The Review that Couldn’t

Well, it didn’t make it. I am not sure I understand why, but it is time to move on, though if you can authoritatively demonstrate it to me, I’d be grateful. It was not for the obviousness or unnecessariness of the summary, which I grant is obvious and unnecessary. I gather the tone was not sufficiently academical, and that is something my reading ear still cannot distinguish.

A History of Christianity: An Introductory SurveyA History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey by Joseph Early

The book was written, Early states in his preface, to fill a need for a survey of Church History that is not written from a Catholic view and is not overly academic (p. xix). He has succeeded. The whole of the history is covered, there is no obvious Catholic bias, and the book cannot be described as overly academic. Besides that, it is hard to think of anything important that has been left out, and as far as an introductory survey goes, that is an accomplishment.

The book sets the facts of history in chronological order in accessible, understandable language. Some background is useful, when considering historical events, and Early provides this in his first chapters, setting the scene in the first century A.D. Brief summaries of the Apostolic Fathers are provided, then the successive waves of Roman persecution are summarized. This provides a transition into intellectual persecution, and with that the apologists. Heresies and schisms concern him next, all briefly described, and after that a sketch of what orthodoxy looked like before Nicea. Chapter five pauses the narrative of events to provide some interesting details of how the early Church worshiped and functioned. The events surrounding the Emperor Constantine, the theological world wars of the fourth and fifth centuries and the outstanding theologians of those times are then presented and explained. Pages 1-122 are devoted to the early Church.

From 122-210 we have the Middle Ages. There is a chapter on the early middle ages and on the high middle ages, with the development of the papacy. Then follow chapters about monasticism and scholasticism, the renaissance and the decline of the papacy. The section on the middle ages concludes with a chapter on worship that outlines the sacramental system and provides something of an explanation for the role of relics in that age, along with their ramifications in architecture.

The rest of the book—we are at the halfway point—deals with Church History from the Reformation on. Luther, Zwingli (along with the radicals) and Calvin each get a chapter, and the events and contribution of each are summarized and evaluated. Then follows a chapter on the English Reformation, with an explanation of the rise of Puritans, and, unexpectedly, also Separatists—presumably because they tie into Baptist history, since Early is a Baptist historian. A chapter on the Catholic reaction includes information on humanism and mysticism.

The Christianizing of the New World, follows, which is divided into general overviews of the Spanish and the French efforts, and becomes more detailed with the British colonies. The next chapter brings up the rise of rationalism leading to the enlightenment, and notes some of the challenges this raised for Christianity. The state of the Church under these conditions in the eighteenth century then occupies the two next chapters, the first being about American and the second about England. After this, comes a chapter on the next century, the Second Great Awakening and its consequences, including sketches of the rise of several sects in America. From sects, he transitions to a chapter surveying denominations: their distribution and influence in America.

The last three chapters deal with the twentieth century and the state of the church today. The first deals with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the second with Protestantism and its various theological and practical challenges, including Neo-orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, and the very last chapter explains globalization, narrating something of the condition of the church in the rest of the Americas, Africa and Asia.

When the last fact is told, the story ends, and following the endnotes there is a bibliography for primary and secondary sources and which concludes with alternative suggestions for surveys of Church History. Name and Subject indexes are included. As I have indicated, nothing major is left out though nothing is considered in great detail; the book is a survey, and it surveys from a reasonable height.

Here are a few errors I found:

“When Calvin arrived in 1536, the city was a virtual republic administered by the Little Council, the Council of Sixty, and the Council of Two Hundred.” (p. 246.) These are all true facts, the problem is there is no explanation for these three councils. Why are we told about them? What are we to make of them? These named councils are randomly inserted without further elaboration. It excites curiosity but offers no explanation. If it does not serve a purpose, why put the information in?

“Anglican missionary John Wesley (1703-1791) came to Georgia in the mid-1730s and failed utterly at evangelistic endeavors. He then returned to England and launched the Methodist movement.” (p. 307.) The omission here is the most salient fact in John Wesley’s life. In a way, these two sentences admirably compress a lot of important information about Wesley, but between the two sentences the event that drops out of view is his conversion.

“Hellenistic Jews . . . compromise . . . their moral standards, as when young Jewish athletes competed with Greeks in the nude.” (p. 5.) Surely morality and propriety, while related, are different things. “When cathedrals were built, martyrs’ bones were placed in reliquaries, pilgrimages to them began, and the martyrs’ cult grew” (p. 59). This is found in a chapter on second and third century worship. It is probably unintentionally misleading, but the sentence suggests there was no martyrs’ cult before cathedrals were built. There is no evidence of cathedrals in the second or third centuries. “With Christians free from persecution, the clergy was able to discuss delicate theological matters, the most serious of which was Arianism” (p. 73). Had persecution continued, one gathers, nobody would have bothered discussing Arianism. “Led by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria” (p. 85). I had a good laugh at the thought of Athanasius being personally led into exile by his wily antagonist. “Gregory of Thaumaturgos” is an epithet with too many prepositions (p. 87). Speaking of the Cappadocian fathers Early says: “The Trinity was defined as three distinct hypostases (modes of being) in one ousia (substance)” (p. 90). I do not think the Trinity can be defined as three distinct modes of being unless one is a modalist, not an orthodox Christian. “A vindictive man with an acerbic writing style, Jerome . . .” (p. 104.) It is the only comment offered on the prose style of a man whose command of Latin was second to none, and whose writing is extraordinarily versatile and has been universally admired. “William the Conqueror (1066-1087) made England a viable nation-state.” (p. 150.) The dates are obviously not birth-death, which is a confusing thing that is done throughout. One expects the dates to be consistent, but without any other indication sometimes time of rule is provided (as in that of the Conqueror) rather than the usual lifespan (see John Wesley above). One can work it out; still, one can imagine a student being misled. Also, the nation-state in 1066. We are told that Catholics believed in a flat earth before the time of Galileo (p. 309), which if C.S. Lewis, who wrote a book on the medieval world-view, is to be believed, is not true.

The book is not hard to read. In fact, the sentence structure is never too complicated. The effect of this is very steady; but sometimes, especially in the first chapters, tedious. There is also occasionally the sense of reading chronologically arranged Church History encyclopedia articles one after the other with little obvious narrative continuity, again in the early chapters. A survey needs the long view of history to prevail over facts and dates. It needs a narrative meaning that gives order and purpose to the facts and dates included. This is sometimes but not always achieved.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s