By Carl Trueman
One of the secrets to being a competent church historian is – to state the obvious – knowing what makes a competent historian in general. So I always recommend that those interested in the subject also read more widely in the discipline to keep their minds sharp. One area of importance is historical method, a topic which can quickly become bogged down in arcane philosophical jargon. Yet there are some fine and even entertaining books which help in this area. The one I typically suggest is Richard J. Evans, Lying about Hitler. Evans is a top-rank historian of the Third Reich and this small volume is his account of being an expert witness in the Holocaust Denial libel trial between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt which took place in London in 2000. Part court room thriller, part a master class in how to read historical documents, part reflection on the morality and legitimate limits of historical interpretation, it is an excellent primer on how to do history.
History of Doctrine
The best histories of doctrine blend intellectual, cultural and social factors together to give a coherent account of why the church thought – and expressed her thought –in the way she did at particular moments in time. In this regard, I would recommend that everyone read Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy. Ayres has done important work in revising and refining the understanding of the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century. As became evident a few years ago, much of conservative Protestantism has not articulated an accurate understanding of Trinitarian orthodoxy and this is in large part due to a basic ignorance of exactly why and how the Nicene Creed came to be formulated. Ayres is not an easy read – the Trinity cannot be tweeted! – but any who do read him will be richly rewarded.
The Medieval World for Protestants
Of all the periods of church history, the Middle Ages is where Protestants are typically weakest and that for an obvious reason: Protestantism was born in part out of reaction to serious doctrinal and ecclesiastical problems with the medieval church.
I recommend Kevin Madigan, Medieval Christianity: A New History. Madigan weaves together social, cultural, political and theological threads in what is a rich narrative history of the period. He avoids both an uncritical romanticism about the era while also highlighting problems and tensions in the relationship between church and state, different power blocs in Europe, and theological factions within the church. I consider this the best one volume study of the period.
I can hardly provide a list of reading without recommending something on the theologian who, if not my favorite figure in church history, is undoubtedly the one on whom I most enjoy speaking: Martin Luther. Last year bought with it the inevitably plentiful harvest of biographies. My favorite is that by Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Roper is a distinguished feminist historian of early modern Europe and this work is remarkable for its insight into Luther’s social context combined with an astute and well-balanced assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. An excellent example of the art of biography.
Biography is, of course, an historical genre all to itself. To narrate and interpret a single life rather than an age or a movement is a rare skill. My favorite in this genre is Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge, a book which captures beautifully the warmth and kindness of its subject. But if you only read one biography of a Christian leader this year, I would suggest Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. One of the problems with biographies of Christians that the evangelical culture regards as heroes is that there are two antithetical temptations: to an uncritical hagiography or to indulge in merciless iconoclasm. Kidd does neither, and this volume is a model of critical engagement with its subject, sensitive to intellectual, social and political context, alert to Whitefield’s many faults (not least his appalling treatment of his wife), while still appreciative of his achievements. It is a book not simply to read in order to learn about Whitefield but also upon which to reflect in order to understand what makes a good biography.
Worship and Devotion
Finally, it seems appropriate to mention a book which not only offers a history of devotion and worship but also inspires the same (if the responses of the many students I have made to read it over years is any safe guide). It is Robert Louis Wilken’s masterful reflection on early church spirituality, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is a wonderful essay on how the early church Christians combined faith, belief and piety in their lives together as a worshipping community. Anything Wilken writes is worth reading – The First Thousand Years is a brilliant, concise, readable account of Christianity’s first millennium, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them remains a foundational work in its field. He is both a learned scholar and a beautiful prose stylist.
I hope this list is helpful in encouraging you to engage with church history at a deeper level. The faith was not invented last Sunday but has deep historical roots. And the more we understand our past, the better we can think about the present and prepare for the future.