The rise and growth of the church in its cultural, intellectual, and political context
John Woodbridge and Frank A. James III
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013
ISBN 9780310515142; 864pp; hbk; £
This is a mammoth book: 2 authors, 22 Chapters covering 8 centuries, 16 pages of contents, 4 maps, 103 black and white illustrations in 843 pages. It covers the period from the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church" in 1309 to January 2012 when Boko Haram, a violent Islamic terrorist group, committed 54 murders.
The book has a number of goals: to provide an academically responsible engagement with the facts of history; to provide a global perspective; to be contemporary and relevant to the church today; not to avoid controversial issues, but not make final judgments; and to evaluate actions according to the cultural norms of the times but mindful that Christians affirm doctrinal and ethical standards that are culturally transcendent; and finally to be respectful of all Christian traditions.
Far too often history has been written by white men about other (usually dead) white men. How then does this book fare? It is written by two white men, but women do get a share - albeit a small one - of mentions. So, for example in the first chapter we have mentions of Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine of Sienna.The book aims to be global and it does avoid being too Euro and American-centric.
Inevitably, there is more focus on Protestantism than Roman Catholicism and on Europe and North America than Africa or Asia. But that is perhaps more a statement about the nature of history and the available documents rather than the book; until the nineteenth recently most Protestants lived in Europe, in 1900 81% of Christians were white - it is estimated that by 2015 this will be 30% - and in 1900 70% of all Christians lived in Europe and by 2025 this will be 20%. This global shift from Europe to North America and now to the Global South is certainly reflected in the later chapters of the book.
Why don’t Christians study more history? One problem has been a lack of good introductory resources. Woodbridge and James have addressed the that problem, they have produced a good overview of the story of history. However, as John Fea in his Why Study History? points out “Historians are not mere storytellers. Not only do they have the responsibility of making sure that they get the story right; they are also charged with the task of analyzing and interpreting the past.” Woodbridge and James are great story tellers, but at times I was wanting a little more analysis and interpretation.
Having said that though there is a brief helpful analysis of Calvin. The accusations that Calvin’s emphasis on predestination led to a lack of evangelism and missionary emphasis are examined and found wanting. They point out that “Contemporary scholars generally agree that predestination was not the wellspring of Calvin’s theology.” And they provide evidence of church growth that supports Phillip Hughes assertion that “Calvin’s Geneva was nothing less than “a school of missions … and a dynamic centre of missionary concern and activity.” (Churchman 78(4))
This is a great resource for those who want to know more about Church history. It provides enough detail in its overview to be also satisfying to undergraduates. At the end of each chapter is a “For further study” section which highlights several key books which will be helpful to those who want to take church history further.