I have always enjoyed studying history and, over the years, have read several church history texts. One thing I’ve noticed just about every time is that many of these church histories fail to make real distinctions between true gospel-centered Christianity and a kind of inculturated or tradition-based Christianity. That has always been disappointing to me. I suppose I am looking for a history of the true church, of true Christianity, not just a history of what calls itself the church or what considers itself Christian. And so I find that I am still waiting for that slam dunk church history text.
But this is not to say that there are no church histories worth reading. Today I want to draw your attention to just a few of them–a couple that are one-volume and a couple that are multi-volume.
Church History in Plain Language – Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language is probably the most popular one-volume church history available today. I read it several years ago and quite enjoyed it. It’s very much geared to a popular reader rather than an academic and moves quickly through the grand sweep of 2000 years of history. One aspect I found difficult was that the author did not make those clear distinctions between Christian and Catholic. So especially at and after the time of the Reformation, there was often a lack of clarity in my mind. Nevertheless, if you are looking for an accessible and relatively short church history, this is probably the best place to begin.
Introduction to the History of Christianity – Dowley’s one-volume history of the church was first published in 1977 and reads like a textbook (which is not surprising since it is, indeed, a text for many introductory courses to church history). It features lots of illustrations, sidebars and maps, most in full color, as it describes church history from the Apostles to pope John Paul II. Because it comes from a Lutheran perspective it requires a bit of a discerning mind; the reader will want to think carefully about what is truly Christian and what is Christian only by tradition or culture. Still, it is a text worth owning and worth reading.
And here are a couple of church history sets:
2000 Years of Christ’s Power – This is a three-volume set written by N.R. Needham and published by Grace Publications. The three volume set begins with the early church and wraps up shortly after the Reformation. A fourth and final volume is supposed to be forthcoming. The volumes are written in such a way that they are accessible even to those outside of the academy. It is also notable that they are written by a historian who is sympathetic to the Reformed position. My one real beef with the series is the covers–it’s just hard to take the series to seriously with such gaudy covers. Nevertheless, this is a good series and overall, the set I’d be most likely to recommend to those interested in doing a lengthy study on the history of the church.
The Christian Tradition – Jaroslav Pelikan has written a five-volume set titled The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. It stretches from 100 AD all the way to the modern era. These books are far more dense and scholarly than Needham’s set, so will appeal largely to those who may have an academic interest in church history and, in particular, the development of Christian doctrine. It also comes from a wider theological position, so it would probably be good to get oriented in church history before reading it.
The Baker History of the Church was a projected 8-volume set I had enjoyed collecting and it was one that seemed to hold a lot of promise. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the set has been abandoned. Volumes one, two, four and five are currently available, but this offers only a partial study of the history of the church.
I am eager for other suggestions on church history surveys. If you have a favorite, be sure to let me know about it.