Reading church history can be a daunting task.
Before you even get down to the reading there are a number of things to consider. For instance: Where do you start? A time-honored classic or something newly published? What length is adequate to get a grasp on 2,000 years? Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church is eight volumes. Talk about commitment! Then there are style questions. Dry and detailed or simple and sweeping? Academic or accessible? What type of history of the church gets you the most bang for your buck? Jaroslav Pelikan wrote a history of Christian doctrine, which amounts to a dense, dogmatic church history. David Bosch wrote a history of Christian missionary understanding and action, which amounts to a dynamic, fast-paced church history. Roger Olson wrote of the story (differentiated from history) of Christian theology, which amounts to an inviting, user-friendly church history. Of course there is the classic Miller’s Church History that traces the silver line of God’s grace and tracks along a prophetic interpretation of the Epistles to the seven churches in Revelation.
All these considerations can hamper the best intentions with the paralysis of analysis.
Thankfully there are some panoramic summaries out there that can at least give you some sense of the saga of church history.
Below is one such summary in less than 200 words:
For centuries Christians formed a small community, for centuries afterwards a large-scale organization; for centuries they were a minority, then became a majority for long ages; the persecuted became the powerful and even quite often the persecutors. Centuries of an underground Church were followed by those of a state Church; centuries of martyrs from the time of Nero by those of court bishops form the time of Constantine. There were ages of monks and scholars and– often intertwined– those of ecclesiastical politicians; centuries of the conversion of the barbarians and the rise of Europe were succeeded by centuries of the Holy Roman Empire, newly founded and again ruined by Christian emperors and popes; there were centuries of papal synods and centuries of councils aimed at reforming the papacy. After the golden age of both Christian humanists and secularized Renaissance men came the ecclesiastical revolution of the Reformers; then came the centuries of Catholic or Protestant orthodoxy and again of evangelical awakening. In sum: there were times of adaptation and times of resistance, dark ages and the Age of Enlightenment, centuries of innovation and centuries of restoration, periods of despair and periods of hope.
–Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 122
What book on church history would you recommend?
The sweeping and accessible Bruce L. Shelley got my foot in the door of Church history.
Good to know. How did you choose that one? I wonder how it compares to Roger Olson’s, The Story of Christian Theology, which is sorta narrative style. I’d heard good things about it and recently bought it. I’ve followed his blog for a while now and think he is a great writer.
It was recommended to me. It’s a similar narrative style, with an emphasis on evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Roger Olson’s book looks great. I’m going to have a burgeoning book list after this blog post, haha.
Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy and Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent are both excellent books. Short and fairly easy to read.
Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve never heard of Torch of the Testimony. Looks intriguing. Honestly, often it’s nice to read something that has a strong opinion. Even if you don’t agree with it, at least it challenges you and forces you to think about things you may have never considered before. Pilgrim Church I’ve heard of but have never gotten to.
I really liked Miller’s church history because he wrote as if he was preaching at the pulpit (very entertaining), as well as the way he constantly paralleled the Word with human history.
*The divine history within the shell of human history.*
That sounds like an exciting perspective! I might have to dabble in Miller a bit.
Yeah, I’m somewhat familiar with Miller’s from skimming parts of it or checking out certain things to see what he said. I’ve got it on the shelf but have never made a serious attempt at tackling it. I guess this post was kind of confessional, autobiographical.
1. Watchman Nee: “The Orthodoxy of the Church”, prophetical interpretation of Revelation 2 and 3.
2. H.A. Ironside: “Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement”
3. W.J. Ouweneel: “Philadelphia or Laodicea”, a remarkabele commentary of Nee´s book by an highly
regarded brethren teacher.
4. For German and Dutch readers: W.J.J. Glashouwer: “So entstand das Christentum.”
5. John Henry Newman “Pro Vita Sua” – interesting insights about the onenesss of the Church from
a catholic cardianal. (The first in Great Britain)
Watchman Nee’s “Orthodoxy of the Church” is not a history proper, as you indicate, but it’s definitely insightful, honest, thought-provoking, and penetrating. It is really an exposition of the Epistles to the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3 applied to history. Maybe it’s best to call it a survey of church history in light of Rev 2-3. Of course, he is following precedent set by the Brethren, but at the same time surpasses them. Andrew Miller introduces his “Church History” (1881) with a brief overview of the prophetic significance of the 7 churches and G. H. Pember has a whole chapter on it in his book “The Great Prophecies” (1885). It’s important to know, if you want to understand where Nee is coming from. “Orthodoxy of the Church” (1945) is only 100 pages and is the distillation of an earlier study of Revelation Nee did from 1926-1927 that totaled 543 pages. All in all, I think it’s a more compelling analysis than recent things like Kevin DeYoung’s brief application of the 7 churches in “Why We’re not Emergent” or Mark Driscoll’s sermon series on “The Seven”.
I guess the Ouweneel book isn’t available in English, is it?
That´s right. Actually, Ouweneel presents the chapters about Philadelphia and Laodicea in the original and gives his comments. He knows quite much about W.Nee and his relationship with the Brethren. He also says about him, that Nee “was one of the greatest men of God in the 20th Century”.
Ouweneel follows in many points the analysis about the Brethren, in prophetic questions, for example about rapture. I mention
this, because the history of the Brethren is a good example, to what an overemphasis of certain doctrines can lead. Ouweneel points out that a group who was so much for the truth and oneness became the biggest sect and divided over and over again. This is a warning and unprecedented in church history. Compare to the statement by Robert Govett (or Pember?), who regarded the Brethren Movement spiritually more important than the Reformation.