For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book.
History is notoriously filled with names and dates—details
that leave some students in tears as they approach exams. These names and
dates, the historian comes to know, serve quite helpful purposes though. Names
identify people and their relationships with other people, and dates locate
events and publications on a continuum. Both lend support in understanding the
meaning of historical events and analyzing trends and the reasons for change.
Another key identifier in the study of history is geographical location. Visualizing where events took place in history and the relationship of people living in one place with those living in another is essential to understanding the flow of history and exploring why some changes occur in one place and not another. One resource that helps students of history visualize the places of church history is Tim Dowley’s Atlas of Christian History* (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), which features the work of cartographer Nick Rowland.
I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees.
In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today.
Credo Magazine has released its March 2016 issue, titled Preach the Word: Preachers Who Changed the World. This issue discusses the preaching of Saint Augustine, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and it also features my article, “Jonathan Edwards: A Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Word.” Here’s a brief excerpt:
Dangling like a spider over tongues of fire. Standing before floodgates holding back furious waters. Targeted with an arrow waiting to be drunk with your blood. These images of the sinner’s condition have both captivated and horrified listeners and readers ever since Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) preached his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in the hot summer of 1741. Those who heard him give this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8 of that year became so terrified that they screamed out in the middle of it, “Oh, I am going to Hell,” and “What shall I do to be Sav[e]d?” Their shrieking forced Edwards to stop preaching so he and the other pastors present could minister to the congregation.
While perhaps the most dramatic response to one of his sermons that Edwards ever encountered, this event was just one in a long preaching ministry stretching from 1720 to 1758. Edwards would eventually be remembered more for his contributions to theology, yet his preaching played an important role in promoting revival in his congregation and throughout New England.
Read the whole thing here.
Pursuing an active life of the mind offers both intriguing possibilities and inevitable perils. The study of church history is no exception to this reality. Those who have engaged in the exploration of the past know what a fascinating world it holds and yet also the danger that an overwhelming mass of artifacts and writings might bury the historian.
In Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014), Richard Mouw offers some perspective to those delving into intellectual endeavors. This short book of seventy-four pages includes nineteen “chapters”—perhaps better called “reflections”—on the work of scholarship. For busy evangelical professors, researchers, and doctoral students, this format offers an opportunity to steal away for a few minutes and think about the craft of scholarship.
The journey of life takes us all in directions we don’t anticipate. And that is true even for academic historians. In From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014; source: publisher), the renowned American religious history Mark Noll tells how his journey took him from a parochial view of history focused on Western Christianity to a truly global perspective of the Christian past. And he does so in the engaging form of a memoir.
Noll’s volume is the third in Baker Academic’s Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity series, edited by Joel Carpenter. The other volumes include Nicholas Woltserstorff’s Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South and Susan VanZanten’s Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa.
In his contribution to the series, Noll alerts readers to the undeniable shifts that have taken place in the nature and extent of Christianity especially in the last century. Far from a Western religion, Christianity has spilled over into Africa, Asia, and Latin America in remarkable and explosive ways, and with more and more literature available on these shifts, Christians in the West have less and less reason to keep their proverbial head in the ground about world Christianity.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the launch of the Great War. As we look back, many will cast the massive conflict in political, economic, and social terms, and they will be right to do so. But if they ignore the religious aspects of the war—as many will be tempted to do—they will fail to treat it fully and fairly. In fact, as Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, shows, religion played an essential role in the war, even as the war shaped religion worldwide.
In Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), he transports us back a century ago to explore how religion colored the broader political, cultural, and intellectual issues driving the war. Among the major national players, Christian imagery and language infused the move toward war and sustained the military conflict. But the four years from 1914–1918 also remapped the modern world, drawing new geopolitical boundaries in ways that reflected and heightened religious tension.
In recent years, the study of global Christianity has reshaped the way we conceive of not only the Christian religion, but the discipline of church history itself. It has provided the important corrective to view Christianity not as a Western religion but as a world religion. By exploring church history through a global lens, we have much to gain in how we think about the historical developments in Christianity.
Todd Hartch offers an insightful look at global Christianity in The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity (Oxford Studies in World Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2014; source: publisher) by focusing on the region of Latin America in the last sixty years. In this book, Hartch tells the ironic story of how Protestant activism from 1950–2010 made Latin America not only more Protestant than it had ever been but also more Catholic.
The origins of the New Testament canon have become a point of contention in our day. What hangs in the balance is the validity of the Bible as Christians’ authoritative guide in faith and life. Some have claimed that in the fourth century, the group with the largest army and political power chose what books to include in the New Testament. Charles Hill argues that it’s not so simple.
Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, Hill recently wrote an essay for Christ on Campus Initiative (a nonprofit with which I serve) that addresses this question in detail. His essay, “Who Chose the New Testament Books? Politics, Praxis, and Proof in the Early Church,” explores the historical evidence for the origins of the New Testament and presents a fuller picture than we hear in popular media.
Why study history? In typical historian fashion, John Fea shows that a one-word answer will not suffice. Just as history is full of complexity, so are the answers to this question.
But complexity should not scare us off. It is the complexity of history that makes it such a rich subject. In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker, 2013), Fea makes a compelling case for the value of studying history, and some of the answers may surprise the reader.
In the Great Courses series, Peter Stearns tantalizingly titles his course, “A Brief History of the World.” In just eighteen hours, the listener or viewer can explore history from before civilizations formed through the classical and post-classical eras to the beginnings of the modern world down to our own day. With a 75-minute commute to a class I was teaching last semester, it didn’t take me long to burn through the history of the world.