Book Review – Church History in Plain Language (Bruce Shelley)

I suspect many Christians feel like I do about church history. I find it fascinating and confusing at the same time, and whilst I know the stories of a few key individuals, I lack a grasp of the big picture. So when I heard someone recommend this book that tells the story of church history from Jesus right through to the present day,  and does so in “plain language”, I ordered myself a copy.

The book is structured into 48 fairly short chapters, which are organized into several time periods (e.g. early church, Christian Roman empire, Medieval, Reformation, etc). It is a good way at summarising a vast amount of potential material. I struggle to think of any glaring omissions (expect of course Terry Virgo ;)), and it includes sections dealing with developments in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, about which many Protestants know very little.

He is balanced in his portrayal of the key players in church history, careful to avoid simplistically sorting them into goodies and baddies, but does provide his own evaluations of movements from time to time. There is not enough space to dig deep into the thought life or biographical details of any of them, but he picks out the most pertinent information and each chapter has a short bibliography with suggested further reading.

I read the second edition, last updated in 1995, to include topics such as megachurches, the “religious right”, globalisation and the aftermath of communism. It seems that there is a third edition available, published in 2008, which came out just after I purchased this. Bruce Shelley died in 2010, so there will be no further updates unless someone else takes on the project.

Overall I would say this is an excellent starting point for someone wanting the big picture of church history. You won’t become an expert on Augustine or Aquinas or Luther or Wesley through reading this, but you will at least know where they fit into the story.  After reading this you will probably want to supplement it with some more in-depth accounts of different periods or individuals. For example, Michael Reeves’ excellent book “The Unquenchable Flame“, while still an overview, focuses in on just the Reformation period.  So at this point I hand over to you. What church history books do you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

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