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.)

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