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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Church History Vol 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (John Woodbridge and Frank A James III)

TITLE: Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context
AUTHOR: John Woodbridge and Frank A. James III
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (864 pages).

This is an ambitious book which tries to survey Church history from 1300 to the present day. Having read many other surveys of Church history, the one big question I have when I read this is: "What's new?" Let me give a short summary before offering my thoughts on the book.

Six goals form the underlying philosophy of the book.
  1. Academically responsible to the facts of history
  2. As Global a Perspective as Possible
  3. Contemporary and relevant to modern readers
  4. Presenting the Contexts as accurately as possible so that readers can draw their own conclusions
  5. Watching cultural nuances in each historical period
  6. Ecumenical.
A) The Layout

There are twenty-two chapters that spans more than 800 pages in this heavy textbook. The first half of the book comprises about 15 chapters between the 13th to the 18th centuries. Four chapters are dedicated to the 19th Century. Five chapters describe the 20th and 21st centuries. From the European discovery, the Middle Ages, the 16th Century beginnings of the Renaissance, to the many branches of Reformation in Europe, the authors shine a light on how Christians grapple with faith in God amid the adversity they faced. From the horrible 100 years war (1337-1453) to the Black Death plagues (1347-50), believers were left to wonder if God's judgment had arrived. Even the leadership, in particular, the papacy were plunged into crisis, with political and religious lines being crossed over, leading to the Great Schism in the 14th Century. Readers will see that there were many things overlapping and influencing one another. Apart from faith and politics, we read how religious leaders influence the rise of the arts in the Renaissance. Building upon this is the rise of science and technological advancements. Even religious lines overlap, with adherents to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, living in religious tension in an increasingly fragile political climate. While the historical scope is framed chronologically from the 13th Century to the 21st Century, the authors carefully highlight the significant events for each century, and more importantly, the implications of such events then, and now. At the end of each chapter, there is a conclusion followed by a list of resources for further study.

B) Academic Rigour

How academically rigourous is this book? The amount of content contained in the book is already something for many students to mine. Each time I read, something pops out of the book to entice me to read more deeply and to check with other sources. Readers who define an academic textbook as one with lots of references and cross sources will be disappointed to find that there are no footnotes or endnotes in the book. In terms of depth and breadth of coverage, this book excels as it deals with many important historical events. What is lacking in terms of footnotes is compensated by the quotes and implied references within the text. At the same time, the illustrations, tables, diagrams, maps, charts, and the uncluttered chapters, make this book very readable. I suppose that a judgment call had to be made to do away with excessive and explicit referencing so that the book can be made to stay within 900 pages. For to do so will push the book length toward a thousand or more pages, and increases the price of the book. After all, students often have challenging financial considerations.

C) Cultural Relevance

There are many strands of culture that can be said. In general, what the authors have done is to first describe the cultural nuances of that day, set forth an example, followed by personal thoughts about it all, then and now. Not everything contains this frame, but the major events do follow this format. For example, in describing the 95 theses of Martin Luther, many readers will be surprised to find that the nailing of the 95 theses is not about separation from the Roman Church, but an act of a faithful servant of God. The authors weave in the surrounding contexts that was becoming ready for renewal of Church and society. We read about the tussle between Luther and the Church; the spread of the Reformation movement through Zwingli in Zurich; John Calvin in Geneva; the rise of the Anabaptists, to the Reformation movement in Britain. Due to the many different things happening, it is a challenge to even try to put them together, so it is the best possible interpretation of the event then, with readers filling in the appropriate lessons to be learned for contemporary times. In fact, that is the way to read this book. Justo Gonzalez, another respected Church historian asserts in "The Changing Shape of Church History" that history is not a stagnant subject but a moving target in which the historical event may be past, but the lessons learned can be very contemporary. Through constant telling and retelling of history, we observe how history changes shape according to our understanding and application. Which is why history is a fascinating subject to study.

Further Thoughts

It is interesting that the authors begin with the tensions experienced by the European people and their neighbours, about the tension among Christians and Muslims, and then close the book with similar Christianity-Islam tensions. Five things come to mind as I look at this and many of the other tensions of arts and science, religion and politics, war and peace. First, although the authors of this book try to be as global as possible, I feel that the success is limited. At least, between 1300 to 1700, there is an overwhelming focus on European happenings as if Europe is the center of the world at that time. This is understandable as Europe is most documented at that time. Just check out our library resources and you will understand what I mean. Toward the second part of the book, there is more material on North America and South America. The most "global" part of the book is on chapters 18 and 21. Second, I appreciate the highlighting of significant events as milestones to frame our understanding of the history. This milestone format is not just event, but includes significant persons and policies. In fact, readers learn best this way. Some significant events include the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Renewal. This practice can be continued. Third, while I find the book extremely readable without the distraction of footnotes, I still think that readers, especially research students can benefit from citations. Of course, one can say that other textbooks have already done that, or publishers are restricted by the length and weight of the book, at least, include some. Fourth, there is room for more applications of how other historians or contemporary theologians see the same thing. In this aspect, if length is a concern, why not have a Church History Book III? Fifth, invite a co-author from another culture to either edit or write this book. As much as one tries to be as global as possible, there is usually a constraint for one cultural angle to interpret another culture, from outside the culture. That is why, while having a single author to survey the entire history is more cohesive and more readable, engaging other cultural perspectives will enrich the book in terms of nuances and greater appreciation of different perspectives.

This book is a commendable effort and will work well for beginning an appreciation of Church history from the 13th to the 21st centuries. That said, when used together with other books like Justo Gonzalez's historical surveys, it will be a powerful resource for understanding Christianity then and now.

Rating: 4.75 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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