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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Church History, Volume One from Christ to Pre-Reformation" (Everett Ferguson)

TITLE: Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context
AUTHOR: Everett Ferguson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (544 pages).

Use the knowledge of the past to help navigate the present toward the future. This is the underlying conviction of authors of history books and historians at large. This comprehensive Church history textbook, now into its second edition, is no different. Ferguson is Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas as well as an author of numerous books especially on Church history. As an experienced historian, he wisely advises students to adopt these perspectives which I paraphrase as follows:
  • Big Picture Understanding: Know the data and details, but notice more the religious life of the people and the perspectives during that era;
  • Imitating the Good: For the periods and moments of faithfulness in the past, rejoice and reaffirm the imitation of them;
  • Avoid Repeating the Bad: For the periods and moments of unfaithfulness, learn from them and avoid repeating mistakes of the past;
  • Storying the Greatest Event in History: That Church history is to be studied because it is about the greatest thing ever to happen to mankind through the coming of Christ;
  • Compass for the Road Ahead: With historical consciousness of the past, one is better equipped to deal with the present and the future.
Like many Church history textbooks, most of the "narrative thread" in this book will be on Western Christianity. Compressing the time of Christ to the Pre-Reformation means trying to frame nearly 1400 years into a 544 pages volume. This is a tough mountain to climb but having climbed it, Ferguson provides readers a bird's eye view from the summit. He sets the stage by helping readers appreciate the contexts in the Roman world, the Jewish world, and the Greek world, calling them the "three concentric circles of influence" for early Christianity. He brings readers through the life, the ministry, and the death of Jesus Christ, plus constant emphases on key doctrinal beliefs and theologies. On the Early Church, he begins with Antioch and slowly makes his way through the many churches mentioned in the book of Acts. He points out the many tensions that existed among the Christians in the first two centuries. There were the ritual disputes between the Hellenistic and Jewish believers; the battle against Gnostic influences; the persecutions that seemed to grow unabated from early Pharisaic challenges to brutal Empire executions. If the first century was marked by persecutions and executions, the second century was notable through heresies and schisms. Ferguson helpfully highlights the lessons learnt through both good and bad times. For example, Ferguson poses the question of whether our doctrines and orthodoxy has been shaped by the presence of heresies. The conclusion is that orthodoxy was already present prior to any heretic beliefs. When the heresies came up, Church leaders were forced to ratify or to put down the Orthodox beliefs in writing.

Chapter 8 is a fascinating look at the lifestyles of believers in the second and third centuries. We learn about Christians being encouraged to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. We read about women who were unable to publicly teach often did so in private circles. Readers will also gain a lot of insights both from the early Church fathers such as Tertullian, Clement, Origen, and others, as North African leaders such as Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage. Ferguson poses the curious question: Why did the persecutions fail to stop the spread of Christianity? The reasons were largely internal. For example, there were firm convictions that Christ is the only way, the truth, and the life. Other reasons included the belief in Christ that is open to all; that brotherly love and open caring extended to all; strong sense of community; and the strengths of faith expressed through leadership and martyrdom. Toward the end of the fifth century, one starts to see how religious persecutions become increasingly a political game amid shifts in regional power strongholds. The rise of Constantine the Great marked the fall of genuine spirituality among the newly found status of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Some significant events during the periods 300-1000CE were:
  • Nicene Creed that stood against the Arian Controversy;
  • The institutionalizing of the Church hierarchy;
  • Golden Age of Patristic Literature
  • Cappadocian Fathers and the first Doctors of the Church;
  • The Monastic Movement;
  • Great Schism between East and West;
  • The Growth of Islam
  • The Spread of Christianity Further West to the British Isles;
  • ...
Century by century, Ferguson traces the development of Christianity as world powers fought one another; Church factions argue East and West; and political and religious lines demarcated in an increasingly complex world. Thankfully, the missionary movements continued to grow both East and West. On the East, despite problems such as the Iconoclasmic controversy, the Islamic threat, and the terrible Crusades, the Byzantine church continued to flourish from the 9th to 11th Century, partly due to the strength of the Byzantine Empire. Just like the Eastern missionary movement that managed to reach out to the Slavs and Bulgars in Central Europe, the West too had their shining stars happening in the churches of England and Ireland. If Patrick was the "apostle to Ireland," Ninian was the "apostle of Scotland." Another major turning points of the Church and State relationships happened at the coronation of Charlemagne. 

Slowly but surely, perceptive readers will sense that the dark ages actually became fodder that planted the seed for Reformation. With power increasingly being used (and abused) by both imperial powers as well as the Church papacies, the Church descended upon a regrettable phase of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and overt display of power. With the Crusades lied greater alienation between the West and the Greeks. With the holy wars laid discontentment among the peasants. During these times, the Monastic movement began its quiet rise in influence and positive developments for the society. There was the rise of Scholasticism with impressive advancements in theology and schools of learning. Commentaries were written. Theology becomes alive. Scholars such as Abelard, Anselm, and Aquinas led the way. The Augustinians, the Benedictines, and the Cistercians brought about new monastic vitality. Not only that, they were active in charitable causes, and helped spread the other developments such as arts, education, literature, rhetoric, and many aspects of modern culture. These positive developments were negated somewhat by "portents of decline" toward the end of the 13th century. The Church needed to be reformed. Heresy continued to be a problem. The political situation was increasingly unstable. It is at this point readers will be enticed to look forward to Volume 2 of this history series.

So What?

Appreciating Church history is perhaps one of the most important and effective way in understanding our modern culture. If we do not know our past, how can we appreciate our present? How can we then anticipate our future. If we fail to learn from the past, we are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. Ferguson moves through a noticeable chronological order of things which helps readers keep track of where they are. Sometimes, it can be a little confusing when the developments are happening at the same time but at different places. It is important to use the chapter titles as a marker when reading this book. Sometimes, it may be necessary to bookmark the table of contents and refer to them regularly so that one will not be lost among the details. I appreciate this book for four reasons.

Firstly, it gives us a good bird's eye view of the development of Christianity from persecutions to coronation, that the gospel is powerful. Whether it is external persecutions or internal controversies of doctrines and heresies, it reminds me of the power of the Spirit to help the growth of the gospel regardless of circumstances. In fact, in the hands of a few, God will multiply. God will spread the gospel. God will make himself known as Jesus is lifted high up.

Secondly, it helps us appreciate the roots of modern Christianity. For example, many modern atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and even believers will often point to the Crusades as the big black mark in Church and Christianity. While in some way that is true, in other way it can be unfair and misguided. The Crusades happen not merely because of religious motivations. It is more to do with political greed and cultural pride. Ferguson paid quite a lot of attention on the Islamic and Christian tussles, pointing out the parallels between the battles among kings and popes, and the unfortunate embrace of holy war that totally undermines the Ten Commandments and the laws that meant to protect rather than destroy. Come to think of it, suppose the Church was non-existent at that time, and there is a religion called "whatever," chances are, armies throughout Europe and Asia will be battling out in the name of "whatever" against the "non-whatever." This is because regardless of the religions per se, the human condition is sinful.

Thirdly, the book is brutally honest about the nature of history. Both the ups and downs are boldly laid out. The mistakes are there for us to learn. The highs are there for us to remember how God had been faithful throughout history. It would have been tempting to try to put a positive spin on everything, and to downplay the negatives. Ferguson did not do that. He explains it as they are, so that readers can make their own interpretations and to recognize that we live in an imperfect world, and the past is no less imperfect than our own world.

Fourthly, I appreciate Ferguson's weaving of all cultural, political, intellectual, and religious contexts.  After all, religion not only shapes the culture around, the culture also shapes the religion. This is one reason why the title "Church History" can throw people off into thinking that it is merely a religious text or a text about Church. While the title is understandable to Christians, students, and seminarians, it may give non-believers an impression that it is limited only to Church. That is why in some places, people use "History of Christianity" instead.

Finally, just like the way the Old Testament ends in Malachi, where there seems to be an incomplete story, this book ends with the very brief summary of the narrative ups and downs. I suppose this is intentionally done, as Church history does not end at the 14th or 15th Century. It is the beginning of the continuing story of the greatest story ever told over and over again. I find myself wanting more. On to Volume 2.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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