Review: Church history in plain language

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Writing to the Corinthians about ancient Israel, the apostle Paul commented, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” (1 Corinthians 10:6) For all our obsession with the uniqueness of the present, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) - as we look to the past we can learn from the mistakes and triumphs of previous generations. This being the case, accounts of the history of Christianity can be hugely valuable.

Church history in plain language by Bruce Shelley is one such book: it’s written by an academic but should be suitable for the general reader – technical terms are explained and there aren’t a forest of footnotes on every page. Professor Shelley divides the 2,000 of Christianity into eight ages: Jesus and the apostles, catholic Christianity, the Christian Roman empire, the middle ages, the reformation, reason and revival, progress, and ideologies. Well aware of Christianity in its present form he is able to show how ideas and principles have developed, which helps the reader to understand where we are today.

The main criticism of this book is how North American Protestantism comes to dominate its ending. It’s understandable that an American Protestant would write in this way but I was nevertheless disappointed not to read more about the current explosion of Christianity in the global south (though the recently-released third edition may deal with this), let alone the Orthodox Church which barely merits a mention after the Great Schism of 1054.

That said, this is a good non-academic textbook that will help you to understand the historic forces that have shaped the present. If its 544 pages with nearly no pictures seem a little daunting, you could try The Lion handbook: the history of Christianity which has a lot more pictures and perhaps a bit more breadth, (though the original 1970’s version will feel a bit dated).