Category Archives: Book Reviews

Doing Church History – Review

Doing Church HistoryEvery once in a while, I come across a book that I wish I had when I began my seminary studies. Doing Church History by Gordon Heath is one of those books.

This book is not an introduction to church history but, as the title suggests, an introduction to doing church history. This short book (I read it one sitting) helps to situate the student so they are prepared to study church history.

Heath helps to integrate theology into history. Why did the Reformation take place? Was it God or social forces in Europe? It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be both. Heath helps the reader to ask the right questions.

Heath also guides us through different kinds of history. History is not one monolithic thing. There are different types of history with different types of goals. We need to know what we are doing and the nature of our sources.

Heath’s section on sources is quite helpful. He distinguishes between primary and secondary sources, but also shows that the lines can be blurry. Is Eusebius, when he is writing about the first couple of centuries of the church, a primary or a secondary source?

One of the things that I appreciated is that Heath writes with a clear and engaging style. The reader doesn’t have to wade through pages of intensely academic jargon. But at the same time, Heath presents content that emerges from his own scholarly career.

If you are just starting to learn about church history or are entering seminary/Bible college, I highly recommend Doing Church History. As someone who has studied church history for years, I also enjoyed the book.

From Jesus to Christianity – Review

From Jesus to ChristianityA book that has sat on my shelf for some time is From Jesus to Christianity by L. Michael White.  Since I am interested in both the New Testament and the early church, it was right up my alley.

In truth I found the book disappointing. White is a knowledgable scholar and a good writer. But the picture he presents of the early church is not the only perspective.

As someone who has studied this stuff for years, there are many scholars who have different interpretations.

White presents both the New Testament and other writings in their context. But instead of presenting the New Testament first and then the others, he dates some of the New Testament books later than the others.

He actually dates a number of books into the second century. I don’t demand super early dates for the books, but I see no reason for the second century. This is not just my opinion, many scholars keep the New Testament into the first century.

White makes it sound like his interpretation is the standard view, while it is definitely not. I’m not just talking about conservative evangelicals.

I would hate for someone to read this book and think it the only interpretation of the evidence. It is not without value but it is far from the best account of Christian origins I have read.

A History of the Christian Church – Review

History of the Christian ChurchOne of the required texts when I studied Church History at McMaster Divinity College was A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker. I read it back then and just reread it recently.

I would say it that it is a pretty good introduction to Christian history. It definitely has its limitations though. One is that it is dated. The edition that I have only goes to the 1970s. Having said that, most of us read history for events much farther back than that.

The other problem is that it never gets very deep into any particular event. This is because of the natural limitations of being a one volume treatment of church history. If you are going to look at twenty centuries of history in one volume, you are limited at what you can say.

In this book, you will get the basics of the early church, the opes, the Reformation and so on.

Having said that, it is a very readable and accessible history. It is a good introduction to church history for those with little background. It provides the big picture and can be a good jumping off point for further study.

If you are looking for a nice one volume church history, A History of the Christian Church is a good place to start.

 

Rekindling the Word – Review

Rekindling the WordWhen historians look at their sources, they are very interested in how close they can get to the events. It is not always as simple as the oldest sources being the most accurate, but it is a factor.

Carsten Peter Thiede, in Rekindling the Word, argues for some early dates for certain Gospel fragments. Much of the book deals with the Magdalen papyrus of Matthew’s Gospel. This fragment has been dated to a variety of centuries, but Thiede argues for a first century date. This would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, Thiede’s position is definitely a minority and it is likely that it is later.

Thiede also agrees with the claim that a portion of Mark’s Gospel was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This would also give us a valuable first century Gospel fragment. In this case, the controversy is not the date but the identity. Most scholars reject that the fragment in question is from Mark.

I wasn’t really convinced by Thiede’s claims. However, the book was quite interesting in terms of Gospel origins, the role of Peter and how manuscripts were created. Anyone interested in Christian origins will appreciate Rekindling the Word, even if they don’t agree with Thiede’s conclusions.

A History of Christianity – Review

History of ChristianityOne of the first books that I read was Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity Vol. 1. It helped to spark my interest in church history. I recently reread both volumes of this respected history.

The first thing that readers need to know is that it is dated. Latourette only wrote it until about 1950. Another writer added a chapter until 1975.

Still, this two volume set is a very good overview of church history from the first to the twentieth century. Even though each volume is quite long, the author is only able to give fairly short summaries of major events. This is still a good introduction to help readers to know what areas interest them.

One of the strengths of this history is that it includes some very diverse aspects of history. He covers Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant history. I found this history covered more Roman Catholic events than most.

More than that, it includes a wide geographic range as well. Instead of focusing on just western Europe or the United States, he looks to many other areas of the world. This gives the reader a much broader understanding of the church.

The olde date of this book is a drawback but I still recommend Latourette’s A History of Christianity.


Paul: A Biography – Review

Paul A BiographyOne of my favourite writers on early Christianity is N.T. Wright. I have read many of his books and when I was asked what I wanted for my birthday, I knew it was Paul: A Biography.

Wright has written many books on Paul but this one is unique. In some ways it is a bridge between his academic and popular level work. It is not a theology of Paul or a commentary on his letters, although it contains elements of both. As the title suggests, it is a biography of Paul.

Some New Testament scholars may not like his blending of information from Paul’s letters and Luke’s Acts. The trend is to take Paul’s seven “authentic” letters seriously, discounting the other letters and Acts.

However, Wright is writing a biography and any biographer would take into account all of the available information and that is what he does with Paul. If we were dealing with any other ancient figure (other than Jesus), no one would question this approach.

Those interested in Paul will love this book. Wright gives an overview of Paul’s life based on Acts and then inserts information from the letters and the context of those letters where appropriate. This is an essential resource for anyone interested in early Christianity.

The best thing about this book is that is not just for New Testament scholars. It is written in a readable style that the layperson will enjoy and understand. Yes, Wright pulls in from his considerable scholarship but it is not overwhelming.

Paul: A Biography is book that I intend to go back to again and again.

Paul in Acts – Review

Paul in ActsOne of the most important figures for understanding the early church is the Apostle Paul. However, when it comes to studying Paul, we have two different sources to examine. There are Paul’s letters and Luke’s account of his ministry in Acts.

While most scholars do not struggle with using the epistles (or at least the seven “genuine” letters), there is some controversy about how to use Acts.

Do the accounts of Paul in Acts tell us anything about Paul or only about Luke and the church he was part of? Some scholars reject Acts as having any historical value.

An excellent resource for sorting through these questions is Paul in Acts by Stanley Porter. Porter addressed all of the big issues, including the “we” passages and the compatibility of Acts with the epistles.

Porter is not an apologist who seeks to defend the reliability of Acts for the sake of a strict doctrine of inerrancy. Porter is a respected New Testament scholar who sorts through the evidences and yet comes up with a positive view of Acts.

While acknowledging differences between Acts and Paul, Porter demonstrates that they are very compatible and that Acts is a valuable historical resource for understanding Paul.

I highly recommend Paul in Acts.


The Plot to Kill Hitler

BonhoefferAt a recent book fair at my children’s school, I was surprised to find the book, The Plot to Kill Hitler. I was not surprised to find a book on World War Two, I was surprised to find a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The story of a man whose most prized possessions was his Bible and his cigarettes is not what you would expect in a public elementary school.

This book by Patrick McCormick is the story of Bonhoeffer but packaged for a younger audience. However, it is not juvenile in content as it wrestles with the difficult parts of his story.

If you are not familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was a German pastor who came into conflict with the Nazis during World War Two. He opposed the German church’s capitulation to Hitler and set up an underground seminary to train pastors for the confessing church.

Although this book is titled, The Plot to Kill Hitler, that is not the most important thing Bonhoeffer did nor is it the main point of this book. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian and church leader. He opposed evil in his own way long before he became involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Even when he was involved in that plot, he was the ethicist who guided the others more active in the plot. Unfortunately, this failed plan ultimately led to his execution.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is that it really wrestled with the problem of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. He never gave up on the principles of pacifism but felt that he needed to betray his own principles and face God’s judgment by helping to end the violence caused by Hitler.

If you know a young person who might be interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Plot to Kill Hitler, is a great introduction for a younger audience. Even adults will be inspired by this short book and its important story.


Paul and Gender – Review

Paul and GenderOne of the most controversial issues in the Christian church today is the role of women in leadership. The phrase “women in ministry” is not very helpful in that the New Testament expects all followers of Jesus to be ministering in some way.

The challenge for this topic is that the New Testament seems to offer mixed messages. On one hand, it describes women in leadership roles, including teaching. On the other hand, there are some passages that seem to limit the role of women, possibly excluding them from teaching men.

For some, this is not just a historical question but a question of vocation. What does a Christian woman do if they feel called into a pastoral role but that role is not recognized by their congregation?

While this is not just a historical question, historical inquiry can help to shed light on this. And that is what Cynthia Long Westfall does with her book, Paul and Gender.

It is Paul’s teaching that seem to be the stumbling block for full inclusion of women in leadership, even though he did recognize the leadership gifts of certain women.

Westfall looks at these passages in a careful way, not to explain them away, but to look at them in historical context. Paul was writing in a specific Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and we need to read his letters in that context.

Westfall examines Paul’s teaching in all of its contexts, looking at how gender was understood in terms of power in the ancient world. She often pulls from modern Middle Eastern examples that have similar attitudes toward gender.

Westfall argues for the ontological equality of men and women, one that leads to equal opportunities for ministry, leadership and teaching. The passages that seem to deny these opportunities have been misunderstood and have been read in isolation of other texts.

For those who already affirm the role of women in leadership, Paul and Gender, will feel like the nail in the coffin of male dominance. Those who affirm a complementarian position may not be convinced.

Still, it is hoped that everyone will read the familiar texts with a fresh perspective. Instead of just holding one interpretation of two or three texts as having the final word, students of the Bible need to read the full message in its historical context.

A fresh reading may threaten comfortable and traditional ways but biblical Christianity should be based on the text and not familiar ways.

I recommend Paul and Gender for all students of the New Testament, no matter what side of the issue they are coming from.

The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 – Review

Story of ChristianityIn the previous volume of The Story of Christianity, Justo González took us to the dawn of the Reformation. In this second volume, he brings us from the Reformation to the present day.

Although more centuries were covered in the first volume, the sheer amount of change in the Christian church over these few centuries requires just as much length of treatment. The Reformation itself, was a complex event that had many causes and streams. It was so much more than just Martin Luther rediscovering salvation by faith.

We tend to focus on Luther and Calvin, but there were other things that were taking place. This includes the Anabaptists, but it also includes changes within the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church has its own story of what was happening at this time, and not just as background to the Reformation.

The Reformation was more than resetting the church and starting a new “normal.” It was the start of a number of continuing changes, both among Catholics and Protestants. González takes us through the rapid changes, including the First and Second Great Awakenings, that influenced the way in which Evangelicalism looks today.

The second volume of the The Story of Christianity continues González’s effective and clear teaching of the development of the Christian church. He takes complex events and makes them understandable but without sacrificing accuracy.

If you are interested in why the church looks the way it does today, you need to read about what happen the previous few centuries. The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 will help you do that.


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