Thursday 9 February 2006

Essential history for theologians

“The history of Christianity is frequently sordid and depressing, and very frequently, apparently sacred events turn out to have very secular causes. Christians will remain beginners in their faith if they do not face up to this. The miracle of the church's story is that after all its mistakes, bewildering transformations and entanglements in human bitterness, it is still there.” —Diarmaid MacCulloch

Jo from JoBloggs is currently completing her PhD in eighteenth-century history. So I asked her to compile a list of “essential history for theologians.” Jo has come up with the following list of 11 essential history books—what would you add?

1. Flavius Josephus, War of the Jews
2. Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
3. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church
4. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church
5. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom
6. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation
7. W. R. Ward, The Protestant Evangelical Awakening
8. Adrian Hastings (ed.), A World History of Christianity
9. Hugh McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789-1989
10. George Marsden, Religion and American Culture
11. Mary T. Malone, Women and Christianity (3 vols)


Rory Shiner said...

I'd add the (relatively new) "The Rise of Evangelicalism" by Noll. That whole series looks very promising.

Jim said...

Josephus is dreadfully self centered and more propagandist than historian. And Gibbon? She's got to be kidding. Gibbon is wracked with errors and inefficiencies. Chadwick is good. MacCulloch is brilliant. The rest- well... never mind.


Ben Myers said...

Jim: How could anyone not like Gibbon? Has there ever been a more exciting and more entertaining historian? Has there ever been a more captivating writer of historical prose?

My favourite history book in my own library is the lovely Folio Society edition of Gibbon's history. Beautiful!

Rory Shiner said...

Yeah, I've got that folio edition of Gibbon too. Back off, Jim! :) Oh to write like Gibbon...

T.B. Vick said...

Apparently you meant "Essential Christian History" as the titled for this post, right?

If that is the case, then where is Philip Schaff? I would also recommend A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

If Josephus and Gibbon get to be on there, then I wonder if Plutarch and Tacitus ought to be as well?

I like F.F. Bruce's Israel and the Nations (or some other such book--Charles Pfeiffer; John Bright, ought to be included, I should think). I don't know that Josephus alone would quite cut it.

Paul Johnson's short work The Renaissance is also very good.

I've not read the Marsden book, but I enjoyed Gaustad's to the same effect: A Religious History of America.

Jim said...

Now Schaff was a funny character! Kicked out of seminary school for "unbecoming behavior" (i.e., he was caught doing what most 14 and 15 year old boys do) and they booted him out! But what a writer. His Church History is the most complete ever written.

The best, and I mean BEST, is Kurt Aland's History of Christianity. Unsurpassed for clarity and usefulness. And he was never kicked out of school like Schaff was!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps something on the period of the English Civil War, and something on Christian missions.

My library contains Christopher Hill's The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 and Stephen Neill's A History of Christian Missions, both fine reads in their day.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Christopher Hill is superb -- radically imbalanced at times, but always superb.

I didn't know this funny anecdote about Schaff. I guess he got back at them in the end, by writing so many huge books.

Joanna said...

Yes, thanks T.B - essential church history, I think, rather than christian history - but certainly I'd write a very different list of 'general' history works. Gibbon would probably be the only work on both (and maybe Josephus, sorry Jim!)
My selection here reflects a couple of things. Firstly, it reflects my strong conviction that theologians need to read church history that is serious about exploring the historical context in which the church and its theologies developed. For that reason I've avoided the 'history of doctrine' works like Pelikan's series. I've also concentrated on quite narrow studies, because I think they display historians writing about the field they know best, rather than trying to provide an overview of thousands of years of church history (hence my choice of the Hastings book, a series of essays, rather than a standard single-author overview).
Secondly, as much as possible I've tried to choose historical works that 'matter'. I disagree that Josephus and Gibbon aren't essential because they are flawed as sources of information about the past. Historically speaking, they matter deeply. Josephus was the only history book that most of Western Christendom read for a thousand years. And Gibbon transformed the way church history (and history) was written. You don't have to like them to recognise that they're essential for anyone attempting to understand the history of the church.
Jeremiah is entirely right, though - you'd need more in the way of an intro to Jewish history than Josephus! Schaff also 'matters' in this sense. But I had enough trouble keeping it to ten - hence the extra one!

Joanna said...

I should probably qualify my comment about Josephus! But he was by far the most-read historian of the Christian West.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ben, good grief man, what about The Book of Acts! Not to forget Eusebius, Historia Ecclesia. Perhaps Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, should get a mention too. Otherwise, I think the list is okay. May I'd add Chadwick, History of the Reformation.

Ben Myers said...

The Book of Acts: Hmmmm, would this fit best in the "history" or "theology" category...?

Michael Pahl said...

I see the Bird beat me to it--if you're going down the ancient historian road to include Josephus, you have to have Luke-Acts in this list! Thoroughly theological, yes, but "essential history" as well. How could anyone do a reconstruction of early Christian history without Acts? Um... never mind that question! :-) And in this vein, Eusebius is a must as well.

Chris Tilling said...

Trul out of my depth in ths discussion, but one suggestion comes to mind:

Emil Schürer's A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (5 vols)

Fred said...

+ Francis Parkman

Anonymous said...

I would suggest the following additions:

J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines

The Stripping of the Altars
By Eamon Duffy

The First Seven Ecumenical Coouncils: Their History and Theology
by L.D. Davis S.J.

and for fun

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes
by Eamon Duffy

For the Glory of God
by Rodney Stark


James Crossley said...

Does this have to be more or less directly related? If not then what about Braudel? Hobsbawm? E. P. Thompson? And so on...

Reading these kinds of people would open the eyes of NT scholars to a whole load of methodological questions largely ignored in a discipline dedicated to descriptive history and/or history of ideas.

David W. Congdon said...

Eusebius is the most important name excluded, in my opinion. For recent history, I would add Mark Noll's America's God.

Brian Lugioyo said...

Surprised to see that Bede is missing here as well as Harnack and Troelstch. If you are going to do Church History today you have to read these giants.

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