Book Review: The Story of the Church, 4th Ed. by Allan M. Harman and A. M. Renwick (IVP 2020)


The fourth edition of The Story of the Church is a much revised presentation of A M Renwick’s work, with several new chapters. Revised by Allan Harman, this book presents an account of the last two thousand years of Church History. Though this is in itself an immense undertaking, Renwick and Harman offer the reader a successful survey of the history of the Church, through an evangelical lens. This new edition takes note of current opinions or individuals involved across the debates on which it touches, and has produced a readable, entertaining volume.

A Successful Survey of Church History

In the prologue, Harman concludes (xiii) that “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing [sic] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have  commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” With this as the goal of the work, The Story of the Church is a success. Though of course a project of this scope cannot cover all aspects of church history and mission, this book offers a fantastic summary of the long history of the Christian faith. Broken down into twenty-six short and manageable chapters, this is an incredibly readable and engaging history. Though at times Renwick and Harman sacrifice critical evaluation in order to continue through the narrative at pace, the work offers a thorough survey of the major narrative of world Christian history.

From the “veritable revolution” (2) of the early progress of the Gospel in the ancient world, through the reformations of the sixteenth century to the “proliferation of parachurch organisations” (212) of recent years, this history does a wonderful job of sketching the main issues and events of Christian history. A particular strength of The Story of the Church lies in how the author(s) connect developments in Church History with the wider narrative of political and social world history. The messiness and intricacy of church history is helpfully exposed, and the story repeatedly leads the reader to conclude: it is only by God’s grace that the Church endured this or survived that.

A good Church History ought to be informative and readable, but it is a true success when it illustrates the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God of the church. The Story of the Church does this well. It is God who kept key figures going, or who transforms sinners into servants. It is God who keeps the Church alive in places and periods of persecution. This testimony is seen throughout the pages of Scripture, and this book illustrates those truths in the pages of history well.

A Few Omissions

Although this is a brilliant history, there are at least two points that could perhaps have been better addressed throughout. The book offers a largely (until the final few chapters) Euro-centric presentation of Church History. Whilst early figures in the African church (such as Tertullian or those at Alexandria) are discussed, examination of later developments outside of Europe such as the early Jesuit missions or the spread of Christianity into Asia are only briefly mentioned. The Story of the Church does offer a brilliant examination of the recent and current state of the global church, and whilst it cannot be denied that a great deal of major events in Church History did take place in Europe, it feels as though, at times, this book tells the story of the European Church and not the global Church.

Added to this, the discussion around slavery was perhaps the biggest question that this book left unanswered. William Wilberforce is mentioned several times in chapter twenty ‘Modern Missionary Expansion’, but even the abolitionist battle with which he was so closely involved was given scant treatment. This reviewer would have liked further consideration of this topic beyond Wilberforce, and an acknowledgement of the positive and negative role of the Church within that history.

A Strong Finish

Despite these two minor quibbles, the book is excellent, and the fourth edition has largely (save for one or two more archaic words and phrases) updated and revised what was already a comprehensive introduction to Church History. Despite being an ancient historian, it was the latter chapters in this work that particularly jumped out at me. The Story of the Church consistently emphasises the issues and battles of each period of Church History, and as these were unpacked in the last century or so a helpful background to our modern church context was brilliantly sketched out. This picture brought its own challenges: there is still much for us to do and learn.

Particularly striking was the repeated discussion (227; 243-244) of just how many people still do not have the Scriptures in their own language. Though over 3000 languages have a translation of the Bible or at least parts of it, some 440 million people, speaking over 3800 languages, still do not. The vital work of Wycliffe Bible Translators was highlighted, and the challenge to support this endeavour was strongly made.

As the developments of the last century or so were discussed a further challenge came to the fore. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion in para-church groups and a drive for ecumenicalism. Whilst in many ways these have been positive developments, Harman offers a note of caution (212). “The proliferation of para-church organisations poses its own problems for the church, for there is the danger that they may assume many of the functions of churches and also draw people away from involvement in their local church setting.” We live in a period of Church History unlike any other. Para-church and missional organisations have exploded into life and have richly engaged with Christians and non-Christians across the world. In the excitement of all this though, we must be careful not to drift away from Christ’s primary (earthly) home for the believer: the local church. Whilst it is good to support and work with these wider organisations, the local church must be our priority. The challenge in these final chapters is simply this: is the local church family still our priority? We must not forget that it ought to be.

Conclusion

This is a cracking book of Church History, and though there are a few things I would challenge throughout, the fourth edition is most welcome. We live in an age of Christian life where Church History is all too often neglected. The accessibility and readability of The Story of the Church offers us an introduction to the discipline that can help address that problem. Whether Church History has been of interest to you, or never appeared on your radar, you could do much worse than grabbing a copy of this edition and exploring the rich history of the Christian faith.

And it is worth echoing some of the closing words of Harman in this edition. There is still much for us to do, and the story of the Church is not over. Indeed, it continues until Christ’s return. So we can live confidently, knowing that we are in and under our sovereign God.

“Ultimately, the future of the church depends not on men but on God. He has promised in the Scriptures that he will never forsake it (Ps. 94:14), but will be with his people until the consummation of this present age (Matt 28:20).” (253.)

“We are slaves to the gods… whatever those gods are”

Orestes slaying Clytemnestra

Euripides was one of the great Athenian tragic playwrights. Writing in the fifth century BC, his plays have resonated with audiences throughout history as stories of human tragedy, relationship and interaction. His plays are literary masterpieces because he so wonderfully presents the depravity, pain, longing and love of the human condition. In short, his often fantastical characters feel very real.

Successful as he was in fifth century Athens, Euripides continued to be read and performed throughout the history of the ancient world, and his plays remained well known as Greece gave way to Rome, and as Rome conquered much of the Mediterranean world.

In one of his most famous plays, Orestes, the eponymous protagonist wrestles with the guilt of having committed matricide – slaying his own mother for the brutal murder of his father. Orestes is set in a world where gods and spirits have great control over the lives of men, and Orestes himself makes it clear that he killed his mother under the conviction that Phoebus (Apollo) commanded him to do it. This in itself is an important part of the plot, as the god himself appears onstage at the end of the play to right wrongs and conclude the action. But partway through, Menelaus, Orestes’ uncle and brother of his murdered father, appears onstage and the two men speak. Their conversation is bitter and raw, as Orestes owns up to what he has done. It is a short part of this dialogue on which this blog will reflect.

Menelaus “Do not speak of death; that is not wise.”

Orestes “It is Phoebus, who commanded me to kill my mother.”

Menelaus “Showing a strange ignorance of what is fair and right”

Orestes “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.”

Euripides, Orestes, ll.415-418.

As the two men speak, Orestes reveals that it was the god Apollo who ordered this matricide. Upon hearing this, Menelaus makes a moral judgement that reveals the truth of these Olympian gods who supposedly ruled over the ancient world. This god Apollo, in commanding the death of Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra, showed “ignorance of what is fair and right.” In other words – he acted with evil intent.

The god was evil. He was wrong. He was cruel and violent with his command. Yet Orestes’ response? We are slaves to the gods, whatever they may be. Whether rightly or wrongly, we are slaves to the gods.

The Ancient World – Slaves to the Gods

Though these words were written in the fifth century BC, over 400 years before the birth of Christ, they expose a worldview that dominated the ancient world just as much in 0 AD as it did in 500 BC. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were real and present. They were not sovereign or total, but they were big and powerful. What and who the gods exactly were changed throughout ancient history. As Rome rose to dominance in the ancient world the gods went from being Olympian Greeks to Roman deities. Zeus became Jupiter, Hermes became Mercury, and so on. As Rome conquered more of the ancient world, new gods joined the pantheon. Mithras, Osiris, Isis and many more became objects of divine regard. As the Empire expanded, even the Emperor himself became a god, ruling over mankind, deciding their fate.

But none of these gods were thought to be good. Many had benevolent moments, some were considered particular allies of humanity as a whole, or of nations, professions or people groups. But none were fundamentally good. When Jesus Christ came into the world, there was a prevailing opinion of the divine that mirrored that of Euripides and his day. The gods were gods because they were bigger and better than us, so they were in charge. Even if they weren’t good. “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.” That hadn’t changed.

But when the one true God became man, the idea of humanity and its relationship with the divine was totally and radically challenged.

The Radical Christus – the Son of God

The first Christian communities began to preach good news to a lost world. In a world consigned to the might and power of unloving gods, the first Christians spoke hope. They taught of one God, triune in nature, supreme in authority. And they taught how this God, wholly good and all-loving, sent His own Son into the earth to rescue lost men and women. This was a truly good God, this was the only God, and He was seen in Jesus Christ.

The Romans understood conversations about gods and spirits and the like. But a God who loved humanity so much He gave up His one and only Son to bring them into relationship with Himself? This was a radical concept. It simply wasn’t how gods behaved! But it was wonderfully good news for a world enslaved by gods that their own sinful hearts had created.

One of the first Christian missionaries, the Apostle Paul, wrote this in the mid-first century AD:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.

Paul, Romans 8.15.

The ancients was resigned to a certain worldview. The gods ruled, whatever they may be and however they might act, and humanity picked up the pieces. Whoever the gods were, the place of humanity didn’t change. We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.

Paul’s teaching here isn’t just new, it is utterly radical. The real, true God came not to enslave humanity, but to free us! And more than that, to adopt us as His own children! This was the one true God, and He doesn’t fit with the misunderstandings of the divine that the ancient world had accepted.

Earlier in the book Paul had been using the language of slavery and had subverted the very ideas that underpin Euripides’ words in Orestes.

What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 

Paul, Romans 6.21.

In their fictional dialogue Menelaus and Orestes recognised that they were slaves to the gods, even when those gods were evil and cruel. Their slavery really did end in death! This was the understanding of the divine that pervaded the ancient world. Yet along came these Christus-followers, and they turned that on its head.

Christ doesn’t promise further slavery. He promises sonship. He promises that we will become heirs and coheirs to glory. And He promises a good Father who will love and care for His people forever.

We read these truths so often that we can forget just how incredible they are. But our own world and our own hearts worship gods that are very similar to those of the ancient world. We take our own sinful desires and project them into our own gods. We might not call the goddess of sex Aphrodite, yet our culture is obsessed with her. We don’t call the god of wealth Plutus, but we spend our lives chasing him.

The first Christians spoke a radical Gospel into a needy ancient world. A world enslaved by sin, hopeless in the face of the superior might of the divine. A wrong understanding of the divine led to a societal hopelessness in the face of the gods. Yet the Gospel offered (and offers still!) something radically different. We are not slaves to cruel masters, we are offered sonship by a good Father. This is a radical message, and it’s a totally undeserved offer. It is a truth that sent shockwaves across the ancient world, and it has the power to do just that today. This Gospel has the power to transform the lives of those enslaved by sin into beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. Incredible.

Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.

Life

Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.

Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.

Works

Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.

He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.

His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.

Legacy

Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.

Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.

The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.

Conclusion

Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.