Rose: Review – Church History in Plain Language

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Author: Bruce L. Shelley
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

It was always my goal in college to read books in their entirety. Truth be told, I love reading. But it may be truer still to say that I love to read what I love to read. That being said, I often skipped or substituted books in high school. I got through the first page of A Tale of Two Cities before I decided that To Kill a Mockingbird was much higher on my list. (If only I would have remembered that before I read Great Expectations my junior year in college!) I find it difficult to read thick books when I fail to see the benefit to reading them. Thus, I now try my utmost to finish books once I have started them. Perhaps it is so I will not be disappointed in myself, but I think it’s also so that I can push myself past my impatience to find something new, enjoyable, and edifying. That is what I found in Church History in Plain Language. It is a long book to be sure, but what you can learn in reading part or all of this book is worth the journey to the end.

As the title implies, Church History is in rather straightforward English. The author does not try to talk above the reader and each chapter is laid out in a clear manner. The chapters are broken up into thematic units and they are often a theme unto themselves. My one qualm was his usage of commas. It was a repetitive annoyance. Yet as someone who loves history, I was able to overlook them as the overall content was good. But in reference to my introduction, I had to remind myself frequently and apply myself diligently to finish this book. It is not as though Church History is boring or tedious—although, I suppose, it might be for some—rather, it is long. Very long. And quite detailed. My husband brought it into our collection from his college days and he told me they read it in one semester. I am glad I was able to savor it over a few months.

I began reading Church History in the middle as I was using it as a reference for a church history study I was leading for 4th-6th graders. At the time, I was in the 1700’s. I don’t advise starting in the middle of anything, but this book is divided in such a way as to make each century make sense in and of itself. If you don’t read Church History all at once or you read just a portion, I encourage you to read an individual unit and not just one chapter as I think you will be benefited by the richness of context. The author divides the units as he does for a reason.

But the units also reference each other as all history does. History is not just linear. It is geographical and circular. And this book does well to include the political struggles, divides, and influences that church history has always been involved in. You cannot study “secular” history without including the church, and you cannot study church history in a bubble. Context is not necessary only in reading and Scripture but in understanding our world, past, and future. This is not to say that the author goes into great depth on every non-church matter, but he includes enough to illustrate the greater richness of the event we call history.

The author, however, is not without his biases, though I can hardly think of a nicer history of the church. For one, the author clearly does not like Luther. It is not that he excludes the reformer or avoids his significant contributions to the church. Rather, the author seems more than willing to focus on Luther’s faults and almost downplays his role as the starter of the Reformation. Not that Luther is perfect by any means, but there is a reason we date the Reformation when we do.

In addition, the author clearly has a bias towards the Reformed doctrines, and I got the impression that he holds an especial fondness for Calvin. While I think the author did overall do well to give each reformer at least their due mention, there is no doubt that some hostility is shown toward Luther, and there is some neglect in mentioning the history of Lutheranism in America amongst the other denominations.

That being said, overall, this is one of the better church history books I have read. Overall the author stays reasonably neutral in discussing doctrine and general church history from the time of Christ to the present. I think he provided insights to times and origins that most people probably do not know about but are in some way crucial to how we think of the church today. Such questions are answered as the start of denominations, various heresies that have cycled through with different names, the origin of the pope, the growth of the church today, and the future of bible translations. The author includes the struggles the church has gone through, the reason for  creeds, and hints at the future from our present path. I would not call Church History a simple textbook but a story from Christ to the Contemporary Era.

Perhaps this is not a book that should be read all at once, or at least not in a short, rushed season. Church History in Plain Language asks to be studied and written in, and this over a period of time. But this is true for history in general. While the book has its faults, the benefits and knowledge it provides is well worth the reading. If for nothing else, I am glad I have it on my shelf for referencing when I teach.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Rose

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