Review: A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition

A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Mark Nickens. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, tracing its global diffusion, and the resulting diversity within the big “tent” of Christianity.

One of the dangers of our “presentism” and “individualism” is that Christian history often reduces to what is in the Bible and my personal story. Many of us don’t even know the story of our own church body. That being the case, we miss the sense of a vast, 2000 year story in which we are caught up, and one that touches every continent on earth. This text, which may be used for introductory college or seminary courses in global church history, or in an adult study group serves as a good place to start in filling that gap and enlarging our vision of Christianity beyond our own experience and “tribe.”

This survey is organized in five sections:

  1. The Early Church: 30-400
  2. Medieval Christianity: 400-1500 (in two parts from 400 to 1000, and 1000 to 1500)
  3. Pre-Reformers, the Protestant Reformation, and European Christianity (1500-1900)
  4. American Christianity: 1500 to the Present
  5. The Global South

There are several features that make this a readable and easy to follow resource. Each section offers an introduction to the whole and each chapter includes an outline of topics to be covered, helpful if you want to zoom in on a particular topic. Along the way, there are quotes and explanatory sidebars that helpfully illuminate the text. A link is provided for each section offering a supplemental timeline on the author’s website.

I thought the first section quite helpful in covering the rise of the church from a network of local bodies to the institution it became after Constantine. There is good discussion of the canon, doctrinal issues and the early councils and creeds The second section extends this with the seven ecumenical councils, the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, the challenge of Islam, the rise and decline of the papacy, the earlier breakaway of Oriental Orthodoxy, and the later schism between the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches. The section ends with key elements leading to the Reformation: early reformers, the printing press, and the rise of the universities.

The main subject of third section is an account of the different reformation movements and figures in Germany (Luther) and Switzerland (Calvin), the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Amish, and the persecutions they faced, and the Church of England and other Protestant movements that arose, as well as the Catholic Counter Reformation. I perhaps should mention at this point that it is evident that the history reflects a Protestant point of view, but not tendentiously so, with fair descriptions of Catholic belief and practice.

In the section on American Christianity, I appreciated the focus on colonial and frontier religion, the rise of revival movements, a good amount of material on the black church, as well as the rise of Catholicism with southern and eastern European and Irish immigration and the rise of fundamentalism. The post World War 2 rise of evangelicalism is traced as well as coverage of the rise of pentecostalism, televangelism, and the Christian right, but there is no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, or the later rise of more progressive forms of neo-evangelicalism. There is very little about the complicity of churches in slavery (apart from divisions in northern and southern denominations) and the only treatment of Native Peoples are the missionary efforts of David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards

The last section was on the church in the Global South. The author provides a chart showing the number of Christians in each part of the world (leaving out Europe) showing the majority of Christians in the Global South. Yet the coverage of the history of these churches was only 25 percent of the text and confined to a single section. One strength is showing how mission movements transitioned to indigenously-led churches that often became mission movements themselves. A chapter is devoted to the history on each continent, with a fair amount of detail on movements in particular countries (for example, the churches in India tracing their roots to the Apostle Thomas). Good coverage is given to the rise of global Pentecostalism. Apart from some discussion of liberation theology, there is little on the church’s involvements in movements seeking justice. There is nothing on Samuel Escobar and Rene Padilla and other evangelicals who pressed the cause of social justice in Latin America, nor the role of religious leadership in ending apartheid (or the collapse of communism for that matter). Nor was there any coverage of the Lausanne movement, one increasingly shaped by concerns of the Global South, or of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope.

What is not here suggests an avoidance of controversy and a conservative rendering of recent history. It also suggests a history still dominated by the West, in its focus on mission movements and their indigenous offshoots. There is no acknowledgement of nor engagement with the discussion of post-colonialism in the Global South. While a history cannot engage or critique such movements, their existence is also a part of the fabric of this history. This is regrettable, because the author renders historical accounts well, and a text like this could enjoy broader circulation if it told a broader story. It is especially useful for its concise but detailed history up through the Reformation but I would recommend supplementing it with other texts on American and Global South church history.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Multitude of All Peoples

A Multitude

A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global IdentityVince L. Bantu. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A well-documented study of the global spread of ancient Christianity, controverting the argument of Christianity as White and western, and contending for the contextualizing and de-colonizing of contemporary global Christianity.

Often in Christian witness with people from Western countries, the challenge is whether someone can believe intellectually or volitionally, or dealing with ways they may have been put off by the church. In other parts of the world, or with people from those parts of the world or from minority cultures, the issue is that Christianity is thought of white and Western, and it would be an abandonment of one’s culture to believe. In significant part, this arises from mission efforts that have been both culturally captive to the West, and often been the Trojan horse for colonizing efforts.

This book addresses this challenge in several ways. One is that it traces how the early church in the West diverged from other believers in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The fusion of church and state that began with Constantine marked the beginning of the separation from churches in the East. The framing of orthodox Christian belief at Chalcedon in Hellenistic language distanced believers who spoke of Christian faith in different heart languages.

Then in successive chapters Bantu traces the indigenous Christian movements in Africa, in the Middle East, and along the Silk Road. The exclusion of Miaphysites, those who would say that Christ exists as one person and one human-divine nature, separated the Africans and others from the West. What Bantu shows is the vibrant indigenous churches that developed in each of these parts of the world–the Copts in Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Maronites in Lebanon, and the Armenian Church, the early church in India tracing its origins to St. Thomas, and churches along the Silk Road.

The book summarizes the history of each of these indigenous movements that at one time, or even down to the present have been a vibrant Christian presence (consider the 21 Coptic martyrs brutally killed in a videotaped Isis message). The history is accompanied by images of church buildings and artifacts from these churches. The history and archaeological evidence make a strong case for the trans-cultural, global character of early Christianity that existed from the earliest centuries through the first millennium, long before western mission movements.

Likewise, the history of the interaction between the early churches of the West, and sister churches in Africa, the Middle East and Asia offer lessons for today. Chalcedon, from the perspective of these churches, rejected their understanding of Christ and the Christian faith, insisting on a Hellenistic framework for this belief. Bantu shows how indigenous churches responded to the rise of Islam, and sometimes were able to frame Christian faith in ways that were doctrinally sound and yet sidestepped the controversies surrounding God and his Son.

At the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity and the unprecedented global spread of Christianity, the message of this book more important than ever. At times, churches outside the West still struggle under Western theological and cultural domination. In other places, indigenous leadership is framing culturally contextualized yet theologically faithful approaches that advance the gospel. Will Western churches relinquish control in the former instance and affirm and learn from the latter? This book both offers historical evidence that indigenous churches may thrive, and that Christianity from its very beginnings was not exclusively white and Western.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Sinners and Saints


sinners and saints

Sinners and SaintsDerek Cooper. Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An unvarnished summary of the first five hundred years of church history, looking unflinchingly at the flaws, as well as the favorable qualities of early Christians.

Perhaps the worst thing any institution, and especially the church, can do is to pretend that it is better than it really is. As disheartening as it is to hear of respected leaders guilty of very human failings, it is even more repugnant when those leaders, and sometimes powerful institutions behind them, cover up those failings in images of sweetness and light. In so doing, institutions try to “gin up” their own sham holiness, instead of the genuine holiness God works when meeting people in their brokenness.

Derek Cooper believes that many of our church histories reflect this same pretense in portraying the church and its leading figures. This work, which covers the first five hundred years of church history, and is first of a series, takes a different approach. Cooper writes:

“Unlike countless other church history books that dance around the distasteful details of our Christian past, let’s humanize our history. Counterintuitively, perhaps, let’s emphasize as much grit as glory, let’s feature as much flesh as faith, and let’s showcase as many sinners as saints. It’s important for you to know at the onset, however, that we are not going to do this because we think mudslinging is a spiritual discipline, but only because we believe truth-telling is. I, personally, have no desire to sully the reputation of saints, nor do I find any pleasure in wallowing in the faults of our most faithful. When I air the dirty laundry of our most hallowed heroes and heroines, I am fully aware of all the clean clothes they have neatly pressed and attractively arrayed in their dresser drawers. Because of the nature of this book, I will not usually refer to that clean laundry; but make no mistake: I know it is there” (p. 11).

The approach of the book is thematic rather than chronological. He surveys these ten themes, and here are some of the highlights and my takeaways:

  1. Daily life. Except for the rich it was dirty, toilsome, and short.
  2. Leadership. From Paul on Christian leaders “led with a limp” and often fought tenaciously in controversy. Damasus, who commissioned the Vulgate translation, fought a bloody battle for his papacy in which 137 died.
  3. Martyrdom. While some martyrs died nobly, martyrdom was often sought in almost suicidal passion by some. Before his martyrdom, in pursuit of holiness, Origin castrated himself.
  4. Church faith and practice. In many respects, it would have looked strange to us: dinners in graveyards, holy kissing (and perhaps not-so-holy), and nude baptisms.
  5. Apologetics. This arose in response to attack on the church from both Romans and Jews. Able defenders like Justin Martyr and Chrysostom also helped introduce anti-Semitism to Christian rhetoric.
  6. The family tree of heresy and orthodoxy. From the beginning, controversy existed between the line of Simon the Magician and Simon Peter when it came to defining Christian orthodoxy. Cooper traces the rise of apostolic succession in the bishop of Rome as the authoritative means of adjudicating doctrinal disputes and defining heresy.
  7. Canon and apocrypha. Cooper discusses both the criteria of canonical New Testament books but the contents of the apocryphal ones–everything from apocryphal infancy and childhood narratives to the possibility that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s girlfriend. He also discusses the recently found fragment of The Gospel of Judas.
  8. God and money. With the growth and eventually Constantinian patronage of the church, the question became how to interpret (or re-interpret) the radical gospel teaching about money, widening the needle’s eye, as it were for the increasingly rich patrons of the church.
  9. Sexuality. Cooper traces how the church moved beyond chastity in its response to the promiscuity of the Roman world (where wives were simply for the procreation of legitimate heirs, and husbands sought pleasure elsewhere with both sexes) to the sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes clear privileging of abstinence and celibacy that reflected a view of all sexual intimacy as filthy. In the cases of both Jerome and Augustine, their own sexual histories may well have shaped their subsequent views.
  10. Missions: We learn about the spread of Christianity to other parts of the world–Africa, India, and Armenia–which may very well hold the title as the oldest Christian nation on earth.

Cooper writes in an engaging, witty style and definitely achieves his aim of an honest account of the failings and foibles and follies of the early Christians. While almost none of this was new to me, it was helpful to find this material in a work of popular scholarship, not buried in turgid text or footnotes, or hurled at the Christian community without context in an atheist diatribe.

In his introduction, Cooper alludes to the “clean clothes” of these saints, and that he “know[s] it is there.” I believe he does, and the text shows some evidence of this. However, I would not commend this as a stand-alone history of this period but as a complement to a standard church history text, particularly in an introductory church history course. Not everyone will know about the “clean laundry.” Most good modern church histories are not hagiographies, but this book serves as a good complement in “keeping it real.”

Just as it does not do the church well to conceal its flaws, controversies, and most grievous sins, it likewise does not serve well to gloss over these in our histories. An honest rendering, in books like this, reminds us of the challenges the church has always faced, from within as well as from without. It also reminds us of the providence of God– that through such flawed, broken people the Christian message has spread throughout the world, and with it literacy, universities, hospitals, and the rule of law, as well as unhelpful things like colonialism. Ultimately, the story isn’t about how good we are but rather how sovereignly gracious God has been with this motley bunch of sinner-saints.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Christianity in the Twentieth Century

Christianity in the Twentieth Century

Christianity in the Twentieth CenturyBrian Stanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Summary: A thematic account of the development of global Christianity during the twentieth century.

It is no small challenge to write a one volume history of Christianity in the twentieth century. The Christian faith has truly become a global faith, represented with indigenous churches on every continent, expressed and experienced in as many or more ways than there are countries in the world, and facing varied internal and external pressures leading to adaptation and change.

Brian Stanley has approached this task not by trying to write a series of chapters on regional histories, or denominational histories, or theological history, but by identifying fifteen themes running through Christian experience over the last hundred years. Each chapter develops a particular theme, sketching some of the global developments, and then offers two case studies, usually specific to two different countries or regions. In the course of this study, Stanley not only touches on fifteen critical themes or trends but also shows the development of Christian faith in every part of the world in its multiplex variety.

In brief, here are the themes covered:

  • Responses to World War I
  • Christianity and Nationalism
  • Prophetic movements
  • The Persecuted Church
  • Belonging and believing
  • Ecumenism
  • Christianity, Ethnic Hatred, and Genocide
  • Christianity in Islamic contexts
  • Christian mission in the modern world
  • Theologies of liberation
  • The church addresses human rights, racism, and indigenous peoples
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Pentecostalism
  • Eastern Orthodoxy
  • Migrant Churches

As mentioned above, each theme chapter is illustrated by two case studies. For example, in looking at Christian faith and nationalism, Stanley takes the contrasting cases of Protestant nationalism in Korea, and Catholic nationalism in Poland, developing the role of the church in the movements for national autonomy in each country, as well as the uneasy alliance of Christianity and nationalism more broadly. However, in the chapter on Christian mission, he considers first the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, and two contrasting gatherings of Protestants at Uppsala in 1968, focused more on the social dimensions of Christian faith, and Lausanne in 1974, focused more on the conversionist aspects of the faith, albeit with a strong witness for justice concerns by Christians from the majority world. I was somewhat surprised that little was said about the subsequent Lausanne movement or the efforts to identify and reach unreached people groups, a missiological development from this movement.

One of the observations I made while reading is that some themes felt like well-known territory, with names, issues and movements I was well familiar with. Other chapters, like the one on Orthodoxy, for example, surprised me as I learned of Orthodox movements in Africa, and how significant diasporas have been for the development of Orthodoxy in western Europe and the United States. I’ve recently become more aware of Ghanaian Pentecostalism in my own city and this book filled in context of the development of Ghanaian Christianity as well as Pentecostalism in other parts of the world. Numerous leaders of significant movements in twentieth century Christianity were mentioned that I had not heard of, conveying what a far-flung, diverse, and global movement Christianity has become.

The author opens and closes the book discussing the renaming of The Christian Oracle as The Christian Century. Was the twentieth century a “Christian century.” A simple answer to that question is not possible in the author’s estimate. In absolute numbers, no century has witness greater growth, and yet the world’s population has grown faster. In Europe, North America, and Australasia, the church has been in retreat, except for the immigrant churches that have come from South and Central America, Asia, and Africa. Secularism and persecution have attempted to undermine the church, have made significant inroads, and yet not succeeded, and sometimes resulted in a resilient and more robust faith. Christians have both played pivotal roles in justice movements, and been inextricably involved in ethnic hatred and genocide. Great progress has occurred in some sectors toward Christian unity, even while indigenous and immigrant churches assert their own autonomy and major bodies are riven over questions about human sexuality.

Rather than offering a triumphalistic account, Stanley offers a cautionary tale inviting the reader to reflection, summarized in his closing question of “whether Christianity has converted indigenous religionists or whether indigenous religious and cultural perspectives–whether these be African, Asian, Latin American, or even white North American–have succeeded in converting Christianity.” In raising this question, I think he has identified one of the critical issues facing Christians in the early twenty first centuries, questions that ought send us to our knees, turn us to our Bibles, and challenge us to listen to the prophetic voices that speak the uncomfortable truths we need to hear.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Disruption of Evangelicalism

the disruption of evangelicalism

The Disruption of Evangelicalism (History of Evangelicalism Series, Volume 4) Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Countering the existing narrative of evangelicalism at its zenith before World War I followed by a great reversal, this work argues a more positive assessment of evangelical response to the disruptions of war.

The fourth volume in the series of the History of Evangelicalism Series covers the years of 1900 to 1940. The standard narrative is of evangelicalism reaching a pinnacle of influence at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, followed by the challenges of the Great War (World War I), and sent reeling into retreat by the forces of modernism and the post war boom and depression, resulting in a bunker-mentality fundamentalism. Geoffrey R. Treloar argues for a more positive assessment of evangelicalism throughout this period while noting the challenges, external and internal that it faced during this time.

Treloar understands Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism in terms of intersecting axes. One axis is the biblicist-crucicentrist axis focused upon doctrine and more inward looking and the other axis the conversionist-activist experiential axis. Broadly speaking, the first period between 1900 and 1914 focused around the more outward looking conversionist-activist axis. Two figures exemplified this period–the revivalist Reuben A.  Torrey and the missionary statesmen and ecumenist John R. Mott, who presided over the 1910 Edinburgh Missions Conference with its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Scholars like A. S. Peake were engaging modern biblical criticism, although the first signs of a conservative approach concerned with doctrinal integrity was evident in the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals to pastors.

The second period was the Great War of 1914-1918. Evangelicals rallied to support the war effort of the Allied Powers and an ethic of laying down one’s life shaped the zeal of many who fought. And many did, while others returned, some stronger in faith, but others shattered by the horrors of trench warfare. Evangelicals struggled with the tension between supposed “Christian nations” who did not act very Christianly at Versailles. The revival expected during and after the war did not occur. While church attendance did not fall off, neither was there the vibrancy of the pre-war period.

This leads to the third discernible period in Treloar’s survey. He explores the tensions within the diverse evangelical movement, responding to modernism. On the one hand is a more liberal evangelicalism that attempts to hang on to its core of faith while engaging modernist ideas and social involvement. On the other, there is the rise of a fundamentalism concerned with doctrinal integrity and maintaining the priority of evangelism. Two figures Treloar focuses on here is Aimee Semple McPherson, representing the growing pentecostal movement and the uses of the new technology of radio, and Thomas Chatterton (T. C.) Hammond, whose work, first with the Church of Ireland as an evangelist and pastor, where he honed skills in articulating a winsome and theologically acute Christian faith, and later with the newly formed Inter-Varsity Fellowship and the Anglican Church in Australia. He was most know for a manual of doctrine, In Understanding Be Men, used to equip non-theological students with a knowledge of evangelical doctrine. Meanwhile J. Edwin Orr continued to study and mobilize believers to pursue revival in the church, and Australian Lionel Fletcher widely evangelized, seeing as many as 250,000 conversions in his extensive travels. By the 1930’s, a vibrant missions movement had also revived.

Treloar’s point is that while the war represented a definite disruption in the trajectory of evangelicalism, and an unraveling of the various strands of the movement, after a nadir period in the 1920’s, this very diversity resulted in a renewal of both axes–the doctrinal biblicist-crucicentrist, and the conversionist-activist.

I do think Treloar offers a more nuanced rendering of this history. Yet I believe he ignores the critique Mark Noll makes in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll notes that both the activist, and conservative theological commitments led to a disengagement with modernist scholarship, and a retreat from serious influence in the academic world. Apart from the theological rigor of the IVF in Great Britain and related institutions like Tyndale House, I would contend that this period represented a serious retreat and reversal in the market place of ideas, if not in other aspects, a retreat reversed only with the rise of the post-World War II evangelicalism of Carl Henry and his like.

As a side note, I was fascinated by Treloar’s focus on T. C. Hammond. His In Understanding Be Men was still in print in the mid-1970’s and was the theological handbook I studied in my early years on InterVarsity/USA staff. I was saddened to learn that Hammond was associated with a “White Australia Policy” as were many American churchmen in the 1920’s with “100 Percent Americanism.” Ideas of white supremacy and racism, sadly have a long history in evangelicalism.

Treloar does a great service in chronicling this period of evangelical history, often relegated to a kind of evangelical “dark ages” far less illustrious that the eras that preceded and followed. He helps us see that far more was going on in both theological and missiological formation in the evangelical movement than is often credited.


Ten Books For Understanding Evangelicalism

The God Who is There.jpg

My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, purchased c. 1972.

In a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism the other day, I mentioned a conversation in which I wondered aloud how many of those who leave evangelicalism understand the rich, if imperfect, part of the Christian family they are leaving. My own sense is that often, though not always, they are responding to distortions or downright contradictions of historical evangelicalism. I recognize that for some it is a matter of leaving the incredibly painful, and may well be warranted, but I sense for others, it is wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I won’t try to answer that, but would propose that it might first be important to appraise the grass on the evangelical side of the fence.

The friend I was talking with asked me about some books he might consider. This is a kind of expansion on my response. I suggest two kinds of books here. Some are histories, which go back to Great Britain as well as our own national beginnings. The others are “classics”–books that for many of us shaped an evangelical outlook. At the end, I provide links to some other lists–mine is hardly exhaustive–but rather a starting point.


David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern BritainLondon: Routledge, 1988. The history of Wesley to John Stott is covered here, as well as Bebbington’s crucial delineation of four evangelical distinctives: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

Donald W. Dayton and Douglas M Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. (From my review).

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American CultureOxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. This book looks at the retrenchment of evangelicalism into fundamentalism in the U.S. post Civil War, with the rise of Darwinism, European biblical scholarship, and the “social gospel” associated with theologically liberal Christianity. The new edition tracks this movement since the 1970’s in its more politically engaged form.

Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical MindGrand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995. Noll explores the historical reasons for the lack of evangelical influence in the academy, the arts, and “high” culture. This book served as a kind of rallying cry for a group of us involved in launching a national ministry effort with graduate students and faculty.

Brian Stanley, The Global Diffusion of EvangelicalismDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This is part of InterVarsity’s “History of Evangelicalism” series (all worth reading) that covers the post-World War II rise of modern or neo-evangelicalism–the evangelicalism of Billy Graham and John Stott, and an increasingly global leadership. Here is my review of the book.

Classic Formative Works:

Charles W. Colson, Born AgainGrand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008 (revised edition). The biography of White House aide and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and his conversion to a socially engaged evangelical faith that led to launching Prison Fellowship, and a career as an influential social commentator within the evangelical community.

J. I. Packer, Knowing GodDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993 (revised edition). This was a classic for many of us that explored how we may know God, the attributes of God, and benefits of knowing God. You read a few pages, and then had to stop, think, and worship.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is ThereDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998 (revised edition). Schaeffer was the prophet of L’Abri whose analysis of a culture that had moved further and further from God gave us a framework to make sense of our times.

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of HungerNashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005 (revised edition). Sider was one of the voices that re-awakened the slumbering social conscience of evangelicals, challenging the privatized versions of the Bible with it social teaching, as well as exposing American Christians to the challenge of global hunger.

John R. W. Stott, Basic ChristianityDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012 (revised edition). This was a book that taught many of us the basics of our faith and how to explain it to others.

The histories, I think, are even-handed, showing both the best and the worst. Likewise, the “classic” works I’ve selected are not without their flaws, but are representative of books that reflect some of the “best” of evangelicalism and were important in shaping the outlook of many of us.

The list is hardly exhaustive. My friend said, “there is only so much I can read. But as I researched this post, I came along a few other lists you might visit:

The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. A list published in 2006 by Christianity Today.

10 of the Best Books About Evangelical Christianity. I appreciate Kyle Roberts inclusion of Amos Yang’s work and also Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.

Five Great Books on Evangelical Christianity. Thomas Kidd narrows it down even more and includes Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith–a very important book!

What all these do is go beyond the media soundbites which rarely do justice to any religious tradition. Whether you are an evangelical or someone diffident about this identity, or you are just trying to understand this group of people who seem to be so much in the news, these lists should help. Happy reading!


Review: 30 Events that Shaped the Church

30 eventsWriting an accessible church history for a general adult audience is no small task, particularly writing one that people will read. Alton Gansky’s book succeeds in providing a readable, fast-moving survey of the history of the church through 30 succinct vignettes of important events in this two thousand year history.

One of the strengths of this book is Gansky’s ability to narrate events and give us concise profiles of key individuals and concluding summaries that underscore the significance of each event for the church. Many will find his accounts of early church history especially helpful, including the fall of Jerusalem, the burning of Rome, the Edict of Milan, the Nicaean Council, and so forth. It was particularly illuminating for me to realize the fine scholarship involved in Jerome’s Vulgate translation, as well as to understand the expansion of the power of the papacy. I also appreciated his even-handed narrative of the evolution controversies in this country.

Of course, one of the difficulties of Gansky’s approach is the selection of events. For the most part, this is a narrative of Western, and in the last third, American Christianity. While this is probably what is of greatest interest to those who would be the target audience of this book it fails to account for the rise of the modern missions movement and the explosive and game-changing growth of Christianity in China, other east and southeast Asian countries, and in much of the southern hemisphere. And in its narrative of American Christianity he seems to have little to say about slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the black church and civil rights.

I found his decision to include the Jesus Movement as both personally of interest (because of the impact of this movement in my life) and yet questionable as a major church-shaping event–particularly because of the focus on contemporary Christian music, which certainly has changed American church worship. I would not have given separate chapters to Darwin and the Scopes trials.

I also found one inaccuracy (probably a proof-reading error). On page 242 he notes the death of Pope Pius XII, who preceded Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. On page 244 he indicates that Pius XII succeeded Pope John XXIII, which would have been a far more momentous event than Vatican II. In actuality it was Pope Paul VI.

In summary, I found this a highly readable and informative account of Western and white American church history. It is regrettable, considering the readability of this volume, that it is not more truly representative of the whole Church.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past

Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past
Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past by Robert F. Rea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why learn about church history? This is particularly an important question for Christians committed to a biblical faith. Isn’t the Bible enough? Isn’t tradition a bad thing, a kind of institutional legalism that takes us away from the heart of the gospel and the vitality of the early church in the book of Acts?

Robert F. Rea meets these questions “head on” in a book that I hope will see wide usage. His basic argument is that when we ignore the thought and actions of Christians throughout history and from other cultures, what we more likely do is create a culturally captive Christianity that is a “Christianized” reflection of the culture in which we are embedded. Only as we “commune with the saints” across history and culture and understand how they read and applied the Bible can our expression of Christianity “sync” with theirs and have a hope of being the startlingly fresh word the world needs.

Rea begins with discussing “tradition”, which he uses in “the general sense as a synonym for Christian history, church history, or historical theology…”(p. 29). He recognizes that tradition is necessary and inevitable while recognizing that particular traditions may be good or bad. He then explores how “tradition” has been understood in relationship to scripture throughout the history of the church. He begins by showing that in the early church scripture and tradition were compatible–the clarification of the meaning of scripture by the early fathers and councils gave shape to orthodoxy. He traces this through the Great Schism of 1054 and the issue of papal primacy, the Reformation period and the heightened emphasis on scripture and subordination of tradition, down through to the present and the renewed interest in some sectors of the church in patristics and the role of tradition in Christian understanding. He then summarizes the role of tradition among the major current streams of the church. What is significant for him is that tradition plays a role in all of these, even though the relation of biblical authority, ecclesial authority, and tradition will be defined differently.

The second part of his book looks at the expanding circles of inquiry that are necessary to explore as we talk about church history beginning with our immediate circle, our congregation, our faith tradition, our shared theological outlook, contrasting theologies, other cultures, and across the centuries. He considers how our identity is shaped and modified as we expand our circles of interaction. He emphasizes how the cloud of witnesses across the centuries give us models for living, help us recognize false belief, and help us confront persecution and difficult ethical choices. We also practice accountability across the centuries, both allowing prior formulations of biblical understanding and practice to critique ours, as well as sometimes engaging the beliefs and practices we think inadequately reflected biblical faithfulness. We both avoid past errors and learn from past responses to error. Theologians from the past can mentor us–filling in gaps, helping us think in different categories, and as we listen to the conversation across the centuries, come to understand the “consensus of the faithful” where this exists.

In his third section he explores the usefulness of tradition to biblical exegesis and proposes a model that incorporates not only the historical-critical approaches we most commonly use but listens to how our contemporaries in our own and other cultures read scripture and how Christians through history have read scripture. Hopefully, these understandings agree but when they do not, he raises the possibility of multiple levels of understanding, which was certainly accepted by biblical writers as well as many of the early fathers. Some may be critical of Rea here, but what challenges me is that writers of the New Testament themselves sometimes interpreted scripture in other than historical-critical ways.

He concludes with exploring the uses of church history for systematic theology, which must interact with both biblical and historical theology; spirituality, drawing on the spiritual writers and formative traditions the church has learned from down the centuries. He also considers other topics such as worship, mission, ethics, compassion, and Christian unity and how an understanding of church history can enrich and inform our efforts in each of these areas.

Rea makes a good case here that biblical faithfulness may be enhanced rather than diminished as we study the scriptures with the saints across history and culture. He provides examples throughout and resources at the end to help underscore his case. Rea’s book not only makes the study of church history appealing to those who would identify as “Bible” Christians; he also lays the groundwork for a vibrant Christianity that evades the shackles of cultural captivity and heals the schisms of the past.

View all my reviews