Book Review: History: Think for Yourself About What Shaped the Church

History is, for Americans especially, a problematic business.  There are those who want to transmit history, and others who want to redefine it.  But for most people history is something that gets ignored.  For Evangelicals, the common attitude that “between Apostles and us, people weren’t saved” only makes matters worse.

But the history of the church is profitable for everyone, and this is recognised in the book History: Think for Yourself About What Shaped the Church.  Written by Robert Don Hughes, Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, its a fast–very fast, indeed–overview of the history of the church.

Hughes begins by stating what’s obvious even without his saying so: the book is written from an Evangelical point of view.  That has its plusses and minuses, and the latter come out in monographs on history more than anywhere else.  The book’s structure is, unsurprisingly, divided up according to different eras.  But there are several topics (which he refers to as “Six Big Challenges”) which are discussed regarding each era, and they are as follows:

  1. People like us (how Christians of each era are like we are today, both strengths and weaknesses)
  2. The Body of Christ and the Human Institution (how the church is both)
  3. Church + State = Very Bad Things
  4. Faith Versus Reason (which has gone back and forth over the years)
  5. What About Missions?
  6. Ethics Optional?

Until the eighteenth century his history is broad based, covering all parts of Christianity.  After that he concentrates (not exclusively) on portions of interest to Evangelicals.  The temptation with that is to cover the latter at proportionately greater length, detail and sympathy, but Hughes avoids that.  It’s a fast ride from start to finish.

As far as the text itself is concerned, from the standpoint of historical content and the lens through which it’s viewed, the book is best described as “above average” without being outstanding.  There is the occasional factual lapse (such as Patrick being from Wales when he was from the North of England,) but the biggest failing in that respect is sheer brevity.  He cannot fathom the difference between subordinationism and denying the deity of Christ altogether, which means he misunderstands the Christology of Tertullian (who was a subordinationist, but Hughes misses that) Origen (also a subordinationist, but Hughes makes a big deal of that) and Arius (who denied Christ’s deity, but Hughes only calls him a subordinationist.)  His format on focusing on major figures in each era leads to distortions.  For example, his emphasis on Augustine’s obsession with the dirt of sex and the superiority of chastity makes him overlook the fact that Jerome was a more pugnacious (as as well known) presenter of both to the Western church.

Moving towards the Reformation and its aftermath, his juxtaposition of John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola is interesting and thought-provoking.  So is his depiction of Thomas Cranmer; the English Reformation is always a complicated subject, one that still haunts Anglicanism (and the rest of us) today.  (His quotation from Cranmer’s BCP in the context of his life was, for me, the most amusing moment of the book.)  In the later years he emphasises the Cane Ridge revival and its Southern and Western progenies as the “Second Great Awakening” while ignoring the central importance of Charles Finney (who he only mentions in passing) and his revivals in the North.  That’s a typically Southern Baptist (and Southern in general) bias; Finney was a die-hard abolitionist, and the sons of the “Lost Cause” would rather forget it, even Finney was crucial in the development of revivalistic techniques and the shift in American Christianity from Calvinistic to Arminian theology (the latter he does mention, but ignores Finney’s contribution.)

For people who are totally, like, in the dark about the history of the church, History: Think for Yourself About What Shaped the Church is an easy to read introduction that can be gone through between refills at Starbucks (have a registered card though, it’s not that short.)  For newbies to the subject, a pictoral history would be better, but Hughes’ effort isn’t a bad one, especially if it inspires readers to dig deeper into the history of the church.

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