here:
“The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism.”
-W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (1933), p. 57. As quoted on page 161 of F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock), 1958.
“A world, and a church, which is hooked on novelty like some cultural equivalent of crack cocaine needs the cold, cynical eye of the historian to stand as a prophetic witness against it. And make no mistake, when it comes to my approach to trendy evangelical claims to epoch-making insights, beneath the cold, cynical exterior of this particular historian beats a heart of stone.”
-Carl Trueman, Minority Report (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), p. 26
I enjoy reading. I enjoy devotional works, some biographies, systematic theologies, and technical commentaries (some of which I have read cover-to-cover!). But unlike a good systematic theology, church history books — even the best ones — never grabbed me with two-hands on the collar, pulled me to my feet, looked me in the eye, and captured my attention.
Often “church history” books contain too little personal information to understand the characters or too little theological development to understand the contemporary importance of the ancient debates. Sometimes church histories include too many loosely-connected people that they become a mess of names, dates, and cities far disconnected from my Christian experience and theology.
But over the past year I think I’m growing in my appreciation for church history through a growing interest in historical theology. Historical theology being the discipline of tracing events, controversies, personalities and books over the centuries that have shaped the church’s theology.
Historical theology is hard on the collar.
But excellent books on historical theology are a rarity. The most commonly recommend is the standard work by Alister McGrath’s, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell: 1998 ). And there are some systematic theologies with an awareness of historical developments (like Culver and Akin). But my radar is always on the lookout for other volumes.
Enter Carl Trueman. Recently, I listened to Trueman’s lectures on church history from the Fulwood Conference (Nov. 8-9, 2007; Christ Church Fulwood, U.K.). At the beginning of his second conference address, Trueman recommended some books and I scratched them down in a notebook. I’m glad I did.
Here’s what Trueman said:
“There was one question that I was asked. Could I recommend a book to read alongside the historical theology module run by Moore College? Two things I would recommend there: (1) The series being written by a guy named Nicholas Needham. It’s called 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (Evangelical Press) and is proving to be a very good, comprehensive, but easy-to-read account of church history. It comes in several volumes. (2) And the other book I recommend to students – the best single-volume on the history of theology – written by a Scandinavian Lutheran named Bengt Hägglund, titled simply, History of Theology (Concordia: 2007). It’s a single volume that takes you from the early church almost down to the present day in terms of the history of theology. So those would be the two books I would recommend.”
These would prove to become fruitful recommendations. Here are more details:
History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007). The fourth revised edition of this volume was published in the Spring of this year. I’m awaiting a copy of Hägglund’s volume and I’ll pass along more detailed information soon.
But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press). The series will total five volumes, and to date three have been published.
Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998)
Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.
Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.
I’ve read through several chapters in Needham’s two newest volumes (Part Two: The Middle Ages and Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation). Here are my preliminary notes:
- Rev. Dr. Nick Needham is a Baptist pastor and teaches church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. His series of writings are written for a popular audience of modern Christian readers. The back cover notes this series was written “in a style that will appeal to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating.” I agree. Needham is a lucid author that presents a great amount of detail while keeping me engaged. His masterful use of frequent section breaks, clearly numbered outlines, boldly-fonted names, and visual aids keep me reading long sections very comfortably. These volumes excel in readability.
- In the beginning of Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, Needham states he is “Reformed by theological conviction” (3:12). On the same page he goes on to say, “I have little sympathy with that form of ‘ecumenism’ which relativises, and thereby trivialises, the convictions for which men and women lived and fought and died in the 16th century. That isn’t to say I disapprove of deeper understanding among the different religious traditions that claim the name of Christian; I approve heartily. But sometimes, deeper understanding will lead us to appreciate just how deeply we do differ on not a few issues, despite surprising measures of agreement on others. Papering over the cracks in the interests of some ecumenical ‘happy family’ game, in which sincerity is more highly prized than truth, is not this writer’s agenda, either as a historian or a Churchman.”
- The publisher plugs these volumes as a series on church history not explicitly a historical theology although it’s pretty obvious these volumes simultaneously cover the historical and theological development of the church. Probably, I find myself engaged by the content because of the author’s obvious interest in theology. Remember Trueman recommended Needham in answering a question about books on historical theology. A fitting recommendation.
- Needham clearly and concretely explains the broad political, social, and economic climate, then weaves in the specific writers, preachers, leaders, and books that shaped the theology. The volume covering the theological developments during the Middle Ages was fascinating, probably because I have previously dissed the era as a theological trifle. It was not. Especially noteworthy was Needham’s chapter on the global rise of Islam and its impact on Christian theology (2:15-45). I was surprised to learn John of Damascus (675-749) ministered under Islamic rule and even acted as a Prime Minister to the local Islamic rule! Within these medieval debates over Islamic theology opened controversies on the Trinity, incarnation, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of worship. These debates were handled by men like John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas. My point is: Needham’s scope of content expands beyond the walls of the church to provide necessary historical background in the theological developments within the walls. [In contrast, note McGrath's Historical Theology makes no mention of Islam].
- Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material to reinforce the chapter contents.
- Each volume includes a very detailed glossary, an extensive index of names and (best of all) an extensive subject index.
- The covers make for an odd marriage. The bottom 1/3rd is nice, featuring a line of portraits. The upper 2/3rds however are not so attractive. If the bottom appeals to a reader of cultured artistic tastes, I would say the top will catch the attention of roughly the same folks that pack a NASCAR race in the hopes of witnessing an explosion.
- Permit me to construct a hypothetical. What if the title of these volumes was swapped out for something like — The History of the Church and Her Theology — or something to highlight the excellent historical theology? What if they were reprinted as hardcovers with clean and classy dustjack design? Perhaps some light ornamentation on the cover like Eerdmans’ Machen or Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was reformatted from the lifeless Times New-Roman to a graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but with the rising interest in historical non-fiction volumes, a new format would more accurately capture the content of these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience. I would love to see these volumes in the feel and smell of the history books so popular today. You know what I’m talking about (and that’s my point).
In the end, these volumes by N.R. Needham are a nice find for the historical theology buff! I’m glad Carl Trueman recommended them, because likely in my search for good historical theology I would have shrouded them under my suspicion of anything “church history.”
Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious
by Christopher Catherwood
Christopher Catherwood is a tutor for the Cambridge University Institute of Continuing Education and the maternal grandson of preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). You may own more of Catherwood’s books than you realize because while being recognized for his own authored books, he has edited a number of his grandfather’s sermons into printed volumes (Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John being one example of his editorial work). His latest book is titled Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious (Crossway: 2007) and I recommend it for several reasons.
As you can tell from its title, this book is a very easy-to-read history of the developments of the church from Christ until today. It is useful as a brief but engaging overview of church history and will fit well into a home schooling curriculum.
In Church History, he paints an engaging picture of the contemporary, global Christian church. For example, he lets the reader peak into Chinese Christian culture and the struggle between the underground church and the state-approved “Three-Self Patriotic Church.” Are Christians compromising their beliefs to be in the state-approved church? Questions like this specifically, and the state of the church in the East generally, are very interesting and worldview broadening.
Catherwood carefully explains the ever-changing contours of global Christianity. For example he reminds us of the North Africa town of Hippo – which was once an “overwhelmingly Christian” town made famous by Augustine – is now “overwhelmingly Muslim.” “We are so used to thinking of places such as Iraq (then called Mesopotamia), Egypt, and Syria as Muslim, we forget that they were once the heartland of the Christian world” (50). The shifting contours of the global Christian community are directly tied to waves of Islamic invasions that began in the seventh century. The influence of Islam upon church development is reiterated throughout.
Catherwood pinpoints key events in church history and lets them run out into contemporary lessons. For example, in 312 Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire, making it both safe and publicly fashionable to be Christian. However, negatively this act wed politics to the church. This danger continues to hold when (as in the United States) the church is regularly identified by its political clout (41-42). The reader may not agree with all the conclusions but there is no question Catherwood excels at tying key events in the long history of the church with contemporary events. He will make you think.
Being a reformed historian, Catherwood is theologically careful. He clearly defines the continuing doctrinal dangers of Roman Catholicism especially its “hagiolatry” (worship of saints) and its “Mariolatry” the teaching that Mary was the Mother of God, something that has only recently — since 1950 — become official dogma in Roman Catholicism (81). And, to my knowledge, this is the first Christian history that accurately categorizes Mother Theresa as a universalist (202). Even in light of Vatican II (1962-1965), “Theologically, from a biblical point of view, nothing really changed since the key Catholic doctrines to which Protestants have objected since the Reformation did not change” (198). But Catherwood also reminds us that each and every heart is susceptible to giving undue honor and worship to someone other than God. He calls us to search our own hearts, lest we be committing hagiolatry with St. Spurgeon or St. Calvin (80).
But for me this book is most helpful because it understands Christian history from a reformed perspective, making God’s sovereign grace central to the development of the church. While some historians point to the printing press or German nationalism for the spread of the Protestant Reformation, Catherwood understands “they are all secondary to the main reason – the work of God” (89). And later, “the return to biblical truth in the reformation was a wonderful act of God” (105). The reader comes away from this book with a deeper sense that God’s hands have shaped the church into what she is today.
Call me curious, but once I picked this book up I couldn’t put it down. Catherwood is downright engaging. You will not agree at every turn, but he will make you think as he broadens your perspective of the global church and how God has shaped the church by key events and people over the past 2,000 years.
Title: Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious
Author: Christopher Catherwood
Reading level: 1.75/5.0 > easy
Dust jacket: no
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: no (unnecessary)
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $12.99 from Crossway
ISBNs: 9781581348415, 158134841x
New book alert:
A Concise History of Christian Thought, by Tony Lane
If you are an Alister McGrath church history junkie like me you may be interested in Tony Lane’s revised edition of A Concise History of Christian Thought. It is a very interesting and concise look at the development of church history. It could use more Puritans in my biased judgment (one page on John Owen and two pages on Edwards?) but overall provides excellent overviews of the major thinkers, works and events from Irenaeus to John Stott.
I do disagree with some conclusions (like the optimism towards Rome and evangelicals coming together on the doctrine of justification) and this is not a textbook to define the limits of evangelical orthodoxy. Rather, this book’s strength is in presenting the important changes and events in Christian history.
A discerning reader wanting a good introduction to the development of Christian thought over the centuries will find Lane’s new release engaging.