A One-Volume History of the Church

Back in March of this year, Tim Challies asked me for a suggestion of a one-volume history of the Church. I am glad I am finally able to say a few words on this subject. I am leery of one-volume histories of the church, since they tend to be written by single authors, who, no matter how gifted they are as historians in certain areas, simply cannot know the entirety of church history well enough to provide a summary of it all. One sees this, for example, in K.S. Latourette’s history of Christianity. His specialty was the history of mission. In other areas, he is so-so. Even the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who has recently gone to be with Christ, has his weaker moments in his five-volume magnum opus on the history of doctrine. The first volume, on the patristic era, I consider utterly splendid and standard reading for anyone studying that era. But I found his treatment of post-Reformation Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, and the New Divinity men sadly lacking.

With that said, then what would I recommend? Well, the text that I have used consistently over the past few years is Tim Dowley, ed., An Introduction to the History of Christianity (1990 Rev. ed.; repr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). It has a number of advantages. It covers the entire history of the church. It has been written by experts in the numerous fields. So it capitalizes on the strengths of a number of great historians of the church. And then Dowley has good editing skills and has produced a seemingly seamless text. I also admit to loving the many pictures, maps, sidebars (the latter essential for the post-modern reader who cannot handle large blocks of text without break!), and mini-chronologies.

I may find time to make a comment or two on church history sets. But that will have to wait.