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A good, brief overview...
on April 1, 2004
Summing up the history of the Christian church, which spans 2000 years, in a mere handful of pages is no easy task. Any history is necessarily selective -- even the most detailed of analyses of particular events or the most comprehensive of encyclopedic tomes will by design have to include only part of the story, and exclude a great deal.
Justo Gonzalez is a name well known in church history circles; there are few more qualified to make the kinds of selection judgements required for a brief overview of church history, and he does this fairly well. 'Church History: An Essential Guide' is part of a series of Essential Guides put out by Abingdon Press, the object of which is to give key topics and subjects a brief but complete outline for introduction, reference, and refresher uses. In fewer than 100 pages, Gonzalez provides a concise yet useful summary of church history.
The first chapter is a summary of the summaries -- in one page for each of nine sections, this is the most basic of outlines of church history. The subsequent nine chapters look at church history according to time period, as follows:
- The Ancient Church (the origins to 313)
- The Christian Empire (313-476)
- The Early Middle Ages (476 - 1054)
- The High Point of the Middle Ages (1054 - 1303)
- The Late Middle Ages (1303 -1453)
- Conquest and Reformation (1453 - 1600)
- The Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries
- The Nineteenth Century
- The Twentieth Century and the End of Modernity
Several of the dates signify that serve as chapter division points are key turning points in church history -- 313 was the year of the Edict of Milan (which, ironically, though a major division point for the chapters, is never explicitly explained); 476 is commonly held to be the date of the fall of the western Roman Empire; 1054 is the year of formal division between East and West in Christendom, etc.
Each chapter discusses both theological and worship/liturgical practices. After the East/West split, the book is almost exclusively Western in subject material, only occasionally referencing developments in Eastern Orthodoxy (a trend fairly common in church histories generally, although Gonzalez does do a bit more of such referencing than many). Each chapter also has a listing of selected and suggested readings -- given the admitted lack of detail due to space requirements, Gonzalez states that this introduction is meant to inspire readers to seek further information (often from Gonzalez's own well written church histories).
There is no index in the book, which is a drawback for those who might want to use this book as a reference tool. However, the book is well-written and concise, so making notes for one's own use in the back pages would not be a bad idea.
This is a book designed largely for the busy person in mind -- the reading is simple without being simplistic; there are not too many names and terms to wade through, and the whole of the book could be read in but a few hours, making church history readily accessible to even the busiest of lay persons, and a refresher handily available for the busiest of clergy.