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.

Book Review – Theology with Spirit (Henry Lederle)

Word & Spirit Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Theology with Spirit: The Future of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements in the 21st Century, by Henry I. Lederle to review. Readers of this blog will know that I have an interest in the history of the charismatic movement, and have previously reviewed Andrew Walker’s Restoring the Kingdom and John Fleming’s Bind Us Together.

This book takes a broader perspective, and attempts to trace the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements right through to the present day. Obviously this is a huge task, but Lederle has managed to compress the story down very effectively to highlight the main characters, movements and theological ideas, and it makes for a fascinating read. Of particular interest is the way he seeks to link in the theological developments with the transition from modernity to post-modernity. He sees the initial opposition from cessationists as evidence of a modernist worldview infiltrating the church.

I already knew a bit about the Asuza street revival, but there is much in this book that was new to me. It is interesting to read his analysis of the effect of Pentecostalism on Roman Catholocism, Orthodoxy, along with other “communions”. Especially helpful is his concise explanations of the theology of different key groups such as the Wesleyan holiness movement, the oneness Pentecostals and the Latter Rain movement.

Following on from the roots of Pentecostalism, he moves onto the “second wave”, or denominational charismatic renewal. He includes a helpful analysis of the broad range of views on Spirit baptism, that departed from the initial Pentecostal positions.

Under the heading the “third wave”, he differs slightly from Wagner, and defines the third wave as independent charismatic churches. He considers several groupings, including “Restorationist”, “Dominion”, “Empowered Evangelicals” (e.g. Wimber), before finally moving on to “Word of Faith”.

This is where it gets interesting, since although Lederle has been very even-handed throughout, he does have an affinity with the Word of Faith movement, and was a lecturer for many years at Oral Roberts University. While he accepts the movement has come in for some deserved criticism, he feels it has now self-corrected its exesses, and identifies and defends four theological contributions the movement makes.

The latter part of the book explores the future of Spirit movements, including a review of various new papers published by young charismatic and pentecostal scholars, many from ORU. He also takes some time to explain his own unique take on Spirit baptism (a “dimension” with “events”), which I must confess to not fully understanding (probably need to re-read this a few times).

He concludes the book with the claim that he believes the Word of Faith churches will be at the forefront of the spread of the charismatic movement in the coming years, and interestingly, does not predict much success for the apostolic networks Peter Wagner has identified as being so significant (see my recent review of Dave Devenish’s book on apostles). I have no idea whether he is right, but I am sure he is correct when he identifies several countries in the global south that have been deeply influenced by Word of Faith theology.

He argues that the four Word of Faith disctinctives (1. the Believer’s Inheritance; 2. the Authority of the Believer; 3. Positive Confession; and 4. Prosperity), when articulated correctly, are all perfectly biblical ideas, and when properly understood are not the heresies they are often accused of being. And indeed, his carefully nuanced explanations of these four ideas are not as objectionable as the more bluntly stated versions I am more used to hearing.

In summary, I would say that the first half of this book is superb and will be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in the history of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. He has clearly done his research well and his analysis is very interesting. This part of the book would perhaps have benefitted from footnotes, but there is a good bibliography at the end.

The second part of the book caught me off guard. As someone from the more reformed end of the charismatic spectrum, I have grave concerns about the teaching I hear coming from the Word of Faith movement, and do not have a positive opinion about the “prosperity gospel”. It certainly is possible that some critics have misunderstood or misrepresened them – that has happened to almost every group within the church at some point. If Lederle is right about the future prominence of this movement, then it would perhaps benefit us to be more aware of what they are actually teaching, in order that we can make an accurate and biblical evaluation and critique of their contribution to Christian thought.

Book Review – The Breeze of the Centuries (Mike Reeves)

I have been highly anticipating the release of this book, ever since I read (and loved) Mike Reeves’ brief history of the Reformation (The Unquenchable Flame). I had assumed that this would be the prequel, filling in some church history. However, it appears that this book is the first of two(?) that introduces the life and writings of significant theologians of church history.

It gets its title from C. S. Lewis’ observation that every generation works with a large set of assumptions that seem to it so self-evident that they are never questioned. “The only palliative”, argues Lewis, “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

Reeves starts us off with the Apostolic Fathers, which he characterizes as the “best-sellers” of the first century, rather than necessarily representing good theology. He gives a page or so to each writing. Each chapter of the book closes with a paragraph explaining where best to start for those who want to read the works discussed for themselves, and also suggested biographies. A timeline is also provided, giving dates of the key events and writings of the life of each author featured in the chapter.

A second chapter deals with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and in particular guides us through how they sought to demonstrate that Christianity was taught in the Old Testament. Another chapter is devoted to Athanasius, which includes a good deal of space to his life story, before summarising his key works.

In a chapter on Augustine, we are given summaries of each of the chapters of his “confessions” (which includes some of his life story), as well as briefer looks at his other works. The final two theologians to be considered are Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. The material on Anselm is fascinating as it explains his remarkable project of “proving” all major Christian doctrines from reason alone. For Aquinas, he takes us through each section of the Summa Theoligiae.

Overall, this is a little harder to read through than The Unquenchable Flame, although this is understandable since the task of explaining the thought processes of some of these ancient thinkers is no mean feat. Reeves does an admirable job, although some may find his superb talks on these theologians a little easier to digest, many of which can be found at His characteristic sense of humour shines through, as he likes to throw in a few of the more bizarre moments from the life and writings of these theologians. It has inspired me to make a bit more effort reading some older works, maybe venturing back into my copy of “City of God” which I made very little headway into.

Book Review – The Unquenchable Flame (Mike Reeves)

Anyone who has heard Mike Reeves speak will know that he is a superb teacher of theology and church history, and has a knack for presenting it in a highly entertaining and humorous way. To sample his teaching, check out the historical theology section at The Theology Network website. So I was delighted to get hold of a copy of his new book on the Reformation.

Despite the fact that he could undoubtedly write a much larger volume, he has opted to keep it accessible and cover the whole reformation period in six chapters: 1 – The Background to the Reformation; 2 – Martin Luther; 3 – Ulrich Zwingli and the Radical Reformers; 4 – John Calvin; 5 – The Reformation in Britain; 6 – The Puritans.

I was pleased to discover that he is just as good a writer as he is a speaker, and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments as he highlights some of the eccentricities and curiosities of the times.

Reeves makes no secret of the fact that he views the Reformation as a work of God, but does not gloss over the faults and failings of the reformers. He is keen to explain clearly what the main theological points of contention were, and why they mattered so much. He clearly highlights the ways in which various reformers and supporters of the reformation differed from one another.

I certainly learned a lot from it, especially in the British history chapter, which I am particularly hazy on. Reeves shows how the Reformation hinged on Luther’s understanding of the doctrine of justification. If Luther was right, everything must change.

Which brings me to the seventh chapter of the book. Reeves concludes by asking whether the reformation is over? The Puritans, who were the main driving force for continual reformation, died out after being denied access to education. With many modern Catholics describing themselves as evangelical, and many Protestant denominations glad to agree to an ecumenical statement on justification, has the need for reformation gone away?

Reeves argues not. He shows that the fundamental difference between Luther’s justification and the Roman Catholic position has not gone away. The sticking point is the word alone in the phrase “Justified by faith alone”. Moreover, modern attempts to say that Luther’s solution was to a uniquely 16th century problem do not convince Reeves. Though we may have denied human “guilt” our desire for acceptance is just as strong as ever. And it is to this point that the gospel speaks most directly. With eternal matters hanging in the balance, justification can never be viewed as a peripheral issue.

So if you’re looking for an accessible, engaging, entertaining and theologically stimulating introduction to the Reformation, this is the book to get. Here’s hoping that he’ll do a follow-up on the early church fathers soon.