Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
Gerald Bray’s The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) covers much of the necessary historical and theological material on the issue of the church. Bray does this mostly through a historical study of the church, with attention to various theological issues that arise in this history. The volume ends with a theological assessment of what the church should be.
I appreciate how Bray does not assume that the reader is versed in church history or comes from a particular theological conviction. This allows for comprehensive cover, but in an approachable tone. The prose is stripped of jargon or assumptions about the reader’s theology.
This may seem like a weakness (how can all the vast information be addressed in such a short space?), but it is a testament to Bray’s writing. Bray discusses so much in engaging prose, with a clear historical narrative that does not favor one particular denomination over another.
Bray covers important topics such as the difference between the Old Testament synagogue and the church (The Church, 15-24), Lightfoot’s position on episkopos and the presbyteros (The Church, 46-48) (Bray addresses Alistair Stewart’s The Original Bishops, see my review), and Baur and the Tübingen School (The Church, 34-41). Towards the end of the volume, Bray has an interesting discussion of how the various traditions and denominations after the Reformation answered the call to a “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church (The Church, chapter 6). An area I wished Bray would have expanded on a bit more is the question of how the church throughout the centuries have understood sacred space, or the physical church, and how sacred space intersected with everyday life.
Gerald Bray’s The Church is a wonderful resource for those who wish to read a historical and theological discussion of the church. Bray maintains an unbiased position as best as possible (non- Protestants would disagree, and Bray’s own theology does show once in a while). As mentioned above, I will be using The Church for the classroom in the future, but it does not read like a textbook and is beneficial for anyone interested in the church.