Posted by: William | April 27, 2008

Church History in Plain Language

Shelley_Church-History I read Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language before I started keeping this website, so I never wrote a review for it. Late last night I was recalling how much I enjoyed the book and decided that I should share my thoughts.

Among the first things that should be noted in writing about Church History is Shelley’s purpose in this work. Shelley states clearly that this book is an “introduction” to church history and is designed for the everyday Christian; layman and congregant alike. If we were to evaluate this book with the same rubric as collegiate books on the topic, we’d find this book severely lacking. But if we grade this book according to its own claims, we’ll find a rich source of encouragement to further understand the earlier branches of our faith.

In the interest of readability, no references are found anywhere throughout the text, however recommendations for more scholarly reading can be found at the end of each chapter. For me, this helped keep the reading liquid. It helped me to engage the history as a story that I was interested in hearing and on some level felt a part of, as opposed to something dry and sterile.

I began reading Church History before I had become more confident and consistent with my extra-biblical reading, so coming at about 550 pages this endeavor was an ambitious one for me. However, besides being a novice at reading anything this scale, the writing made it easy to glide through while still understanding the text.

In Church History Shelley takes us though 2000 years of church operation, starting right after the ascension of Christ all the way through to 1996. Church history can become a sticky subject, with heresy after heresy, then division after division. Things can quickly become confusion. Any writer planning to take on 2000 years ecclesial webs is either going to have a very, very long book when their done, or is going to need excellent organizational skills to scale so vast a wall. In this instance, Shelley just so happens to be a well organized writer. In the text, after the first four centuries of history things began to get a little bit confusing. Simple the sheer madness of political and religious shifts could send anyone’s head spinning. But Shelley does a better job than many at keeping things straight.

The practical organization of the text is such that it helps a reader forget the size the literature he’s taking in. The book is broken down into “ages” (i.e., The Age of Jesus and the Apostles, The Age of Ideologies, etc.), each one coming in at around 50 – 75 pages. Each age is broken into much smaller, more digestible chapters of around 8 pages. In the interest of clarity, not all chapters are strung together in perfect chronological order.

Throughout history, there have been many disagreements in the church. The most notable probably being during the time of the reformation. In that context, it is easy for folks to fall to one side of theological lines or the other. In this instance, most of Shelley’s words read unbiased, simply retelling the history, with little of his own commentary.

Here’s the skinny on this book: you’re not going to finish this book and be a church history genius (well, maybe you will, I don’t know). But what likely will happen is when you put this book down you will most likely have a more cohesive snapshot of church’s history. It will probably help you to understand how we got from the time of the Apostles and the church in Acts, to today. For me, it helped to challenge my ideals as far as church organization and methods are concerned. Seeing, quickly, how things were spread out helped me not to see myself as being the first to try and figure this stuff out, but in a way, knit me together with the people who have gone before me.

This book was encouraging, and enriching. I recommend it to anyone desiring to enrich their faith and more specifically, anyone interested in the subject.


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