Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Church History, Philip Parsons (DayOne, 2019).

A book on Church History ticks all the boxes for this blog: I love books, and I love Church History. Bingo. So I was glad to receive a review copy of a new book on the history of the church that was labelled as “unashamedly evangelical” by one reviewer. Published at the end of 2019, I am afraid I’ve only just gotten around to posting my review now, but please allow me a few thoughts.

In short, readable chapters, Parsons takes on the unenviable task of walking his reader through two thousand years of church history: from the very first Judaean believers to the 20th century global church. Throughout, he is certainly unashamedly evangelical. Unfortunately, despite this clear commitment to Biblical truth, the book itself is in my opinion deeply flawed.

Parsons has taken on an immense challenge: to write on any period of church history is a significant undertaking; to write on it all is particularly bold. Through his overview of Church History, Parsons strives to show two key truths: that God is faithful to His people and sovereign over the narrative of history. This he does well, and for a student of church history at any level, whether simply in passing interest, or in an intensely academic setting, it is good to be reminded that we must not lose sight of these two things.

As a history book, however, it falls well short of what would be expected. DayOne have published some helpful titles over the years to allow believers to engage with church history, but this is not one of them. The book strays at times from simplification into oversimplification, and makes no discernment between apocryphal tales and historical fact. Our God and His works are great and we simply do not need to dress up the story of His church with myth and legend. We do a disservice to our readers when we present such stories as simple fact.

There were two fundamental flaws with this book, that would stop me from commending it to others.

  1. Historical inaccuracies

This is a huge problem for me. Apocryphal tales such as Luther’s famous line “Here I stand, I can do no other” (widely understood to have been a later addition to a copy of his speech, and unlikely to have been original to Luther) permeate Parsons’ narrative. Such an approach presents historical inaccuracies as fact, and means that the book doesn’t consider more contentious questions (such as the early spread of Christianity in the face of paganism in Asia Minor) with any sense of historical inquiry. Instead, one simple view is given, presented as factual certainty. Whilst history is a factual narrative, to so clumsily present folklore or minority views as factual reality is inaccurate and misleading.

And this leads to a habitual oversimplification of the historical narrative. Whilst an introductory book must be concise in its presentation, especially as Parsons has deliberately (and wisely) chosen to limit this to a shorter, more accessible read, concision ought not to lead to oversimplification. The works of key figures are presented as binary acts of greatness, and huge and complex events, such as the crusades, are explained away with one liners that fail to address the enormity of their subject. I repeat my earlier comment: to write on church history is an immense challenge, and it is unfortunately not one to which this book successfully rises.

Whilst I would not like to assume that this book has not been thoroughly researched, the repeated errors and oversimplification may stem from a bibliography that is sparse and populated by older and often outdated scholarship. To take an example from my own area of specialist focus: recent works on the Early Church by the likes of evangelical scholars Michael Kruger, Larry Hurtado or Andreas Köstenberger are wholly absent, illustrative of a limited bibliography that mainly draws on scholarship from the 19th and 20th centuries. A lack of primary sources both quoted throughout the book and in the bibliography also adds to this concern. I understand that this is a general access book, but good and accessible history takes a wealth of information and distills that into a presentable and accurate narrative, and this book fails to do that.

2. A selective presentation

The approach to the historical narrative taken in this book is such that the genuine reality of church history is often lost. Discussing the Emperor Constantine in Chapter 4, Parsons suggests that he converted to Christianity under the pressure of converts to this new faith “becoming so numerous” throughout the Roman empire. As recent research has suggested roughly 10% of the Empire were Christian at this point we might question that conclusion.

This approach also stems from a desire to illustrate the continued success of evangelicalism. Whilst we can know and trust that God will keep and grow His church, because He has promised He will, it’s disappointing to see the author shoehorn evangelicalism into the historical narrative time and again when the reality simply doesn’t afford us that option. To suggest that the missionary endeavours of Columba and Patrick in the 5th and 6th centuries laid the groundwork for an evangelical triumph in the sixteenth century English Reformation (38) is crude and inaccurate. Likewise, clear omissions disguise the complexity of the historical situation. The 6th century Catholic mission to the UK, which was so involved in the development of Christianity in the UK (including the foundation of the church at Canterbury) is ignored as the work of the likes of Columba in Scotland is heavily over-emphasised.

This aggressive reading of evangelicalism into historical narratives leads to an inevitable problem as a quasi hero-worship of individuals such as Luther and Calvin comes across. Luther is presented as an unstoppable force who brought only good to the European Church, whilst Calvin (labelled ‘God’s Frenchman’) is a wise, generous and patient teacher. This presentation is in some ways true; both men were wonderfully used by God and as Parsons says (66) we are right to give thanks to God for them. But to present them as unscrupulous divine agents is to omit the reality that both men were fallen sinners. Parsons’ presentation gets us worryingly close to praising Luther and Calvin themselves, rather than the great God who so mercifully and wonderfully used them. Controversy and sin are ignored, sometimes glaringly so, and their virtues are exaggerated until they take on a heroic status in the narrative.

Conclusion

I desperately wanted to like this book, as I am thrilled at the idea of a well written and engaging ‘Beginner’s Guide to Church History’. This book, unfortunately, was not that. Whilst it was accessibly written and easy to work through, it was riddled with inaccuracies and unhelpful conclusions.

I usually like to suggest an audience from which each book I review will benefit, but I simply cannot commend poorly written history. This book may well introduce you to Church History, but it will not do so accurately or fairly. Our God is indeed faithful to His Church, and He is great and sovereign over history. But we do not need to exaggerate or cherry pick our history to show that this is true. We do not need to exaggerate or present inaccuracies to show God’s wonderful sovereignty over history. This book unfortunately does both those things, and so I cannot commend it to readers of this review.

This is an introductory work, and large parts of Christian history had to be overlooked. But at times, it felt more like a work of heroic reverence of the likes of Luther and Calvin than a writing of church history. The Early Church was largely overlooked, with no mention of the first Apologists, or challenges to the modern church from early House Church communities. This is but one example. Parsons’ project was ambitious. Unfortunately, with repeated errors, inconsistent approaches to primary sources and inaccurate presentations of notable individuals, this book fails to offer a true and simple presentation of church history. It was a great joy to be challenged by who God is through this book, but it was a shame to see that challenge presented in such a manner.

I cannot commend this book as an introductory work on church history. I would however, gladly recommend the following titles from DayOne, as well as a few other choice books for anyone interested in exploring church history as a whole, or perhaps more focussed periods.

DayOne Titles on Church History include:

Anne Boleyn by Colin Hamer

Charles Simeon by Derek Prime

Other titles on Church History that might be of interest:

2000 Years Of Christ’s Power (series) by Nick Needham

Christianity at the Crossroads by Michael Kruger

The Early Church Fathers series from Christian Focus

The Story of the Church by Allan Harman and A M Renwick

The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves

Why the Reformation Still Matters by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves

Parsons’ treatment of the English Reformation was brief but did mention Katherine Parr. Her ‘Lamentations of a Sinner’ were recently reprinted by New Whitchurch Press, among other similar titles from the period.

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