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