Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part One

I read a lot of church history. I've always loved history and especially church history. I love reading about the people involved and the theological disputes.

The latter has always been a problem in introductory overviews, though. The theological disputes either get ignored or given a brief and unsatisfactory paragraph or two. Sure, the Arian controversy will get more than that. But to really understand the issues, you have to seek out a heavily footnoted tomb—oops, I meant tome (or did I?). And almost invariably you come away either, a. bored nearly to death, or b. even more confused than when you started.

So, when I was told of an introductory level text that paid attention to theological issues as well as historical ones, I couldn't resist. I requested a copy of 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. I have to confess that I wasn't too hopeful; I've been disappointed too often by church history books that promise far more than they can deliver. But I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is the text readable, but it takes on the theological issues in more than a cursory manner, yet still manages to keep them understandable. A first in my experience.

He examines the Arian controversy and gives the background on why it never found a foothold in the west (Tertullian's strong Trinitarian writings are credited). He talks about Origen's strong influence on Eastern thought and how the Arians were able to leverage that, convincing many non-Arians to go along with them. In fact, the true Arian view was always a minority that managed to stay viable only by getting the Origenist party on board. I hadn't realized that before (it also explains why Eusebius is said to have "Arian sympathies" when he was actually very Orthodox).

Needham doesn't limit himself to the church in the west, either. He includes not just the Orthodox East, but also the Syrian East. And he doesn't slight Africa, either. He even includes selected readings from some of the major actors in the story. Again, something that is usually missing from an introductory text. When I took church history in seminary, we were given a reading list for each time period and told to read 1-2 items from each time period; the textbook didn't have any readings in it. That's fine for a seminarian who has access to a good library, but not so good for the average person. Including the selection of readings is a major bonus.

In short, not only do I wholeheartedly recommend this book, but I also am going to read the remaining books in the series: The Middle Ages and Renaissance and Reformation. There is also a fourth volume that is supposed to be coming out next spring. Once it is published, I'll definitely be reading it as well.

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