The subject of church history can seem daunting to folks. I must admit that my first semester of studying church history in seminary was not fun. It was profitable, but not particularly enjoyable. Why? Often the topic is viewed through an academic lens that makes it feel like the history of doctrinal development, which is a world of difference from the story of the gospel spreading across the earth and into the hearts of God’s people. After all, stories are what make (his)story exciting. Everyone loves a good story, and church history is chocked full of them.
Bruce Shelley, the author of Church History in Plain Language (CHPL), knows this. Without ignoring the important doctrinal questions, he weaves them into the practical concerns that Christian leaders and regular Christians had to face throughout the church age of the last 2000 years. He knows that the history of how the church in the west came to be dominated by the church in Rome is way more interesting if situated in the story of Christian persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. He knows that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone is more exciting when we walk in the shoes of the conscience-stricken monk Martin Luther who (re)discovered it and announced it to the world. He knows that when history is told through the medium of story, history seems to come alive and relevant to the struggles of Christians in every age.
CHPL is a book to savor. I’ve used it several times in preparing lessons on church history for my congregation. The details are drawn together in an understandable, compelling, and accepted narrative (from a Protestant perspective) that have proven to connect with generations of Christians. Now in its fourth edition (it was first published in 1982), it is the updated go-to resource for a readable and trustworthy introduction to the story of the church.
One of the things I value in this book is the way Shelley seeks to answer a central question in each chapter about the particular era of history. These foundational questions are easily identified in the first section of each chapter. His template is to tell a story, connect it to the common concerns of the era, and then ask the question. The remainder of each chapter seeks to clearly explain the circumstances that led to the question being asked, and the practical effects that the historical events had on the church. Thus every chapter is concerned with themes that proved especially relevant to that era of history. And since he tells history in a thematic narrative, the reader can see how the themes relate to the church and the Christian life today. This makes CHPL a quite practical book.
Another aspect of the book that I like is its liberal use of quotes. I found myself creating notes in the margins and the top page corners so all the interesting quotations are easily accessible.
I try to read a history book once a year. Not necessarily and book that tells the story of all 2000 years of church history, but something that will be useful for learning how God dealt with his people in various circumstances, and how God’s kingdom is advancing toward the day of consummation. CHPL is so helpful to these ends that I created a thematic index for each chapter (along with a list of the foundational questions for each chapter). I expect to return to it many times to be reminded of God’s dealings with the church during the Age of Catholic Christianity, or the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason and Revival, or even our own Age of Global Expansion and Relocation.
If the words “church history” make you want to watch a baseball game, but you have a sneaky suspicion that you’re missing something, then pick up CHPL and take a look at a few chapters. I think you’ll find yourself wanted to hear more of the story of God and his people, the Church.