In 1977, a small Christian publishing house in the United Kingdom (Lion Publishing) put out an introduction to the history of Christianity. It was edited by a young scholar named Tim Dowley, and it included the work of many young and mid-career scholars, including my own colleague Everett Ferguson. 18 years later in 1995, Fortress Press released the book in the United States, and then in 2013, the second edition appeared. The contributors are now senior scholars (some even deceased), and their names are more well-known: James D. G. Dunn, Larry Hurtado, Alan Kreider, Ralph Martin, and James Packer, among others.
One of the basics of an introduction to (or survey of) church history is to “cover the material,” and this book does not disappoint. It divides our 2,000 years into seven major periods and then discusses most of the important elements in those periods. You’ll read about important Christian doctrines and teachers, Christian practices, the spread of Christianity through mission and immigration, and other staples of our story.
One of the best parts of this new edition will be the all-new visual elements. There are 8 timelines, 35 full-color maps, and nearly 100 images that really enrich the text. A second part of the book that will be helpful for a lot of folks is the set of “sidebars” — short insets into the main text that illuminate what’s in the chapter as a whole. These often cover important groups and people, providing things like biographical info, important writings, and their significance for church history. Just a few examples from the modern period: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and C. S. Lewis.
A closer look at the content of the book reveals both strengths and weaknesses. If you want a rather traditional presentation of Christian history — a focus that shifts toward Western Europe and the United States as history progresses — and an emphasis on how Christian teaching has developed over time, then this book is for you. But if you want a more global focus, then I’d look elsewhere. In terms of the modern church, if you want a good, solid summary of many aspects of the Reformation, this book delivers. But if you want a book that includes the voices of various marginalized groups, then you’ll need to consider something else, as that is a weakness here. One example of this omission: of the over 100 sidebars included in the book, only one has a woman as its focus.
All in all, this book has a lot to commend it — both the content and also the helps designed to assist in your understanding. But that said, I find it most helpful to supplement this book with something that can fill in the gaps, especially geographically.
- A solid presentation of traditional elements of church history, especially on Western Christianity and the development of Christian doctrine
- Excellent blend of breadth of coverage with depth of knowledge
- Reflects quality scholarship, produced by quality scholars
- Good updates regarding Christianity in the last 100 years, including a greater degree of focus on the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements
- Excellent “study helps” — a glossary, an index, maps, etc.
- Doesn’t take up some topics of newer interest, like Islam’s place in Christian history, the global spread of Christianity, and the voices of various groups that have been marginalized in our history
- Has a rather uneven “presentation,” in that there are chapters as short as 3 pages, and some as long as 43 pages (!)
- Possesses a similar inconsistency with regard to the focus of the chapters: some are extremely focused on a single topic, while others are very broad and generalized
- Has some overlap in the content of the chapters — this is not surprising, but it does raise the question of what the editor was doing
Image credit: www.fortresspress.com
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