Best Church History books in 2013: a Baptist historian’s “eight”

By Various Contributors

John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013)

Why Study HistoryAs one who came to love the study of history during a Master’s program, I regrettably missed the opportunity for a foundational study of the discipline of history that an undergraduate emphasis in the field would have provided. This small tragedy (in my own mind at least) has often left me wondering what basic elements I may be overlooking in my own approach to the study of the past. Enter John Fea and Why Study History? Fea’s work is my favorite historical read of 2013 simply because it helped me glean more from all the other historical books I read. With an engaging style, Fea lays out a foundation for a responsible, useful, and distinctly Christian study of history. While the book’s aim is undergraduate students of history, the book is a worthy read for anyone looking for an introduction (or refresher) to the formal study of history. If you missed it on your 2013 reading list, I encourage you to make room for it during 2014.

Dustin Bruce

Annette G. Aubert, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013)

the german rootsIn this new study, Annette G. Aubert sheds fresh light on a neglected area of American religious history. As she notes, philosophers have paid due attention to the impact of German thinkers like Hegel and Kant on American philosophy, but the parallel is thin when it comes to theology and church history before the twentieth century. Aubert focuses on the relationship between the German theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1854), Ernst Hengstenburg (1802–1869), and Vermittlungstheologie (mediating theology) and the American theology of the nineteenth-century Princetonians, like Charles Hodge (1797–1878). She claims that most American religious historical treatments have limited the transatlantic dimension to the relationship between British and American theology—especially emphasizing the role of Scottish Common Sense philosophy—while the continent, and Germany in particular, have been overlooked. Perhaps the lesson is that more American religious historians need to learn some other languages. This book is an excellent historiographical survey in intellectual and transatlantic history, and it will contribute to establishing a fruitful foundation for further studies like it.

Ryan P. Hoselton

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013)

lewis-mcgrathPerhaps the greatest strength of McGrath’s intellectual biography of Lewis is its frank assessment of its subject’s weaknesses. Here you see Lewis’ towering intellect and imagination set alongside his personal idiosyncrasies and frequent relational difficulties. McGrath details Lewis’ often uneasy friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and others, along with his reluctant rise to prominence as a popular apologist for the Christian faith and shows why many evangelicals adore Lewis while a minority regards him with grave suspicion. McGrath’s work is a bit slow going in the early pages but grows more compelling as he begins to deal with Lewis’ relationships about a third of the way in. All in all, this well-written work will become the standard scholarly work on the life and work of Clive Staples Lewis.

Jeff Robinson

D.G. Hart, Calvinism: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013)

Hart-Calvinism-A-History-300x435-206x300Darryl Hart has produced an expansive treatment of the history of the Reformed/Presbyterian confessional tradition. Although the title is a misnomer since Calvinism outside of confessional Presbyterianism is largely left untreated, it is nevertheless a magisterial treatment of those Protestant churches that trace their history and beliefs back to Calvin. The scope and cogency of this book made it one of my favorite church history books of 2013.

Steve Weaver 

Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Revised edition; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2013)

theology-reformers-202x300Without a doubt, the Reformation is among the two or three most important turning-points in the past thousand years of church history. But given the major changes that have taken place theologically and ecclesiologically in the last century or so, it is easy for us to forget the importance of that momentous event. This new edition of Timothy George’s reliable study of the theology of five key Protestants (he has rightfully added William Tyndale to the original four of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Simons) is a tremendous reminder of the significance of the Reformation and the nature of its doctrinal emphases. While these men did not always agree among themselves, their thought changed their world—and for us, their heirs, we would have to say, it was a change for the better.

Michael Haykin

Norman Etherington, ed.,  Missions and Empire (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005)

missionsandempireThe tremendous growth of Christianity on the continents of Africa and Asia during the past two hundred years constitutes one of the most remarkable cultural transformations in the history of humanity. In this insightful volume Etherington traces the religious, political, colonial, and economic interaction between the British Empire and Western missionaries. While some historians criticize Western missions for employing cultural imperialism, widespread historical evidence does not actually support this critique, though there were certainly imperialistic exceptions involving coercion.  This volume argues that:

“The most important late twentieth-century scholarly insight into the growth of Christianity in the British Empire was that European missionaries accomplished very little in the way of conversion.  The greatest difficulty faced by those who have tried to argue that Christian missions were a form of cultural imperialism has been the overwhelming evidence that the agents of conversion were local people, not foreign missionaries.”

Evan Burns

Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, eds., Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013)

Reading-Christian-Spiritual-ClassicsThis multi-author work provides a great historical overview of why and how evangelicals ought to read classics of Christian literature from all of the major spiritual traditions and each period in Church history. Each chapter also contains helpful summaries of the key works. Highly recommended.

Joe Harrod

Tom Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2013)

spurgeonIt had long been my conviction that, despite the goodly number of Spurgeon biographies that have been written since the Baptist preacher’s death in 1892, there really was lacking a definitive study that not only took into account his remarkable ministry and the inspiring details of his life, but also adequately dealt with the theology of the man. Well, that slot has now been filled by Tom Nettles’ magnum opus. Here is an all-round study of Spurgeon that provides us with a fully reliable, substantial examination of an extremely important figure in the life of not only Victorian Evangelicalism, but also 20th century Christianity.

Michael Haykin