Surveying Church History

This fall, I am teaching the most pedagogically challenging course of my short teaching career.   Earlier in my tenure as a seminary professor, I expected that upper-level electives in the Master of Divinity program, doctoral reading seminars, and classes that stretched beyond my primary areas of teaching competency would provide the biggest challenges in course planning and preparation.  Over the past eight years, I have taught courses that fall into each of these categories.  This coming semester, I am slated to teach Survey of Church History in the undergraduate program on our campus.  Teaching this one semester overview of the entirety of the history of Christianity is a daunting task for several reasons.

First, a course that covers over two thousand years of history in fifteen weeks rankles some of my historian’s sensibilities. Although observation of trends and patterns remains an important aspect of the historian’s craft, with every generalization or simplification, I am dogged by my training which naggingly insists that I present history with nuance and precision.

Second, with the beginning of the semester a mere two weeks away, I am still furiously whittling my list of lecture topics, struggling to determine which “high points” I will cover, which ones I will excise, and how I will simplify without oversimplifying or crossing over into misrepresentation.  There is simply too much important history–decisive events–to cover.

Third, choosing a textbook proved especially challenging.  Although imperfect, Justo Gonzalez’s two volume The Story of Christianity still fits nicely into the standard seminary Church History I/Church History II sequence.  Recently, other alternatives for those courses have emerged as well.  Zondervan finally published Church History, Volume II: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (2013), the companion volume to the excellent first volume by Everett Ferguson.  Further, with the second volume (of three) in Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist’s History of the World Christian Movement now in print, that series could be adopted as well–if the instructor were willing to supplement the second volume with material to cover the period from 1800 to the present.  (Hopefully, the third volume will follow shortly.)  However, none of these multi-volume textbooks work well for a single-semester course.  Nearly 1,000 pages of textbook reading is too much for an introductory-level undergraduate course. For that reason, I also ruled out Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

Instead, I sought a single-volume text which could be supplemented with primary text readings.  With the rise of Christianity in the global South before my eyes and the work of Philip Jenkins whispering in my ear, I wanted a text that transcended–at least to some degree–the myopic emphasis on Western Christianity so common in English-language church histories.*

My quest proved disappointing.  Standard single-volume treatments, such as Cairns and Shelley, move from Palestine, to the Roman Empire, and to Europe, before culminating in America.  The global nature of Christianity gets some coverage in the end but not nearly enough.  Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity follows roughly the same trajectory.  Noll’s Turning Points made my short list as did Robert Bruce Mullin’s A Short World History of Christianity.  In the case of Noll’s book, I feared the text too closely mirrored the hit-the-high-points approach I will (by necessity) employ in my lectures and class discussions.  In Mullin’s case, although my confessional sensibilities quibbled with some of his interpretive decisions, the ultimate decision was more subjective.  In the end, I simply preferred a different book (although not by much).

Ultimately, I selected The Christian World: A Global History by Martin Marty.  Not without its own faults, Marty’s short history keeps the global nature of Christianity before the reader at all times as the story moves from Asia, to Africa, to Europe, to Latin America, to North America, and back to Africa before concluding in Asia.  Further, he provides an accessible, lucid, and even-handed narrative devoid of the triumphalism of some evangelical texts and the criticisms of Christianity that so often appear in non-evangelical texts.  The brevity of The Christian World provides an added benefit: it allows me to assign significant supplemental texts and primary source readings.  Although I am sure it will not be perfect, I am looking forward to using it this semester.  Check back in January and I will let you know how it worked out.

*This includes my own classes. Hence, my efforts described here.

About Miles Mullin
  • philipjenkins

    Just a suggestion.

    I have never taught a course on the whole span of Christian history like this, but have taught on smaller segments.

    See eg http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/p/jpj1/RS125W.htm

    and

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/p/jpj1/125material.html

    (If any of the materials there are useful, please take them!)

    Over and above a main textbook (which is essential) I always try to have at least one major “first hand” text in the words of some particular thinker or leader, eg Pilgrim’s Progress, Screwtape Letters, Way of a Pilgrim… In teaching history, there’s no substitute for getting the students to read documents at first hand, and preferably complete, rather than in somebody else’s selections.

    Incidentally, I reviewed the Marty book for BOOKS AND CULTURE, and I think it has a lot going for it.

    • Miles Mullin

      Thanks for this. I’ll take a look at the links later this evening.

      I completely agree with your suggestion on primary docs. I don’t think that the “tidbit” collections of documents help. They are little more than summaries.

      Incidentally, it was my recollection of your review that led me to consider the Marty text after my initial round of disappointments.

      • philipjenkins

        Also, original sources are now so very easily available on the Internet that I can’t imagine publishers producing those long-familiar collections of printed documents much longer.

        • Miles Mullin

          Sounds right to me. About 80% of my primary text stuff comes from the web. One challenge I come across is that some of the web-available works are in late 19th century English. Personally, I still like some of the LCC volumes, and I love the St. Vlad’s Press Popular Patristics Series. I just picked up a copy of the (fairly) new John Behr translation of On the Incarnation. My Church History I students have to read that every year.

          Also, since I am also teaching this class in our prison program, I could not employ my usual tact of using the internet for primary texts! I had to go ahead and pick a reader. I did pick one with fewer, but longer selections, though.

  • davidrswartz

    Great post Miles. Makes me wish I could teach some church history.

    • Miles Mullin

      And I wish I could teach some “regular” American history.

  • Miles Mullin

    Hey Dale: Thanks for reading and for the good comments. I am jealous of your four-course sequence! Vanderbilt had something similar for MDiv students when I was a graduate student there: Early & Medieval, Reformation Ere, Modern European, and American. It was pretty neat.

    I looked at both of those volumes as well. I have colleagues who use both and like them quite a bit. In my estimation, the Dowley volume is nice aesthetically, but seemed a bit disjointed due to the multiple authors approach. The Concordia volume is HUGE. It also tended towards a more westo-centric historical theology approach (which I was hoping to avoid) and is a bit dated, in my opinion. (The recommended readings don’t go beyond things published in the 1960s if memory serves correctly.) Of course, the reader I adopted (Robert Lay’s volume published by Kregel) suffers from the first issue as well. I like that it’s selections are long, but I am going to supplement it with some stand-alone documents.

    Needless to say, the reason I can even have this internal debate about what to adopt is that all these books are volumes worthy of publication!

    • dalecoulter

      Miles: you are right about the readings in The Church from Age to Age. I put together my own primary readings for students and tell them not to worry about those sections.

      You are right about the Dowley volume being a bit disjointed. It’s always a trade off I guess, and you have to find the right mix for you and your students. I’ve only taught church history at the undergrad once so I can’t say that Dowley would have been a long-term choice.

      When I think about how many NT and OT textbooks have been written, I am amazed at the low number of history texts from which to choose.

      Thanks again for sharing!

  • John Turner

    Miles,
    A formidable task. My only thoughts are to not put undue pressure on yourself to either: 1) cover everything you think is important; 2) do everything perfectly the first time. Especially with introductory courses, I’ve found that whatever the subject, I have to teach it several times to figure out how I can best do it.

    • Miles Mullin

      I just saw this. Great reminders. I appreciate it.

  • philipjenkins

    Always remember the golden rule of introductory teaching: be lively, and occasionally accurate. (I never said that).

  • Jarrod Reese

    The myopic focus on Western Christianity in history classes has always disappointed me. I took a course on strategic missions and the Great Commission mandate called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (perspectives.org) that offered a brief brief brief history of the spread of the gospel, and I was fascinated by the historical movement of the gospel beginning with the first century from Jerusalem to the East. The impact of early Christianity in Persia, India, and China (especially along the old Silk Road) and other parts of south Asia and even Russia has not been adequately researched and included in our histories. :(

  • Bill Forgeard

    Thanks for this post. So how did it go?

    I taught a single semester survey of Church History last year – I did find the amount of content overwhelming at times! I used Noll’s Turning Points. As you say, there was similarity between the ‘highlights’ approach of the textbook and my own lectures. However, Noll’s book is very accessible for undergrads and gets right to the heart of the issues — I thought it was excellent.

    This semester I’m teaching a single semester course called “Turning Points in World History” — the content overload is even worse! I appreciate Philip Jenkins advice in the comments about teaching introductory courses, I shall attempt to follow it closely :)


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