Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation
Roach, David, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. By Everett Ferguson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, 544 pp., $29.99.
Everett Ferguson, an experienced scholar of the early church, provides a generally concise and thorough summary of the first thirteen centuries of church history in his book Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Ferguson, professor emeritus of Bible and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Abilene Christian University, earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1960 and established himself in the decades to follow with numerous scholarly publications in the area of patristic studies. His publications include Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Eerdmans, 1993), Recent Studies in Early Christianity, ed. (Garland, 1999), and A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1996). Ferguson is past president of the North American Patristics Society, served as general editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Garland, 1990), and has been co-editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies. Church History Volume Two: Reformation to the Present (John D. Woodbridge and Frank James III) is forthcoming from Zondervan. In Church History Volume One, Ferguson uses his patristics expertise to relate the main narrative of early Christianity and introduce readers to scholarly debates in the field. Though as an introductory text the book does not argue one central thesis, some recurring themes are that church history is a history of people, a theological history, and a morally mixed history.
The preface outlines some of Ferguson's presuppositions and methodologies as a historian. First, Ferguson relates the narrative of church history as one who is friendly to the church. He "writes from the perspective that church history is the story of the greatest community the world has known and the greatest movement in world history" (p. 25). second, he regards the telling of church history as a theological enterprise. Without explicitly stating that the book engages in historical theologizing, Ferguson speaks in categories that show readers he is not afraid to speak in theological categories and at times make theological judgments regarding the characters of church history. For Ferguson, church history is a narrative with "great acts of faith and great failures in sin and unfaithfulness," as well as a story about people who made "the theological affirmation of being a redeemed people" (p. 25). Third, he gives greatest attention to Western church history because of his own heritage as a participant in the Western church. Methodologically, Ferguson's emphasis on the West may cause readers to underestimate the importance of certain movements and controversies in the East. But keeping in mind Ferguson's admitted focus on the West should prevent misunderstandings.
The book's twenty-four chapters are not divided into parts or sections, which may present difficulty for readers seeking to categorize church history in periods or eras. Yet the text presents substantive treatment of each major period during the church's first thirteen centuries. The narrative focuses on important ideas and movements rather than a collection of dates. The story proceeds generally along chronological lines, with some jumps back and forth in order to present the histories of movements and geographic regions with continuity. Summaries at the end of each chapter helpfully synthesize major historical trends for any readers who find chronological discontinuities confusing. In-depth profiles of important figures add substance to the narrative, and frequent discussions of art and architecture supplement the standard sources utilized by church history texts. Maps, charts, and illustrations are peppered throughout the book.
On the early church up to Constantine, Ferguson includes nine chapters covering the beginnings of the church in the NT, the generation immediately following the apostles, and Christianity's expansion through the Roman Empire. This section of the book includes substantive, but at times confusing, discussion about major heresies of the period including Marcionism, Gnosticism, and Montanism. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria are featured prominently in these chapters as Ferguson introduces key figures in the Christian response to persecution and paints a picture of church life in the second and third centuries.
For the period between Constantine's establishment of an imperial church and the dawn of the Middle Ages, the book contains several helpful chapters on major theological controversies, important figures, and church life. Following a chapter on Constantine's rise to power, a chapter on the Arian controversy introduces readers to figures such as Athanasius, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Jerome. A chapter on Christological controversies leading up to Chalcedon is followed by a chapter on Augustine, Pelagius, and semipelagianism-the only chapter in the book focusing on a single person.
Medieval Christianity comprises roughly the final 250 pages, though Ferguson admits that it is difficult to date precisely the beginning of the Middle Ages. This section switches back and forth between chapters on the Western church and chapters on the Eastern church, although it gives more attention to the West. A chapter on the transition to the Middle Ages describes the movements of specific peoples in Europe leading up the Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire and ends with a discussion of the papacy's development in the fourth and fifth centuries. Subsequent chapters trace the rise of monasticism, political developments in Europe, the history of missions, the contrast between East and West, and the course of the papacy. In a helpful chapter on the Western church from the seventh to ninth centuries, Ferguson shows how, under Charlemagne, the papacy converged with the history of the Western empire. The Crusades are an important component of medieval Christianity for Ferguson while discussions of Scholasticism and the East-West schism round out this section. A two-page general bibliography at the end of the book presents important reference works on the early church and a list of other books on pre-Reformation church history. Ferguson makes up for the brevity of the bibliography by including at the end of each chapter a list of secondary sources for further study. The book concludes with an index of important people, themes, and events.
The book has numerous strengths, several of which readers should note. First, evangelical readers will likely appreciate that Ferguson takes seriously the Bible as a historical source and as an influence in the church. In the chapter on "Jesus and the Beginnings of the Church," Ferguson presents as historical the biblical accounts of the Jerusalem church, the church in Rome, the church in Antioch, and even the resurrection of Jesus. Discussing the date of Peter's arrival in Rome, Ferguson appears to assign greater historical accuracy to the Bible than to Eusebius. Though Eusebius dated Peter's arrival in Rome in the early thirties, Ferguson maintains that "the silence of both Acts and Romans argues that Peter's arrival in Rome must be placed later than that" (p. 38). Not only does Ferguson acknowledge the Bible's reliability as a historical source, but he also highlights the Bible's influence in the church. Discussing heresy in the early church, Ferguson argues that Christians always followed the NT's teaching and "did not create the canon, but recognized it" (p. 121). Regarding the fourth-century church, Ferguson notes that the influence of important figures "should not blind the student to the centrality of the Bible in all aspects of the early church and in the theology and spirituality of these men" (p. 225). For Scholasticism, he notes similarly, "it is well to be reminded of the importance scholastic theologians gave to the study of the Bible" (p. 423).
Second, the book acquaints readers with key primary sources. For each period covered in the book, Ferguson summarizes the arguments in key documents written by important figures. The works surveyed include books by Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others. Interaction with primary sources exposes readers to such famous quotations as Cyprian's, "a person cannot have God as his Father who does not have the church as his mother" (p. 167), and Arius's, "There was (once) when Christ was not" (p. 193). Ferguson's discussion of the arguments and content of primary sources is more extensive than the discussion of the same sources in standard church history texts such as Justo Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (HarperCollins, 1984) and Robert Baker's Ë Summary of Christian History (3d ed.; Broadman & Holman, 2005).
Third, Ferguson discusses historiographical method and informs readers of scholarly debates surrounding key issues. Discussion of methodology generally centers on how to interpret primary sources. For example, the chapter on heresies in the second century explains that Gnostic writings should be interpreted in light of the Nag Hammadi codices. Similarly, the chapter on combating rival interpretations of Christianity discusses how historians interpret liturgical documents in light of Hyppolytus's Apostolic Tradition, and the chapter on the church's development in the third century discusses the major sources for knowledge of Cyprian's life. Closely related to historiographical method, Ferguson informs readers of scholarly debates over the interpretation of sources. For example, he discusses competing theories about the identity and work of Hippolytus and recent attempts to rehabilitate Nestorius's reputation. Discussions of method are not intended to be thorough or complete, but they serve the valuable purpose of introducing church history students to methodological concerns.
Fourth, Ferguson does not shy away from making judgments regarding the theology and morality of persons in church history, although he maintains objectivity in recounting the narrative. Evangelical readers will likely appreciate the way the book compares the beliefs and actions of church figures with those prescribed by orthodox Christian teaching. Discussing the heresy of Gnosticism, for example, Ferguson remarks, One may have the right words but the wrong ideas" (p. 100). Another example of Ferguson's willingness to make moral judgments occurs in his treatment of the crusaders, whom he is not afraid to criticize for their brutality. Roman Catholic readers may not appreciate the manner in which the book seems quick at times to use language that casts the Roman Catholic Church in a negative light. Examples of such language include comparing pagan practices to Roman Catholic ones and asserting that the pope "put himself on the wrong side of history" in his actions surrounding the writing of the Magna Carta (p. 472). Another example of language Roman Catholic readers may find troubling occurs when Ferguson appears to contrast "distinctively Roman Catholic" spirituality with "the highest in Christian devotion." Discussing Bernard of Clairvaux, Ferguson writes, "Aside from the Marian piety, Bernard's spirituality is not distinctively Roman Catholic and belongs to the highest in Christian devotion" (pp. 447-48).
Fifth, frequent lists highlight important points and personalities. These lists appear in nearly every chapter and are set apart from the rest of the text in a manner that makes them quickly recognizable. Lists discuss factors that led to historical movements, possible explanations for events, and characteristics of people and events. Though the lists are helpful, readers should be careful not to assume that all items in a list are equally important. Regarding all items in a list as equally important could, for example, lead a reader to wrongly assume that at the Council of Chalcedon discussion about monks was equally important as the two natures-one person description of the incarnate Christ. Similar errors could occur in the interpretation of other lists.
Though the book's strengths are numerous, it has several limitations. Stylistically, Ferguson frequently places background information for earlier chapters in later chapters. This awkward placement of background information will not be as problematic for experienced historians but could prove confusing for students-the book's primary audience. As far into the book as chapter twenty-three, parenthetical notes tell the reader to consult later chapters for further explanation and information. The necessity of placing background information in later chapters may result from Ferguson organizing the book in a manner that is not strictly chronological. But with some additional editing, Ferguson could have eliminated most calls for readers to consult later chapters.
Theologically, Ferguson does a generally good job of preventing his theological presuppositions from distorting his recounting of history. Though some readers may wonder whether his affiliation with the Churches of Christ colors discussions of baptism, the book gives no indications that the author holds a belief in baptismal regeneration. The one area in which it appears that Ferguson recounts theological developments incorrectly is soteriology-specifically Augustine's theology of grace and predestination. In the chapter on Augustine, Ferguson refers to Augustine's position on individual election as a "novelty" (p. 283) and "extreme" (p. 277). However, predestination appears prior to Augustine in Clement of Rome, and emphases on salvation by grace alone appear in both Basil of Caesarea and Macarius Symeon. Thomas Oden's The Justification Reader (Eerdmans, 2002) ably demonstrates as well that justification by grace alone permeates patristic writings. For the years following Augustine, Ferguson argues, " 'Semipelagianism' was a Western formulation of the general Christian orthodoxy on human nature" (p. 282). Such a classification, while accurately reflecting a prevailing semipelagianism in some periods, seems to downplay the Augustinian position of historical giants like Aquinas and the Reformers.
Compared with other texts surveying the history of the early church, Ferguson has a very small amount of material explaining how the Middle Ages led up to the Reformation. Gonzalez includes an entire chapter entitled "In Quest of Reformation," in which he discusses the Conciliar Movement, Wycliffe, Huss, and other reform movements prior to the Reformation. Baker explains the Conciliar Movement in a chapter on "Renaissance Church Councils" and explains factors that eventuated in the Reformation in another chapter on "Ecclesiastical Dissent." In contrast, Ferguson contains minimal mention of the Reformation and discusses pre-Reformation developments only generally in a chapter entitled "Portents of Decline." Instructors wishing to use this book in courses that explain developments leading up to the Reformation may need to use supplemental texts such as chapters from Gonzalez or Baker or Heiko Oberman's Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (James Clarke, 2002). Ferguson discusses important figures in the Eastern church, but the book's Western focus may cause some readers to desire supplemental information regarding key figures in the east-such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus-and key events in the east-such as the Iconoclastic Controversy and the Schism of 1054. Ferguson's treatments of the beginnings of the church and the Crusades compare favorably with other introductory texts. Additionally Ferguson provides unique insight into the interaction between church history and political history, the day-to-day life of average church people in various eras, and the importance of art and architecture in the life of the church.
Overall, Church History Volume 1 is a helpful introduction to the early church because of its concise summary of major ideas and themes, emphasis on the Bible, and discussion of historiographical issues. The weaknesses mentioned above do not cancel out the book's great strengths and present only minimal difficulties for students and professors using this book. Church History Volume 1 would make an excellent textbook for undergraduate church history surveys because of its readability and helpful graphics. The book could be utilized in seminary courses as well but will not likely replace standard textbooks such as Gonzalez. Supplemental texts would be especially necessary in a seminary or graduate setting. Lay people in churches with unusual interests in early church history would also glean great benefit from this volume. With this work, Ferguson accomplishes the goal he states in the dedication: to help students enter into "the life of the church."
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY…
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Publication information: Article title: Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Contributors: Roach, David - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Volume: 50. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2007. Page number: 205+. © Evangelical Theological Society Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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